On the 17th March, it will be exactly one year since UK theatre came to an overnight standstill. Every day as we approach the anniversary, Theatre Bubble will be releasing personal accounts from theatre makers across all areas of the industry, telling us what this unexpected and unprecedented year has been like for them. See the full series here: Hands Face & Empty Space
Sarah Chew: Director
Several years ago, looking for something to get me out of a deep, dark funk following a shocking bereavement, I found life drawing. There was something about the short bursts of very intense concentration required to capture a model’s never-to-be repeated pose, in a fixed amount of time, among a friendly and supportive community, that offered genuine relief from my mental stormclouds. It felt healthy to be regularly practicing something creative where I had no particular professional or emotional investment in getting better at it: sure, it was nice to do a good drawing and frustrating to do a bad one, but the point, for me at least, was the practice, not the end result.
But there was the problem – or, at least, the slight unease. As a busy and hugely driven theatre artist, wasn’t it a little embarrassing to have … a hobby? Did it show a lack of commitment to developing my Real Art? Learning a new language or musical instrument, I could have explained away to myself as career development. Yoga is a commitment to keeping the body capable of doing what it needs it to in order to work. But investing this much time in a practice that gave no apparent benefit to my real vocation? Did that suggest I was not committed enough to the path I had chosen? Was it a waste of time?
Of course, looking back objectively, those questions are nonsense. But they brought to the surface what I realised was a deep fear: could I still call myself a theatre maker in times when I wasn’t making theatre?
This time last year, like pretty much every theatre maker in the world, I found myself asking that question again. I wonder if we will remember that time as a kind of collective bereavement, a sense of catastrophic loss with no apparent hope of regeneration? Like many, I made feverish, grandiloquent plans based in technology I had never used and did not understand: I remember extensive, impassioned conversations about creating an international opera over Zoom, a full orchestra and chorus performing from home, waving away colleague’s urgent concerns about the intrinsic sound override function of the platform as some minor issue we could fix later. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. I, and pretty much everyone I work with, are wholly live artists. Most of us had neither the skills nor the appetite for the wholly digital world that we found ourselves in.
Much like a bereavement, real healing happens much more slowly, and it grows shoots in the least expected directions. Long before formal life drawing classes, I’d been a regular at my friend and collaborator Dusty Limits’ cabaret/life drawing/party fusion night Dr Sketchy’s Anti Art Class. Originally set up in New York by visual and burlesque artist Molly Crabapple, it now has chapters all over the world. Helping create a Facebook Live drawing session, broadcast from the flat Dusty shares with boylesque artist and Dr Sketchy regular model Sebastian Angelique, was initially just a way of keeping us and a few of our mates a little bit saner.
I think my first moment of realising that digital live performance could offer something that wholly live performance could not, was when people from other global chapters of Dr Sketchy started to join – from New Jersey to Tokyo, we were connecting with artists who shared our need both to do silly drawing games and to seriously try to maintain our hope and sense of self in sad and frightening times. Dr Sketchy producer Clare Wilmer found ever more ingenious ways of bringing in new audiences. And we – a bunch of total Luddites – started to look for forms and platforms that could try to offer a more authentic kind of digital cabaret club experience.
One of the loveliest things about lockdown was seeing how the grassroots theatre community worked to look after its own. How could we find ways of paying each other while sustaining ourselves? Patreon was buzzing; Facebook was full of requests to buy hand-made masks from suddenly-unemployed costume designers. A friend kindly used a chunk of his Arts Council emergency grant to have me coach him in audition technique; I used that fee to have the amazing theatre artist and creative technologist Laura Trevail coach me on how Zoom could actually work for theatre.
This was a slow process. Unlike drawing, I’d be lying if I said I ever found pleasure in learning Zoom. But I did have the pleasure, in Laura, of a funny, smart and infinitely patient teacher who had been doing this digital theatre lark for years, and who helped me to realise that I could find pleasure and meaning in what I could get from it.
Nope, I’ve still not worked out how to do opera with a symphony orchestra on Zoom. To be honest, I never will. But learning how to direct and vision mix live performance that actually works on the platform, and actually satisfies our formerly live audience, is something I never thought I’d be able to learn, and never would have been interested in learning, had it not been for lockdown. I’m aching to get back to live performance, but these skills, and the possibilities they offer, are allowing me to think about inclusivity, and about international collaboration, in ways I’d never otherwise have done. It’s also, thanks to Snapcam and the BBC archive of greenscreen-friendly backgrounds, allowed me to fulfil a childhood dream and direct an episode of Dr Who – albeit one where every single one of the characters look a lot like Sebastian Angelique, and where no one moves, much. But hey – the Weeping Angels was the scariest episode, ok?
The future is scary, without a doubt. The end of lockdown will not mean the industry we love will just go back to how it was. But compared to where I was this time last year, I have hope. We have proved we can adapt, and in adapting, learn skills that will keep enriching us. We have proved that we can and do support each other. And we have learned that we still are, and will always be, theatre makers, even when we can’t make live theatre.