Performers in the Time of COVID: Sally Mortemore
I talked to Sally Mortemore, an actor of conviction and intensity, on Zoom on the first Monday of Lockdown 2. She looked comfortable and relaxed in the office she has created for online work since the first lockdown removed all her normal work in 'one fell swoop'. I asked Sally to describe a typical week prior to March 2020 and she said that for some years she had devoted at least one day a week to running the office of Actorum (https://www.actorum.com), the actors' cooperative to which she belongs and through which she is contacted for roles in film, television or theatre. She explained that Actorum was a hugely supportive mechanism and that she and her fellow actors there comprised what they referred to as the 'Actorum family.' She told me that in February she had been preparing for a staged reading of The Marilyn Conspiracy, a show that had received rave reviews at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe and which was on course to move to the West End. She had also been asked to do some talks for U3A on her life in the theatre and, since playing Irma Pince in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was making frequent appearances at Comic Cons, the conventions that bring fans together with their film idols. When she wasn't engaged in 'legit' work, Sally said, she filled in the gaps with Medical Roleplay for student doctors being examined on their communication skills.
But for Sally, March was even more complicated than for the rest of us. At the beginning of the month she was attacked by a large dog and suffered a severe break to the bone below her right knee. 'The pain was excruciating,' Sally said. 'I was in hospital from the 8th to the 11th of March.' She reflected that already Covid precautions were very much in evidence. 'There was definitely a sense of anxiety both at A and E and later in the wards. I was aware of heightened security. There were signs everywhere reminding people to wash their hands. In fact the porters who took me down for surgery complained that their hands were aching from constant washing and hand gel.'
Sally said that when she returned home from hospital she was completely reliant on the help of neighbours and friends both to walk her beloved dog Groucho and to deliver food. 'I remember my neighbour saying, 'It's getting very weird out there.' That was the middle of March. By the next week I was locked down in lockdown.'
Sally's memories of April and May consist mainly of her struggles with the severe pain she experienced from her broken leg. 'For a while, the pain blotted out every other thought.' But Sally trained as a classical dancer and has a background in physical theatre. She understands the body and is used to dealing with injuries. 'When we were doing Marilyn in Edinburgh,' she reminisced, 'I fell down a flight of concrete stairs one morning and had to pull myself together and perform an hour later with sterile strips holding the cut together. But what made the broken leg so very difficult was the fact that I had to deal with it completely by myself. No one could come into my house to help me. Just getting in and out of the bath was an ordeal. I realised that I had to look after myself,' she said calmly and without a trace of self-pity. 'I had to keep the house clean and make myself meals.' She remembers the first roast dinner she made for herself and the agony she endured standing on her right leg long enough to prepare it. 'But I suppose it tasted all the more delicious for that.'
Sally said that she has had to deal with many things by herself in the past but this time she was completely alone. 'It was just me,' she said. 'I now accept that I can deal with life on my own whereas I have questioned that in the past.' She said that early on in lockdown she began writing poetry again for the first time in 5 years. 'It was a source of strength and a means of expression.'
Meanwhile there were other anxieties. All her work had stopped and there was no money coming in. 'I had some very sleepless nights and suffered panic attacks,' she said. But in the summer her role play agent got in touch with a new idea. He was creating an app which would allow students to sit their exams online and asked Sally to be involved in the trials. She was also asked to trial some free online interviews for Comic Cons. 'The strange thing,' she told me, 'is that because of Covid pushing everything online, I am now able to work despite my injury, which would not have been the case had the accident happened at another time!' Nonetheless, the situation is strained; Sally is anxious enough about future outcomes to consider leaving the industry.
I asked Sally if she thought that the last months had taught her any lessons. She paused a moment, reflecting. 'When my leg got strong enough I started walking Groucho in a nearby cemetery. I noticed that people around me had changed - they were far more likely to say hello. And it was so quiet in the cemetery. I would sit and watch the birds and the squirrels and find a sense of stillness and peace that I don't think I was aware of before Covid. It made me realise how important life is and that happiness is a simple thing.' At a time when many of us have been cut off from those closest to us and are struggling with precarious work situations, that seems to me to be a lesson we can all hold dear.