I wrote the below blog post for the Society of British Theatre Designers, who published it here.
One of the many small wonders of this largely wonder-free year has been watching so many designers apparently become activists overnight. I suppose it oughtn’t to have been surprising. Designers are nothing if not problem-solvers, three-dimensional thinkers, and imaginers of new worlds. Yet before this year, the spectacle of a campaigning designer was not one I was accustomed to.
It’s obvious why. Designers (and I’m principally talking about set and costume designers in this post, but it’s true of lighting design, sound design, and all other design areas too) are commonly at work on multiple projects, haring from tech to production meeting to white card presentation, transporting a model box 250 miles, supervising a paint call and attending a costume fitting – and that’s just Monday. The rest of the industry are accustomed to complaining about the length of the working day; we don’t hear these complaints from designers because they don’t have time to make them.
In the context of this astonishing overwork, pay and conditions for designers remain absolutely shocking. The standard ITC contract on which many agreements are based hasn’t substantially changed since 1993 (the other industry standard, the UK Theatre/SOLT one, is rehashed every four years but is yet to address many of the above concerns). In the meantime the industry as a whole really has changed. Three decades ago, for example, it was standard practice for set and costume to be created by two separate designers specialising in the respective areas. Now, one designer almost always does both jobs - for one fee. Too many productions don’t budget for the cost of a model box, although they regularly come in at well into three figures just for the basic materials, to say nothing of overheads or weeks of time.
Over the past decade we’ve seen a move towards using 3D modelling softwares like vectorworks and AutoCad in the design process, which you’d imagine might reduce the need for physical models. But where the software aids construction, it isn’t always as helpful to directors who prefer a physical model. So it often becomes an additional piece of work, taking additional time. This in its turn relies on designers having access to expensive software with annual licenses that take a sizeable chunk out of a freelancer’s annual income. And that’s before you’ve put the time into learning how to use new and ever-changing tools.
So much of this and other design work, meanwhile, remains largely invisible to the wider team. Some would be shocked if they knew the truth; others do their best not to look at it because they know what they’ll see. Divide your designer’s fee by the time they’ve actually spent on the work, and you’ll terrifyingly often find they’re barely making minimum wage. On the Fringe, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever doing so: those most at risk of overwork, burnout and exploitation are those in the wild west, with no production management or venue support, and without even an inadequate contract to protect them.
It would be wrong to say there’d been no efforts to organise against this before March 2020. In fact, there’s nothing new about designer-activism – it’s just received shamefully little attention industry-wide. The Society of British Theatre Designers, the Equity directors’ and designers’ group, and others have all been working hard on this for years. Throughout this pandemic they’ve continued to do so, and there’s been progress. But partly because, as with many freelancers, the operations of power are heavily stacked against designers, it’s hard to think of a big win to point to. As ever it’s a graphic reminder that venues and management own the means of production and are not on the side of labour. We’re an industry that pretends to be about people but that people can be habitually valued so little reveals how little beyond lip service this goes.
But as the sector has been stripped bare this year, of course these conversations have been put on hold. Like every advance it looked like we might have been making as an industry, the most precarious, the most poorly-paid and the most overworked are those in danger of getting the worst deal in whatever brave new world the survivors construct around themselves in the next year or two.
Of course this all goes double for designers of colour, disabled designers, non-gender-conforming designers, working class designers, and designers from other marginalised identities, backgrounds – and locations. It might appear obtuse to start an argument on behalf of designers when there are so many apparently more pressing problems. But like in so many other areas of the sector, these are the pressing problems. If we’re not treating everyone well, we’re going to remain inaccessible to everyone who doesn’t look or sound like the usual suspects.
So the really surprising – and thrilling - thing about seeing all these designers seeming to become activists this year, was that it wasn’t even on this subject that their activism focused. I’m thinking of Bethany Wells raising thousands for struggling artists by designing and selling tote bags. I’m thinking of #scenechange wrapping our theatres as a reminder that we all still exist. I’m thinking of Max Johns, just as I began writing this, producing a blueprint for sustainable practice in design and making, of the Freelancers Make Theatre Work campaign, of the Ecostage/SBTD Sustainability working group. It’s amazing what good people can do when they’re not working back-to-back fourteen-hour days.
As we all work together to rebuild the sector, I hope all of this won’t be forgotten. I’m grateful to my designer friends and colleagues for everything they’ve done this year. You have my solidarity. I want to play my part in building a sector that’s more hospitable for everyone, and the writing of this blog comes as part of a journey out of my own ignorance – too much of what I’ve described here has been as invisible to me as it appears to be to the sector as a whole.
