During lockdown, with theatres up and down the country and around the world closed for the foreseeable future, I’ve been catching up with theatremakers to find out how they’re faring. Here’s writer/performer Richard Gadd. Prior to the West End’s closure on 16 March 2020, his Olivier-nominated Baby Reindeer had been due to transfer from the Bush Theatre to the Ambassadors Theatre for a limited season from 2 April to 2 May.
Talking to… Richard Gadd
I can be extremely irrational. Weirdly, I managed to be quite rational about it [the theatre closures]. I actually managed to be quite philosophical about it in the end. There’s a sense that we’re all in it today, and there are much bigger things at play, like people dying and getting sick.
At first, I was obviously devastated. The West End meant a lot to me. We’ve all got goals and bucket lists in our head, and I never say any of them out loud because I think you can tempt fate. But the West End was a dream and a goal of mine to do. I was proud of going there, especially with a show that was very close to me, about a very difficult period of time. I was proud of it and I was looking forward to the challenge of getting the show from the round to the end-on space.
We’d had one day of rehearsals which were pretty tricky based on the fact that that day Boris implied the theatres would shut. Then the next day everything was stopped, cancelled or postponed. It was pretty gutting – and there was New York and the Oliviers alongside. I’d got myself psychologically ready that April-May was going to be the West End then I was going to go to New York – that was going to be my Baby Reindeer 2020 experience. I’d have to knuckle down and face my demons for those two and a bit months then go back to creating work elsewhere – I enjoyed the fact that there was a period of time blocked out.
It was hard to jut out of that mindset a little bit, when it was pulled away there was a slight weariness – not that ‘I’m going to do this again’, because I’m lucky, but ‘Ah, god, I have to start that psychological journey again’. There were the pressures of the stalker and the worry that that brings and the fact that the show is a bit kicking the hornets’ nest and morally challenging, having to face tough questions – it’s a show that places myself in the firing line. But something like this does really remind you that the real people saving the world are the NHS. I’m someone who ruminates loads, but I didn’t with this, which surprised me.
What Sonia Friedman Productions did was pay the first week of rehearsals straight away – and went ‘let’s figure out what is going on, we will report back’. They’ve been extremely engaged and gone: ‘We will not leave you hanging out to dry’. I thought they went about that quite well. I now have to figure out how do you do this self-employed thing – and I have no idea. I’m weighing up whether I should see whether I can weather the storm, see if the money can be used in a better place. There are so many financial questions at the moment which I didn’t think I would have to face over this period… But I put the art first. I never want to be in a position where I go: you owe me all this money, now pay up. I’d much rather get to the West End by hook or by crook. The goal wasn’t the money it was to ensure they were committed to doing it again after coronavirus. There’s the jazz West End version of the show but it can just be a person standing on the stage. I would hope we would exhaust all options before throwing it out of the West End. But if not, I will try and get back there with another show and just do it in a place that is more affordable. But I don’t think if it doesn’t make it into town due to the circumstances we’re in that I’d never do it again.
I’ve got various other projects that I’ve been meaning to do for ages. Treatments that people have been nagging me for. I’ve been using this time to be quite productive and get that stuff done. I know some people can’t split focus very well. But even while Baby Reindeer was going on at the Bush I was thinking ‘what next?’ – being a theatre/comedy maker you’re always aware the work can dry up at any point.
I’ve still got comedies in development that have nothing to do with my life – based on characters I’ve conjured. Sometimes I need a life break from all the dark inward stuff. I’m writing a few dramas, and I’m one of the writers of Sex Education. When Monkey See Money Do finished there was a lot of interest to develop that into a TV piece but sometimes I feel some shows are best left as theatre shows. It felt like every idea I had, whether it be a romantic comedy or something about football, people were like: ‘Yes but can we get a sexual abuse angle in it?’ I could tell that was what people wanted from me. I felt like my autobiography was bleeding into everything. Hopefully people can now see me as a bit more varied. I keep my projects more separate. When you’re busy running around – you pray for a time to sit down and actually have the time to devote to it all without interruption – but I obviously wouldn’t pray for something this bad to happen.
As for Edinburgh, it was actually going to be my first year off in 10 years! I have done six new shows in that decade but I’ve always gone in some capacity. 2020 was going to be almost my ‘100 per cent I’m not going no matter how much someone pays me’ year. And now it’s not a year off in a way…
I owe Edinburgh everything. Any good thing that happened in my life from a professional point of view is because of it. There’s a lot of cynicism because the competition is so fierce. There is the commercial side of it, the expense, the landlords… but I never put it down, it’s magical. That said, I think all the old ways of doing things are breaking down. You can get more hits from a video online than an audience for the whole month of August.
I see artists who go to the festival who, because they’ve learnt comedy online through editing and YouTube videos, are trying to make themselves fit this mould that doesn’t work for them. I think if any artist, writer, performer sat and thought “What do I want to be and how do they get there?”, the question they should be asking is “What form of comedy is best suited to what I do?” I like to think conceptually about my work… I like to be quite inventive, and I always thought the Edinburgh Festival was the place to be, because stuff like that can really stand out. There is an artistic bent in Edinburgh – the stuff that does ride to the top is the stuff that’s saying or doing something different. I sometimes don’t understand why people don’t open their shows in London more. Just because the comedy year is defined by Edinburgh doesn’t mean you yourself have to adopt that. It’s figuring out what’s good for you.
The mistake people make with the fringe is to try and make themselves something they’re not – just to give the industry what it wants. That’s the danger… I never want to do the same thing. Another mistake that people make when they go is they will do the same show – it will be a different spray job each year, and Edinburgh is quite savage when it comes to repeat performances.
Overall, I think writers for the most part will see a bit of a change as a result of this but people who are solely comedians or solely actors are going to feel the burn a whole lot more. There are going to be some pretty sad stories that will come out of this period of time.
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