Friday, 14 August 2015

Welcome Home

It is two o’clock in the morning.

And I am wide awake.

I’m lying on an alarmingly soft mattress underneath a wafer thin duvet, staring at the cracks in the ceiling and trying to place the era of the stained lampshade, which hangs above me. Seventies? Sixties? The Stone Age?

About an hour before I had thrown off my barely-existent duvet and braved the cold, in order to remove the batteries from the unnecessarily loud wall clock, making a mental note to replace them before my departure. Then I had climbed back on top of my bed and taken down the frighteningly realistic crucifix, which hung limply above my broken headboard. The moulded and mutilated figurine was dripping with glossy, painted blood and it’s beady eyes glared accusingly at me as I gripped it in my fist and shoved it unceremoniously into a dresser drawer.

I was paying £35 a night for this crappy little single room.

And I wasn’t willing to share it with Jesus.

I opened my laptop and found the theatre’s digs list, which had included the contact info for this particular residence. The landlady, Janet, had cheerfully described her abode as ‘a small but comfortable room in a clean and well-equipped house. You’ll receive a warm welcome.’

But Janet had lied.

Lied through her teeth.

And I had swiftly come to the conclusion that she was the embodiment of the darkest and purest evil, cleverly disguised as a passive aggressive Christian with an extensive collection of Toby jugs and some musty pot pourri.

Maybe she wasn’t a bad person, but nothing about her digs listing rung even slightly true. The room was indeed pretty small although I tend not to mind that being a fairly little person myself. But it was definitely not comfortable. And the house was far from clean. Dust and dirt clung to every single surface and the inside of the fridge appeared to be forming its very own vibrant government. Nor was it particularly ‘well equipped’ because as she showed me how to use every single element of her house, from the front door to the shower, she had uttered the words which all touring theatricals dread to hear.

‘Now there’s a bit of a knack to this.’

All homes are different and have odd little anomalies and quirks. But when I am paying someone to stay in their home, why the hell is it that in order for me to have a vaguely piss-warm shower I have to use it between 6am and 6.30am and only flush the toilet on Wednesdays.

As I stared at my laptop, wondering if the glow of its screen would keep me warm, I scanned the rest of the digs list in desperation. It was painfully short and I had already highlighted all of the names that were either already booked, no longer provided rooms or the number simply hadn’t worked. I used the 4G on my phone to try and find a hotel (there was Wi-Fi but Janet couldn’t remember the code) but they were all far too expensive and way above my budget.

I felt like pulling the faded and bloodied Jesus out of the dirty wooden drawer and screaming at it ‘Why, God? WHY?’ But instead I rested my head back on the flat pillow and resigned myself to the fact that this was where I would be sleeping for the rest of the week.

‘But it’s only a week.’ I muttered to myself, ‘Just one week.’

So for the next six nights I returned back to that place, mostly hammered, in a desperate bid to ensure that I would swiftly pass out and be ignorant to my crummy surroundings. And every single night I performed the rather pointless task of wiping my feet on a grimy and worn out doormat which had ‘WELCOME HOME’ emblazoned across it.

The thick yet faded words were just more fucking lies.

Because I did not feel welcome.

And I was definitely not home.

The week eventually ended and I spent it reasoning with myself that things could be worse and at least I was only here for a brief period and not longer. But poor digs can have a strong effect on your working week. Spending your day at work knowing that you have to return somewhere so bleak can break even the most positive of spirits and only manages to highlight just how far away from home you are.

When I left, I dutifully returned the batteries to the clock, hung Creepy Jesus back on his hook and reluctantly handed over a hefty wad of cash to Janet. I considered talking to the theatre but the digs list was pretty brief as it was. If a touring theatrical was really desperate, these digs would be adequate enough. Maybe because I have stayed in so many brilliant digs I have pretty high standards. And besides, the theatre did not offer any kind of service to find out what my digs were like and history had told me that there was little point in trying to get them removed.

Because I had tried to do that once before.

A few years ago I was touring to a large-scale theatre and, again, had completely exhausted the digs list but was having very little luck. There were people on it that had not provided digs for several years and a lot of the information on it (prices, details, contacts) were out of date. Eventually, towards the back, I spoke to a bloke called Peter who had a room in his house and claimed to have taken many digs people before.

So I booked it.

As soon as I stepped into the house I felt incredibly uncomfortable. The sickly sweet smell of chinese take-aways hit my nose and I inwardly groaned. I looked down at the mat beneath my feet and saw those taunting words screaming up at me.


No no no. This is not my home. Not my fucking home.

