Dec. 4th 2020

A post Pandemic Reset? Outdoor work, venues, futures, ways of working...

By Nathan Curry


In August and September I took part in Culture Reset - a programme to actively explore what change we wanted to see in the arts and culture sector post pandemic. 

The 4 week intensive featured weekly workshops alongside listening, reading and writing tasks. We were challenged to find a question to explore and use that question to fuel our research and conversations (my question explored the relationship between venues and outdoor theatre post pandemic and the role I could play)...

“The Portal” Arundhati Roy


Like many I was drawn to the the programme because I could see the opportunity for a change and that that change was well overdue. One of the launchpads for the programme was this quote from Arundhati Roy:


“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.“

The break with the past that Arundhati points to is the exact fissure that theatre makers often insert themselves into - its where the new futures can be imagined and performed as an act of collective community storytelling.


What role will theatre have during and after this pandemic? Will it even survive? if it does how can it be a space of healing, connection and change? How will we stage the stories that help imagine a new future?


“Audience in Portuguese is public” Culture Reset Participant


For me the call to take part in the programme was driven by the power of performance in public and social spaces - the way it can access new audiences, tell new stories and represent and challenge the world around us. Myself and everyone at the company I co-founded, Tangled Feet, have long been believers in the power of theatre in public space and as theatre buildings locked down the concept seems to have captured many imaginations. 


The basis of performing in public is (for me) about placing art within people’s everyday lives (changing the shape of their day) and not held behind a door in a sacred space where the rules can be baffling, the stage architecture asks the form to conform to a tradition and the ticket prices (can be) extortionate. As everyone retreated inside their houses and into nature we saw an explosion of creativity at home, creativity online and creativity outdoors and there was a sense of adventure and joy.  As Clare Doherty points out in this recent Stage article - this is the moment to reform theatre radically. Clare outlines beautifully the draw of the outdoors, the possibilities it holds and how fundamentally the form requires you to be relevant, locally engaged and resilient - surely the foundations of a theatre reform?


So what’s stopping us/stopped us? Is it that artists don’t understand the outdoor form? That it lacks financially viability (like many performing arts)? Or that buildings don’t know where to start?


“Your past recorded self” Faroq Chaudhry


There is much power in the status quo. One of the most inspiring parts of the Reset programme were the curated Podcasts.


Farooq Chaudhry spoke about the way we live in a way that allows us to play out our lives and choices as a recording of the previous day- that we repeat the same patterns, thoughts and behaviours learnt in the past. This is the baggage that Arundhati Roy talks of. How do we start our work post pandemic to question everything we thought was right or useful and start afresh?


In another podcast Wesley Enoch talks of the politics and power of organisations that take up space. The political power of spaces with more bricks, more audiences, more money and more media coverage dominates the messaging in the arts (and it quickly becomes an economic argument of the power of art to add to the economy and therefore, as the ACE Recovery Fund proves, also dominates the arts rescue packages). Meanwhile small, adaptable, artist led groups make work in the gaps, in communities and away from the mainstream - but without any political power or exposure.


“It is theatres that are hard to reach, that marginalise themselves” Chinonyerem Odimba


Part of my research led me to turn the exploration on its head and ask why auditoriums and stages have such power that channels money and creativity into stages not places?


There are, of course, a large number of intricacies and details here but my provocation is that if a stage is the way an arts organisation articulates who it is (and that this stage is programmed by 1 or 2 people and accessed by a small percentage of local constituents) then how is it a public space? Is it basically a private space? 


Coupled with this are the Business Models of most organisations with stages or spaces mean that they have to get ticket income and sell a huge number of seats to break even. The venue is literally held to ransom by this model - the shows HAVE to make money, the stage HAS to articulate its identity? A large dark space saying ‘Fill Me!” as opposed to a local population saying “Fill me!”


So what’s happened during lockdown, as stages have closed? Places have been forced to articulate their identity in a new way - through live streaming, social media, participation with participants at home and working outdoors. And by doing this they are reshaping who they are and who knows them - hopefully forever! Perhaps they could be inspired by these models from Belgium and Stockton which look like an attempt to make private spaces public ones.


(an interesting sub plot to the above is the shadow of Shakespeare. The theatre is dominated by a writing culture not a creation culture. Writers write domestic dramas, largely set inside rooms, in traditional play structures. Are playwrights writing plays set in railway stations, woods and town squares? Many outdoor theatre shows this summer have been Shakespeare in the park style events but this is only a tiny shift in organisation identity and audience make up. How can we encourage a creation culture not a presentation culture?)


“Structure calcify, structures limit” Jasmine Wahi


The other thing that the pandemic has shown is the challenge of large organisations to adapt, re-purpose their expertise and change to a new form of delivery. They are weighted down by their size, the scale of their operations and their identity so have lost the ability to respond fast, in the moment, to change.