So what can be done, practically? Firstly, join your professional organisation, join your union. Your representatives are fighting hard on your behalf and their voice gets stronger with every new member. And on an individual level? Early career designers – ask for what you need. Even if it’s not forthcoming, companies need to know what they’re really asking. Too often these systemic failures are built on the ability of those in positions of power to ask the impossible – their permission to do so must be continually resisted. Directors and theatre-makers, as well as producers – we need to get better at having these conversations with our teams. Ask designers what they need to do the job, ask them how much time it will actually take and adjust the budget accordingly. I’ll be doing this from now on. What else? And who’s with me?
On Monday I go into rehearsals. I can scarcely believe it. Sleeping Beauty opens at the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster on Friday 11th December.
I had to stop myself from giving form to my doubts by writing "is scheduled to open". Because honestly, I think I'll only really believe it's going to open once it has. So much has been cancelled this bloody year, so much has fallen through, that nothing can be relied upon.
We are urged to cultivate gratitude. Things may be lost, fall through, get cancelled. Be grateful for what we do have. And I'm grateful to have had the pleasure of writing it alongside Sarah. I'm grateful for the rehearsal process we're about to enter, which I know will be joyful. I'll be grateful for all that, but it won't stop me being gutted if in the end no-one gets to see it.
It's an extraordinarily brassy call from the Dukes. Most theatres either didn't take the risk on a Christmas show in the first place, or have since pulled them. Karen looked at Lancaster around Christmas time and saw that everything had been cancelled: the ice rink, the big wheel, the lights switch on, everything. Christmas looked thoroughly depressing. So the team at the Dukes figured out a way of remodelling everything about the usual process of putting on a show, and giving the people of Lancaster something to enjoy at Christmas. In the process, I have learned an astonishing amount about ventilation, but if that's what it takes, so be it.
As things stand, we're due to open These Hills Are Ours in January too. I'm in danger of entering a permanent state of disbelieving astonishment.
I’m trying to get a few thoughts down each week on my childcare days, while Arthur naps. They’ll be brief and may end abruptly.
Ten years ago almost to the day I saw a show performed in my own accent, for the first time in my life, and it blew my head off. I wrote this piece about it for the Guardian, back when they used to publish writing about theatre. I look back on it now and think that the experience may have been one factor in a total transformation in my career that took place around then. It’s not long after that that I began work on my first solo show - somehow it was now ok to sound like this.
Ten years before that, I was at university, and well on the way to having lost my (working-class, Teesside) accent. At some level I must have been ashamed to come from where I come from, and I felt that in order to get anywhere in this industry I needed to pretend to be middle-class. That show isn’t the only thing that made me feel like I was legitimate as I was, but it was a big factor. It was more than ten years before my accent made its way home, and even now in this industry I often feel unsure it’s ok to sound like this.
Representation matters, and our stages will always be peopled by the same faces and voices if the same faces and voices are the only ones we represent. But representation is limited by access. Starting a career in theatre relies on often years of unpaid labour, and if you don’t have a laundry list of privileges you’re unlikely to survive this war of attrition.
I say all of this knowing that I’ve scraped through this far no doubt thanks in part to the fact that my lack of class privilege is offset by my possession of every other privilege there is. And I scraped through this far only barely: I’ve written before about the experience of being heavily in debt, which is for many the only way through that initial bottleneck. Perhaps the most startling aspect of that period of my life is something I skirted around in that blogpost: due to the extent of the financial difficulties I was in, and a gap in a precarious work schedule, I ended up homeless for six months. In that blogpost I artfully describe us as living “a semi-nomadic lifestyle”. What that means is we didn’t have anywhere to live. At thirty, with success in the industry behind us, we couldn’t afford it.
At the time I rationalised this as making sense in the situation, and in that blogpost you can see that several years later I still bought this rationalisation. But homelessness is homelessness: we hopped from spare room to spare room, but we didn’t have anywhere to live. We were never on the streets, but I look back on this period ten years on and my sense memory is all about how exhausting and stressful it all was.
The other thing I didn’t piece together at that time, is that it’s just a couple of months after we found somewhere to live (a cheap room in a shared house in Armley, west Leeds) that I saw that show performed in Teesside accents. And I didn’t have to pretend any more.
