Important notice: Please bear with me, this is my first venture into a written word publication and if I’m honest it was only about five years ago I made the transition from txt spk into basic level English. This part of my brain has been self-isolating for a while.
As I begin to write this, I’ve just finished a sharing bag of Dairy Milk buttons to myself, but I suppose, more importantly, I’m still finding myself stumbling around in the crisp fresh mists of the coronavirus pandemic looking for some gap in the fog to stop and evaluate quite what is happening and how much it has properly screwed things up for myself and everyone involved. Breathe Robbie… Well, everyone I know anyway. You see, for this chronic over-thinker, it’s come at a pretty naff time. Hopefully excavating those thoughts for you will help.
I am now on Day 10 of my Socially Isolated existence and I still haven’t properly dressed myself.
My name is Robbie Durham, and like my bio says, I am an actor/musician from the Scottish Borders. Also, to be added to that list should really be: Flyman, usher, waiter, function singer, son, brother, listener, lover, chocolate enthusiast, lazy arse, complainer, procrastinator, legend, butcher, baker and candlestick maker (some of these facts are not factual) and many other enviable skill sets. #songwriter.
I’ve lived, trained and worked in London for over 10 years now; performing professionally for much of it alongside selling programmes and cleaning up children’s sugary vomit between the aisles for the other bits. It’s all good. 😏 But I digress.
I want to cut to the point. I’m prone to babbling FYI.
Before the beginning of the end of the world, I was just starting out on a U.K. (and international) Tour of Million Dollar Quartet. Amazing show, I hear you cry – thanks, I know.
We had completed two wonderful weeks in India, taking in Bangalore and Mumbai. After making it out of India just in time, we had our first U.K. date at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. Audiences had been healthy and wonderful. We were all ready to march our travelling show up to Southend Cliffs Pavilion for our second week, blissfully unaware we’d be blooming lucky to get even one show out.
Murmurings and rumours of what was to happen to us in the midst of the now ‘UK-based Covid.19’ had been rumbling through our company now since early March. Of course, like everyone else it seems with their head in the clouds, it’s not actually relevant to you until it rips the floor right out from underneath you.
A little personal context may be helpful here (or may not), I was very excited to be back on tour. It meant a lot. I love this show, I love the company and most of all I love playing Johnny Cash with a group whom I now consider darn-tootingly good friends. It was like slipping back into an old blue suede shoe. Sorry. And to be in India again (2ndtime) was so special, the people there are so open and genuine and they embraced our show and company with open arms, and so, It was all too easy to dismiss the concerns of our return to the UK and live willingly ignorant of the coming storm.
Another startlingly important factor was that I was on good money, very good money, something which is sadly quite hard to come by in the U.K. theatre world and, though we normally have to feel bad about talking about it, I was going to be able to plan and have some comfort and security for a little while longer than on your average basic theatre wage.
I am aware I may sound like I’m boasting, I’m not (I hope) because compared to some it was not a lot of money, but for me it certainly was, I suppose it depends on to whom you’re speaking. Nevertheless, here’s some more context.
Cue the tiny violins. (I recommend Alexander Wolfe‘s music for this, it’s just so beautifully honest and inspiring)
Prior to Christmas 2019, let’s say Octoberish, I began working a ‘Passion Project’, i.e. a job you do for the love not for the money, after what was almost two years on and off in a crew job at Her Majesty’s Theatre. It was a wonderful new show called High Fidelity at the brand-new Turbine Theatre. A fantastic job/role/company and experience I’m so grateful for, (I AM AWARE I’M BABBLING, I TOLD YOU. LET’S GET TO THE POINT, ROBBIE). However, I was earning less than during my ‘In-between’ jobs and my savings curve had become extremely flat, if not concave.
On top of that, I was having some severe family issues, a fungal skin infection exacerbating my eczema all over my hands and arms and then, to round it all off, though no one’s fault, my relationship sadly came to an end. All in all, ‘twas not the best final quarter I could have devised for myself that year after making it back to the stage… but…
Somewhere in the midst of all this, I received a phone call checking my availability for a certain five-month tour of Million Dollar Quartet in the new year. Some land upon the empty horizon.
I’m not looking for sympathy here, unless you have some stockpiled; I’m just trying to portray a ‘showbiz experience’ in all its gnarly reality. A reality we all have to face sometimes – even the luckiest of us.
I weighed up my options and decided I could, no, that I should, live on my credit card for some time, go home and have a long Christmas with my family and ‘home friends’ clear my head and hopefully touch down to Earth again revitalised and renewed, in a brand spanking new decade. After this, I’d come back to London with a clean soul and, maybe too optimistically, start the year off as a new person ready to finally take some control of my life.
My first mistake was thinking my ‘in-between work’ would tide me over for two months until the rehearsals started. It didn’t. It’s hard enough to get ANY job for two months so, gratefully, I took a part-time job at my old employment and worked what I could.
I also paid for a nutritionist to help me with my overwhelming skin issues. Incredibly expensive for… let’s say… ‘mixed results’, but… I was planning ahead, investing in myself and my future. Right?
I needed this job, and I needed it fast.
It finally arrived on the 10th of February. A huge weight was starting to lift. Thank the lordy lord.
All in all, we earned two weeks of rehearsal pay, two weeks of India pay (don’t get me started on ‘holding tax’, am I right?) and one week’s full pay (finally) in Southampton.
I was starting to claw my way back to stability – inch by inch, debt by debt – and then… *drum roll please*
‘The Event’ (no Mitchell and Webb fans in?)
