Lockdown update

(Top photo: Kenny Baraka with DJ Conrad Kira in Plot 17. Photo: Suzi Corker)

I was asked to summarise, briefly, what I got up to during lockdown. But I couldn’t. It was too varied, and lots of things required some explanation. I guess everyone knows that the theatre sector has been hit very hard by the pandemic. Many workers have left to get sensible, less precarious, less stressful jobs. I haven’t. But I have, as they say, diversified. Perhaps, I thought to myself, that’s worth a blogpost. So here goes.

Myself, Andrea Carr and Mona Kastell at the Ecostage Launch, CCA Glasgow, during COP26. (Photo: Kanatip Soonthornrak)

To start with, I used the opportunity afforded by the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to help set up the Society of British Theatre Designers’s first working group on sustainability, taking on the role of co-ordinator. I also become one of the directors of Ecostage, an initiative for supporting ecological thinking in the performing arts. Along with Andrea Carr, Mona Kastell, Ruth Stringer and some volunteers, I helped rebuild the project from the ground up as a go-to platform for green-minded performing arts professionals. The new website, ecostage.online, was launched at COP26 last month. Various other advisory roles then followed, including helping gather material for The Green Book, joining the advisory panel on sustainability for the Queens Theatre Hornchurch and informally helping co-ordinate knowledge-sharing with other sustainable performing arts groups around the world. 

In the past I’ve joked that, because of the huge disconnect between workload and pay in the sector, my ideal working model would be to get some kind of stipend, then offer my services for free as I see fit. SEISS felt a bit like that, and for a while I was almost a full-time volunteer.

The new normal – myself, Shamim Azad and Sef Townsend performing live on Facebook for the East Voices launch. (Photo: Jadwiga Slomka)

In parallel to this, the theatre company I run, Daedalus, got a mix of crowd-funding and an Arts Council grant to move East, its community storytelling programme, online under the name East Voices. We ran a series of workshops to support first-time storytellers: some of the results can be seen at eastarchive.com. We also ran a workshop on BSL storytelling; a new direction we want to explore further.

I also continued to teach online and develop online learning materials for Angkriz, my partner’s English language tutorial school in Bangkok. 

The set for Cece’s Speakeasy (Photo: Paul Burgess)

As soon as venues re-opened, three postponed projects came back close on one another’s heels. Two were from Apples and Snakes: Cece’s Speakeasy and Plot 17. Cece’s is an immersive poetic experience where storytellers, poets and musicians share new work exploring hope and action during the climate emergency. Plot 17 is a hip-hop block party for kids exploring themes of gardening and environmental responsibility (The photo at the top of this post is from the show). It’s touring schools in a converted horse box. I designed set, costume and video for both projects, along with doing some graphic design. I was lucky enough to have an amazing associate/assistant designer for each: Carly Brownbridge and Rad Kornieczny respectively. Both shows also started life at the same venue: The Albany in SE London.

Nadia Shash and Beth Fitzgerald in Planet LOL. (Photo: JJ Waller)

The third show, Planet Lol, was for a Brighton-based touring company called the future is unwritten. It uses satirical sci-fi fantasy to explore ideas around climate change denial. All three projects used my knowledge of sustainable practices, with sets built mainly from reclaimed materials. 

On top of this, I arranged and performed music for an outdoor storytelling walking tour by Shamim Azad for Toynbee Hall, as part of the Bangladesh 50th anniversary celebrations in Tower Hamlets. I was joined for this by musician Amith Dey. While it was generally a quiet year for live music, for obvious reasons, I also played in a concert celebrating the music of Tagore, organised by Anandadhara Arts. A steep learning curve, but a wonderful experience. There’s a reason why a violinist from the Western tradition was part of this otherwise all-Bengali performance: the concert explored how Tagore fused the music of East and West.

I also provided violin for two tracks on the debut album Pairs, by budding young musician Jono Chant Stevens.

Mobile Incitement: Left to right: Andy Bannister, Dan Cox and Paul Burgess of the Black Smock Band, guest artist Saida Tani, and Rhiannon Kelly aka Gerrard Winstanley, fresh from the C17th. (Photo: Andy Bannister)

Also part of the borough’s Bangladesh 50 celebrations was the Freedom and Independence Theatre Festival, which, thanks to a second successful grant application, Daedalus opened! Quite an honour. We performed a bespoke version of Gerrard Winstanley’s True and Righteous Mobile Incitement Unit. This is a gig-theatre piece about the history of protest which had been set to tour just as Covid struck; made in collaboration with the folk band in which I play, I both directed it and perform in it, although unusually I didn’t design it as such. The visual focus – the Mobile Incitement Unit itself – was created by Andy Bannister. We were joined by an amazing guest singer: Saida Tani. An unexpected new experience resulting from this was my being interviewed on Channel S – a UK-Bangladeshi TV channel.

We didn’t manage to do much else live with the band but we did perform in the Queer Online Folk Festival and made a collaborative video with the Silver Darlings female sea shanty group. I shall leave you with that at the end of this post!

Another adventure was taking the SBTD exhibition Staging Places up to the National Centre for Craft and Design in Sleaford, in a pause between lockdowns, having taken it down at the V&A on the Sunday right before lockdown. We just about managed to get the exhibition up, after significant delays, although sadly the gallery couldn’t stay open to the public for the full run. Anyway, Staging Places, in which my design for Deafinitely Theatre’s 4.48 Psychosis was featured, is a whole other story which you can find out about here.

Being interviewed on Channel S

As we enter yet another winter of Covid-19, I’m working on two new design projects; one play and… another thing that’s not yet been announced, but is outside of theatre. Meanwhile, we’re hoping to resume touring Mobile Incitement and further expand the work of East. But we’ll see what Covid-19 allows to happen!

Finally, this post is meant to be about work, but we did manage an awesome Lake District holiday in November. If you want to see the holiday snaps, they’re in a Facebook album here. And now I shall leave you with The Black Smock Band and The Silver Darlings performing ‘Still I Love Him’.

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