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image by Cherry Laithang supplied by Unspalsh

Wardrobe supervisors and dressers turning to fashion, jewellery and mask making. Carpenters unable to build sets crafting furniture instead. Actors projecting onto paint and canvas. The small business directory Not On The West End showcases more than anything that while a lockdown might take away our stages, nothing can strip the creativity and adaptability from theatre professionals. Previously the Wardrobe Deputy on 9 to 5: The Musical at the Savoy, Anna Saunders created Not On The West End to give a platform to the many side businesses run by UK theatre professionals.

It has been five months since theatres closed their doors. The £1.57bn emergency funding announced in July won’t be reaching venues until November at the earliest. Job losses continued to increase; in the month directly after our ‘rescue’ package was announced the number of layoffs and redundancies rose from 3000 to 5000, we can only imagine what this number has risen to now, and these figures do not even represent the numerous freelancers who have fallen through the gaps of government income support schemes, nor the casual staff on zero-hours contracts who might well keep their jobs but will receive no wages once furlough ends.

I used to argue with my ex-boyfriend about the arts. A staunch Tory, he would insist that sacrificing the creative industries was a small price to pay in order to protect the more ‘essential’ sectors. The longevity of that relationship aside, I couldn’t help but think back to those arguments recently as I watched a (socially distant) crowd huddle in the rain, shivering over hot chocolates in paper cups, so desperate as they were to experience a brief, bright 45-minutes of live music after months of anxiety and isolation, and so determined our technicians, producers and baristas were to provide it for them. Theatre is essential, as are the people who create it. Proposed schemes such as Seat Out to Help Out surely have to be realised in order to save our industry, and, as the creative performance protest due to happen on 26th September shows, we will certainly keep fighting to do just that. Not On The West End’s amazing advocacy for those who deserve some recognition and business support through this downtime is just another example of the solidarity and versatility within our community. We are makers, planners, builders and fixers, and we are resilient.

We spoke to Anna to learn more about Not On The West End and her views on what needs to happen to save our industry. 

Anna, please tell us more about the project – why you started, what it has meant to you so far? The commissions must be going through the roof. 

The project is a hub of small businesses, one being featured on the Instagram and the website each day, that are helmed by theatre professionals whose income has been affected by COVID. It’s a way to support the businesses of specifically theatre people and find loads of them in one place. It’s impossible to search for them as a group on etsy, but you can find all their etsys through Not On The West End. 

Before the idea was an idea there were things that my flatmates and I, all theatre types, had noticed happening in our community. The first was how many costume and wardrobe people had jumped into action to make PPE for the NHS. We did too, if you work in wardrobe there is always a problem solving attitude. Tech rehearsals do that to your brain. 

But there was a sting to the government’s PPE tsar making a self-congratulatory announcement that the PPE shortage was over, with no mention of the hundreds of costume professionals and home sewers who had made it happen. It was especially hurtful whilst there was also no sign of any help for the arts coming. 

Once scrubs were done, I noticed dozens of friends turn to selling face masks. It became a bleak joke when I got a facebook notification to guess which of my supremely talented friends had turned to making masks to make their rent. 

I have always done embroideries for friends as presents and at the start of lockdown I was sending them out to friends as little pick-me-up gifts – including one of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, appropriately singing ‘I want to be where the PEOPLE are!”. But I had always been of the ‘my hobby is not a hustle’ mentality. 

Four months into this and that mentality was no longer sustainable. I needed to do something. Anything to fill my days and make some money. Something needed to be done. 

I had the idea less than a month ago. Friday 7th August. It was a joke name. Not On The West End – like Not On The High Street, but we don’t have jobs anymore! I got the email address and I got the Instagram handle. 

Then I got scared. But convinced by a friend it wasn’t a crap idea I sent out six texts. All to friends, wardrobe people that I knew had a creative side hustle. I was thinking about doing this thing, would they be interested. 

Within the day I had ten people signed up. Now it’s about 160. 

I knew there were a couple of things that I needed to make sure everyone knew. 

  1. Everyone featured is a theatre professional. 
  2. I would not be taking a cut of sales or charging to be featured. 

From that point the ‘Not On The West End’ community kind of made itself.

How are you finding this emotionally? Like us, we know you miss your ‘normal’ work and we can only imagine you have been as strained as we have. Do you find yourself engaging with those who send in submissions and hearing their lockdown/missing theatre stories? 

Launch day was a particularly strange one for me. The first three businesses all came out on Friday 14th August, a week after the initial idea. Beth Cousins, the amazing woman behind The Sun and Moonflower, and who would usually be dressing at Pretty Woman, messaged me after only a couple of hours and told me she’d made a sale because of it.

I made a video, that I jokingly called Parish Notices, to go on the Instagram stories at 6.30 that evening, to say thank you for everyone’s support. Day one had been a success and I had businesses lined up to fill every day through to mid-November, but after posting the video I just sat down on my bedroom floor and balled my eyes out. 

