In little more than a week, it’s already become a cliche to say we are living in unprecedented times.
In my last entry on this blog, barely three months ago, I was mourning the defeat of progressive values in the December general election, and looking ahead to five years of opposition, as the UK slid into a post-Brexit malaise of small-minded ethnonationalism.
All that has changed. The coronavirus crisis is a bitter blow to a country already battered by three years of infighting, and the costs and consequences will of course be severe. But there’s also a stark kind of poetry in being thrown headlong into something which forces us to put our recent domestic dramas into some kind of perspective.
It’s my belief that, despite the huge and painful costs of what we are all going through, the very fact of being united in a shared trauma, and being forced to pull together, is what will endure, long after we have buried our loved ones and defeated this virus. Don’t get me wrong, Brexit has still happened, and may yet get worse, in addition to whatever social consequences coronavirus brings. (And the price is already high, just ask any British East Asian).
But biology, illness and mortality do not discriminate. Whatever we end up facing, we will face together, no longer the same country. We will have rediscovered our collective spirit. And in that lies hope.
It’s easy to be despairing. Plenty I know are, and even I’ve had my moments. But despair is not a plan. And it is the job of those of us in the creative industries, most especially the publicly-funded arts (and theatre specifically as its most collective, collaborative form) to find hope in unlikely places, and describe imaginative ways forward. Art creates meaning from suffering.
Let’s start with politics. I was brought up by a single parent mum, a 60s hippy turned social worker. Some of my earliest memories are being taken on CND anti-nuclear marches, to collectivist communes, wacky outdoor performance art festivals, or surreptitiously putting up posters around my school to resist the first wave of state school privatisation (which started in the late 1980s). So it’s no surprise that politics has always been an abiding personal interest.
It’s also the prism through which I view my work and creative output. I believe theatre, and narrative storytelling in particular, is not just an essential part of a democracy, but a way of understanding ourselves – our species, our histories, the forces which have shaped our world – and in so doing creating a space in which to imagine new and different futures.
But even we storytellers would have had trouble imagining all this. It just goes to show how close we are, at any given time, to the possibility of radical, world-shifting change. If I’d been sent a play to read about the events we are living through today, it would have been hard to suspend disbelief. Yet here we are.
Consider, for a moment, the irony of the most hard right Tory government in history becoming the most extreme socialists the UK has ever seen, effectively nationalising the entire British economy. (Its nearest fictional parallel would be Channel 4’s 1988 drama A Very British Coup, which in hindsight is way off the mark!).
The implications of this cannot be understated. There is now a huge question mark over the free market orthodoxy which has governed our lives and shaped our society for decades, namely, that the ideal organising principle of our society should be the wholesale marketisation of every aspect of our lives. Nature appears to have intervened. The free market can’t fix coronavirus – only the state can.
As we are creatures of short lifespans, who live mostly in the present tense, it’s easy to forget that the collective will and action of a people expressed through a state long pre-dates the no-tax, no-state ultra capitalist model of doing the same through market forces. We are being forced to reconsider cutthroat competition with one another as the basis of our social contract. Instead, it is (for the most part) bring replaced by a renewed faith in community, collectivism and cooperation.
Every day brings new developments as we rediscover this age old love of the state as a force for positive social change – from proper funding for the NHS, to state-run railways, to a reprieve for the BBC (a Tory war against it was just gathering pace), to collective organising around education, health, food, culture, and a long overdue recognition that ‘low-skilled workers’ like cleaners, bin collectors, delivery drivers , fruit and veg pickers, and supermarket cashiers are actually essential services which keep our society functioning. Even my street, in a typically atomised London commuter town of busy people mostly ignoring each other, now has a ‘shared library’ in the form of a storage box for swapping kids books and novels.
This is a tectonic shift in our thinking. We will emerge, blinking, into a different world. It’s going to be difficult to go back to how things were.
I predict that this new world will include a resurgence of enthusiasm for public institutions, including the arts. The theatre industry might have been temporarily forced to fall silent, but it’s striking that in times of crisis, we nevertheless fall back on creativity and culture – whether it’s Netflix binges, streaming theatre, online live gigs and listening parties, or taking the opportunity of more free time to write, draw, learn an instrument or another language. Even home schooling our kids is making us more creative. Many cultural organisations are falling over themselves to share fantastic content free of charge. Although not a sustainable model, its short term generosity is responding to a huge demand as we consume music, art, stories – most especially stories – to comfort ourselves and find meaning (that word again) at a frightening time.
Of course, this is against a background of great individual hardships. My heart goes out to those in overcrowded households, care homes, prisons, the disabled, the homeless, the elderly, NHS staff and young people due to sit their exams this summer, to name just a few. These are also the groups we’re going to have to work out how to look after better, once all this is over. Coronavirus is showing up political decisions for what they truly are, pulling away the fig leaf that some things are simply not possible or affordable. Just look how quickly rough sleepers can be housed once the government really put their minds to it.
Closer to home, at Tamasha, we are in touch with many early-career artists whose livelihoods have been pulled out from under them, or who are suddenly having to care for older relatives.
