As theatres stand dark across the UK and creatives find new ways of making work online, artistic director Natalie Ibu questions whether our time would be better spent preparing for what comes after coronavirus
What a rollercoaster this has been. Two Sundays ago, I was in emergency talks with our producer, thrashing out the complexities of wanting to support our new touring show, Seeds, made by debut artists, which we’d poured all our money and time into, yet not wanting to ask audiences to put their health – and the health of others – at risk to see it.
A play about empathy, responsibility, care and accountability – and a producer who will think it through from every angle – made it easy to decide to do our civic duty and play our part in limiting the damage and casualties of Covid-19. The show must not go on.
When Boris Johnson escalated the UK’s response the following day, that decision became even less complicated as theatres around the nation began to shut their doors.
By Tuesday, March 16, I – like most of my peers, who commission, produce and present work – was juggling the job of closing down existing projects, while frantically trying to start new ones to fill the gap, pivoting to digital. “Can we do a reading of Seeds on Zoom?” “Can we still do this project but make it digital?” There were several possibilities and problems to solve.
We benefit from taxpayers’ money as one of 828 national portfolio organisations funded by Arts Council England, so it’s our duty to put that money to good use and to make theatre available to as many people as possible, no matter the circumstances.
As an organisation, we’ve been thinking deeply about the digital space for a few years because we know that the potential audiences for our work are active and highly engaged. Often those online conversations (podcasts, web series, Twitter threads) are the spaces we want to be contributing to.
But after a while, Zooming by day and Netflixing by night, sending and receiving memes about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear while self-isolating during the plague, and reading tweets about how to use this time for side hustles, I was hit by fatigue.
There is already so much content out there. Do we need more? I need to catch up on all the things our audiences have been watching for months and years while I’ve been sitting in a dark room next to strangers, getting cramp in my left leg trying (and often failing) to understand Shakespeare. And even before lockdown, I’d spend Saturdays scrolling endlessly through Netflix, unable to decide what to watch.
As the days have gone on and more digital projects, seasons and festivals have emerged, the more I feel like what we – and by we, I mean regularly funded organisations who commission, produce and present work – actually need to do is rest, recover and plan our return. Because after coronavirus, the world will need very different things and we need to be ready to respond to that.
If we keep ourselves too busy, inserting ourselves into each strand of the crisis, we’ll miss the opportunity to really listen. I will forever remember and treasure the concept of resisting pace and fast action that artist Rabab Ghazoul talks about at her Cardiff-based cultural organisation Gentle/Radical.
I understand that part of the sector’s digital response is about creating a cultural economy so that our freelances can still pay their bills. And that is important, but I ask – like Selina Thompson did on Twitter, as she urged people to re-release and republish work or offer money without strings rather than rush to create new digital work – whether that exchange is helpful right now?
At Tiata Fahodzi, on the first day of shutdown, and inspired by Amahra, Luke Barnes and Bryony Kimmings, we gave away £2,700 in 11 ‘We got you, no questions asked’ hardship grants. We wanted to say: “We got you and we need you” because we know we’re nothing without you. If we have to have something in exchange, then I wonder whether we should be commissioning the artists, not to create now, but to think about what they might create in nine months’ time.
We should be paying artists now to help us imagine this new world. What would it mean if each NPO committed to an artist in (non)residence, paying a fee so that they could be our thermometer in the world – not for a digital series that gets lost among a new album release from Beyoncé (wishful thinking), a new episode of our favourite podcast (Still Processing, since you asked) or the next episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race on Netflix.
I love theatre and I love the sector, but that’s why I’m so critical of it – I want it to be the best it can be. There’s something about us all screaming into the digital space at a time when the world is literally falling apart that feels, I don’t know, needy and attention hungry. A fellow theatre artist left me a voice note saying that theatre can’t handle being an extra in this apocalyptic, pandemic saga.
If we keep ourselves too busy, inserting ourselves into every strand of the crisis, we’ll miss the opportunity to really listen
Our job as cultural leaders is to be strategic – to be thinking about what’s to come in a month, three months, six months, two years, and then to have the energy to lead the nation through the challenges ahead. In order to do that, we need to be well, we need space and quiet to be able to think, but also to be able to listen and read the psychology of the nation. How might we do that when we’re locked in our houses?
I’m working on rewriting our business plan and resisting the urge to write ‘the same but digital’; instead, I’m trying to create space for listening, responding and supporting what the world wants from us next. I’m thinking about what psychological state we’ll all be in when we emerge into the British summer, and what it will mean for what we do and how we do it.
Will we want to sit in the dark or will we want to be outdoors? Will we want to be together in a collective experience or will sitting so close to strangers create anxiety? My feeling is, when the world opens up again, the response has to be about more than your own organisation’s programme of work – it has to be a national moment.
Individual and independent artists, please – do whatever you need to do to survive. My fellow organisations, it’s okay not to have the answers. We have to create space to ask the questions, so I have stopped using all my energy to commission work for today and tomorrow. I’m focusing on being okay with quiet, being okay with not being at my home desk, being okay with daydreaming, because what are we but a bunch of daydreamers?
I am so excited about the kind of sector we might build when we’re allowed out again. We need to take the time to imagine what that might look like. The Arts Council’s new 10-year strategy paints a vision of a country transformed by culture. I’d go one step further and ask for a culture transformed by our country, and it starts here and now.
Natalie Ibu is artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi