When the lights went out in theatres around the UK due to Covid-19, Chris Marcus, who jointly runs Marcus Hall Props in Ladywell, knew it would have a huge impact on the lives of thousands of people working in the industry and decided to try and do something to help.
Along with his friend, Damien Stanton, who works as an assistant stage manager and freelance graphic designer, he came up with the idea of creating the Theatre Support Fund and printing The Show Must Go On T-shirts, with all the profits going to theatre charities.
The T-shirt design, which incorporates artwork from 16 of the biggest musicals in the West End including Mary Poppins, Hamilton, Wicked, Les Miserables, The Lion King and Mamma Mia! immediately caught the attention of theatre lovers around the globe.
Since the beginning of May, when the £16.50 unisex T-shirts went on sale, they have shipped 22,000 orders to over 62 countries including everywhere from America and China to Kazakhstan and Bermuda, raising £250,000 for charity.
“The response has been phenomenal,”says Chris. “When we came up with the idea of doing a T-shirt, we decided we wanted to make it something special that musical theatre fans would actually want to have, and this design has really captured people’s imagination.
“The UK theatre industry is loved by people from all over the world and it has been wonderful to see how far our campaign to help the people working in it has spread. When we launched, we had only ordered 600 T-shirts and by the end the first day we had to increase the order to 6,000!”
Marcus Hall Props’ workshop, which is tucked away behind Lewisham High Street, is where they usually create all sorts of weird and wonderful things for West End shows and touring productions from fake food to furniture, but it has been temporarily transformed into a packing warehouse staffed by Chris, Damien and a team of volunteers from the industry who all live locally, including dancers, choreographers, costume designers and stage managers.
“When lockdown happened, we were due to be working on five new musicals which were set to open in the West End in 2020 and 2021, including Frozen, Hello Dolly and Carousel as well as & Juliet in Toronto, but everything was cancelled overnight,” says Chris.
“Our work benches have now become packing benches and we have volunteers working shifts every day to fulfil orders,” he explains. “It’s been hard work getting it all organised, but it feels so much better to be doing something.”
The project has won the support of celebrities including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Dame Judi Dench, Kiera Knightley, Michael Ball, Beverley Knight, Alan Carr and Tamsin Outhwaite, many of whom have shared photos of themselves wearing the T-shirts on Instagram.
In addition to the T-shirts, The Theatre Support Fund’s merchandise range now also includes everything from notebooks and mugs to tote bags. Three weeks ago, they started selling reusable face masks and have already taken orders for over 6,000.
“It has been heart-warming to see the level of support from the public,” says Chris. “We’re receiving messages every day from people expressing how much they are missing being able to go to the theatre. By buying a T-shirt or a mug or a mask they are able to give something back.”
The proceeds from the project are being split between Acting for Others, a charity that provides financial and emotional support for theatre workers in times of need, the Fleabag Support Fund, which is providing financial aid to people working in the theatre industry who are experiencing hardship as a result of Covid-19, as well as the NHS Covid-19 Urgent Appeal, which helps support NHS staff and volunteers.
Chris and Damien have no plans to wind down their efforts yet. “While lots of sectors have come out of lockdown it’s important to remember that the theatre industry will be one of the last to resume so continuing fundraising is as important as ever.”
The T-shirts are available at theatresupportfund.co.uk.
NIKKI SPENCER is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, The Independent, Lewisham Ledger and Peckham Peculiar. This is part of a series of stories focusing on how the people and businesses of SE London have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
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