One in particular, a current member of the Tamasha Playwrights group, Shaan Sahota, is a junior doctor in Southall. Although a gynaecological specialist, she has been posted to frontline coronavirus intensive care. Shaan writes:
“My work life has changed quite dramatically since we last spoke – I was ‘redeployed’ to corona critical care last week, all my annual leave has been delayed for the foreseeable, the legal limits on my hours have been lifted by my union and my work rota has changed a lot … Hospitals are a really sad place to be right now, and we aren’t used to the kind of decisions and deaths we are seeing. And it’s one thing to be brave for yourself, but I know we are all afraid we might be putting our families at risk.”
Naturally, her first draft for us is going to have to wait. I can’t help wondering what it will be like after what she is experiencing now.
Another of our writers, Satinder Chohan, author of 2017’s Made In India has different challenges:
“You’ve got childcare and I’ve got high risk elderly parent care! That weird parent-child role reversal that kicks in during one’s later years…now banning them from going out, rather than vice versa. It’s hard to keep my Dad locked in, calm and my Mum’s borderline dementia means we have to keep explaining why she can no longer go to the Gurdwara…Everything a bit uphill at the mo but slowly pushing through, trying to reconfigure, like everyone.”
However, she ends on a positive note:
“With all that’s going on, I think you’re right there’s a real opportunity for a much changed world. While everything has been so absolutely messed up on a political level, I honestly think Earth/mother nature has had enough of us. It’s really enforcing a break we wouldn’t give it, slowing us down, forcing us indoors to retreat, reflect, reset, take care of our bodies, our selves, each other and of course, to take care of the most vulnerable among us.”
We may not be able to control these catastrophic events, but we can control our reaction to them.
One silver lining is surely the chance to catch up on fantastic work you might have missed due to the relentless pace of modern life. As the biggest single employer of dramatic writers in the country, BBC Radio 4 has a new drama out every single day, with each available on iPlayer for 30 days. That’s in addition to a slew of exciting online-only content for new platform BBC Sounds, which I’d been wishing for ages i had the time to explore.
Indie companies are following suit. One of our longtime collaborators Holy Mountain, is releasing audio drama content from their back catalogue every day for the foreseeable future, including some radio plays by yours truly.
As a touring company, Tamasha is less reliant than venues on box office and bar income, so we are relatively lucky. But if our venue partners go bust all around us that is of course bad news.
The Arts Council have been fantastic, announcing within days of the shutdown a £160 million rescue package for companies in danger of going under, and including a strand for non-NPOs and ‘creative practitioners’. This includes writers, translators, producers, editors, educators, directors, designers, choreographers, composers and visual artists working in the publicly funded culture sector.
At Tamasha, the office team are working remotely, but we are still here and luckily were mostly preparing for a year of R&D on a couple of new projects, much of which can continue during the lockdown. Sadly, our 30th anniversary celebrations have had to be put on hold.
But one project in particular can still take place online – our first open call for an Introduction to Publishing course run in collaboration with our friends at Hachette. Think you’ve got a novel in you? Now is the time to pitch us! We will read applications and recruit the group as normal, with sessions pencilled for the autumn, all being well. Applications are open now, with a 5th May deadline.
Our Tamasha Digital pilot year last year was timely. Our online content for your listening pleasure now includes Decolonising History, Tell Dem, Loyalty and Dissent, and the original Taxi Tales audio monologues. We’re also looking into securing the relevant permissions for another webcast of our two livestreamed shows Made In India and Approaching Empty.
Our regular groups Tamasha Playwrights and Tamasha Directors have moved online, prompting us to consider what else we could do remotely. For example, workshops for those who can’t get to our office base in East London, or developing more Hear Me Now audition monologues by pairing up actors and writers to develop new characters online. Watch this space and check the company’s social media for future initiatives.
We are of course a small player in a much larger cultural landscape. It’s been heartening to see such a groundswell of imaginative online creativity – and not just in theatre. A previously profit-driven model has been temporarily abandoned in favour of a community-spirited giveaway, with numerous apps, games, learning resources and other membership schemes being offered for free.
True, none of this particularly helps individual artists looking to create new work, or replace lost commissions. This is why, behind the scenes, we are trying to marshal our sector to start a round of commissioning. It’s harder than it sounds when finances across the sector are in freefall, with companies nervous about committing to new spending without knowing what the future holds. But in principle at least, now is a great time to commission new work which can be developed solo – playwriting in particular, and we hope to have some more news on that front soon.
I’d like to end with a book recommendation of my own. In fact, I have just bought a copy for each member of the Tamasha team. Just before coronavirus hit, I was reading Hope In The Dark by Rebecca Solnit.
I started reading it feeling a bit despairing about the general election and Brexit, and the book’s relentless optimism was quite infectious. Solnit’s whole theory is that because the future is always unknown, and unknowable, therein lies hope. She’s brilliant at picking examples from recent history where unexpectedly positive side effects came out of distressing social upheavals. I remember thinking ‘Well that’s all well and good but what are the chances of a great social upheaval in Brexit Britain to overturn our current hard-right political hegemony?” Then coronavirus did exactly that, and the book seems more relevant than ever. It’s only a few quid on Kindle, and if you’re in any doubt you can read the introduction online for free here.
In her foreword, written to accompany the second edition, Solnit looks back at her original text, written in 2003, and the changes since. She writes:
“If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it is that the unimaginable is ordinary … We don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space of hope.”
Hang in there. We’ll get through this together. Once the collective suffering is over, the collective change begins.
Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director