Episode 6

January 22, 2023


Sandra Meunier on working in the performing arts during the pandemic

Hosted by

Anica Zeyen
Sandra Meunier on working in the performing arts during the pandemic
Accessibility & Me
Sandra Meunier on working in the performing arts during the pandemic

Jan 22 2023 | 00:23:31


Show Notes

In this episode, Sandra Meunier (actor) is talking to us about her experience as working as a disabled person in performing arts during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 00:00:05 Hello, and welcome to today's episode of Accessibility and Me. I'm Ze from Royal Holloway University of London, and I co-host this podcast with wa Brunai from IB Business School in Canada, and Luke Kauflin, also from Royal Holloway. Speaker 2 00:00:21 Our guest today is Sandra Monier, an actor model, student and disability activist. She serves on the disability committee for equity, a trade union for performers and creative practitioners. Speaker 3 00:00:34 Sandra, thanks very much for joining us today. Just cast your mind back to March, 2020 at the start of the pandemic. How did life change for you? Speaker 4 00:00:42 Um, it was a very weird experience because, um, I had just started a day job with a theater type, um, working in the office, um, box office. And, um, so it was a lot of just starting a new job, not knowing if you were going to keep your job, um, suddenly all the companies were suddenly able to help you working from home, which is, which was great, but at the same time, quite frustrating because disabled people had been asking for that for many years, and we were always told it's never possible <laugh>. And then within a few weeks it was, um, it was like a lot of people not knowing what was going to happen, uh, worrying about family that lafa or abroad being worried about how will we get food because, um, it was people panicked buying all sorts of stuff. And, um, it was, I was quite lucky in that I got a message to say that I could benefit from deliveries whi, which were literally got sent because I don't think I could have faced supermarkets at the time or people queuing for supermarkets. So yeah, it was, um, a lot of not knowing, a lot of surprises and a bit of frustration as well. Speaker 3 00:02:09 Could you talk about the impact of the pandemic on the performing arts sector more generally? Speaker 4 00:02:14 Yes. So, um, obviously most theaters had to go, um, dark and it did affect more performers in the sense that for most of us who work in, um, offices, for instance, we were entitled to furlough, but not necessarily performers because they're freelancers. And the scheme for freelancers was incredibly slow in coming, but also the requirements to, to get anything was, um, it was quite difficult for people to apply for it. I did not even try because I don't think I was earning enough or I had a earn enough the, the previous year. Um, so I did not even try because I, I was getting paid through my day jobs, thank God. But, um, I know a lot of performers who had to go and work for supermarkets or, um, to, to support NHS and so on, um, because they had absolutely no other sources of income, um, quite a lot. Speaker 4 00:03:30 It, it took quite a few months, but um, quite a lot of artists, um, found ways to create still, um, like, um, reading online, um, organizing plays, even if it was through Zoom. So it was kind of very creative, very, um, timely, very quite creative, which is great. Um, so that they could continue, um, one performing because you need to, when it's your passion and when it's, um, it's also kind of a muscle in a way that you want to keep practicing and not wait, and it's quite great to do something that you like so that it helps with your mental health as well. But I think all of those endeavors, creative endeavors, um, it, it, it was quite great. Um, I'm not quite sure some of them were getting paid, some of them were asking for donations, so, um, they managed to get something, but the grand majority of artists didn't have anything to rely on really, um, because they were not eligible, um, for the self-employed scheme. They didn't have any other income, um, or they were just relying on their partners earning, earning a bit of money to get them through. Um, so I think a fair amount of people have left the field because they just couldn't afford it. And so, you know, it's still not sorted and, you know, how many years can you stay without having any source of income or people going back to, to, to move with friends and families. Um, so it, it, it has impacted quite an diverse fashion while at the same time being good for creativity. Speaker 3 00:05:30 Could you talk about some of the specific effects, uh, on disabled people working in the performing arts sector? Speaker 4 00:05:37 Um, I think once again, it had positive and negatives because, um, like casting sessions have always been quite difficult in the sense that many casting rooms, um, do not have wheelchair access for instance. So it's quite detrimental for pe for, for certain type of disabilities who aren't not welcome in the room or are not made to feel welcome or cannot access them at all. So in that sense, having, um, casting online was amazing for some people because suddenly you didn't need to come to London, you didn't need to be able to get staircase, you know, you could do it from your own home wherever you were in, in Britain or even in Europe or further afield. Um, so that was quite good, but it's a completely different technique as well to audition online than to be in the room. So I guess it does take a bit of getting used steak, but I think that for many of us, suddenly it was opening amazing doors. Speaker 4 00:06:43 The issue was that lots of projects were falling through or were canceled at the last minute. Um, you do have contract that will be like, you are just the backup, but you are getting paid, but you are not, you know, so, so it's, it's, it's kind of bringing lots of new things that maybe make it more complex. Um, but at the same time, as I mentioned, it was opening to a lot of different disabilities. Um, a lot of people were suddenly able to apply because as I mentioned, the location or restrictions were not so relevant for online, but as soon as Lockdowns disappeared to people who were like, oh, I'm so glad I can be in the room again with actors, and it's like, yeah, but what about us <laugh>? You know, like, because many of us still cannot go out because um, if we get covid it's going to be worse for many of us because, um, you've got often multiple