This industry is disgracefully difficult, and I don’t see it getting easier any time soon. But the least we can do is make sure everyone’s on stage, and that we deny no-one the means of getting there. And this goes way beyond money. The way we structure access to our industry, and the ways this inhibits real access, go way beyond that. But I’ll have to talk about that another time, because the baby’s waking up.
UPDATE: since publishing this, the Barbican have issued a handsome apology to the many artists concerned, and committed to providing individual feedback to all those who would like it. It just goes to show that anger and frustration collectively voiced can lead to change. I'm leaving the post up unedited, because the points all still hold, and this is far from being an isolated incident. Capitalism is reducible to nothing if not shitty behaviour, to the extent that the shitty behavers sometimes need it pointed out to even notice that there are alternatives. (Some of you will say that this is generous. But in this case, given the fulsomeness and immediacy of the apology, I'm ready to be generous.)
Again and again yesterday, I saw screen shots of the same three-line rejection email. It came, said multiple tweets, from a “large well-funded organisation”,* who’d advertised an open opportunity. These artists had worked hard on their applications and in return they got three lines. And I’m not just saying they worked hard: one young artist I follow on twitter said his application had taken three full working days. That sounds implausible, but look at the replies and you see he’s no outlier: applying to this opportunity took work. Replying to these applications, though, that took no work. Three lines. In exchange for three days.
Then today I saw a similar tweet about a totally separate opportunity from a different “large well-funded organisation”. If anything today’s was worse. The artist in question had not only received a curt rejection with no opportunity for feedback, but she’d also been asked for feedback on the application process. You couldn’t make it up. These are not one-off cockups; this is a massive systemic problem.
Now I appreciate that if you get hundreds of applications, then replying with individual feedback takes time. But if you’ve read the application, and decided to reject it, you’ve made that decision for a reason. It might take a few more minutes to commit that reason to your screen, but those few minutes are nothing compared to the days spent by the applicant. It is literally the bare minimum.
Organisations like these want to demonstrate ways in which they’re supporting artists with these opportunities. But their actions reveal that what they’re actually involved in isn’t support, it’s retail. If I go into JD, I don’t have to explain to all the trainers I didn’t buy exactly how they could be a better fit. But artists are not just another pair of shoes you don’t want. Continually putting ourselves up for sale shreds us, and the least you can do is acknowledge our humanity.
Organisations get away with this because the successful artists will be grateful for the opportunity and who knows, it might be brilliant and well-supported. So they’ll shout about it, and big it up, and everyone will forget, again, that supporting that small number of people involved treating a much larger number of people like unwanted footwear.
Organisations advertising these sorts of opportunities should be prepared to offer individual feedback to everyone who wants it, as a condition of offering the opportunity. If that means fewer opportunities and more humanity then so be it, but honestly, it’s reading the applications that takes time and effort, not writing individual responses. That takes more time, of course, but not so much more. I always try to give some sort of individual response to everyone who’s applied for every opportunity I’ve offered; if people ask for more feedback, I give it. (I’m sure I fuck up in this, and if that’s you, er, I welcome your feedback.) I am not a ‘large well-funded organisation’. I am a time-poor freelancer whose every minute spent giving feedback on something is a minute not being paid for something else.
If I can do it, a ‘large well-funded organisation’ can.
Which means they’re choosing not to.
* it's the Barbican
Some thoughts while watching (the first three scenes of) Brecht's original Berliner Ensemble production of Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder
[I should preface the below by saying that I’ve enjoyed some recent productions of this play in this country, in large part because they get away from some of the bizarre baggage of the British Brechtian tradition. This doesn’t necessarily bring them any closer to Brecht, but at least they get further away from that weird indigestible ersatz Brecht we’ve been fed every so often.]
[If I have any thoughts while watching the rest of it, I'll post those too, but this seemed long enough to be going on with]
It's here until Thursday and I recommend watching: www.berliner-ensemble.de/be-on-demand
There's an inherited performance tradition around Brecht in this country, and it is terrified by Brecht. We tend to perform it all heightened manic energy. By contrast, the acting mode in the opening scenes of this production is naturalistic to the point of being laconic. It makes the audience lean in.
You can hear the silent attention, the ways it’s rewarded by the first big laugh
(The boy takes after him – But he wasn’t his father – He still takes after him)
Pretty much every English translation puts the first song after this first bit with the two recruiting officers. In this production, it’s the opening. Eilif and Swiss cheese sing it while moving along at a fair lick on the revolve. There’s energy on the stage. There's momentum. So when we focus on two men standing still and talking laconically, there’s already some energy in the room, and the performers don't have to strain at grabbing and holding the audience’s attention.
