Sun, 13 Dec 2020
A writer thrives, an actor struggles to survive, TRISH LEE talks to Great Shefford Carnegie Medal-winning author
Geraldine McCaughrean and her daughter Ailsa
"THE smallest bedroom is full of monsters," says Geraldine McCaughrean – "well, bits of monsters – monsters in the making, as it were. They’re casualties of Covid, in a way, because they’re possible props for the next Boxford Masque production.
The latest masque, Bellerophon, celebrating the Boxford Roman Mosaic, had to be postponed from this summer until next year. Disappointing, but there again, the show may be all the more welcome when audiences, starved of drama, are champing at the bit for an outing. The cast certainly are. And it’s such a long time since I wrote the script that I shall be able to watch it without knowing what’s going to happen next.
"In my own village of Great Shefford, the Church Committee wanted to raise much-needed funds. Churches have gone very short thanks to the complexities of keeping worshippers safe, and the loss of major fund-raising events. The committee came up with the idea of a play that could be ‘Zoomed’ to its audience just before Christmas. So, I wrote a play set in a church...
ultimately, it proved just too fraught by regulations and had to be abandoned. So, I wrote another set not in a church. Then lockdown came, so that too will have to wait. Still, it was fun and it kept me happy and busy. What more can anyone ask right now?
"Is it wrong to say how lovely it’s been? Simply to write and write in peace and quiet. No trips to make, no talks to give, no book festivals or PR to do. I’ve met more people in the village than I ever have before. I’ve put to bed my next novel, The Supreme Lie which comes out in April. It was due out in September but such a publishing log jam built up, that it seemed better to save it till spring. Happily, my Nativity picture book came out in time for Christmas.
"I’ve almost finished the novel-after-next, and I’ve joined a host of other authors in writing short stories for various fund-raising anthologies: The Book of Hopes, for instance. Devised and compiled by Katherine Rundell, it has already seen huge sales and terrific reviews.
"Of course, with family and friends so far untouched by Covid, I know full well there is a buffer between me and the reality of the pandemic. I haven’t been eviscerated by grief or left isolated and lonely, lost my job or fallen out with my husband.
My only personal sorrows are for my daughter, Ailsa Joy, an actor whose industry collapsed around her like the set of some abandoned play, fetching down the lights, the wings – and the curtain on countless talented artists. One day she was in a play. The next day the theatre was shut, perhaps for ever. The next week she was nominated for an Offie (off-West-End) Best Actress Award – which now reads like a cruel, ironic joke."
"During lockdown, I phoned home often to check in on my parents," says Ailsa. "They’d been due to come up to London from Great Shefford to see me in a play at the Finborough Theatre, but the more Covid loomed in the headlines, the more hesitant they became. Dad’s 86 after all— what a time to be 86. My mum, however, is a shy children’s writer so in a way (especially as her garden bloomed for summer) it was paradise for her.
"My play at the Finborough was two weeks into its run on March 15. We left the venue on Sunday afternoon with no idea whether we’d be back for Tuesday’s matinee. Two friends visiting from Uganda were staying at my flat and they had to put up with me all Monday, tearing my hair out, refreshing news websites, waiting for updates. (They’d come for a two-week visit and ended up stranded in the UK until July.)
"At about 5pm, the suggestion was made by the Government for theatres to shut. Without a firm directive, this left arts venues in a dreadful predicament. One by one, like dominos, theatres announced their decision to close indefinitely. Like lights going out in distant windows. At 8pm our director messaged us to say that no matter what, we would stay the course and remain open! By 9pm, the Finborough told us we were closing.
"To be fair, I don’t know what audience we could have mustered in a 50-seat venue. The last few performances had dozens of cancellations and some people sat in the front row with a perpetual look of terror and a hand clamped over their mouth. Which was a strange reception for a light-hearted comedy. But still. Two weeks of performances had suddenly been cut from our run. Two weeks of pay that none of the actors or backstage crew would ever receive.
"As a symbolic farewell, some of us gathered at the theatre on Tuesday, March 17, to collect our things from the dressing rooms. I’d phoned a local pub ahead of time to ask if they were still open and once I explained we were actors from the Finborough, the landlady said: 'I understand. We’ll have a table waiting for you'.
Watching theatres closing when no bailout for their workers seemed to be forthcoming was a time I hope we’ll never experience again. Bizarrely this was going to be a good year for me. After months unemployed, I landed the Finborough job and had been offered Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer. Iris Theatre first suggested postponing Shakespeare to August before they realised that the company itself was in imminent danger of collapse. The day that bailout money finally started trickling through to places like The Watermill came as a huge relief.
"So many wonderful unexpected little moments came during this pandemic. I was nominated for an award for my role at the Finborough. Iris Theatre put out a desperate plea for financial support and instead of a few large donations, received so many hundreds of small contributions that the company were able to mount an entire outdoor summer season. Fingers crossed, A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be on next year. Actors have raised thousands of pounds off their own bat for colleagues in need and found countless inventive ways of putting on shows in lockdown.
"Meanwhile my mum has taken it upon herself to start writing plays. And in between my shifts as a library
assistant, I’ve got into writing novels. Goodness knows what next year will look like for theatres, but I’m starting to risk a Pandora’s Box worth of hope."