Anna Saunders: Interview With NotOnTheWestEnd Founder
Cover Photo – Mushroom pins available from Isabelle M Homer Embroidery
Anna Saunders is the founder of NotOnTheWestEnd, a directory of small businesses owned by theatre artists. Anna has been working in wardrobe for 14 years and has created across plays, opera, pantomime, musicals and ballet. She was the Wardrobe Deputy at 9 to 5: The Musical prior to the pandemic, and has now launched a brand new website to help affected theatre workers.
NotOnTheWestEnd is a curated directory of small businesses, all helmed by someone who usually makes their living from working in UK theatre, but have been forced to use their talents in other ways whilst theatres are closed because of the pandemic.
Hello Anna, thank you for talking with us at TheatreArtLife! How are you doing at the moment, and what’s your experience been like through the pandemic?
I’m doing okay. I’m very fortunate that I am not relying on my side business to support me. I was furloughed by ATG until the end of July – which was amazing considering that 9 to 5 was due to close in May, and I’ve got very supportive parents that I can fall back on, and unlike the government, they understand that my career is viable.
I’m very lucky compared to so many who have been missed by furlough schemes and the self-employment grants. It’s still been tough, like it has on everyone, but I’m coping. I have a support system and it has allowed me to try and help create one for others in our community.
There is a feeling that people in theatre have been experiencing over the last couple of months that everyone else is getting back to some sense of normal, but we’ve been forgotten. Theatre took the right decision for public safety to shut down, and we did it a week before everything else in the country, but we are being prevented from returning.
If it’s really not safe, then that’s right, but I think we are struggling to understand why you can go out for a meal or to the pub, but can’t sit still and quietly wearing a mask in a theatre.
How did you first decide to setup NotOnTheWestEnd and how big of an undertaking has it been to launch?
I decided to set up the project initially just out of a desire to have one resource to send to my mum when it got to my birthday and Christmas. I wanted there to be a place to find all of these amazing businesses together with the motto of “better buying from any of them than from a billionaire” – you can’t go onto Etsy and filter your searches by “business owner’s former career” so that you can help your beloved community survive.
On Costume Professionals Appreciation Day this year I wrote something on Instagram to remind the performers who might see it that they should wear a reusable mask and their wardrobe team were probably selling them, so get one from them!
These two ideas combined and Not On the West End was born. The name is a stupid joke about Not On The High Street combined with a stupid joke about us all being unemployed. I did not ever imagine it would go as far as it has. If I had, I might not have made the name of it a joke about us all being unemployed. I might still have.
It has been a mammoth task. From starting the Instagram and telling a few friends about the idea to launch day a week later, I worked on it about 12 hours a day. They were mainly tech hours, I guess. It has calmed a little since then, but it’s probably still closer to a full-time job than a part-time one.
I usually get at least 5 new submissions every day (on the day of writing this, I’m up to 17 since I woke up) so there is a fair amount of admin, talking to businesses and making sure I have all the information I need from them and that they have all the info they need from me about how to make the most out of the project.
In addition to the practical admin side of things there is the emotional stuff. We’re all putting a brave face on, but you can feel the heartache when people tell you why they’ve started turning their hobbies into businesses. Our jobs, whether we’ve had them for weeks or decades, have taken so much of time and energy and determination to reach; where we’d got to be was been snatched away from us, through no fault of our own.
I’ve had messages from people who were sent home just two days into starting their dream job, or have been made redundant from a job they’ve held for years whilst on maternity leave, or who went freelance or left long running contracts in February making them ineligible for furlough and with no record of self-employment.
Some of those messages hurt. They disrupt the ability to get on with admin and make me want to scream. But we are fighting back when this government dismisses our training and skills and viability and careers and lives. We are strong because we have to me. This isn’t the first time we’ve lost our jobs – we lose them at the end of every contract.
What has the reaction been from the theatre artists who are working with the website?
I receive a lot of lovely messages from the people signing up to have their businesses featured, which helps keep the morale up when I just can’t look at a spreadsheet anymore, and looking at the news is even worse.
Theatre is an industry that is gloriously full of multitalented people, but most of us enjoy the anonymity of our roles, hiding in the darkness rather than seeking the applause, so needing to promote ourselves can seem very daunting. Every dresser I know has a hidden talent, but we don’t all have the confidence to step up and shout about it. I want to help those people do the shouting – it is a platform designed specifically for this purpose, so it takes away some of the danger or anxiety.
I have been so pleasantly surprised by the community that they have built up around the project, which I don’t think I can take much credit for. I get tagged in posts of people who were strangers before, but now they are supporting each other’s businesses and sharing tips and giving confidence boosts.
Can creatives sign up to sell their products via you, and how does this work?
The only thing that I do is provide a central hub to promote businesses. I do not sell on behalf of businesses, I do not take any sort of cut of sales and I do not charge for being featured on the site. This is a not-for-profit undertaking. Donations have funded our domain and web hosting, use of a scheduling app (so I don’t have to post every photo in the exact right moment myself), and all of our marketing – like stickers, postcards and sponsored posts on social media.
Any business that signs up, I ask to provide 3 images – to make a row on Instagram – and a short blurb about their business and their theatre life before we were shut down. I think it is important to let everyone tell their own story and present their business in their own way. Starting a small business is a personal thing.
How can people get involved both as customers and supporters?
Customers are my favourite kind of supporters!
It’s the very best way to help these businesses, make the decision NOW to shop small this Christmas.
By making the decision today not to buy your Christmas presents from multinational behemoths, but instead from talented craftspeople who are making and selling within your community – be that a local community or a theatrical one – you can really make an impact on those people’s lives. You can spread the cost of Christmas across the next two and a half months.
And you can give your friends and family beautiful handmade gifts that are extra special – either because you’re able to order something bespoke to their tastes or because it comes with the story of knowing the creative behind it.
December can be a scary time for small businesses – especially new ones, so if you see something you want for Christmas, don’t wait to buy it. Get it now. Many people make-to-order so if you order now you can help avoid the rush and you’ve ticked something off your to-do list.
If you’re not in a position to spend at the moment, then the ways to help is to share the project across social media and follow the pages of the businesses we’re promoting. Like and Save their posts. Share and Comment. And comment with as many words as possible. Social Media is designed to make small businesses have to spend money on advertising, but by doing all of the things I’ve just listed you can manipulate the algorithm they use to make sure they their posts are shown to more people.
What are your hopes for the future of the website?
I think I shock people when I say that I hope the website doesn’t have a future. I want for NotOnTheWestEnd to be unnecessary. I want to be back at work. I want for anyone who has enjoyed their new business to have every success, but I want to be back in a theatre. I want to be in tech. I want to hear an orchestra warming up as I pre-set quick change chairs. I want to be fighting with hangers to get costumes re-hung before the whole ensemble descends onto the wardrobe village again.
I even want to be doing laundry calls.
Find NotOnTheWestEnd on: