Before lockdown, actor Oliver Brooks was playing the role of Edna Turnblad for Royal Caribbean having previously appeared in shows such as Matilda the musical, The Canterbury Tales and Beauty and the Beast. I talked to Oliver about how he is handling life in lockdown and his hopes for when theatres and performance venues are allowed to reopen.
First of all, how are you feeling about the whole virus and lockdown situation?
What a massive question! I think the first thing I felt, in all honesty, was fear & panic. Fear that my loved ones or myself may contract the virus and panic that we may not be safe in our homes, or have access to all of the things we need (and take for granted). As time has passed I have been able to create a calm environment, in my own little bubble at my Mom’s (I call her The Mothership) home, in Worcestershire. Of course we still have the daily reminders that others aren’t as lucky and it puts everything into perspective and I know that I am terribly fortunate to be at home, with family and healthy. A close family member has been going through chemotherapy and having to travel back and forth to the hospital, which has been very stressful, because you are having to actively put yourself in the line of fire. It is just so overwhelming to think of all of the different things that some people are going through, on a global scale.
How have you been keeping yourself occupied during the lockdown?
Unfortunately my Mom and I believe that we contracted a strain of the virus, but due to the lack of availability of tests, we still haven’t had confirmation. My Mom was ill with a sore throat, coughing, tight chest, with difficulty breathing for a good two to three weeks and I was in bed with major fatigue, dizziness, tight chest, shortness of breath and no taste or smell for just over three weeks. It was not a fun time, I can tell you that. It was so frustrating and after a week I felt angry everyday, because it was like Groundhog Day. I had zero taste or smell for 21 days & had to take a nap after walking to the bathroom. Fortunately, it passed and for the last three weeks I have been actually able to enjoy some downtime at home. It is a terrible thing, because you know there are people dying, but there is a part of you that is grateful to have some time off, for head space and to rest, but you can’t help feeling guilty. I know that staying home is helping those less fortunate stay safe. I love clapping for the NHS and other essential workers on a Thursday evening, with The Mothership’s neighbourhood, it’s such a cathartic thing to do and so emotional too. I have also been taking on different challenges to help support different charities. I did the 5 for 5 challenge, raising money for the NHS and I am due to take on the helicopter challenge, raising money for London’s Air Ambulance, a charity that my sister works for, so it is very close to my heart. My Father lives close by, as does my Aunty and due to them both being over 70, I have been doing their food shops for them, making sure they aren’t potential exposed to the virus.
What are you most looking forward to doing once lockdown is over?
I cannot wait to hug my sister and my friends. Living in London can be pretty intense, especially in our industry, so your friends become your family. I try to see mine as much as possible and not being able to hug them and sit (and drink) with them is really really tough. My sister is still in London, as she working, from home, 9 to 5 (what a way to make a living), so she’ll be getting a big cuddle when I can finally reunite with her! I need to travel too, I miss travelling A LOT! I also can’t wait to have a dirty vodka martini at my favourite place, Sophie’s Soho!
Is there anything we, as theatre fans, can do to help the arts industry in these trying times?
Don’t let this stop you going back to the theatre, or the cinema, or the cabaret venues once they reopen! The industry needs you. It survives due to the interest, support and passion of it’s amazing fans! My favourite saying is “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.” People in this industry have to be tough, so they have to survive. All artists need an outlet. We do our jobs because it is our passion and we love it, so we need to find a way to share our skills, whilst in lockdown. Teaching, cabarets, Q&A’s, masterclasses, anything that means we can use our talents, but we do also need to have some monetary support to pay bills, food and rent. It’s great to watch friends performing online and posting different classes, etc. but, if you are a fan please have a think about how you could donate to these performers. Maybe ask for a one on one tutorial, some advice on how to get into the industry or even a simple 30 minute Q&A session. It’s amazing how valuable it can be to sit and chat to a performer.
What is your favourite thing about the theatre industry as a whole?
Acceptance. I am a very social, outgoing (loud) and open person and growing up in the countryside, there weren’t lots of people like me. I was discriminated against for wanting to express myself, through my fashion, my personality and my demeanour. I am a gay man and it was very very tough growing up during the 90s and early 00s, especially in a small city, where it wasn’t accepted. The theatre industry is a community and it’s my home. It is a place where I feel happy, safe and free to be my authentic self, without any fear of judgement. That’s my favourite thing.
How have you been managing day to day life in quarantine? Do you have a routine, or do you just go with the flow?
I have been doing LOTS of cooking and baking for The Mothership and I. I even purchased a magnetic board for the fridge and every morning I write down the daily menu, so we have something to focus on and look forward to. We love food! I also try to FaceTime a friend at around 5pm, most days, for drinks and nibbles, whilst I watch the sun set from the conservatory.
Do you have any advice for people who are perhaps finding lockdown hard to manage?
Just keep going. Take it day by day. Keep a daily routine and treat the weekend like it’s a weekend, have a treat, eat take away food and drink champagne. Also remember that during the World Wars, people had to ration, run to shelters for their lives and turn all lights off during blackouts. We are being asked to stay in doors, with the majority of us having access to amenities and TV & films. Meditation is my saviour. I use a few apps which help me with controlled breathing, mindfulness and distraction. Audiobooks and varying the music you listen to helps keep things fresh and takes your mind off of things. You can do it.
Do you think that it is important to talk about mental health in these challenging times?
It is one of the most, if not THE most important thing that we need to talk about. Just talk. Even if it’s on your own to the wall. It feels so much better when you talk out loud about problems, troubles worries and fears. We are not alone. Someone does care. It just takes one person to give you value & purpose and that person is yourself. Talking to a trained professional is so so beneficial and if you can’t afford it, you can talk to your GP and get at least six one hour sessions with a trained professional. If you don’t want to talk one on one, there are amazing therapy groups in your area. There are Apps where you can FaceTime with a councillor who has been through similar issues that you have been through or has felt the way you feel. We must talk about it. It’s OK to not be OK.
I would like to thank Oliver for his time and his great answers to this interview, as well as wish him the very best for the future. Stay safe x