Planning a Festival in Hotel Quarantine

Buxton International Festival CEO, Michael Williams writes about his experience of organising the 2021 Festival during lockdown.

“Welcome to Room 1118, your home for the next ten days,” says our Corridor Warden cheerfully, leading us into our wall-to-wall carpeted cell, equipped with a large television, double bed, bar fridge and the shiny bathroom of Her Majesty’s Government Hotel Quarantine.

We have just arrived after four months of lockdown in Cape Town, flying back via Doha, and Rome into London’s Heathrow. Room 1118 is our final layover en route to our home in Buxton, Derbyshire, which is also the home of the Buxton International Festival.  After an enforced cancellation last year, its opera, music, and literary events are finally scheduled to return in July. Preparations are in full swing and the long months of uncertainty, planning, and replanning will soon come to an end.

I set up a makeshift office at the small desk, all ready to sign off on the final version of the festival brochure which landed hours ago in my inbox during our mad dash through Rome’s airport. I glance out the window to my left to see a grim view of an empty rooftop courtyard covered by wire mesh. The carcass of a pigeon does not improve my mood.

“It’s a lovely room,” says my partner

“If you like your prison cell in beige.”

Compiling and completing the festival brochure requires precise co-ordination and accuracy from at least a dozen people, all of whom are still working remotely.  Prices, times, venues, music programme details, photos, book titles, casts, and creative teams all must be checked, double and tripled checked before going to print. I dive into the painstaking labyrinth of proofreading when, two hours into it, an unwelcome email pings into my inbox: The director of one of our operas has withdrawn – and we go to print in just twenty-four hours.

Meal service at Cell #1118 is signalled by the rustling of paper and a furtive knock. Outside our door, two neat paper bags have appeared but with no indication of how they arrived. Up and down the empty corridor similar bags stand silently upright, until three cells down, a hand whisks the bags inside.

“The leprechauns have delivered supper,” I announce, as I unpack plastic containers of Chickpea salad, Butter Chicken Curry, (my partner has opted for the Beef Chili Con Carne), Vanilla Cheesecake, accompanied by fruit juice, and two bottles of water.

“This looks delicious,” says my partner.

“Not very good for the environment,” I say, depositing the packaging back in the empty corridor.  Upon our arrival, we’d been ordered to select all our meals in advance via the Hotel Quarantine Menu App. The idea of knowing that in ten days’ time I will be eating Bangers and Mash with Potato Leek Soup is disturbing and yet somehow calming.

I stretch out on our double prison bunk and turn off the lights. End of Day 0. Ten more to go.

“This bed is very comfortable, isn’t it?” my partner says, pulling up the duvet.

“A bit soft in the middle,” I say, wondering how we are going to replace the opera director at such short notice.

Every morning Lauren, our Mental Health Officer, telephones from Reception to ensure that I have not hung myself from the shower head or done injury to my cellmate with the corkscrew.  And once I assure her that we are both in good shape, she asks if we need anything else.

“A foot massage would be nice.”

“Oh no, sorry, Mr Williams, that will not be possible.”

“Could you send up a screwdriver?”

“What do you need that for, Mr Williams?”

“To open the window.”

“Oh no, sorry, Mr Williams, they have to remain shut. Health and safety reasons.”

“Ask her for a vacuum cleaner,” says my partner.

“A vacuum cleaner?” I ask.

“Of course, Mr Williams. Right away.”

“How is needing some fresh air a violation of Health and Safety protocols?” I ask, after I ended the call.

“Stop grumbling,” my partner says. “You’ll never again have a daily check on your mental stability. You should be grateful that someone cares.”

Back at my desk, still no word of progress on a replacement director and to make matters worse, eight festival events have had to be moved to different venues. Postponing the printing of the brochure seems inevitable. I write another email nudging the producer to get back to me about a new director and a team member writes that a new venue has been found and booked.

The vacuum cleaner is delivered. My partner turns into a whirling dervish, noisily hoovering every corner of the cell.

