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