He was residing in the house but also rented a couple of rooms out to students, a piece of information that had been omitted from the list. The kitchen was covered in grease and the counters were piled high with three-day old dirty dishes, although that was nothing compared to the bathroom. The toilet bowl was stained with brown streaks and the cracked seat appeared to be covered by tiny, coarse hairs. Empty toilet roll tubes were scattered all over the floor and, most alarmingly, there was no lock.

Once he had opened the door to the poky bedroom, (which was actually clean enough), he gestured to the bed and proudly announced ‘I washed the bedding!!’ with the self-satisfaction of someone informing me that the sheets were 200 thread count Egyptian cotton.

‘Oh,’ I said flatly, ‘Thanks.’

Peter himself was in his late thirties and there was something about him that left me slightly uneasy although I tried to put it down to the fact that the house was so dirty. He tried a little bit too hard with inappropriate jokes and was rather forward with information about a recent break up, but he was friendly enough and I wondered if he was maybe just a bit lonely. He asked for the rent but I simply said that I did not have the cash on me and would need to get it the next day. Which wasn’t strictly true. But instinct told me to hold on to the money.

It was now ten o clock at night and, seeing as the bed itself was clean, I decided it was easier to stay here than try to find a hotel in the deserted town centre. My head began to throb with the indignity of the whole situation so I made the decision to just go to bed and sort out exactly what I would do in the morning. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom (using copious amounts of loo roll to ensure I didn’t actually touch anything) and went off to bed, jamming the door wedge I keep in my suitcase underneath the door, and turning my phone to silent.

The next morning I woke up at about 7am and rolled over, taking in my surroundings and reminding myself that I was still in Digs Hell. Then I reached for my phone, unlocked it, and sat bolt upright in bed.

My iPhone screen was ablaze with several notifications. There were a few little red circles on my social media apps but mostly I had just received a lot of text messages, silently, throughout the night. The first had come in at 10pm and the last at around 2.45am.

And they were all from Peter.

The first was timed at 10.51pm

‘Hey Jess. So great to meet you. You seem really cool. Looking forward to hanging out with you in the week.’

Next one. 11.23pm

‘So can you get me free tickets for the show? I would love to come and see it. Then we could go for a drink after?’

Next one. 12.04am

‘I’m going to be around the house on Thursday afternoon. Are you? Maybe we could hang out.’

Next one. 12.32am

‘Sorry you probably went to sleep.’

Next one. 12.45am

‘There’s a great pub near the theatre. We could go there?’

Next one. 1.37am

‘Oh and I would like to see the show on Thursday night.’

Next one. 2.25am

‘I think you’re definitely asleep! LOL! But anyway, I’m really looking forward to getting to know you. Goodnight, lovely’

And then the texts stopped.

‘Bollocks.’ I said aloud. And reached for the clothes I had been wearing the night before. Once I was changed and pondering my options I remembered that there were other unchecked notifications on my phone so I sat down on the bed and scrolled through.

‘Oh you are fucking kidding me.’ I murmured.

A Facebook friend request timed at 3.30am. From Peter.

Without giving it a second thought, I threw everything I had brought very haphazardly into my suitcase, grabbed my door wedge and crept downstairs. The living room carpet was full of empty beer cans, which suddenly added a rather maze-like element to my escape as I weaved my way out of the room. At the front door I took twenty quid out of my wallet and put it in a little pot on a ledge, before quietly shutting the door and starting to walk. It wasn’t even 8am and I had no idea where to go or what to do, but I knew that remaining in that house was not an option. I just could not see how I could comfortably return home each night.

Safely ensconced in the warmth of a greasy spoon café, I nursed a large mug of steaming tea and started to work my way through the digs list. Amazingly, I found a lady early on in the list who responded to my text straight away saying that she had a very small box room, which she rarely rented out but was happy to do so in an emergency. Tea was gulped down and I jumped in a cab to my saviour’s house. She welcomed me with more tea, toast and showed me into a well-appointed yet tiny little room, explaining that she would charge a lot less than her other tenants as the room was that much smaller. But it was warm, clean and perfectly adequate. When on tour, I don’t have particularly high demands and although it was not the most luxurious place I had rested my head, it was fine for the low price, and comfortable.

After a hot shower I gathered my thoughts and carefully phrased a text message to send to Peter.

‘Hi Peter. Thank you so much for your hospitality last night. Sadly I don’t think that these digs are going to work out for me but I have left £20 next to the front door for last night’s stay. All the best. Jess.’

I had a feeling that Peter may not take my departure particularly well. But even I was pretty surprised at what he replied with.

‘U fukn rude bitch’, he raged. ‘who d u think u r?’