The Verfremdungseffekte are (at least at this point) not in exaggerated or heightened acting. They’re in structure. Abrupt breaches, interrupted action.
Gestus is not caricature. It’s the gestural action that communicates the situation of individual lives in material political and economic circumstances. Its affect is sometimes not materially different from naturalism; it merely emphasises the fact that character is not innate, but is formed by material circumstance. This means that we do not communicate character, we communicate circumstance.
To put it another way, in terms of the world outside ourselves, we are nothing but what we do.
There’s no need for theatre to communicate someone’s true essence, even if that were possible; even if it were a thing. What theatre communicates is the network of relationships between people trapped together in a net of circumstance.
Starting in that heightened way as British Brecht does leaves the opening scene’s confrontation between Courage and the recruiting officer nowhere to go. But the tension, the (yes) drama in this scene in Brecht’s production goes way beyond anything I’ve seen in English.
The idea that Brecht is opposed to dramatic tension is one of the most ridiculous misconceptions of the English theatre. Every scene has it. It’s just that every scene builds its own, rather than borrowing from the previous scene. It builds its own and then jettisons it, and repeatedly gives the viewer space to consider how these scenes relate to one another. The relationship is not purely narrative, but sociological.
The closest thing to Brechtian work anyone’s produced in the past twenty years is The Wire.
The end of the opening scene, where Eilif is led off by the recruiting officer while Courage sells the sergeant a belt, is electric. The audience sees everything unfolding while Courage strikes her bargain and the result is devastating, tension through the roof. You can hear the silence in the auditorium. A minute or two later when the scene ends and is replaced by the captions introducing the next scene, the theatre is asplutter with coughing as the tension drains from the room. In the British theatre, and this is certainly true of me too, we’re addicted to maintaining that tension. This silent transition is unimaginable in the British theatre. At the very least there’d be a high-pitched tone or the sound of distant guns. Do I think there’s a way of handling these knee joints without a chaos of coughing? Of course. But the lesson here is that the tension needs to be jettisoned – even if it is replaced by something else – in order for there to be any capacity for reflection or analysis. Lack of tension does not equal lack of attention.
Looked at another way, it seems fine to cough when there’s no-one on stage.
In the second scene, when Eilif’s voice reveals him to Courage as the guest in the general’s tent, it’s immediately clear from Weigel’s tone that Courage really feels for, loves and wants to protect her children. So when the general demands meat for his guest, you might expect her to immediately hand over the chicken she’s been bargaining for with the chef. That way her son would be guaranteed a good meal. Instead she raises the price. The chef has little choice but to find meat, and little choice but to pay it.
So often Courage is portrayed as not really caring for her children, because of she always appears to put profit first. In such productions, where she appears to care little for her children, the question of why she acts the way she acts is all-too-easily answered: she doesn’t care for them as much as she does for money. And so there's nothing at stake for her, nothing at stake in the play, and it becomes boring. And boring British A-level Brechtians will tell you that it's supposed to be boring.
But when she does care, as she palpably does here, the question why does she act this way in spite of the obvious needs and interests of her children is increasingly present. In this scene, clearly, she can turn a profit and guarantee Eilif gets a meal – she simply plays her cards better than anyone else. In the wider scheme of the play, she is dealt fewer and worse cards, because that’s what happens in war. So that question keeps coming up more insistently until the only remaining answer is: economically, she has no fucking choice.
Up until this point, Brecht appears to be a much more traditional director than anyone imagined. But we have to establish something in order to disrupt it.
In the second scene we’re modulating towards a patchwork that includes something more stylised. The cook and Courage remain close to something that looks like naturalism, but in the tent Eilif, the general and the parson are in a more staccato register.
The precedent for the more stylised elements is not expressionism, but silent comedy. Externally the ways in which the two heighten and abstract specifics to externalised principles of movement may appear similar, but the distinction lies in what’s being emphasised. In expressionism it’s internal emotional states. In silent comedy, at least that of Chaplin, (which Brecht was obsessed by [I wrote my phd on this]) it’s gestus – social role. Hence Eilif, who in scene one seems to have three dimensions, sits ludicrously poker straight in the general’s tent as though he’s on parade, then performs his song like a marionette.
Let’s not hide from the fact that the deaf-mute Kattrin is played by an able actor. Sure, we perhaps shouldn’t judge Brecht by standards of representation that didn’t exist at the time. But if we’re going to watch it now, recommend it now, we have to recognise that this is not acceptable now.