disabilities, um, lots of us have got lung issues and like everyone, we, we just worry about that. Speaker 4 00:07:46 So it does mean that a lot of disabled people are still not able to get in the room and suddenly you have less castings being done online. And I think now it's kind of settles in that they're kind of making a mixture of things like they will see some people in the room, they will see some people in line and they're getting a bit more open to that Id, but I just fear that because people are so used to one way and they just see covid as being, oh, an exceptional moment from which we're not going to learn anything to, to for the future. It's kind of like we had the door open for us and suddenly it's got slammed again in our face basically. And it's a bit of that, um, feeling for so many things. I mean, you had so many companies suddenly realizing that actually people can work from a home and it's less expensive for companies and it's maybe less expensive for employees. Speaker 4 00:08:39 And some companies now go back on their words because they like to check on employees a bit more closely or whatever, and it's just feels like we were almost there <laugh>, and now it seems to slowly crumble. Although I do believe that for some people like myself, the first lockdown was a bit of a revelation as to how much I was forcing myself to do because I just felt I had to, I didn't have a choice, so I had to go to the office, but I knew I couldn't go to the office five days per week, so I was always working part-time so that I could give my myself, you know, and now it's like, why did I do that? I can work from home and it's my entitlement to request adjustments and uh, for companies to consider it. And I think it made me and many others like maybe stand our ground a bit better because we know it's possible when you had to do it, you were able to, so why wouldn't you continue doing it? And maybe it gives us a bit more of, you know, like strength to, to just go and say, well, we we're not going to accept being treated as before, but it's still a fight and a struggle that we need to, to stand with with each other, um, to, to get this. Granted still, Speaker 3 00:10:07 You're a student as well as an actress. What similarities and differences did you observe in the pandemic response between universities and the performing arts sector? Speaker 4 00:10:17 Um, so I'm quite lucky in that because it's a master by research. I didn't have to go to uni that many times. Um, I had maybe one course that just finished just before Covid, um, which was a weekly course and it was quite difficult for me to go there, I'll be honest. And um, the last lesson was a presentation and I remember there were some strikes going on with the trains and they were like, oh, maybe we will be able to manage doing it online or maybe not, but it would be better if you were to come in. And I'm just thinking, you know, a few months later they had to do everything online, so it was not impossible, but still we had to, to face the, the train strikes and um, take the risk of coming to to uni. And I just thought, oh God, you know, that definitely, hopefully has improved in terms of if people cannot make it in person, there are other opportunities because, um, zoom and teams and other programs have quickly developed, um, so that they can support the economy and unis and doing meetings and it makes it easier. Speaker 4 00:11:34 Um, what I didn't notice is in a way a lot of students suddenly realized how annoying it is when things are not suitable for you. And I just thought it was kind of a reverse experience for many students who are used to going to buildings and they're okay with it because it's suitable for them and suddenly they couldn't do it anymore. And, um, they were struggling with technology and not seeing people and not, you know, and I was like, well, that's funny because you know, we've been struggling for years and no one has been wondering about that or has been thinking about us, and now you've got that experience of this is not suitable for me and you want to complain to unis, you want to complain to the government and, um, don't forget us. Because in a way it was a reverse experience for many to suddenly experience that awkwardness and that difficulty and that this is not suitable for me type of experience. Speaker 4 00:12:39 So I just hope that they keep that in mind as they continue uni as they go into work and think, well, I might be happy where's the way things are now, but I need to accept that someone else has got to different experience. I mean, I, it's not relevant for me, but I was quite upset with many students who find themselves having to pay for rooms and literally being prisoners. They're when, um, either because they, they've got to pay anyway, so they might as well be there and not being able to go out because someone had tested positive. And I think a lot of unis did not take enough of those things into consideration. And obviously they were limited in terms of staff and so on, but they definitely should have considered more, um, about that. Um, and it was a bit disappointing, um, to, to read of so many stories of students being completely distressed at their on situation on top of Covid. Speaker 4 00:13:50 Um, and on top of the worries, uh, for, for for friends and family to, to, to be in that situation of I'm paying a lot of money and this isn't working for me. And I don't think there was a lot of discussion with the student, maybe there was, but with reps or it's something, I dunno, um, about what uni could do and what we wanted to do. And I think that would have helped. I do like the fact that lots of lessons and activities were done online, like meetings or, um, special talks and that type of things. Um, because if there had not been online, like if it, if we didn't had Covid and because I live on the other side of London, I, I just would not have felt as much a part of Royal Holloway personally, whereas having everything online suddenly, however tragic, the reason <laugh> for that was, um, it suddenly made me feel like I was part of Rael Holloway and that I had access to a lot more than if normal time I had to continued. Speaker 4 00:15:06 Um, so for me, there's a lot of, we still need to improve things, but I definitely do hope that both unis and students have learned from it that they need to listen to other people who've got difficulties that they need to consider everyone's need. Not everyone can stand being on Zoom, but not everyone can stand being in a classroom equally, and you need