When COVID-19 swept across the globe, stages everywhere went dark in the name of public safety. Everywhere except The Phantom of the Opera World Tour. Against all odds, it remained the only running musical theatre production in the world and leading that production was Claire Lyon.
Hailing from Australia, Claire’s list of credits includes performing at the Sydney Opera House to touring the world in musicals to performing with Josh Groban during his “Stages” World Tour. Yet this year, while playing Christine Daaé in the world tour of The Phantom of the Opera, she faced obstacles for which no one was quite prepared.
We talked about what the world looked like from inside the only production running, the mask company she launched to help give back to the artistic community in Australia, and what this year has taught her.
Ryan: You joined the World Tour of The Phantom of the Opera last fall. How did this particular experience stretched you in ways other productions have not?
Claire: I already knew the role and even five years later, it was thankfully in my muscle memory. Even the blocking was still in my body but I guess what was different was that I’m five years older now and with that comes more life experience. I feel like as a result, my portrayal of Christine was a little stronger. I felt like I was standing my ground a little more at the end of the show. In the final lair scene when the Phantom says, “you try my patience,” my Christine isn’t whimpering and feeling sorry for him. She makes a clear decision to take pity on him and approach him with kindness in the end.
I was also doing one more show a week than I’d done before. It’s a huge role, you’re on stage for most of the show, and adding that additional show is taxing. Particularly when you’re not living at home. You’re in a new space, potentially fighting jetlag, and you have to go find places to eat or shop or buy groceries. That takes energy throughout the day. Add on the Middle Eastern heat in Dubai or severely airconditioned rooms at night and that all plays into fatigue. The traveling aspect of touring is fantastic but at the same time, it’s draining.
Ryan: So let’s hop over to the onset of the pandemic. What was the most challenging aspect of performing as the world began to contend with the virus?
Claire: There were several stressful factors. Firstly, we found ourselves in the position of being the only live performance production of any kind still running in the world. This meant we had the world looking to us as a beacon of hope for the future of live events, be it theatre, concert tours, or sporting matches to see what we were doing differently and what safety measures had been implemented. We were in a privileged position to be still working but there was certainly a sense of survivor’s guilt.
We did close the show briefly when two of our cast members tested positive for COVID-19. We all went into quarantine immediately and were tested several times before reopening the show. After this, we all had to monitor ourselves very closely and live cautiously and conservatively; not venturing out into crowded areas for fear of contracting COVID and having the show shut down again. There was a big responsibility on us to show that theatre could get back up on its feet.
There was also the logistical nightmare of border closures, meaning my fiancé couldn’t leave Australia to be with me. We ended up spending six months apart and he was so supportive the whole time but I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t ideal!
Ryan: Give me a glimpse at what Asia looked and felt like this year.
Claire: We started seeing masks in Busan in January. People were very aware of what was going on. South Korea was on top of things because they dealt with the big MERS outbreak in 2015. The citizens were prepared. Mask wearing wasn’t something they weren’t used to so in January, all of the audience in the theater were in masks. I don’t feel like there was a sense of panic in South Korea about this. For example, here in Australia, people were panic-buying toilet paper and meat and pasta. I got to South Korea and that wasn’t the case at all and they had far more cases than Australia did. People were calm and that came from really clear guidance from the government and the sense everyone was doing what’s best for the community.
Ryan: You’re back home in Australia now. What’s your sense of how things are moving along there?
Claire: It feels like it’s getting back to normal. We are going into summer and will have a COVID-normal Christmas seeing loved ones in the flesh. Also, our borders are entirely closed here and we get announcements from our Premier every day at 11:30 updating us on what’s opening up.
Ryan: What was the impetus for making your own line of masks?
Claire: The Masque Co really came about after my own experience of mask-wearing as part of my daily routine and seeing how it could help keep our industry afloat and maintain a functioning economy during a pandemic. Every single audience member was wearing one and it was this, along with other safety measures implemented at the theatre (tracking and tracing, sanitization) that meant we could still operate. I wanted to bring a product to western society that didn’t look and feel so much like a scary surgical mask, implying illness. I wanted it to be happy and uplifting as well as safe. I also wanted something comfortable. Most masks pull on the ears and are awful to wear.
Ryan: I can confirm that your masks are super comfy and part of the proceeds is going to the arts. Can you talk more about that?
Claire: We donate a dollar per mask to a charity called Arts Well Being Collective. The Arts Center, one the biggest theaters in Melbourne, has an initiative to provide mental health recourses to people in all areas of the arts. They do so in all different languages as well so if, for example, someone who works in the costume department only speaks Arabic, Arts Well Being Collective will find them someone who speaks Arabic. I was looking for a charity that would help my colleagues who were out of work and I thought something to do with mental health was the best way to help at this moment. We’ve donated more than $11,000 so far.
Ryan: That’s incredible. What a way to turn this weird year into a way to help people. During 2020, what have you learned about yourself?
Claire: I’ve learned to adapt and be flexible. I’m usually such a planner and get annoyed when things don’t go to plan but 2020 is NOT the year for planning. So many plans went out the window for me, like everyone, this year but 2020 has certainly taught us that.
Ryan: How will that affect the way you live your life going forward?
Claire: I think I just have to let it go when things don’t go precisely to plan. That’s really hard for me and I get pissed off. I get annoyed by it but this year has taught me to be a bit more fluid and flexible.
Ryan: What are you eager to return to?
Claire: Going to the theatre again and travelling overseas! I’m enjoying some time back in Australia but would love to get to Europe again soon and resurrect our 2020 plans. Also I can’t wait to see all my colleagues back on the stage.
Head over to www.themasqueco.co to get your hands on a mask and give back to artists!