Everyone always has something to do with their hands. The chef is peeling potatoes, then Courage plucks the chicken. Yvette sews a hat, then Courage works needle and cloth. The general drinks. There’s always a physical action in progress somewhere on the stage, and it always reminds us who works and who doesn’t.
Let’s talk about Yvette. She’s first introduced in scene three, and most productions have her already rendered as a cartoon syphilitic hag. In this production, the only indications that she’s already begun sex work are in the text. Her clothing stays a long way from the usual clichés. This is a real woman, refusing to be defined by her social role. What we meet here is a woman still eaten up by the loss of her lover five years earlier, a lover who was part of an occupying force and who left when the army left. She pursued him, she still loves him, and she finds herself here. Again, in this production, we meet a woman more 'real' than any I’ve seen portrayed in the weird inherited tradition that is British Brecht.
The part of scene three between Courage, the Chaplain and the Cook is often boring. It’s easy to miss it even in here, but just enough dramatic tension is produced by Kattrin at the side investigating Yvette’s hat and boots. (Only here are we starting to be sure Y’s already a sex worker.) Meanwhile there’s loads in the main scene that’s often missing in English translation. For example, the translation I’m referring to because my German is very ropey only makes reference to “The King” and “The Kaiser”. In Brecht’s production there’s repeated reference to Gustav Adolf. And they again and again refer to him as Adolf. I wonder why this might have felt pertinent in 50s Germany?
Meanwhile, the Cook’s political commentaries are all too often played as cartoonish caricature rather than the knowing cynicism we see here.
Let's be honest, though. This scene still drags a bit.
In the translation I’m referring to, the drum roll that precedes Swiss Cheese’s death appears in the stage directions, but the sound of his firing squad does not. In this production, we hear that gunfire, then Courage is contorted by despair and horror. “Mother Courage remains seated” is all it says in my copy.
“It grows dark”, it then says, “It grows light once more. Mother Courage is sitting exactly as before”. In fact, while it’s true that she’s not moved from the spot, she’s gently rocking to and fro. The English stage directions emphasise Courage's impassivity; in Weigel's performance she is anything but.
I have no idea what the original German stage directions say as I've no copy to hand. But you see how easy it is, once a misconception has taken route, to find confirmation for it everywhere.
I identify these small differences between the production and the text as available in English because I think British directors are afraid of allowing any feeling into the work.
Or if they do, they imagine they're bravely throwing off the shackles of Brechtian orthodoxy. When in fact that orthodoxy has little or nothing to do with Brecht.
But. Emotion floods through that celebrated dam, the alienation effect, at every turn, revealing Brecht as a man who needed a theory not because he felt too little, but too much. (This is a grotesque paraphrase of something Tynan wrote when the BE came to the Royal Court around this time.)
Helene Weigel is fucking astonishing in this scene. The final part of it, where she has to pretend not to recognise the body of her son, astonishing. The agony on her face.
So much crap has built up around Brecht that everyone forgets that the theory would be nothing without a capacity to produce scenes like this. Individual humans are tortured by their helplessness in the face of powers far greater than themselves.
What Brecht did was observe that, in real lives, those powers are socially-constructed and can therefore be socially dismantled. He then developed a dramaturgy which revealed that constructedness, rather than mystifying it out of existence.
But all that would be useless if the scene itself had no impact. And yet people persist in thinking that not only is Brecht boring, he’s intentionally boring. Seriously. Watch the fucking show. You've got til Thursday.
To mark the fact that These Hills Are Ours was due to be on tour at the moment, the excellent people at Beaford asked me to say a few words to their communities. Say something about getting outside in the current situation, they suggested. So it seemed like a good idea to run a marathon up my local hill while attempting to make a short film.
I’ve been having a few days off from coping with all of this.
In a parallel universe, tonight is press night. In that parallel universe, the show in London for the rest of this week, before touring nationally right through until the end of June. On Saturday, also in London, we'll deliver the third of four large-scale choir projects, the fourth of which will be in Devon in May. In between tour dates, I’ll be working on the next draft of a new Christmas show.
In this universe, none of this is happening. Over the past week I’ve occasionally made joking reference to the fact that we're opening These Hills Are Ours this week. This jokey chipperness doesn’t even convince me, because every time I’ve tried it I’ve thought, oh, that’s interesting, now I want to cry.