I chose not to respond as I felt there was no way we were going to have a reasonable discussion, so I ignored it, but throughout the rest of the morning, my phone beeped incessantly with bad language and venom. It was a little disconcerting, but my main worry was that he was on the theatre’s digs list and simply had to be removed, so I needed to talk to whoever monitored the list.

And that person was a very hard person to locate as it soon became apparent that nobody actually had the responsibility of the digs list. Eventually I spoke to someone in administration who was pretty appalled when I showed her the text messages, and she said she would ensure his name was removed.

A couple of years later a friend was touring to that very theatre and gave me a ring to see if I had any digs suggestions. I recommended the woman whose house I had eventually gone to and also told her the story of what had happened with Peter.

‘Gross!’ she exclaimed, ‘But he’s definitely off the list?’

‘Well yeah’, I replied ‘I mean, I assume so.’

‘Hold on’.

My friend scanned the list, the apparently ‘up to date’ list that had been sent to the theatre company just weeks before, and then groaned.

He was still on it.

I could not get my head around the fact that a theatre, upon being informed that digs were unhygienic, not fit for use and with a dubious landlord, had failed to take any kind of action on this. And that people were visiting that theatre with a high chance of having an experience similar to mine.

The tour that I am currently on is almost a year long, and I have spent a huge portion of it in digs. As I have been touring for the majority of my career, I am very adept at booking digs. Living this life of chaotic monotony has taught me well, so I tend to arrange them well in advance. I have many digs that I have stayed at before, sometimes several times, and also a whole plethora of contacts who give me reliable info about great places. So generally my experiences on this tour have been fine. Yet each week I am greeted by at least one company member who is finding their digs unsatisfactory or has simply left.

And it’s not good enough.

Sometimes we are dealing with lists that either have incorrect or out of date information, lists that barely have enough properties to go around or lists that give contact information to facilities that are just not appropriate. All touring theatricals have their tales of awful digs and theatres with poor lists, so why have we just started to accept this as the norm?

Why on earth aren’t we doing something about it?

I know for a fact that it is possible for a theatre to take responsibility for a digs list, and so I had a conversation with Lee Drinkwater who is the Company Manager at the Manchester Royal Exchange. I have worked there a few times and always been impressed with how seriously Lee takes the task of the digs list. I know that it is only really rep theatres that have a full time Company Manager, but I still believe that Lee’s ethos and approach to accommodation is something that should be used as an example.

Lee, was checking the digs list part of your job when you started? Or did it become part of your job later?

It used to be the job of the PA to the Artistic Director, but it was later decided that as I have such a direct relationships with the actors and visiting stage managers, I should take on the position. We paid somebody to come in for one week and give it an overhaul. That person got in contact with every person on the list (there are just over two hundred) and ensured that all of the details, including prices and facilities, were up to date.  I now check in with hosts annually in order to change and update details. It is our responsibility as theatre management and landlords to make sure that information is correct. I am actually working on the list at the moment, during our dark time, and adding more images to it, like those on Street View, so that prospective lodgers can see the outside of the house they are considering. And we encourage landlords/landladies to send in images of the rooms.

Do you believe that a theatre has a responsibility to provide an up to date and decent standard of digs list to visiting companies?

110% yes. Absolutely. Some of the actors who come here can be very young. It might be their first job out of drama school or maybe even their first time to Manchester. We need to do all we can to make sure that they are comfortable despite being away from home. Although it says in their contract that visiting companies are responsible for booking their own digs, we have to ensure that those digs are fit for the purpose. If a cast member is unhappy in their digs, it can lead to them giving less in the rehearsal room and then, ultimately, in the performance. Bad digs have a real potential to affect the show itself. I don't think people realise that.

If company members complain about digs do you feel that you have a duty to take action?

Yes and I have been involved with several disputes. Sometimes it’s just a case of the digs landlady or landlord needing some guidance, as it’s a world they’re just not used to. Providing digs is not the same as just taking on a lodger. If a company member comes to me and makes it clear that a property is simply not appropriate then that property is removed from our list. We also have an online form for potential digs providers to fill out and if I read it and anything sets alarm bells ringing, such as high price or lack of facilities, I get in contact with them and discuss their property with them before they go on the list.

Do you ever advise landlords/landladies on price?

I never disclose to them the exact amount of subsistence that company members are being paid. But a lot of our digs are also on the lists for the Palace, the Opera House and the Lowry. So I do let them know that our companies get paid less subsistence than the touring companies. 

Also, subsistence money is not purely for digs and people need that money for food and daily travel, so no landlords should be asking for the full subsistence anyway. Some theatres have begun to charge landlords/landladies to be on the digs list. Is this something you would ever consider?

