The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the working lives of UK arts industry professionals. In a wide ranging series of interviews, conducted during the UK’s ‘hard’ lockdown, I learn how creatives have adapted their practice and daily routines in order to maintain their creativity, solvency and sanity.
In the penultimate ‘musicians’ interview, I speak to musical director and pianist Katy Richardson — former Musical Director of the hit West End show: SIX The Musical, for which she is currently Associate Musical Supervisor (UK and Australia). You can find links to Katy’s social media, along with a few things that have been keeping her busy during lockdown, at the end of the interview.
*Shortly after our interview it was announced Katy would return to the role of musical director for the West End leg of: SIX Live From The Drive-In UK Tour. Sadly, that tour was recently cancelled amid the ongoing uncertainty of live theatrical performances due to COVID-19.*
What were you doing in mid-March when the arts industry began shutting down?
I was in New York for the Six press night. I wasn’t working on the Broadway production but all my friends were. It was really gutting, we’d booked it so long ago and saved up so much money. I’d just collected my dress from the hire company when the closure was announced just four hours before curtain. We were scared Trump might ground flights, I wasn’t supposed to fly back for another three days but we just needed to get home. I knew it was bad when I saw a ticket from New York to London was only £70. They were really trying to get people on those planes! Half-way over the Atlantic I started coughing. Lo and behold, I had coronavirus.
Were you queried about your health coming back into the UK?
No, and that surprised us. Even as we left on the 10th March we were wondering if we should go. But at that time there was no guidance saying not to. It was noticeable on the way back that JFK airport was dead and our plane was only half full. When I started coughing it was very mild, I thought maybe I’m just hungover. After a day or so at home I started feeling really unwell, I phoned our company manager to say I have to self-isolate and can’t come to work. Broadway closed on the Thursday and the West End followed on the Monday, so I never got back to work.
With the show closed indefinitely were you able to take advantage of any government financial support schemes?
In the West End, for most actors and musicians at least, we’re technically employed as contractors and are responsible for our own tax, so furlough doesn’t apply. But the majority of us have been able to get the SEISS grant. To be honest I found it really straightforward to sort, though I know there are some who’ve had real difficulty with it.
I think I’ve been lucky in that over the last three years the vast majority of my income has come from being self-employed, so I was always going to be over the threshold. In terms of how much I got given though, while I’ve been on my current salary for a year and a half, it was the tax year 2018–19 they used to work it out and during that time I earnt barely anything. So I didn’t get much money. But I know that’s the same for many others, and I’ve been able to keep earning by hustling and using Zoom to run workshops.
Assuming there hadn’t been a global pandemic, how much longer were you due to be working on Six?
My contract was up in mid-July and I’d already given notice. I’m MD-ing Rent at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, which was supposed to be July-August, but will hopefully now run October-December. Although I’m not going back to Six, I will be staying as UK Associate Musical Supervisor so it’s not goodbye forever.
Where have you been locked down?
I’ve been in my London flat. When I got back from New York my GP friend warned that one way the virus will spread is via infected people travelling across the country to stay with family. He said just assume you’re infected and lock down in London. I also received an email from a SoulCycle class I did in New York saying: “Someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 was in the studio the day you attended.” I thought that was very good of them to let people know. But perhaps the moral of the story is: don’t do indoor exercise during an outbreak! I couldn’t get a test at that point but I had every symptom, including the very weird loss of smell and taste.
As someone who has always had a very weak sense of smell and taste, it’s interesting that so many people are now experiencing that too…
Yes, I cannot describe how weird it was. I was going around the flat finding strong smelling things to sniff but nope, nothing. I can smell again now but am still not back to a hundred percent.
Tell me about your hustling then. Was it difficult or easy to get going, and has it provided much income for you?
I had a long period of feeling immobilised and unable to do anything, so I think I’ve done a really good job of projecting busy-ness on social media. I associate myself so much with what I do so when your entire industry collapses and you can’t even get a job in bloody Sainsbury’s — I just felt so useless. Since I was 14 I’ve never not had a job, I really didn’t know what I was going to do. That feeling lasted a long time, I think I also needed time to recover from being ill. I also really struggled with friends with normal jobs saying: why don’t you just teach online? Firstly, teaching is a completely different skillset, I don’t think you can just say teaching is ‘easy’ in that way. Secondly, how am I supposed to get clients when no one has any money? And thirdly, setting yourself up to teach online is a whole thing unto itself.