To commemorate press night, we're doing a small sharing via Zoom, for family and close friends. This is so far removed from the universe we planned to be in tonight that it feels absurd, and absolutely necessary. If you find yourself hurled into a river in spate, you grab hold of anything you can.
We’re still rehearsing the show, because it will surely open at some point. We just have no idea when. Maybe, just maybe, the show will open before the end of the current tour in June. If not then, maybe the autumn. If not then, next year. Sometime.
But we have to face up to the possibility that the current situation may will still be in place over a year from now. Why wouldn’t it be? The virus isn’t going away until we’ve all had it, or there’s a vaccine. Neither of those will be true twelve months from now. There’s no point in adopting an “over by Christmas” mentality when there’s absolutely no basis for that belief. I hope it isn’t too trivialising of the mindset considered necessary by a Marxist in a Fascist prison when I say that the title of my blog has never felt more pertinent or necessary to me. But for the past few days, I’ve been finding the first part difficult.
Rehearsing the show is helping me. Routine is helping me. Running is helping me. Cooking is helping me. Reading is helping me. I veer between trying to resist the rush to productivity and recognising that writing is helping me. So I’m writing this.
The Sunday before everything shut, I was on a long walk with a choir. We walked from the end of Morecambe stone jetty to the top of Clougha Pike, the peak overlooking Lancaster and Morecambe. We walked, as far as possible, along public footpaths, canal towpaths, byways and other rights of way. Along the way we sang an original song.
The Sunday before, I did the same thing with a different choir, from the centre of Stockton to the summit of Roseberry Topping on the edge of the North York Moors.
Yesterday morning in the shower I found myself singing the Roseberry Topping song. Only when my daughter asked me what it was did I realise that's what I was singing. Then that evening she sang it to her baby brother in the bath.
During the weeks and months ahead I’ll treasure my memories of those two Sundays. Long days in company feel very distant at the moment, and I have to remember that they are in the future as well as in the past. The future is invisible, thus harder to cherish, but even as the work cancellations keep eating up the way ahead far beyond the horizon, I’m trying hard to embrace whatever comes. Two similar choir projects have been put on indefinite hold. But they will happen.
Collective singing and time in the outdoors have demonstrable and significant impacts on well-being. Likewise exercise, and for some participants 14-ish miles with a climb at the end is a considerable challenge, so you can add a sense of achievement to that list. Also meaningful activity: the songs we sang were created in collaboration with the groups who sang them, about their own relationship, as people of this place, with the peak overlooking them and their place.
The rights-of-way routes were chosen to maximise our sense of collective ownership over the terrain. Almost every foot fell in the steps of a whole history of struggles for ownership, use, and access. As the disaster capitalists move in in the wake of this crisis, public land, and public access to land, will be immensely vulnerable and it’s a fight for which we’ll need to tool up. These walks, these songs, were part of that tooling up even before the suddenly mushrooming scale of the fight ahead. I will carry with me that sense of purpose I shared with those groups, as we walked and sang our collective anthem.
Everything I do, everything most of my peers in this industry do, is about gathering people together. What is any performance, indoor or outdoor, mass participation or solo, but a gathering-together in order to share an experience of what it means to be together in this world? What it means to live in this society, to share this space? What it means to navigate that shared space with others?
And now we stay together by staying apart. That’s a ropey slogan, even though of course it’s the correct thing to do, but it’s also a surgical strike at my raison d’etre and that of my whole industry. And not just our manner but also our means of living. That slogan might function as an accurate view of how we need to model our behaviour for the foreseeable future. But we also have to be careful not to lose our sense of what together really means. The experience of singing together on zoom is not comparable with the experience of being within the sound we collectively make.
In the dark times, there will be singing. But it will only be available via Facebook Live. I’m thrilled by the number of companies and artists who’ve made their work available to stream for free, and these things will do for now. But let’s be honest: these things are decaf. They’re like looking at a diagram of the brain’s electrochemical reaction to pleasure, rather than having the actual pleasure; they’re the information about an experience without the actual experience. They're talking to your friends on Skype rather than giving them a hug.
When this is over, I imagine a hunger for communality. I imagine audiences refreshed with joy simply at being in the room. I imagine the biggest and most celebratory participatory work. I imagine artists, newly released from confinement, returning to audiences with new discoveries about what it means to be together in this changed world. I imagine a wild rumpus, a heightened togetherness, a sharpened connection, a deepened purpose.
