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Hampstead Theatre

Emily Holmden, Head of Lighting, Hampstead Theatre

How did you get into your line of work? 

So I did Drama, Theatre and Media at Glamorgan. I went in as academic drama but started doing the lighting for the productions because there was no one else to do it and I really enjoyed it, and so I did a Lighting/ Photography double degree and then after that I started working at a regional [theatre] that’s quite near where I grew up in Essex. I worked there and worked my way up. I’ve been doing it about 14 years! 

What’s the best thing about your job? 

I think it’s the problem solving. I love theatre as it is, I love storytelling but the challenges that come with having someone say ‘oh we need this light to work but it can’t be plugged in anywhere’ and ‘we need to turn all these lights on and make it feel like this’  – that’s the stuff I love, all of the problems that come up [and] finding solutions to those problems. 

What was the journey for you from theatres closing to opening back up? 

Well, we were midway through tech [rehearsals] when we closed. We were right in the middle of starting our anniversary season because the theatre’s been going for 60 years. So we had just started this season and then we had to stop. The actors hadn’t even made it to the stage and we shut everything down. 

We had to go around the whole building and turn literally everything off and lock every door. We thought we’d be gone for 2 weeks and then come back and resume and then it just kept rolling on and on. 

As soon as furlough was announced, the theatre just put everyone on furlough, including all our freelance staff, which was amazing. So any of the technicians that had worked with us in the last year, even if it was just like £10 a week, we managed to get them onto furlough so we were trying to really help out the guys in the industry that we work with. But we were just not working for four or five months. In August we were back in for a bit just to kind of assess the building and then about a month after that, we all started to slowly come back full time.  

How did it feel to be back in theatres? 

It’s interesting to be back, I think everyone’s found it quite difficult to get back up to speed because, especially backstage, we work to such tight timeframes and so fast. Now we’re all kind of not used to having to work so thoroughly on the fly. So I think everyone found it a real adjustment to try and get back into that time frame of like 9am to 10pm every day for two weeks putting a show on  

We can’t get staff, we can’t get any freelancers anymore – they’ve all gone into film! We’re really struggling to get sound and lighting crew for shows and we haven’t even tried to get video yet but I imagine that will be difficult. We’ve been talking to [recent graduates and] universities a lot more than we have been just because we want to get people in where we can. 

What’s the number one thing that you think people missed about live performance? 

I think live performance is such an amazing collective event. Being in that room with all those people and they’re all experiencing exactly what you’re experiencing – but of course slightly different because we all see these things differently.  

That energy isn’t available anywhere else, even at a gig or concert or anything like that. Uuntil you’re all sat in a group of people side by side watching a family experience a loss – as there is in one of our plays at the moment –  you can’t replicate that anywhere. There’s no way of doing that with TV or film or anything like that as far as I’m concerned. 

You can reach out and touch it – I mean, you shouldn’t! – but you could reach out and touch it. 

Kudzai Mangombe, Hope, Malindadzimu, Hampstead Theatre

Why did you want to become an actor? 

To tell stories, to connect and relate with people. To see things that I didn’t get to see growing up and also to have fun. I love to travel and I think acting gives me a sense of the same feeling – travelling. To be taken different places.  

For you, what was the journey from and the closing theatres reopening? 

When the pandemic hit, I was still in drama school. So, I wasn’t actually able to perform whilst I was in drama school. I didn’t really necessarily miss theatre as much, I think it was the cinema I missed the most. And then when theatres reopened, I missed being in a theatre and during lockdown I made a vow to myself to be the most present audience member anyone has like ever seen. Just really immerse myself and enjoy it because it only happens once. No two production are the same. When theatres reopened I was running to be there. I think I’ve seen more theatre now than I saw movies in the cinema after the pandemic, so it’s definitely made me want to go back to theatre.

Do you think students who had their drama school experience interrupted by the pandemic are at a disadvantage now? 

I wouldn’t say it’s been a disadvantage; I think it’s a new opportunity, a new phase, a new time. It’s allowed people to realise that they can create on their own and they don’t necessarily need to be asked to. It’s pushed people to want to create more, because there wasn’t any space to create. It’s made people more creative in terms of where and how they can create. I think TikTok is evidence that you don’t need a stage to perform. But…if there is one, use it! It’s really cool to see how people create with a stage again, having not had one. The more productions that are made, it’s cool to see what a stage does for their performance.  

So, I wouldn’t say I was at a disadvantage as I like to see things as opportunities and moments. 

What does it feel like being Back On Stage?

It’s really cool! I’m glad that theatres are open and I’ve had the opportunity of performing as they’ve opened. It’s nice to see how engaged and present people are and you can see how hungry they are. When they are about to sit, you can hear them discussing, ‘it’s so nice to be back and to see people again’. For me, it’s a really nice opportunity to keep doing what I’ve ultimately always wanted to and it’s nice to know we can still do it.