In one of our participant sessions we discussed interdependence - the arts and culture sector is all connected (even it feels like the threads are fraying or non-existent at times) and we all need each other - we need each other to do well, to care for each other and to share space.


David from my Reset group used the metaphor of a forest to discuss the change needed in the arts - how there are large trees and small trees and how things grow around and between them. Sometimes you need to clear a part of the forest to help other things grow, to let in more light. Lucy expanded the metaphor to talk about how a forest needed tending to and attending to (caring for on an ongoing basis as well as reacting to emerging issues) . Some large trees, have deep roots, need much sun and water but also create their own eco system of life living alongside them. Meanwhile, young, smaller trees and new species grow, twist and adapt to find light and water..... but at some point they will need much more space to grow. In a storm some trees will fall but this creates opportunities for others to grow? How will tend to and attend to our forest? And what new things can happen when new species arrive...


“Change the platforms” John McGrath


As part of the Reset programme John McGrath spoke about changing the platforms by which we share performance. For me this spoke of changing the time of day of shows, the spaces they inhabit and the methods they communicate by.  What could happen if we broke the need for a 7.30pm start time? What would happen if we didn’t create a show but a space? If we didn’t rehearse but co-created? 


An example of this change of platform is Marcus Faustini’s work with The Agency in Brazil and since the UK who spoke of cultural organisations finding where inequality exists and inserting themselves with in. Also, this collection of work that looks at changing the timeline of how work is experienced - using duration and time to think about a sustainable practice. Do we need a new show every 6 weeks on a stage or 6 weeks of 6 shows spread across the community?


“Be more simple” Marcus Faustini 


Many times over the reset programme we were encouraged to do deliberate acts, that change is both an immediate action and long term shifting of perspective. So my deliberate act right now is inspired by the manifesto of NT Ghent which came out of organisation wide and city wide consultation but also came from a desire to deliberately change how they work. So here are my provocations for anyone making and sharing art:


Provocations for performance in public and social space:


1) Go to the territories: Perform one piece (or share your art) for free in a public/social space at least twice a year. one in mid summer, one in mid winter.


2) Get new allies: Each season galleries commission dancers, museums commission poets, theatres commission visual artists and libraries commission curators. 


3) Art in the workplace: Place artists within a local business. Ask the business to give space and artist to make work specifically for that location and that community.


4) Workplace in the community: Be in residence in a local community -move the office to the community centre, create training programmes, run open workshops, start debates, provoke change, build something and leave it there. 


5) Extend the runs: All performance/exhibitions run an extra week at end of ‘auditorium’ run and perform work without decor for extra week in local school, library, care home, pub or social space.


6) Mix it up: Swap the stage for the cafe and cafe for the stage at least once a year. Swap dressing rooms for bars and bookshops for workshops. 


7) Change the duration: At least once a year make work that can be experienced by cycling, by walking, by train or on the bus.


8) Change the time: At least once a year make work that is experienced late in the night, at school pick up time or during lunch.


9) Hangout: Create a new creative social space in your venue which sole purpose is hanging out - no sales allowed. 


10) Ask: Every January ask your public. What do expect from us this year? What do you need this year? Centre the need the following year to change audience into community. 


PS:An Artist/Practice Led approach postscript


In July myself and my co-director at Tangled Feet Kat Joyce, collaborated with Vicki Amedume of Upswing to set up a working group of organisations that are core funded by Arts Council England who are artist/practice and.or founder led, that have no building and have no fixed touring model. We are all slightly nomadic stepping in and out of venues, communities and performance contexts. 


Spending time in this monthly working group which now numbers 40+ organisations I feel that our approach has some positive routes for future ways of working in public and social spaces:


-We are idea led and have a diverse set of skills to deliver ideas- our form bends to meet new challenges and tell stories in new ways 

-We are inspired by places and people and ideas connect them and us together

-We bring people together and create communities for short and long periods

-We only work in partnership so collaboration is in the blood

-We are adaptable, flexible and change size and shape as projects begin

-We are often nomadic and connect across many local and international contexts, exchanging localisms

-We are innovators of new ways of shaping and sharing work

-Spaces have often been in short supply to collectives and independent orgs - we fit in the gaps and grow them

-We are constantly in residence in other places/spaces 


Nathan Curry


More interesting Reads/listens 


Blogs, articles, research and Podcasts from all Culture Reset Programme


Culture Plan B Podcasts


Leadership from Hero to Host - Margaret Wheatley with Debbie Frieze - an action plan to reshape leadership 


Civic Role of the arts Case Studies 


Battles Lines are Drawn - Kully Thiarai explores the divides that Covid could strengthen or break: “The pandemic is testing us all in many ways. How honest are we going to be?” 


Art for Social Change or Social Justice 


Art Workers must demand the impossible


A Freelancers Support Menu


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