Shuttered but in focus

7 April 2020

Beatrice Debney, Noff photographer, asks what she can do without any theatre to photograph


I was in my final year of university and was constantly being asked that never-ending question: what are you going to do now? I suppose I was one of the lucky ones, I did have a somewhat succinct answer: ‘I want to be a theatre photographer!’ I would say confidently to whoever asked me, which would then be met by:

  1. Blank confused stare
  2. Full on misunderstanding
  3. Ooooooooh…… is that a job?

I came to the decision to combine the two passions I have for life – theatre and photography. I was asked to photograph a third-year student’s final major project and I kid you not, I (almost) got paid! There was some suggestion that money might be involved, and wow, did that open my eyes to the fact that I could make a career out of doing what I loved. Of course, in the end this was a student production and there was no budget for a lowly second year, but nevertheless the seed had been planted and I had a goal to work towards. I volunteered to photograph every production I could, I got a job at uni photographing the end-of-year arts festival and I even photographed a few productions outside of the university bubble. 

When I got the job to be the Noff photographer at NSDF 2019 I was ecstatic. The best part about being a theatre photographer is that you are allowed to see so many productions for free, and you don’t even have to critique it at the end. You are paid to watch the show and then afterwards you get to relive it all over again as you edit. You could write a 1000-word article on the nuances of the play or you can just say it was nice and have done with that*. It truly is wonderful. There are never two productions alike. If I am lucky, I will have photographed a rehearsal ahead of a dress run and therefore have some idea of the production’s style and know the characters somewhat. Other times, however, I go to shoot a show completely blind which is both terrifying and exhilarating because what makes a truly good theatre photographer is their ability to predict where each character will be in the next three seconds and where you therefore need to be so that you don’t miss that most crucial shot.

During my first year out in the real world I have continued to photograph as much as I can, I now manage the photography at my local playhouse and whilst that may be voluntary, it is a fantastic experience. I am building momentum and some days I almost feel good enough to contact Leeds Playhouse or York Theatre Royal. 

But now all the theatres are shut, and my camera is gathering dust. And it is weird. It is difficult enough trying to make a career out of a job that no one ever advertises for, now try and do it when no one is on stage by law. It feels as though I am stood in the auditorium and the stage manager has clunked all the lights off, and I am stood, camera in hand, waiting for something to happen. I know that I should go home, no one is coming for a while. I know that I could go and edit the photos from the last production I squeezed in before the mass lockdown. But I can’t. Not just yet. 

Because for the last year I have been preparing for the greatest marathon. I am ready to photograph and edit 11 shows in less than a week and live in the whirlwind of drama and workshops and conversation and theatre and … nope. How do you tell yourself to just stop? That culture high of NSDF I was ready to ride isn’t going to come, not in the way I was preparing for anyway. So, for now I am a theatre photographer with no theatre to photograph. And that’s ok. There are also a lot of actors who no longer have a stage. Costume designers with no characters to design for. Technicians with no one requiring their technical brilliance. All we can do is use this time to prepare, and come out the other side of this with a vengeance. If this experience is teaching me anything, it is that as soon as you can’t do something, the desire to do it burns so much more strongly. So, I am going to edit those photos. I am going to contact those theatres, and I am going to make sure that after this I become a theatre photographer inside a theatre again because that is who I am and that is what I do and it is so much fun.

*sorry theatre critics, please don’t shoot me

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photograph: Beatrice Debney