Everybody knows that actors lead a mostly precarious freelance existence. We learn to live with the ups and downs or we get out and do something else. We develop coping mechanisms – hoarding in the good times because, in a highly competitive market, you never really know whether your current job will lead to other work, or simply be your last. “So”, you might ask, “what’s new now Corona’s in town?” And BC (Before Corona) , I would have asked the same question.
I’ve been unemployed a lot over the last 28 years – ‘resting’ as it is euphemistically called in my profession. I try to take it in my stride and, I’ll let you into a secret, I like resting. Being between jobs, in the knowledge that I have another job starting in a couple of months, I can simply enjoy the time to think, plan, or catch up with my DIY. “Yes”, I hear you say, “that’s what I said: what’s new?”
Well, the answer is that BC, I might have been out of a job, but I was secure in the knowledge that the industry supporting me was carrying on existing, producing wonderful work, contributing almost £13 million to the UK economy every hour. I could expect future work. In short, I had hope.
I gave up what could have been a lucrative career in PR to be an actor. I didn’t expect wealth, just happiness from doing a job I love. I’m sorry (and happy) to say that I was dead right. The people you see all the time on the telly and in films are the privileged few. Like the vast majority of people in my job, I didn’t get rich, but I get by. And at least my work gives me pleasure. Some people have to toil at work they hate – gratefully, that’s not my lot.
And this is why I’m surprised at the effect the pandemic has had on me. At the time of lockdown, I was supposed to be opening a site-specific theatre show and I had three audio-book recordings scheduled in my diary. I was in discussions to do a short film and a piece of live theatre at a festival and I was already booked to read some ghost stories at several venues over the Halloween period. All of that work disappeared in an instant. My partner similarly lost work. He is also a freelancer.
I had just achieved a long-term goal, to move back to my beloved Tyneside after 16 years away. It was a costly thing to do but I had it all covered. Aside from a decently full work diary, I’d also put into action my plan of subsidising our household income by renting out our spare room to friends in the industry touring to Newcastle. I had my first lodger lined up for March through to May. Of course, his show was cancelled too.
I’m usually good at dealing with uncertainty, but with theatres closing permanently, or making staff redundant, or announcing that they won’t be doing any work until 2021, I’m finding it hard to plan a future for myself. The government gives us no idea of when venues might be allowed to reopen. We can crowd into a tin can together and fly to Spain apparently, but not sit next to each other in an auditorium.
Self-employed people can’t claim state benefits, so I usually eke out my savings to cover fallow periods or I get stop-gap employment – we’re all part of the gig economy now.
Help from the government’s HMRC grant scheme has, of course, been enormously welcome. We’re not starving, but what happens when the grant runs out is a massive unknown.
I can only compare my state of mind to grieving: for the loss of the life I had imagined for myself. I’ve found I’m unable to watch the brave monologues some of my contemporaries have been putting online. Even Alan Bennett on the telly is a turn off. Like the frozen image of a loved-one lost, I cannot bear to look at it.
It’s not all doom though. There are people in my family that need my support and, thanks to my lack of work, I’m here for them. And I’m re-evaluating what I want to do with my creative life. I have managed to progress an idea I’ve been cooking up for some time, a project, of which, if it comes off, I will be immensely proud.
So, even though the triumphal return to Newcastle of this Geordie homing pigeon hasn’t quite worked out as I imagined, everyone I know is safe and well, and that’s a lot to be thankful for. And you know what they say about “the best laid plans…”
Janine Birkett is a Newcastle-based actor represented by Amber Personal Management in Manchester. Her TV work includes: Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks, Vera, and Inspector George Gently. She was a regular in Byker Grove and played Jenny, Billy’s Mam in the film Billy Elliot. She is the narrator of many audio-books, including the Vera series by Ann Cleeves.