I wrote a list of things I could do and even though I had plenty of options I remember just crying from being so overwhelmed at not knowing where to start. Luckily, my boyfriend is really good at tech. I’m a feminist, BUT… my boyfriend is amazing at tech, he has done so much for me.
I managed to turn a corner by basically mourning my old career, which presumably will come back but for now I have to put it to one side. I’ve done a few workshops and it’s shown me that I do have this specialism to talk about ( pop singing for musical theatre) that people are interested in. I never realised it was such a sought-after knowledge base within the industry. I’ve also set up Sunday Sessions, which we used to do for fun on Instagram live between our double-Sunday shows at Six — basically you put a load of songs in a hat, draw one out and sing it. I thought there must be a way to monetise this online so I’ve done it via Patreon.
I have a different West End guest each week and while we used to do little cuts I now have them do a whole song. It took six weeks of crying and not being able to set that up but I got there and it’s been a real exercise in mental resilience. It feels good to be able to help other people too. And while I am making some money from it I’m also able to pay people to appear. Fans that are members have been really supportive because they’re getting to see exclusive content but also supporting us when they know that we’re out of work.
Have you adapted your living space in order to work from home effectively?
This is the only time in my life I wish I could afford an office! I use the dining table which, because our kitchen is tiny, is in the living room. Before this all kicked off I was thinking of packing my keyboard away because I never actually use it since I’m always playing at work. But, of course, I’m now using it all the time. So I’ve not really adapted my living space that much, I just use it way more than I did.
Have you found yourself doing more pure practice or simply playing for pleasure during lockdown?
I have, though I find it depends on the day. There are days when I feel motivated and uplifted and I absolutely do play for pleasure, but I’ve also found on those days of feeling overwhelmed and hopeless that it’s the last thing I want to do. It can feel like: what’s the point in doing this if my industry doesn’t exist? I also feel guilty that, assuming we do go back to work, we’ll be expected to have been practicing loads and be really amazing — that can be toxic.
How do you describe your occupation to people? Does it ever change depending on the context?
In general I do just say ‘musical director’ although my website says: musical director, pianist, arranger. All of those things are true. Sometimes I say ‘musician’ when I don’t want it to seem like MD-ing is the only thing I can do.
Do you have a daily or weekly lockdown work structure? It sounds like yours might have more ebb and flow to it?
I do but I try to be kind to myself. On some days it’s just not happening. So I’ll cross Thursday off the list and write Friday. Doing Sunday Sessions is helpful because it’s fixed, every Sunday at 6pm that’s what I have to do. Also, now that we’re allowed to meet up in parks and gardens, I can see friends (who are still working Monday-Friday jobs) at the weekend. Which is nice because I couldn’t when I was working every weekend.
I generally manage to keep a weekday/weekend structure. I get up and go to bed at the same times most days, which aren’t that different from when I was working on the show — go to bed at 1am, get up at 9am. I always aim to do some sort of exercise each day and play piano at some point, it might be 20 minutes technique practice but if it’s 3 hours playing Robbie Williams that’s also cool! I try not to be too strict.
The good thing about being a self-employed musician is there’s been so many times in my life where I’ve had to build business from nowhere and schedule my own time. We, musicians, are lucky in that way. And while this pandemic is an extreme example and I don’t think I felt prepared for it, with hindsight I obviously have done it before to a lesser extent. That has definitely helped me through.
How Katy Is Keeping Busy
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge
White Fragility Robin DiAngelo
Queenie Candice Braithwaite
Once Upon A River Lorian Hemingway
Secret History Donna Tart (for the hundredth time probably)
Chromatica Lady Gaga
Future Nostalgia Dua Lipa
Notes on a Conditional Form The 1975
Song for our Daughter Laura Marling
Gilmore Girls Netflix
Queer Eye Netflix
White Lines Netflix
Killing Eve iPlayer
Schitt’s Creek Netflix
Lots of cakes
Lots more experimental recipes than before
I dabbled in Skyrim…not sure it was for me
Originally published at jamesrmcandrew.com on July 2, 2020.