London actors in lockdown had to demonstrate their versatility to earn a wage during the pandemic, which saw shows shuttered and live performances banned.
Research by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre published in December revealed an estimated 55,000 jobs were lost in music, performing and visual arts since March 2020 – a 30% decline.
Brendan Cull, 36, a West End actor and lyricist saw a deeper impact than even that.
He said: “The whole of an industry, pretty much, lost their job overnight.”
For Brendan, whose CV includes Book of Mormon, Spamalot and Singin’ in the Rain, new musical Sleepless, for which he wrote the lyrics, was due to open the same week the UK first went into lockdown.
That was the theatre last job he did.
Since then, Brendan has kept himself busy making and delivering bread around Colliers Wood through his baking Instagram account.
As an actor, he’s used to needing to find a day job for quieter times, but baking is the first time he’s enjoyed it.
Brendan said: “The in-between jobs are something that I’ve always struggled with, finding something that is not soul-destroying or doesn’t feel like I’m always going back to square one.
“Bread doesn’t pay me a fortune, but I’m interested in it and it’s something that I’ve made and I’m proud of.
“I get much more satisfaction out of doing that than I have doing anything else.”
Brendan has every intention of returning to musicals but confessed the ups and downs of being a performer can be a challenge, and reflected on the length of time the pandemic has kept him out of work.
He said: “You do feel like you’re treading water a bit because you feel like well, I’m not ready to give up my career.
“It does get harder but the good still outweighs the bad, for me.”
Abraham Chowdhury had a tough start to lockdown, which laid him off from his Royal Opera House job and interrupted a run of successful auditions.
As with many people in the creative industries, Abraham, 37, has more than one job and is also a self-employed performer, which meant he fell through the cracks when it came to financial help.
He said: “I was gutted. It was the last bit of the audition process, my second or third callback.
“Moreover, I never made enough to apply for the funding from the government, which was quite frustrating.”
The south Wimbledon resident turned to art to occupy himself, focusing on drawing buildings of the local area.
He set up his Etsy shop, SketchMeAbs, after receiving positive feedback from members of the Colliers Wood News & Views Facebook group.
Abraham added: “Sketching just came about to keep my mind active and to do something with my hands.
“People’s response was just so supportive and I think that really encouraged me to take it forward and give it a go.”
He also credited sketching as helping with his mental health, especially when he saw fellow performers struggling with lockdown, leading him to donate 10% of profits from certain sketches to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund.
Although he’s delighted to be returning to the Royal Opera House this month, as well as looking for acting and producing work, Abraham intends to continue with his sketching business.
He said: “I’ve kind of put my heart and soul into it – and it’s something that I definitely want to keep going.
“It would be really nice to get to the point where I have a little shop. I would love to be the go-to place for a lot of theatre-lovers.”
From Chandler Bing to directing voice actors
Thomas Mitchells also discovered a new career path, having been mid-tour before lockdown began.
An actor for a decade, he now spends his time as a voice director working on video games for Croydon’s PitStop Productions studio.
The Twickenham resident explained: “I’ve gone from being Chandler Bing in Friendsical, running around on stage for two and a half hours, to directing people casting spells – it’s quite a change in pace!
“Voice directing was always something I’d be interested in, but there was never really an opportunity.”
“I had actually, before lockdown, on a whim, applied to this one particular job, and I heard nothing from them.”
Six months later, PitStop Productions responded, having weathered their own shutdown, and hired Thomas as a freelance voice director.
He loves the work but found the last lockdown the hardest, as he faced up to the existential crisis which came with being unable to act.
Although Thomas has now accepted a UK tour gig for 2022, he’s ready to embrace his new career.
He added: “You realise that it is a part of your identity when you work and sacrifice so much into a career like this.
“Who the hell am I if I’m not on stage being stupid for money?
“I’m now working on being that person people want to hire, being that person that’s ready to take on this new branch of my career that I didn’t expect to happen.”
Actors as entrepreneurs
Jeannie Scott, 30, had a similar experience to Thomas with her introduction to lockdown and her newfound job as a mindset coach.
After looking around for various jobs to keep her going, “the Facebook algorithm” caught her interest with a coaching tester session, which is something she’d never considered before.
She said: “I had that buzz having come off tour and then suddenly – wham – into lockdown.
“For me, life coaching was something celebrities had in the early noughties.
“Now, I see it’s kind of perfect, and something to continue in harmony with my acting.”
There are other stories of actors branching out to set up new ventures.
Charlie Collicutt, 26, used lockdown, when furloughed from his job at a central London hotel, to further develop two projects.
The first was a public speaking training webinar programme and the second his “tales from the industry” podcast, Crossing The Line, showcasing all types of people involved in productions outside of actors and directors.
However, he’s hoping to get back to acting as soon as he can.
Meanwhile, after finding inspiration in the shower, Londoner Rob Thorpe-Wood, 27, launched KickitDown, a production company aiming to build unity among creatives and make work within the constraints of lockdown.
He said: “I was just like: ‘Yeah, I need to put my energy into something positive because everything is bringing me down’.
“I think acting is amazing when you’re acting, but it’s not great when you’re not acting.”
Actors and theatre workers are, by nature, resilient, as a chunk of their career is often spent being rejected and working in other jobs to keep a regular wage coming in.
West End veteran Brendan is pragmatic about his return to performing.
He said: “This lockdown I don’t feel as anxious about finding work. I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that there isn’t any and probably won’t be any for most of this year.”
The Government’s third step out of lockdown on 17 May saw theatres able to re-open, providing certain rules – including social distancing – are followed.
Although a positive step, plenty of theatres will delay opening until capacity is no longer capped, as for many, it’s simply not financially feasible to stage a show without the ability for venues to sell out.
Brendan explained: “It was one of the first to close almost altogether, and it’ll be the last to open.”