Lucky Out Of Lockdown: Making Art Can Cost You

On the evening before the end of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, actress Anna Burgess is preparing to reprise her role of Jude in ‘Pramkicker’ at Theatre Works. For an actress who moves seamlessly from Shakespeare to independent theatre to film and television, the past two years amid the COVID-19 pandemic had drawn on her tenacity. But now she’s good to go. 

“I’m ready. I may be a little anxious but I’m joyous and very grateful,” she affirms from her Brunswick East home via Zoom. In an industry that has come to a virtual standstill, Burgess shares how she navigated her career through this tricky time.

In March 2020, Burgess was performing ‘Twelfth Night’ with the Australian Shakespeare Company (ASC). Her character, Olivia, had to kiss Viola and when the news about the virus hit the media, Burgess came down with a bad cold. She worried about her co-star and rushed to the doctor to find out if it was Covid. 

“It was nerve-wracking because I couldn’t get a Covid test. They were only giving them to people who’d had contact with returned travellers.” She didn’t have Covid — just a common cold — but it was a precursor to the rollercoaster of events that followed.

Burgess has built up a solid drama teaching business that exists alongside her acting career, but all of a sudden her teaching business also came to a standstill. She feels lucky to have received JobKeeper through ASC and although the performances stopped, she and her fellow actors helped with set building and continued working on a Shakespearean text. 

“It was quite nice to stop as an artist and take a break, but then Zoom happened, and all of a sudden I was teaching again.” 

After a year of Zoom teaching, she will also resume some teaching face to face. 

“I’m so happy for my students because I feel like they’re inspired now that we’re coming out of lockdown. Throughout this pandemic I’ve seen this whole new generation of performers coming through, and I could see they were losing hope; so I’m very excited to be seeing them again.” 

‘Pramkicker’ by Sadie Hasler, starring Anna Burgess and Amy May Nunn, performs at Theatre Works in December.

After JobKeeper ended and things began to open up, Burgess says she just had to stop watching the news. 

“All these announcements were being made one by one – what could and what could not open – but the theatre community was completely being left out. I had to stop watching the news but I knew I had to stay aware.” 

Then at the end of 2020, Burgess was suddenly back onstage with the ASC in ‘Macbeth’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but 2021 brought a completely new scenario, where the difficulties of working in independent theatre came to a head. Burgess was to play the title role in ‘Savage in Limbo’ by John Patrick Shanley, but the production was postponed because of a lockdown. 

From then on, every time the team secured a new date for opening, a lockdown wiped the slate clean. Finally, they were in technical rehearsals at the theatre, then four days before they opened, another lockdown began. 

“We never quite knew if the show was going to happen. We kept rehearsing but at times I felt like I was in quicksand.” Burgess was waiting for a curtain that never rose. 

“You work so hard in independent theatre and it’s obviously not for the money, so to have no show at the end of it all was really incredibly sad.”  

A harsh blow to lose a starring role in this way, but Burgess has taken it in her stride because she knows she is one of the lucky ones in the industry. 

“These past two years I’ve been trying to keep my head above water, but knowing I had to be there for others, as well. Seeing successful and kind people come completely undone at the seams is heartbreaking.” 

She is adamant there is an even stronger camaraderie between the actors and the theatres, and even the big musical casts and crew. 

“People have been there for each other like never before. Some have said to me, ‘Can I buy a ticket for your show even if it doesn’t open?’ And how can I help?” 

This kind of gratitude turned the whole experience around for Burgess and the experience brought some things into focus.

“I had to be pragmatic for the first time in my life realising that making art can actually cost you. I had to decide what I really couldn’t afford not to do artistically. I created a business strategy and launched my online teaching business and now I’m in rehearsals via Zoom, so it’s a lot of Zoom!” 

Burgess is glowing with excitement, her hair standing on end for this production of ‘Pramkicker’, a remounting of the sell-out 2018 production from Dirty Pennies Theatre Project. 

“I’ve always loved the theatre and that will never change. This has made me even more passionate about what work I want to do and working with teams of creative people that I love.”

‘Pramkicker’ by Sadie Hasler, starring Anna Burgess and Amy May Nunn, runs from 14 to 18 December 2021 at Melbourne’s Theatre Works.

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