By implication, I imagine a discrete point when this is “over”. Of course it won’t be as simple as that. This is the way things are to be, probably for a very long time, and the end will not come easily or cleanly. But after the dark times, oh the singing there’ll be then. And we will need those songs to help us through the coming fight against disaster capitalism.
- films of the walks to Roseberry Topping and Clougha Pike will be released in the early summer
- I have set up this Patreon page for those interested in supporting my work, and receiving more of it.
On Sunday my daughter and I sat in her bedroom and read quietly together for five minutes. It’s the happiest I’ve been all week. I say “read”: she can make out some letters but the only word she recognises is her own name. She was looking at the pictures in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Good Plant Guide. It was bliss. I got through four or five pages of the new Hilary Mantel before she climbed up my back, or bounced on my head, or whatever.
It’s obvious how this lockdown is challenging for extroverts starved of society. But now that we’re all locked in the house together 24/7, it becomes equally clear that introverts starved of time truly alone must also find themselves clawing the walls. Yesterday I unaccountably woke up at 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up, made coffee, and read for two hours before anyone else came down. The relief of this sudden breathing space massively outweighed the sleep loss. This morning I set my alarm for 5am. I’d be feeling great if I hadn’t hit my head on a door frame during a weights routine.
Whenever those quizzes claiming to determine whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert come up on Facebook, I break them. Plenty of people, perhaps most, are both. We all need society and we all need solitude, and the ways we each get those has been entirely upended. That’s far from being the main difficulty of this extraordinary situation, but still. Everyone’s struggle with this is unique to them.
Given that the internet is the only visible outlet, the surge among some theatre-makers towards online activity seems totally understandable. Others have sounded an equally valid note of caution: no-one should feel pressured into suddenly generating a whole new means of creation from a standing start, when they’re still coming to terms with the situation. I have sympathy for those still reeling, and for those casting around for something to do because their sense of self or their ability to pay the rent depends on it. Everyone’s struggle with this is unique. Be kind.
I had the dubious advantage of having spent the past month telling everyone who’d listen that this would happen, so emotionally at least I’ve been able to adapt relatively quickly. Only three weeks ago I was in a big job interview, along with a potential job share partner, and of course we were asked the inevitable question about the main challenges facing theatres in the years ahead. I said coronavirus was going to shut a lot of theatres, and my partner basically told me to shut up, so we moved on to talking about Brexit instead. But this has been in the post for a while and I’ve had my teeth gritted for the moment it landed on the doormat.
So in the first day or two after the theatres closed I’d already put up a couple of old shows online. At the time this just seemed like the decent thing to do, rather than having any sort of intent to generate anything in particular. But within another day I’d set up a Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/danielbye) and committed to creating material online. If you look at the small print, though, I’m simply promising to release writing to subscribers - the kind of writing I already do - rather than trying to master a whole new art form. I have nothing but admiration for those whose creativity immediately found its way through the cracks in the current situation. Fortunately I’m in rehearsal (albeit in a weird telescoped process taking place over Skype and Zoom), so I’m exempted from having to think of anything new.
Unless you want to commission me, in which case, I just lost all my work, yes please whatever it is I’ll do it yes.
I am, though, gently exploring a book idea. Everyone else takes one step forward into the 21st century; I take two steps back from it. What is this situation but an opportunity to move more slowly?
Like everyone else, I’ve started baking bread, boiling up peelings for stock and taking an interest in the garden. We’ve started getting a veg box and cooking with whatever seasonal luck brings into our pot. I’m planning raised beds and a woodshed and tonight I’ll bake my first pie in a year. All of these are things that, in my self-image, I do regularly, like shaving. All of these are things I never do. It’s daft to talk about silver linings in a situation like this but if I don’t die of asthma-heightened Covid-induced pneumonia, then I hope to emerge into a world with which we’ve all changed our relationship a little.
This without even beginning to think about the obvious ways in which our current socio-economic system is utterly unfitted for taking care of its citizens. The right have thankfully conceded that some of the normal rules of their hegemonic system don’t apply in this situation. But how much better would it be if the system placed value in people’s wellbeing in the first place. With a universal basic income and systems of healthcare and essential services whose purpose was to deliver healthcare and essential services, rather than financial gain, imagine how much better the state would be to cope with this crisis. Any system that has to be totally upended in the face of a crisis is no system at all. I can only hope that some on the right will recognise that many citizens have already been in a state of permanent crisis for a full decade, and help to build a system that works for everyone.
