The Covid Odyssey of a Stage Manager – Part 1
By Liam Klenk
I am just one of thousands of stage managers who found themselves unemployed in the spring of 2020 – due to Covid19. My last job was on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Oasis of the Seas as Stage and Production Manager for the Aqua Theatre. In this true tale, I want to share a little bit of my odyssey over the last twelve months. Where these months of enforced downtime have led mentally as well as practically. This is Part 1 of my story.
On March 16th 2020, I left the Oasis of the Seas a day before she went into isolation. Just in time, I managed to catch the last flights from Miami to New York to London to Zurich. Literally hours before each border closed down. Then, I spent the first lockdown looking after my dad in Germany. I almost crashed during those months of enforced downtime, because I had gone through a rough break-up the year before. Now I found myself with way too much time to ponder it.
Whilst trying to not lose my mind, waiting, I realized there were going to be no fast solutions.
I was in contact with the Dragone show La Perle in Dubai. And the general stage manager seemed quite keen to get me onboard. That was a shimmer of hope. But other than that, all doors were closed.
So, I decided to go hiking as soon as the borders in Central Europe reopened. Better to be on the move than go crazy sitting on a couch.
On July 6th 2020, I headed out with a small backpack and a tent and began to follow the trails from Switzerland all the way to Portugal as an end goal. Not a fixed goal though. I wanted to stay open-minded in case any job-opportunities materialized anywhere.
I hiked an average of eight hours every day. It was aching toes, legs, and shoulders. It was sleepless nights due to all kinds of wildlife crashing through the underbrush. And it was nature. Lots and lots of breathtaking vistas.
I talked to myself a lot. My mind whirred and whirled. All-in-all it was almost too much space and time to think and process. Or maybe just the time I needed.
One thing that struck me was how difficult traveling became with no home to return to.
My dad lives in a tiny 1-bedroom apartment. It was not a place I could go back to for any longer period of time. I had no savings left after my breakup, no possessions of any kind.
Walking into the unknown with nothing but the pressure of uncertainty made my long-distance hike far less enjoyable than it could have been otherwise.
No matter how much I tried to be in the moment and enjoy it, fear was my constant companion. What if I just walked on and never found a base again? What if this was a spiral leading to me dying alone under a bridge somewhere.
Whilst on the way, I kept in contact with La Perle in Dubai. They contacted me several times. Each time, they cancelled again due to the SM post not being filled after all. The fourth time sounded more tangible. Allegedly, I was only days away from being hired. Then they told me yet again the post wasn’t going to be filled. 3 days later I learned through Facebook that someone else had been hired for that same post. What I don’t understand to this day is why they even wanted to get my hopes up and lure me along until the very last moment, if they had no intention of hiring me.
On the road, homeless, unemployed, and penniless, this was an additional blow in the gut I truly did not need.
Nevertheless, I took a deep breath and marched on. I never stopped applying for jobs whilst on the road.
Now for stage management jobs as well as anything else I could find online. But the market was flooded with unemployed people and I couldn’t get any interviews anywhere.
After 2 months of walking, I arrived at the Mediterranean Sea, in Montpellier. A medium-sized, charming French city I fell in love with immediately.
Street art was everywhere. The sky was an iridescent blue. And the ocean was right at the city’s doorstep. All my life it had been my dream to learn French. And I wanted to give me body a rest from hiking and sleeping in a tiny tent.
So, I followed my gut and signed up for intensive French classes. Maybe, I pondered, this will even help me in the future to get into Cirque du Soleil. Another life-long dream.
One month in Montpellier turned into five during which I studied 5 hours of French every day. I tried my best to find a job in Montpellier to be able to stay. But not having any savings and no job, the French government didn’t want anything to do with me. My EU Passport didn’t help either. In the end, I couldn’t rent an apartment because I didn’t have a job. And I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have a French address.
The absurdities of expat life during a worldwide state of emergency.
Two thirds of my time in Montpellier were spent in a tiny rooftop flat. I was still processing all that had happened to me the year before Covid had struck. Trying to land back on my feet again. A kind therapist from Belgium offered to give me sessions for free which I could pay back once I had work again. She trusted me to be able to make it which already gave me strength.
Each week, I poured my heart out to her to keep my anxiety at bay. Then, one day, I met an old street cat who was more in trouble than I was.
After several weeks of recuperating at the vet’s he ended up staying with me. We were two lost souls comforting each other. He became my study buddy and confidant.
By end of 2020 my cat and I had completely run out of funds. We survived solely due to the kindness of friends who lent me some money.
In January 2021, I had to vacate the room I had been able to rent through the Alliance Francaise. Hundreds of applications in all sectors in different countries still had led nowhere.
I was at the edge of panic again with no idea where to turn to, where to sleep, and how to survive the next few months.
It was then, an old work colleague of mine from Zurich, Switzerland said to me, “Why don’t you just come stay with me for a while? I have an extra room I don’t need, and you can stay there for free for as long as you want whilst you try to get back on your feet again.”
Zurich was more of a home for me than most other places. I had lived, studied, and worked there twice already. For altogether 17 years. Most of my best friends were there.
So, I took my friend’s kind offer and made my way back to the Swiss metropolis.
Two days after I arrived, I found myself in a massive snowstorm which brought the entire city to a standstill. I wandered through winter wonderland, climbed over huge snow drifts, and felt myself arriving. I don’t even like snow. But something about being back in a place I’ve always loved combined with the power of nature made everything click. I was home.
It was then I knew without a doubt I was going to make a monumental effort to try and stay in Zurich long-term again. Third time is the charm anyways, right?
Applying for jobs proved to be a challenge since most Swiss employers were puzzled by my diverse and international CV. I am not sure if they thought I was too much of a vagabond or if they believed I was overqualified.
I applied for everything under the sun: caretaker in the zoo, helper in an old folks’ home, barkeeper, events manager in hotels, theatre jobs, tram driver, content producer, writer, secretarial posts. Anything I found which spoke at least a little bit to my interests and somehow fell within my range of transferrable skills.
After four months of searching, to widen my scope of potential opportunities, I began sending applications abroad again, too…