Over the previous week I had received so many emails from people who were lost, unsure how to even describe themselves; are they a lighting designer or did they used to be a lighting designer? Do they work at Mamma Mia or did they used to work at Mamma Mia? But they were still fighting. It sounds cliché, because it is, but the show must go on spirit is a part of it. People were using their skills – related to their usual job or not (because I can’t imagine how a trumpeter would usually use macramé in their theatre life) – and making things happen.

It felt like a lot of pressure, to live up to the hopes and expectations of the people who suddenly seemed to be relying on me and my little website and my new Instagram. But the thing is, theatre is so often referred to as a community rather than an industry. There’s a reason for that. 

Theatre is part of my identity – if I have a night off from whatever show I’m on, it’s to go and see a show. I’ve done a morning laundry call, gone to see a matinee and then gone back to work a show. Talking to so many people over the last few weeks I know that I’m not alone. 

We all miss it. Like an ache. I imagine the feeling of standing in the wings at the Savoy and hearing Dolly’s voice start a performance of 9to5 and I get goose bumps and well up. Imagining the call for beginners or hearing an orchestra tune up or sitting in the dark in a crowd of people all brought together for the same reason. Theatre is special and needs to be protected.

Would you like to share any thoughts on what the theatre industry needs this year? We’re all frustrated and feel the Government have let us [the industry] down, but what needs to happen from your point of view to ensure all of us unemployed theatre workers have some positivity/glimmer of hope?

The three things we need from the government are a plan, some respect and insurance. 

We need a plan. More than anything. There seems to be nothing but gossip at the moment. The money promised needs to actually get out of the government bank account and to the places it’s needed. The much-hailed announcement of the £1.57 billion now seems like more of a plan to make a plan and a way to shut us up for a few weeks. That money also seems to be dependent of making as many people redundant as possible. This government cares about buildings but not people. 

We need respect. We are being treated like theatre is our hobby, rather than a career that we trained for and excel at. We are being treated like we are stupid for wanting to have a career in theatre at all. Without theatres the West End is a ghost town. Without theatres every town and city across the country loses its heart – the places people experience their first panto, or play Tree Number 3 in the youth production of The Wizard of Oz, and see elite professionals on the same stage the next week. 

You can’t only save the big institutions and leave everything else to disappear because it won’t be long before there are not audiences starting their love of theatre in a 300 seater in their home town, and they won’t be able to travel to the next big town to see a big tour, and they won’t have the love for it built in. Theatre is a proper industry that should be respected, not just for the money it makes, but for the people it brings together. 

We need insurance. There is no point saying we can open back up if we can’t be insured. They need to be our insurance.  

We know the pain inflicted by the closure of venues and the loss of work. FreeBird aim to also promote the change that needs to occur within the theatre industry, post lockdown. What change would you like to see? The lack of support for Freelance staff has really got us thinking.

The thing we need to talk about and address as an industry is work-life balance. It would be difficult to address this without mentioning the current union negotiations. Sunday shows are being much discussed and demanded by producers. 

I don’t think that thought is being given to the lives of the people who work the performances when this is being put forward. Getting, most likely, only Monday evenings to see friends and family outside of the industry is a brutal change to a group of people who already give their jobs so much of their time and energy. 

When it is just some shows that do this, with double pay for Sunday shows, there will be people who can change their lifestyle, for a while, to do this. If the whole of theatre has two show Sundays we will be forcing experienced and talented people out of the industry for good. 

Before closures there were beginning to be rumblings of ways to make work-life balance in theatre, especially for parents, better, with much publicised job shares and companies giving over dressing rooms for nursing mothers. I think that when we return we need to make sure that this progress is not lost and is actually built upon going forward. Sunday shows as industry standard is the opposite of progress. 

If someone is out there and wants to submit- how can they reach you? 

All submissions should be sent to me via email – notonthewestend@gmail.com

What’s next for this project? Coronavirus is here to stay and so are all those creative makers and small brands- any new developments or next stages?

The next step is the Not On The West End virtual market, organised by Grace Cheetham, of Serotonin Series. Over the weekend of the 21st and 22nd November we will be hosting a special event. Participating businesses will be offering discounts, there will be a raffle (everyone loves a raffle!) and a few live streams to meet the theatre professionals who are behind the businesses and hear from them about their experiences. We are hoping it will be a great event for the community we are building up and give everyone a boost in sales before Christmas! 

Ultimately, we hope that this won’t have to be a long-term project – maybe something we can bring back each Christmas to show off our community. We want to get back into theatres and rehearsal rooms because that is what has brought us together. The love of our industry. Live theatre is not like anything else. It isn’t like films or tv. It isn’t like sport. It’s a group of creative and brilliant people coming together to unite an audience in a specific time and place and story, and then doing it all over again the next night. It’s fleeting and eternal and isn’t something that should be paused like it is now. 

Not On The West End is a coping mechanism, not a cure. We need theatres to be open and full and telling stories. You can find Not On The West End on Instagram and via their website. Keep up to date with FreeBird on all things arts, culture, events and theatre. Read our article with Stylist magazine.

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