‘It’s been disastrous’: How the pandemic hit performers in Sweden

'It's been disastrous': How the pandemic hit performers in Sweden
Vanessa Poole in her role as Katy in Sylvia. Photo: Playmate Theatre
Vanessa Poole was warming up for the premiere of her latest play when news broke that Sweden was lifting the 50-person limit for cultural events. We spoke to her and two other foreign performers about how coronavirus has changed life in the arts.

Vanessa Poole, actor, Malmö

Sylvia, Playmate Theatre's latest production in Malmö, opened on Thursday night to a tiny audience of 40 (the 50-person limit includes actors and and backstage staff), and was the first performance of the English-language theatre troupe this year.

“We've sold out the run, basically, which is wonderful, it gives us purpose, that it was the right thing to do to push through and decide to perform now in the autumn,” she says. “We could have waited till the spring, but that would have meant almost a two-year gap from our last performance, which is far too long, lose all momentum, lose our audience.” 

She describes the atmosphere in the small audience as electric. 

“People are willing to come because they've missed it, I think, so dreadfully. They're so excited, I can see they're so happy. They're sort of rushing in, and I see lots of comments on social media, saying 'oh, how lovely to be in a theatre'.” 

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Audience members had to walk straight to their seats with no mingling, and were not allowed to get up during the interval, instead being served drinks at their seats. The seats were each one and a half metres apart. 

In the play itself, a kiss has been removed, and changes have been made to the main character. 

“Since she plays a talking dog, there could have been a lot of licking. We haven't done that, instead we do a lot of ruffling of hair.” 

In rehearsals, the cast have been careful to keep a distance from one elderly performer, so as not to put him at risk. 

Poole says that the pandemic has been extremely difficult for actors like her: “It's been disastrous, and I think the perhaps more prestigious the work actors were used to getting, the more disastrous it is, because obviously there is no way that they could perform.”

“As a very small fringe theatre company, we are now performing to 40 a night, instead of maximum of 94, so it's less than half, but just about doable. Obviously, for the big theatres, who need hundreds a night, there's no way 40 people can support them.” 

Financially, Poole has been protected by the work she does as a voiceover artist, which has been very busy during the coronavirus crisis as company's replace physical meetings with online material. 

But she thinks it is strange that cultural events have been so controlled in Sweden. 

“Professional theatres are fully capable of ensuring regulations are followed and put in place. I think that it is possible to do safely,” she says. “You see restaurants and buses, trains, supermarkets and shopping centres full of people all over the place. 

“This very controlled spacing in the theatre is actually less risky, I think, than going to the supermarket.” 

Jeremy Carpenter, in a performance of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, at the Folkoperan back in 2009. Photo: Fredrik Persson/TT 

Jeremy Carpenter, opera singer. 

Jeremy Carpenter, a singer at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, admits that he is one of the lucky ones.

“I'm very, very fortunate, one of the very small percentage of people that has a contract. I'm contracted at the opera, and because we're state employees, there's no point in us being furloughed, because we're already paid by the state.” 

His production of Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna opened in mid-October. But it's been a strange experience performing to an audience of less than 50 in a theatre that can comfortably seat 1,200. 

“Even though there's no direct communication, there's certainly a relationship between the performer and the listener during a performance that's very subtle and is without a doubt not there at the moment. There's a sort of an existential sort of question about, you know, who are we doing this for?”
He says he and his colleagues had “conflicting feelings” about their relatively stable situation.
“On the one hand, there's this enormous gratitude that I am actually working within the arts and have a paycheck, and at the same time, a degree of shame and sadness that the whole swathes of the industry are in a crisis situation.” 
Carpenter estimates that in Sweden only about three percent of singers have contracts. “And there's nobody who can put on concerts when the limit is 50. You know, they can barely be doing it when it's 300.” 
Like Vanessa Poole, he believes it should be possible to safely put on events much bigger than 300, in the right venue. 
“They've really shown in Germany and other places that performing to a greater number of people is really not the the disaster in terms spreading that they were afraid it would be,” he says. “At the Royal Opera, there is absolutely no problem in terms of safely managing 300 people. The auditorium seats almost 1,200. So 300 is a quarter of that.”
Kimberley Akester, centre, with the other members of 3's company. Photo: 3's company. 
Kimberley Akester, singer, Stockholm
Kimberley Akester, a pop and jazz singer, feels fortunate to have had one foot in Sweden, as all of her performances in the UK have been cancelled. 
“There it's devastating, because everything is virtually closed down and all of my friends are unemployed. So I'm lucky,” she tells The Local.
The March shows her girl group 3's Company were due to perform at Stockholm Stadsteater, telling the history of the war years through the music of 1940s singers such as Vera Lynn, were all cancelled. But they have now been rescheduled for November 14th and November 17th. 
“They set a limit for 50 people, because that's what the limit was, and I don't know now yet whether they will choose to increase that now or not,” she says, referring to the recent change for performances. “I think they normally at this particular location, it's over 100 at least, because they've got tables and they serve soup. It's a lunchtime concert.” 
She has been kept going by her job teaching singing and leading choirs at Stockholm International School. But a lot of people she knows in Sweden's music world have not been so lucky: “A lot of my friends, you know, pianists and other musicians, they've just been sitting around, you know, for eight months.” 
“Some people have been doing stuff online, you know, streaming concerts, and just trying their best to kind of keep going, a lot of people have been teaching online, just trying to be creative. I don't know how they're managing, but it's really serious.” 

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