to think about those things as opposed to my experience is absolutely fine. So I do not quite understand why anyone else has got any issue, you know, it's just that kind of opening your mind, which I hope maybe it's just a dream <laugh>, but that I hope people suddenly realize and practice and just will carry it out like, this should continue. Having Zoom or having dual access should continue because not everyone can get to a classroom. Like not everyone can stand just having a Zoom. Speaker 3 00:16:09 I think you've touched upon this a little bit, but, um, do you see any positive consequences of the pandemic in terms of accessibility? Speaker 4 00:16:16 Yeah, I, I just think that, um, things like the development of Zoom and teams have been amazing because previously I had worked, um, with like an online acting agency and we were struggling to find, um, a good app or a good method to be able to have meetings without having to book a room in Central London and not everyone could attend, whereas, you know, and it was just not that developed now because of Lockdowns they had to develop really quickly and come up with really good IDs, but it, it needs to go much further. You need to have more access like, um, descriptions or, you know, od your descriptions or subtitles need to be improved. So is that more, um, people can have access to them? Um, I think that, um, that is definitely a positive. The fact that company suddenly managed to let people work from home has been a huge positive as well because lots of people suddenly had a taste of working from home and suddenly maybe managed to understand themselves a bit better in what, well, actually working from home is not an issue, it's the commute that's the issue and that type of thing. Speaker 4 00:17:38 So it might have helped quite a lot of people. Um, in terms of the arts, I think, you know, distressing times have that bizarre tendency to create great art as well because people, it's, it's just amazing. I mean, you know, lots of creativity, lots of trying to make the best with lots of writing about what lockdown experience was and, and that does help a lot, you know, um, because it's not only enacting for instance, it's not only the theater and the cinemas anymore, it's Netflix, it's YouTube, it's um, zoom sessions. It's, and you can reach the entire world as well as opposed to just renting a little theater in, even in Edinburgh festival, you know, it will cost you like 3000 pounds, but why do that when you can do something quite creative, um, on Zoom on teams. So it's, it, it does help, but I think we just need to keep using it and, um, to develop it and um, to, to to just push the limits in a way. Speaker 4 00:18:52 But it does make it much more accessible. I mean, I I I have friends who acted in, in small theaters in London that even I couldn't access easily because the staircase was too steep or too small and you cannot get, definitely not to wheelchair it down, but um, you know, all of those things suddenly you can make it accessible if you managed to film it as well as having it, um, in sit in in theaters, you, you can kind of, you know, enlarge your, your audience and, and that's absolutely amazing because you can reach out to more people and, um, new writers, you can definitely get a few people to read your play, um, absolutely from anywhere in the, in the world. And that's amazing, you know, because that will improve, um, representation as well in a way. Um, lots of people in the art were, um, upset with the London Center type of limitation, <laugh> in castings where, um, literally some companies from Cornwell, which put a casting out and um, people from Cornwell had to come to London to audition when the play would be in Cornwell anyway, you know, or that type of thing. Speaker 4 00:20:10 Um, but now you can literally audition from anywhere as long as you accept to do that and to, to have kind of an hybrid system working. Um, we just need to push for people to, to kind of accept that in the sense that it will help a more vari group and more, um, you know, anyone can have access if you do have both methods. And it, it's just helps everyone. So, so let's go for it. But, um, my worry is that after lockdown you've got that zoom fatigue and that team fatigue and people are like trying to drop it and it's like, no, we just need to improve it, not drop it, just, you know, everything always needs improvements anyway, <laugh>, so just do it. Speaker 3 00:21:03 Brilliant, thank you. And uh, just the last question. Um, it could be from your own experiences or your work as a trade union representative, if you had one wish for accessibility in the future of workplaces, what would it be? Speaker 4 00:21:20 I think, um, to, for companies to be able to keep an open mind and to just accept that everyone has got different needs. I mean, that would be just amazing. And to make them understand that you need to speak to each person and just not have, oh yes, a wheelchair, I know what is needed. You know, you need to speak to each person. And if people could understand that, I think that would make such a difference because, um, I don't think that, it's not that people do not want to help you, it's often that they do not know how, and the best way is to ask each person you're working with, how can I make it easy for you? Um, it's as simple as that. Um, because yeah, I've had like really weird stuff being offered to me very generously and I was like, this is all wrong <laugh>. Speaker 4 00:22:17 And it was about people not having spent time asking me what I wanted and just assuming that, oh, you want short, um, short shifts. And so I had, like for instance, in my day job, I was offered three short shifts to go to Central London on different days, which is kind of pretty much my nightmare situation. <laugh> because she was trying to be nice, but she didn't think about what I wanted and what I needed. You know, I've lived with myself for over 40 years now. I know myself better than anyone else. Um, so I think, yeah, people just accepting that everyone has got different needs and that you need to speak to that person to know what they need and just accept that, um, would be probably my one wish that if someone, everyone could take that away, that would be great. Speaker 1 00:23:16 Thank you very much for listening to today's episode of Accessibility in Me. We hope you enjoyed it and we'll tune in to our next episode. We would like to thank the British Academy for funding today's episode site.

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