Britain's Going Back To Work. But I Don’t Know If I’ll Have A Career To Return To

After 27 years in theatre, the idea that without doing anything wrong I could lose it all is devastating.
Rows of red seats in a theater
Rawpixel via Getty Images
Rows of red seats in a theater

You’re reading Working It Out, our series exploring the future of work and wellbeing after coronavirus – from office life to working from home.

I am proud to have worked in the theatre industry for 27 years – with 23 of those spent on the lighting team at the English National Opera.

I get a kick out of seeing months of work come together on stage and being part of the creative and technical delivery for each production. There’s great satisfaction seeing and feeling the audience’s reaction to what is happening on stage and there’s nothing like being part of a massive scene change that occurs in seconds with all the crew, performers and stage management working together. It’s like magic.

But that all changed on 16 March when our team, working onstage preparing to open our new production of Rusalka, were told the theatre was shutting down operations there and then. We all headed home to an unknown future.

Since then the difference between economic hardship and a radical and rapid life change has been the fantastic Job Retention Scheme (JRS). This welcome support has allowed the ENO to attempt to stabilise its financial security, and placing myself and my colleagues on furlough.

“Am I going to lose everything I’ve worked years for? What will I do if this all collapses?”

While I am extremely grateful for the short-term reassurance, I now live with daily anxiety: when I can go back to work? How long can my company survive? How will I manage if the JRS is adjusted down or stopped altogether? Am I going to lose everything I’ve worked years for? What will I do if this all collapses?

It’s hard dealing with the indefinite and unknown future ahead. Sometimes I can’t bear thinking about it at all and speaking with friends and colleagues always seems to end on “we will see”. Taking part in weekly Zoom catch ups with colleagues and tuning in to industry webinars keeps the feeling that it’s not all over, and there is recovery ahead going. But still, the idea that without doing anything wrong I could lose it all is devastating and it’s hard to comprehend years of work just ending like this.

Without support ultimately it will mean unemployment at 51 with no prospects in my industry as it collapses around me. After a full and independent working life this is terrifying; I love my work, I want to work.

The savings I have are already disappearing and will not last long, even with cutting back as much as possible. Lender Payment Holidays will help but ultimately, I am facing a decline into debt and having to sell my home. I will get to a point where recovery will be extremely difficult, I will be on my own.

I have colleagues who have families and/or are self-employed. They work in large theatres, small theatres and the hire and supply companies that help us create work that makes our country a world leader. All of us face our livelihoods and years of work coming to an end with a precarious future ahead.

“Theatre making has always been on tight margins and those margins are getting tighter by the day. Help is needed before we run out of the means to carry on.”

The recovery of theatre looks to be a slow and gradual process. The reserves that theatres and theatre companies have are running out. Theatre making has always been on tight margins and those margins are getting tighter by the day. Help is needed before we run out of the means to carry on. If we lose theatre, we lose the live experience of storytelling, the ability to share in that human contact and imagination.

What these times have proved is that the arts are vital to wellbeing. We’ve all turned to screens at some point during this with performing arts taking place on them, with creative and technical arts being used to make them. It’s human to need entertainment, distraction, an escape. It’s human to need to create. That is what we lose if we let the arts collapse.

I need, as does everyone in this industry, the government to work with companies, unions such as mine, Bectu, societies and associations to focus on how we are to survive and create, build, protect and maintain.

For the sake of our national cultural wellbeing and heritage, our creative prowess, and most importantly of all the thousands of bright and highly skilled people who entertain, thrill, excite, challenge and inspire us, we need to focus on creating work by keeping us going rather than killing work by letting us go under.

The idea I could go from being part of a vibrant company that has weathered many tough times to not being part of it at all or seeing it disappear and become a subject of nostalgia is heart-breaking. All the work I have done, all the challenges, emotions and experiences that I have had and am still optimistically looking forward to... how can I deal with going from being in the thick of it, to nothing, in a matter of months?

Andy Cutbush is a lighting supervisor with the English National Opera

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