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
Vicki Amedume: Artistic Director
The Upswing team closed the door to our office at Rich Mix at 7pm on 17 March 2020. We left knowing it may be a little while until we returned and so took the essentials with us: our laptops; an ancient Dell computer; Pippa the Peace Lily and Sid the Spiderplant. We set up our (then assumed temporary) desk spaces at home and we braced ourselves.
Although full lockdown was a shock to the system, we had had our eyes on the evolving crisis in China for a few months and we had first-hand view of the impact Covid was having on our Chinese partners. Our tour of Bedtime Stories was cancelled in February and, during March, we faced further cancellations for our UK tours. We pressed pause indefinitely on our multi-year projects taking place in care homes and libraries and took heed.
With so much lost we decided to do two things. First, we turned our energies to supporting the many freelancers who were left feeling isolated and disconnected. I am endlessly proud of the way the entire Upswing team stepped up to offer support surgeries alongside the day-to-day work of stabilising an organisation in crisis.
Second, we took the decision not to reflexively change direction but to instead slow down and listen. On the 26th March we published a statement which inspired a more focused response.
We launched our Circus Connect: COVID Resource Hub – a dedicated area of Upswing’s website where we listed available funding and government support and formalised bookable support surgeries with our team members, as well as shows and circus activities for our audiences in lockdown.
As part of that initiative we launched Slow Thinking – a digital programme that brought the circus sector together in conversations about the immediate and the future. We conversed about everything – from how we might adapt Circus to working in digital formats, to how we might better support emerging circus artists in lockdown. Slow Thinking has now developed into a regular programme that and has welcomed over 300 people since its inception.
It took time for us to secure the company, and that was tough, but we also realised that there were some positives in our situation – the main being that of a renewed connection. Never before had we felt so connected to our community and our sector. We participated in world-wide conversations from our front rooms, hosted by circus colleagues in Australia, in Canada and in the US. These fostered connections we may never have made in ‘normal’ times because we may only meet physically very occasionally at a conference. We realized the power of communication and collaboration with partners, artists, funders and connected with the broader Contemporary Circus Sector through Circus Change UP in collaboration with Crying Out Loud. We met other Artist-Led Arts Council funded organisations; and joined Management groups made up of organisations across the cultural sector. We shared resources, skills and knowledge.
This reconnection enabled us, as a company, to enter a deeper dialogue with our audiences online, leading us to revisit our values and our mission, and reimagine how Upswing can better serve our audiences.
In June, the tragic events in the US made visible and undeniable the impact of structural racism in our societies and bought many to focus how those inequalities were replicated in their organisations and sectors. For many years Upswing has worked to address the lack of Ethnic diversity in Circus, and in June we had a moment to galvanise our peers, colleagues and communities in this effort and recentre inclusion and equity as part of everyone’s mission.
In late summer, with support from Newham Unlocked,Certain Blacks and Greenwich+Docklands International Festival, we reimagined Catch Me into a socially distanced and a film version of the performance. It was a joy to return to the rehearsal room even in this very changed context but it was (no pun intended) testing. Naively we went back imagining we were simply adapting an existing work. We spent two days hitting roadblock after roadblock. Finally, we realised we had to let go and discover a new work based on the same themes, but that made us free enough to develop it with the necessary restrictions as an opportunity. The resulting work felt like an evolution and affirmation of the original, but resonant for the times we were in.
As we approach one year since we left the office, we’ve come full circle. We are finally planning on the relaunch of our project Homemade Circus and are now receiving bookings again for touring shows Catch Me and Circus Flavours. We have also fully pivoted to being a remote working company and realised that we can be a more agile and flexible team.
This June we return to Seasons; a multi-year project we have been developing with communities in Brent. The project has now been expanded to include a digital audio-visual trail mixing Circus, spoken word and music to take audiences on a journey through the nature above, below and all around them.
The last 12 months has had a considerable impact on everyone; an experience that can – in time – be a catalyst for positive change. We want to continue to make relevant work that emphasises the need for connection with each other and with our environment. We want to root ourselves in our communities and deepen experiences for our audiences, and we cannot wait to meet with them all in-person again.
Vicki would like to credit Claire and Sherry for their help in writing this piece.