(Or Staging a Play During a Pandemic)
By Leo Flanagan
I was sat outside a coffee shop on Exhibition Road in South Kensington with a friend of mine, Matt Howdon. Matt was one of the actors performing in the first play I’d written and was now currently in the process of directing, Feathers. The play opens on two siblings about to go on the run the night before a national draft is implemented. Everybody has been ordered to sign up and head over and in to fight The Great Threat. The two siblings Kaleb and Cecily decide not to buy in to the story they’re being told and plan to escape before the Draft date. Before they can both leave though, they’re interrupted by a Draft Officer who’s only real job is to sort out the admin, enter Matt.
“When you first asked me to do this, I thought, get a play on with a few mates maybe get some casting people down. I’ll be able to rehearse between work, it’ll keep me busy for a bit until an acting job comes in, and it’ll be a laugh…but it feels different now.”
It’s August 2020 and we’re a few weeks into rehearsals for Feathers. We originally planned for Feathers to be performed in May of 2020…which then turned into (a very optimistic at the time) July of 2020 and then (a maybe more doable) September of 2020 at The Calder Bookshop Theatre. Now…if you’ve never heard of this venue before you are really missing out, it’s a bookshop…and a theatre! They were nothing but hospitable and generous throughout the course of the pushbacks and then the show itself. I implore you to head down to The Cut and check out this venue, a perfect spot for book and theatre lovers!
Matt was the first actor we (Gutter Street) asked to be involved with the play, this was back in “The Before Times” (2019) when planning for a show didn’t come with an asterisks. I took a sip of my coffee and asked him what it was about an audience that all had to be sat at least one seat apart from each other - masked up, rehearsals that started with a deep hand cleanse, a theatre capacity of 12 a night and pub curfew of 10pm (So there was no chance of the infamous ‘after show drinks’) that felt different to him?
“I don’t know…It feels like we’re doing it in defiance of something.”
He wasn’t wrong. Now, I don’t think Matt meant “We’re doing this illegally in defiance of the rules or in defiance of Bill Gates and his evil plan for world domination”. No. There will be no anti-5G propaganda here. We were doing things covid secure. So much so that the day we opened we had our co-founder Josh Barrow stood outside the venue holding a piece of cardboard with our NHS Track and Trace QR code stuck onto it, encouraging our audience to download the app (which had only launched a few days prior) before entering the building. If you wanted an example of ‘following the rules’ it was us. But I know what he meant. We were. After push back after push back and a theatre scene that was pretty much at a standstill - if it wasn’t for outdoor venues and online shows - getting into a rehearsal room to work on a live fringe theatre show felt like we were defying covid itself, in our own little way.
It wasn’t long before we finished our drinks, walked through Hyde park and elbow bumped our goodbyes. It was a rejuvenating chat, and Matt’s words of defiance stayed with me, which helped when you’re working on a show which is pretty much about defying a greater force than yourself. The next couple of weeks rolled on and we found ourselves at show week. Well…week may be pushing it. We had two nights planned. Two nights to imagine a different world, to portray a struggle, to take an audience on an adventure…all in under sixty minutes before the pubs called last orders at nine.
Being in London (or anywhere in the UK for that matter) in September 2020 was an odd feeling, there was a feeling that maybe we’d got through it, that the worst was behind us, but at the same time a foreboding energy that felt like a dark cloud was just lurking around the corner. New rules were being brought into place almost daily, and even on the week of the show the thought of us actually being able to put on the performance was in question. When you walked down The Cut from Waterloo Station you’d pass The Old Vic Theatre which had the words ‘WE’LL BE BACK’ hung over the entrance, and then eventually a blacked out Young Vic Theatre with a make shift ‘WE MISS U’ sign attached over the bar. The theatre scene felt empty, where were the seat fillers? The tired reviewers? The out of work actors stoically watching their mate in a show they’d auditioned for that they “Would have done so differently anyway, so I obviously wasn’t what they were looking for”? In a way that wonderful, vibrant, passionate scene just felt forgotten. But for 24 people over two nights in the back of a little bookshop in Waterloo, we’d try to bring a slither of it back.
That was the aim and I will forever be grateful to the cast that emerged from Lockdown and put their hearts, souls and time into this play to make that aim a reality. Charlotte Keith and Nathan Chatelier played Cecily and Kaleb Stafford, the siblings prepared to leave their lives behind for a greater purpose. And the aforementioned Matt Howdon played Haines, the somewhat loveable Draft Officer. It was so wonderful watching these talented actors bring these characters and their struggles to life. After so long with them living in my head, it was magical. I imagine any veteran writers reading this will be able to remember the first time something they’ve created is realised in front of them. It was special and I’ll never forget it.
Show day had arrived! After hearing the rare sound of actors warming up, final checks to props and a pre-show ritual by Nathan Chatelier, we let the audience in. They filled in one by one and when everyone was sitting comfortably, Luis from the theatre closed the curtain between the bookshop and the stage, isolating our little corner of London so we could escape for an hour… (and five) and escape we did. We watched as Charlotte Keith, Nathan Chatelier and Matt Howdon told us a story. A story of conspiracy, bravery and defiance. And then…just like that…it was done.
There was no fanfare, it was a somewhat quiet end. We finished, packed up and went. As the rule of six was in place we couldn’t all be together after the show. The cast went their separate ways and after packing everything up I walked down to The Thames with the other co-founders of Gutter Street (Josh Barrow, Isobel Warner and Maxwell Hayes) and reflected on the last few weeks. It’s a story that in the grand scheme of things is fairly inconsequential. A bit of fringe theatre to a small audience. It’s repeated constantly every day of every month of every year…but not this year. There was a force out of our control putting a stop to it. I suppose that’s what made it feel special. It felt like we were doing it in defiance of something.
A year later things are different, but that force still looms over us. We’ve managed to produce two more plays since then, The Long Now and High Riser, and we are about to round off our year by returning to Feathers with that same wonderful cast at the amazing Lion and Unicorn Theatre. One year to the day the characters of Kaleb, Cecily and Haines will materialize and remind us of that story of defiance. I hope to see you there.