While I wait to hear more from the opera’s producer, I return to the knotty problem of writing up a Covid cancellation clause should the Festival be forced to shut down again. The Buxton Festival, like other Arts organisations benefitted during the hiatus year from the Cultural Recovery grants, but freelance musicians, writers and performers didn’t. I pace our small cell wondering what responsibility we carry for the hundreds of musicians, artists, and technicians who have signed contracts with the Festival if it doesn’t happen?  I feel another Zoom call coming. Two hours later, after discussion with other colleagues in the business, the cancellation policy is drafted:  We will pay a cancellation fee to all the artists, musician and technicians who are contracted, and work out pro rata fees for designers and directors.

“Time for exercise,” announces my partner.

“No more yoga, please.”

She calls down to Security to order up our exercise pass and twenty minutes later, the Corridor Warden, a chirpy young woman from Bangladesh escorts us downstairs.

“You must be happy to have a very fit husband, madam,” she says.

“But fit for what purpose?” my partner responds, raising her eyebrows in my direction.

She signs us out under her own name ‘plus one’ (that’s me) and we are let loose into the Prison Yard.  It’s an expansive open-air parking lot adjacent to but fenced off from a road and one of Heathrow’s major runways.  Several other inmates are walking the large oval track and greet us with a resigned how-long-you-in-for expression. My partner sets her Map My Walk app and we’re off – walking at a brisk pace, completing the circuit every six minutes, to the roar of multiple planes landing and taking off across the road.  Outside the fence, free children on bicycles stare at us like we’re animals pacing our cages at the zoo.

“Well, that was good,” says my partner, checking her app. “4.3 kilometres, in 48 minutes. Tomorrow we’ll try for 5.5 kilometres.”

“I’ve got a blister on my right foot.”

Back in our cell, I check my email. Dates were rearranged, rehearsals shifted, and we don’t need to find a replacement. Our wayward director is back on board. A flurry of grateful emails follows, including one to the printers to let them know that they can go ahead and print. But then my mobile rings.  The original venue is now available again. The team wants to revert to the original, much-desired venue. More phone calls, emails, changes back to the original and the end result? The brochure printing is delayed after all.

A bouquet of daffodils (a gift from a dear friend) and two grey boxes (a gift from the dear NHS) are delivered to our cell. My partner calls Lauren for a vase and my mood brightens with the glorious spray of overflowing yellow.  But it doesn’t last.  The grey boxes contain Covid-19 test kits which must be completed in the next hour. This self-inflicted drill is known to us all: Up the nose, down the throat, in the tube, off to the lab and twenty-four hours later, hopefully, a negative result.

“You’re meant to put it in your throat first,” says my partner.

“No wonder it tasted odd.”

Days pass. More Zoom calls on seating plans and social distancing restrictions, bubbles of two and four and the single-seat conundrum leave me drained. We all knew that the capacity of the venues would only be at 50% but now the unresolved minutia of mounting this festival is sinking in.

Live performances are powerful because they are experienced in the moment, and because the stranger sitting next to you is experiencing the same emotional charge. Will we achieve this unique and rarefied atmosphere with people sitting in their own bubbles? And what does this do to our projected income budget?  And if social distancing restrictions are lifted by 21st June, will people then want to change their seats? I wish I had the answers. Instead, the rustling noise of arriving paper bags announce feeding time, a welcome distraction.

Days 6, 7 slip by and on day 8 a delivery of Tea cakes from Chatsworth and our second Covid test, all dealt with appropriately. The carcass of the pigeon is gone. We learn that our Bangladeshi corridor warden’s name is Chetri and she loves her job at the hotel.  And I have grown fond of Lauren’s daily phone calls and the provision of tea, coffee, toilet paper, soap, sugar she provides.  The routine of this incarceration has become comfortably entrenched, and my days are also more productive.  Programme notes are written, meetings planned, casting is wrapped up and the possibility of our first live face-to-face staff meeting after a long year is an actual possibility.

Finally, as Day 10 dawns I realize that quarantine has not been like a prison sentence after all.  Inside Room 1118 there has been plenty of freedom of choice: What’s on Netflix, when to sleep, when to exercise and of course unlimited free Wifi access to my work and the world beyond, all part of our all-inclusive (very expensive) Hotel Quarantine Package.  And those Bangers and Mash I ordered nine days ago were delicious.