But it’s too early to think about what happens afterwards. Like the rush to find new methods of creation, people are rushing towards prognostication about the new world we’ll emerge into. This is going to get worse before it gets better and we will be in the present situation, on and off, until well into next year. No one really knows how they’ll be changed by profound loss, deep pain, or prolonged uncertainty. But we all will be.
What I do know is that it’s spring at the moment, and next year it will be spring again, and the year after that. I think my daughter will be reading for real when we come through this. But what a pleasure that will be.
Ahem. Another nudge for that patreon. Desperate times. https://www.patreon.com/danielbye
These Hills Are Ours – An Escape From London
SINGERS and RUNNERS wanted
(you can be one or the other. You don’t have to be both!)
We are recruiting participants for a unique project.
On 4th April this year, a group of runners will set off from Shoreditch Town Hall, with the mission of escaping London on foot. They’ll do so, as far as possible, via off-road routes: public footpaths, canal towpaths, back alleys.
Several hours later, they’ll arrive at the summit of Box Hill in Surrey and look back at how far they’ve come.
It’s approximately the distance of a marathon.
At the beginning and at the end, as well as at three or four points along the way, the runners will be greeted and sung to by a choir. The choir will sing an original song, written by me and Boff Whalley, about the urge to – and the difficulty of – escaping the chaos and the noise of 21st-century digital life. About the need to flee the urban for the rural and about the fearsome challenges of doing that in London in particular. It’ll be a celebration of switching off and checking out, and the power of our two feet to set us free.
The song, and the journey, will be documented as one of a series of four short films of related projects across the country.
Singers will be able to listen to a demo of the song in advance, in order to prepare. There will be a rehearsal on the day, at approximately 9am, at Shoreditch Town Hall. You’ll be in the hands of the brilliant pop-up choir leader Beccy Owen, who's just brilliant at supporting singers to learn new material.
Runners will depart at around 10.30am.
The various stops for singers will be mostly accessible by public transport, with a little bit of taxiing. This transport will all be paid for, as will the return journey – you just need to get yourselves to the start line.
- 4 April 2020 9am til approximately 5pm.
- that's it.
How fast do I need to be?
We expect the run to take approximately five hours, including a couple of short stops. This means averaging a little slower than ten minute miles: for most we expect this to be a relatively easy pace. Those who want to go faster will get more breaks.
If for you this is at the edges of what you think you can manage, we’d love you to give it a go. We’ll have a back marker at all times so no-one will be allowed to drop off the back. The front-runners will pause periodically to allow everyone to regroup. And in the worst-case scenario, if you can’t continue, there are regular opportunities to hop on public transport. Give it a go.
It’s a long way. How will I get back?
Depending on where you’re getting back to, there will be a mix of public transport and taxiing. We’ll cover the cost of this.
Only two FAQs for runners?
There’s more under “both” below.
Do I need to be an experienced singer?
No. There’ll be people involved who are very experienced choral singers, and people involved for whom this is their debut at singing in public. All are welcome. And you’ll be in the very safe hands of a fantastic choir leader.
Do I need to be able to read music?
No. We can have the sheet music (“dots”) available for those who need it, but this isn’t how the songs will be taught. And we’ll have demo tracks available to download and/or listen to online, so that you can familiarise yourself with the material between rehearsals.
FAQs (Both runners and singers):
Is there a bad weather plan?
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. You may need waterproofs. Runners would be advised to consider trail shoes. The choir will be able to take shelter more often, but still, for the final climb of Box Hills, sturdy footwear would be advisable.
What should I wear?
See “is there a bad weather plan”, above.
How long will the performance day take?
We’ll be back down in the warm well before dusk, and perhaps by mid afternoon. But we’ll travel at the speed that can accommodate the slowest group member within the time frame, and want to ensure everyone who wants to can participate, so this isn’t going to be a race. It also means that we’re reluctant to give a precise time, but we expect to be finished somewhere between 3-5pm. Bring food and water.
Who's behind this?
Daniel Bye and Boff Whalley. I'm Daniel Bye and you're on my website, so if you want to find out more about me, you're in the right place. Boff's site is: www.boffwhalley.com.
The project is commissioned by Shoreditch Town Hall and supported by Arts Council England.
(This same week, Boff and I are also doing a show at Shoreditch Town Hall. You can find out more about that here: https://shoreditchtownhall.com/whats-on/these-hills-are-oursshoreditchtownhall.com/whats-on/these-hills-are-ours)
I’m in! Or, I have more questions!
Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org to get your name on the list. If you have any other questions, however small, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will