Monday , August 10 2020
Photo of cast in 'Girl from the North Country'
Rachel John (Mrs Neilsen) and cast in 'Girl from the North Country' (Credit: Cylla Von Tiedemann)

Interview: Musical Director Tarek Merchant on Coronavirus, UK Theatre, and ‘Girl from the North Country’ [Part 1 of 2]

Coronavirus is all over the news. One particular area of concern involves the theatre industry and whether it will come back later this year. There have already been instances of theatres laying off staff as productions continue to be postponed or even cancelled. On July 5, 2020, some hopeful news came out of 10 Downing Street with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s announcement of a £1.57 billion emergency support package.

Tarek Merchant is a musical director (MD), actor-musician, and composer in London. He spoke with me to offer more insights about the worries that theatre workers have today. Be sure to read the second part to learn of the contributions he has made to the theatre world, most recently through the 2019 West End revival of the Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country.

Why did you decide you wanted to pursue an arts career?

That’s a good question. I know it’s going to sound like a cliché maybe, but I think I just never contemplated the alternative, in a way. I was always involved at school productions. I’m a pianist but I also play flute, violin, and accordion. I was doing all my instrumental lessons as a diligent student and I guess it was just the thing that I loved. It was a state school in Woking, south of London where I grew up. They had brilliant teachers and a supportive community of musicians and amateur actors, who were mentors and showed me the ropes.

Photo of Tarek Merchant
Tarek Merchant (Credit: Ori Jones)

I actually wanted to go to drama school since my early teens. My folks said in that way that parents do, “You should get a qualification or do something as a good fallback.” I knew I didn’t want to study something too academic. I went into music at York University. Maybe that was a foolish fallback because it was so close to my main choice!

At the end of my degree, I still wanted to go to drama school. There was an actor-musician course at Rose Bruford College, which is on the border of Kent. They do a three-year training for actors who are instrumentalists and that felt like a way to combine both my passions. 

I never said to myself, “I’m going to be a musical director.” It became a very natural way to combine my skills and passions. I’ve been lucky recently that I’ve been able to make most of my living through MDing, composing, and music.

It wasn’t always the case. I did my own share of other jobs, retraining, and doing additional skills courses as I supported myself. I’ve said to date that I feel like a square peg in a square hole. I found out a weird niche that I didn’t know existed for my particular set of passions and interests.

Have you done arts work since the pandemic shut everything down?

Two small things. Pitlochry Theatre in Scotland is one of the many [theatres] to have to close temporarily. They run for a season and had to preemptively close the whole season. They were in touch about the festival to celebrate the Tay River, and asked if my wife Lila and I might work together on a song celebrating the She-town history of Dundee which historically has been a matriarchal city. That was a nice commission. My wife and I could actually work on it together here. 

I have a colleague working on a musical for a long time who wants someone to transcribe it and supervise creating vocal scores for a workshop on their material. I’ve been working on a piano/vocal score for them.

Other than that, I had theatre jobs in my diary until Christmas at least. They have all either been shelved, postponed, or on hiatus. As for so many theatre freelancers, most of my work has evaporated. 

Since you have experience in both community and national theatres, what are the most alarming aspects about the current crisis from 2020 to 2021? 

In terms of the impact? 

Yes, the impacts that you see and the challenges ahead. 

It’s felt like we’ve all been in a limbo since the shutdown. The questions we ask now are very similar to the questions we were asking weeks ago. What was becoming increasingly clear from the theatre lobbying is that it’s the entire ecosystem that’s in jeopardy. Everyone is dependent on each other. You can’t protect the West End and not protect other subsidized theatre outside of London. You can’t neglect the freelance community where you source your actors, musicians, designers, sound operators and designers, and stage managers. That is the community where all these workers come from.

It’s a delicate ecosystem we’ve cultivated over a long period of time. If one part perishes, it will stop the lifeblood flowing to other parts of the industry. 

Photo of Tarek Merchant directing the music in a Sweeney Todd rehearsal
Tarek Merchant (Credit: Marc Brenner)

Everyone has been crying out for some kind of tailored support. The one-size-fits-all approach of the furloughing scheme may not be enough to avoid mass redundancies – it’s winding down already in the autumn. That’s based on the notion that all industries will be able to come back to standing on their own two feet and producing income. For theatre and culture, that’s likely to be the last to come back. We’ve been waiting on some clarity on support. 

The Chancellor has now confirmed there will be a package of financial support for the arts sector, but there are still many questions over how that will be fairly distributed, and especially what it means for the freelance community who are employed by theatre organisations. I worry that some venues outside of London will go under the radar. They support their communities in lots of ways by providing social hubs, community activities and outreach with local schools. The larger organisations do, too, but the communities outside of the capital mustn’t be overlooked.

I really believe that theatre in general will have an important part to play in our collective healing and processing of the trauma of this time. It’s a form so threatened now, but I think it will ultimately come to play a vital role in advocating the need to be in the same space as each other and breathe the same air in times to come. And therefore, it must be protected.

We won’t know for a while what the consequences are. There’s been so much positive work recently to make the industry more representative of our communities as far as people you see onstage and backstage. The risk now is that the only people surviving this [crisis] are the ones with [the] financial support and privilege to make it through unharmed. That would also be devastating and heartbreaking. I know many people in the industry share this view. I’m optimistic that there are enough people fighting to make sure we keep progressing these positive steps.

Do you have any concerns on the music aspect of the industry?

I am concerned about the role of live music-making beyond COVID. Traditionally, music and bands can be an expensive component of a production. There are also other ways of delivering music, because you can use prerecorded sound. At the moment, there is a bit of a black hole on the science emerging about what additional risks may be with pit bands or using large numbers of singers. With that still unfolding, I am nervous all theatres, who already suffer from some financial compromises and setbacks as a result of the crisis, will see a reluctance on the other side of this to invest in live music for theatre.

Streaming theatre online is no substitute for live theatre. I feel the value of live music in theatre is just as visceral and important as live actors. There are always productions where prerecorded sound is the better choice, but I would be very sad if we missed creative solutions to enable us to keep the cathartic and visceral aspects of music made live.

Continued in Part 2.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Virginia on a full scholarship. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Simon Callow, Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

Check Also

Photo of cast in 'Girl from the North Country'

Interview: Musical Director Tarek Merchant on Coronavirus, UK Theatre, and ‘Girl from the North Country’ [Part 2 of 2]

Tarek Merchant shares his experiences in radio and working on Conor McPherson's 'Girl from the North Country.'