The PM announces he ‘recommends’ people do not attend social gathering spaces. Ok, thanks. Vague, but I suppose he’s right. Something about crowds of 500 or more… or is that just Scotland?… the phones start buzzing.
The theatre world has gone bananas, no one knows what on earth is going to happen. I’m messaging all my other friends on U.K. tours trying to find out what’s happening to them. Would it be another Broadway situation, stiff upper lip and all that, I’m sure we don’t need to overreact.
At this stage, no one seems to know any more than the local milkman let alone each other. The theatre managers/producers are apparently all in discussion with each other, but with no direct orders from the Government, just “advice”. Who knows what’s best?
Well… we found out on that cool but still pleasant evening in Southend just before ‘The half’ (7.25 for an 8pm show) that we should not come into work the next day. That show was one of the oddest experiences I’ve had in live theatre. A strange out of body dizziness loomed over us all whilst we tried to remember our lines, sing our songs and really mean them.
We had two understudies (who were brilliant) on for the first time and a relatively ‘vocal’ audience member that did not help the occasion. So, after a few unintentionally shortened scenes and flashes of rage towards that person shouting Blue Peter quotes out at our leading man, we finished our opening (and it turned out, closing) night. We had our celebratory opening night drink (singular) and made our way back to our homes and/or digs slightly bemused and still unable to accept the true meaning of what might be to come. Or maybe, just maybe, naively hopeful that we would be different to everyone else in the industry. Everyone else. In our entire industry.
I didn’t want the show to stop, I mean I NEED this job, but the health of our society is surely more important? Is it? Not if I can’t pay my rent, though? And then…
Kaput. It’s all gone. Just like that. For everyone. Steadily theatres announce closures falling like dominoes and literally thousands upon thousands of people; actors, musicians, creatives, technical staff, crew, ushers, bar staff, security and cleaning staff, production companies, theatre schools, dance classes, singing lessons, the THEATRE FIREMAN, the list goes on and on and on. They are all left out in the cold.
We were told it was coming, but we didn’t believe it, not really. Our industry ain’t like other industries, right? And yet here we are. Award-winning actors, seasoned thespians applying for jobs in Tesco and for Amazon deliveries, some not even getting past the first round. Graduates stripped of their coveted showcases (don’t worry, the agents will still happen). Friends, colleagues, lovers, ex-lovers, that person who always gets the damn job over you. All stuck inside clamouring for air. Living at home alone or with our parents OR, if you’re really lucky, a dog. Glued to our phones for connection, distraction and, sadly, relevance. All in the space of 24 hours. Singing covers of classic country hits in the struggle for a blooming pick-me-up ‘like’. (just me?)
And now, what next?
The reality, of course, is its no one’s fault. You cannot live your life preparing for a global pandemic to occur, although maybe we should rethink our position on that.
The fundamentals of modern-day society now distilled down to what really matters. Everything I was worried about or deemed pressing and important suddenly felt redundant and absurd. I mean, did people really need to know how I applied my wig before a show? I definitely needed that new iPhone camera to film myself playing Johnny Cash songs so people knew who I was, right?
I’m sure I speak for at least a few others at how exhausting it is to keep up appearances. Have we forgotten how to live for ourselves? Or am I just overthinking this?
It’s unnerving how quickly your mindset grows accustomed to a privileged lifestyle and how much quicker it can all be taken away and now is REALLY not the time to be single and self-isolating.*Sigh*
Okay, so anyway. My blog is here to shed a little insight into how a global catastrophe has affected even the humblest of ‘successful’ (open to debate) performers. What I’m going through, care and worry about and how I stay relevant in the wake of our platform being quite literally sequestered until further notice.
We pay rent, council tax, food bills, electricity bills, gin bills, EVERYTHING by scheduling work ahead of time, trusting that those jobs and contracts will materialise. I was lucky enough to be in a job where I could actually plan ahead for a set period and beyond but now, like thousands of others, I’m left scrabbling around trying to pick up some pieces, hoping my one week of pay will tide me over maybe a few months. I mean, surely it can’t last that long right?… ooh god… my friend’s show contract for August has just been cancelled. Shit.
I think the first place I want to focus my attention is on ‘staying relevant’ because, in spite of everything, FOR SOME REASON, this was one of my first and more pressing concerns. Am I alone in this narcissistic mindset, putting my importance to other people before my own wellbeing? Is that my own insecurities or are we now in such a hyper-productive, overly exposed and increasingly fickle online world that success doesn’t just come with talent and a good work ethic but selling your integrity and peace of mind online for the world to judge and deem worthy? Our industry can have a divisive reputation anyway so if you’ll humour me, I’ll try to shed some light on it, in my own way… what was I talking about again?
Well, anyway, right now I’m home with my family in Scotland, socially isolating, going on walks and singing songs and we have enough toilet rolls to get us through a fair whack of it. So, you know what, it could be a lot worse and I’m #grateful for that.
Sending love to all ya’ll. Hit me up online if you want some terrible chat.
Thanks for reading this far. Speak soon, yeah?
(remember tb, those were the days)
K Bye x
N.B. Government measures for the self-employed have just been announced TODAY. Hopefully, this will ease the burden for us all and more importantly allow me more time to play Kenny Rogers songs for you all. RIP Kenny.
I did a post on Instagram to celebrate the late great @_KennyRogers
Here’s a clip.
I put some interesting facts on it too.
@: robbie_durham on @instagram
Love his voice and had the privilege to sing his music live, hope you enjoy it. pic.twitter.com/Bc4ZGwkPvO
— Robbie Durham 🎧 (@RobbieDurham) March 21, 2020