No, why would we? The theatre has absolutely no reason to profit from providing the digs list. If there is an added expense, such as when we brought someone in to spend a week updating it, then that is an expense that we ourselves need to cover. Not the people offering properties.

Do you have any way that company members can give feedback to the theatre about the digs they have stayed at? A form or something?

No we don’t. But then we don’t need to. I make it clear to the company from day one that they can come and talk to me if they need to.

The reason why I asked Lee if he would ever begin to charge, is because it is becoming apparent that some theatres have actually introduced an annual fee, just to appear on the list. Which I think is completely unfair. Especially as some long-standing and high quality digs have since removed themselves from that list on principal, which means that touring companies are the ones who ultimately suffer. The theatre in question was charging £25 per year and had 33 people on the list meaning they were pocketing just over £800 annually. Even if that money was used to maintain the list and check the properties (which I strongly doubt as some of my cast had awful digs) I don’t see why a theatre should be charging for something which is such a necessary element when taking in a touring show. It’s the equivalent of charging a cast extra to use the dressing rooms.

A few weeks ago I started a Facebook group and a Twitter page entitled Touring Together aimed at people who are on the road. I was pretty amazed to see it gain 1500 members in such a short space of time, and loved watching it begin to run itself with people asking for advice and getting answers from other theatricals minutes later. There were queries about parking in Bath, hairdressers in Edinburgh and even some requests for various ground plans. And it made me realise just what a unique and close-knit community we are and how we have the ability to really help each other.

But sometimes we could do with a bit more help.

For instance, I did a panto in a pretty small town a few years back and the digs list was basically non-existent. However, the Producer realised that he was asking a large group of freelancers to come and work for him and set about making a deal with a local chain hotel for £18 per night. The theatre management accepted that it was their duty to ensure that the company had somewhere appropriate to stay and ensured that it was within our subsistence. The actors and stage management then paid for the accommodation, but the theatre had taken the initiative to ensure that adequate accommodation was available.

A lot of theatres have a similar approach and offer deals as well as providing a clear and concise digs list with comments and feedback alongside the contacts. But I’m sorry to say that there are a lot of theatres that seem to lack the understanding of just how important digs are to touring companies. And I wanted to write this to try and help people comprehend just how big an issue it is.

In the past, if a theatre has a very short digs list, I have taken to tweeting the local radio station and getting them to retweet it, simply asking if people have spare rooms. And I always get a response. There are so many locals who genuinely don’t know that if you have a spare room but don’t want a permanent lodger, there is an alternative. And it would be wonderful if theatres, upon acknowledging they had a short list, could appeal to their community in an attempt to lengthen it.

But the main issue with digs, and this also applies to the theatres with plentiful lists, is the lack of communication. Tracking down the person who runs the list if you have a problem can be really hard. As sometimes they just don’t exist. I understand that a lot of theatres do not have an in-house CSM, like Lee, but they should still have someone who has the role of monitoring the list and taking feedback. And it should be made clear to us who that person is. Even if we don’t meet them and there is a brief paper questionnaire left in dressing rooms on the final day of the performance so that company members could leave their thoughts and feedback. Or even just an e-mail address on a noticeboard, clearly stating the individual who monitors the digs list. As Lee said, some people just require a little guidance. And if it’s a case of just needing better pillows or a slightly cleaner shower, these problems can be easily addressed by that individual meaning that the digs are then ultimately improved. And I know it’s not just company members who get frustrated with neglected lists and poor communications as a lot of landlords and landladies also express how they get annoyed when prices and details sometimes never get updated.

As a touring theatrical I totally understand that finding accommodation is my responsibility and I would never just assume that a theatre should do all the work for me. But I think that venues need to meet us halfway. And we need to start communicating with theatres about their lists. If a theatre has a poor list then you have to make a point of telling somebody. Not just moan about it in the Green Room.

I hope that this gets read and shared and that a few people in the right places can acknowledge the issue and take action to improve it. When I turn up to a theatre after a crappy day of travel, and I'm experiencing the emotions that long touring can provoke, it would be so wonderful to feel as if a venue has put in a bit of work and laid out a metaphorical ‘WELCOME HOME’ mat.

Because sometimes all we need is to feel welcome.

Especially when we’re in a place that isn’t our home.

Thanks so much for reading this and if you feel that the issue is relevant to you, I would love it if you could share this blog by clicking at the top of the page. 

The tiny url for this blogpost is  if you want to cut and paste it.

I am on Twitter (@agirlinthedark) and also have a Facebook page entitled 'Girl In The Dark'. If you are a touring theatrical then come and join in the conversation at the Touring Together Facebook Group, a place where people on tour can share information about gyms, parking, childcare, eating and good pubs when on the road. 

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