Edited extracts from an essay reflecting on participatory activity in times of lock-down…

Melanie is currently undertaking a Masters in Applied Theatre at Derby University, here’s some extracts from the essay she is writing as part of a work-based learning module in which she was hoping to use TESP’s Drop-in-Drama sessions as an activity for reflection…

On Monday 16 March 2020 at 5pm, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a public briefing that signified the UK’s trajectory would follow that of other European countries, and that social distancing measures were being implemented to be shortly followed by lock-down. At 6.02pm the same day, I posted a statement onto social media and via messages to individuals who had taken part in Drop-in-Drama activity:

“It is with a heavy heart that following the latest announcement about taking next steps towards social isolation and avoiding all social venues, we have to believe this to be the best approach for everybody’s health longterm and therefore will be cancelling Drop-in-Drama sessions for the foreseeable future…. We hope to find some ways of using technology to keep us all connected, and ask that you continue to make time for playing and exploring your own creativity; please do share here!”

Whilst it is recognised that few outside of the pandemic-research community could have predicted how the next 6-weeks would shape, it is interesting to note how easily technology was suggested as a solution; I, along with many others, embraced the notion that there was an electronic panacea to all our issues.

It is true that over the next couple of days, a plethora of pictures, videos, creative messages and lip-synchs were shared as ways for people to stay connected and that these offered some initial reassurance. Gradually, traditional, leader-led activities such as yoga and exercise classes were taken online with relative ease either as free resources or sitting behind paywalls and seemed to fill an activity void. 

Finally, the larger organisations assembled their respective contractual, logistical and financial components to provide access to their backlog of pre-recorded, high-quality productions online through vehicles such as National Theatre At Home and The Show Must Go Online.

The pressure to find a solution for TESP programmes to do similar was mounting; from participants, internal monologues and external influences alike. Why was I allowing a host of sometimes vulnerable people to be unsupported at this time of crisis? Where exactly was that gung-ho spirit of Mike Bradwell’s “Find a play. Squat a building. Steal a van. Now make a show!” that I so admired? What specifically was making me feel so immobilised, unable and unwilling to adapt to the current situation?

Then things seemed to shift; there was a flood of terribly conceived and awfully executed content washing across our screens; actress Gal Gadot and her cronies’ awful compound version of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ being possibly the worst example of non-specialists using a medium they didn’t fully understand to create inappropriate, tone-deaf and patronising content, in spite of all good intentions. 

Dani Snyder-Young’s notions around this issue in relation to applied theatre:
“Most artists are aware that theatre projects cannot, generally, stop wars, start revolutions, prevent the rise of regimes, stop the proliferation of nuclear arms, or put an end to global warming…implores artists to ask, as they contemplate a project’s goals, whether theatre is indeed the intervention needed to make the change for which they fight.”
were being compounded by activity from a range of different artists failing to contemplate the extent to which their own ‘interventions’ were the right choice for this particular moment.

The edict against the coming together of people in communal settings other than for essential activity, ensured the rules of participatory arts engagement were severely restricted and therefore the act of contemplating our own essentialism was vital and inescapable. An online blogger writing under the pseudonym of Nicholas Berger captured my own feelings around this:

“I can’t shake my own feeling of inadequacy. Surely, we should all become doctors, nurses, scientists, journalists, politicians, some career that would help us feel like we are making a tangible difference. People are dying and we’re just sitting around! But as I take a breath and turn the television off, what I realize I am really reckoning with is my own non-essentialism. Theatre and its practitioners have been deemed non-essential in this moment and our refusal to acknowledge this has resulted in disposable digital work that dismantles the very intimacy our form demands. We’re being asked to exit the stage, not give an encore.”

It became apparent that the best technological solutions were providing audiences with access to pre-set, unchangeable packages of content that were not necessarily related to current circumstances and neither did they seek to be affected or influenced in real-time by their audiences; teaching content was developed from an instructional stance and all were usually supported by quality recording equipment and/or specialist personnel.

It was also clear that if one under-estimated the complex set of conditions involved in providing an opportunity for coming together with the specific intention of being playful and receptive to the possibility of others’ actions affecting you, as previously articulated [earlier in the paper], and rushed-in with a replacement, the potential consequences could be damaging.

To simply refocus my own practice through a digital lens would involve so much re-staging of central ideas and beliefs that the work would no longer be recognisable; could no longer be called my practice. To reposition my workshop leader role from one as co-learner and co-affected alongside participants was a move I could not endorse.

I concur with Dewey when in 1938 he wrote:

“It is then the business of the educator to see in what direction an experience is heading. There is no point in his being more mature if, instead of using his greater insight to help organize the conditions of the experience of the immature, he throws away his insight….A primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but that they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth. Above all, they should know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worth while.”

Whilst Dewey clearly was not talking about the environs of an online experience, it is my belief that the notion of worth while participatory and affective drama workshop experiences cannot simply be translated digitally and, had I tried, I would have been doing an injustice to the participants.

This time has been extremely useful in reflecting on the essence of TESP Drop-in-Drama sessions; to recognise what James Thompson (2005) calls the “bits of practice” and the intrinsic and extrinsic value this can provide:

“…the aspects that practitioners and participants might relish, such as joy, fun, pleasure or beauty, but rarely appear in the articulated intentions, funding applications or evaluation reports…these areas are the vital affective register of participatory arts that should not be accidental or peripheral but need to be central to the purpose and thinking about the work, so that…what has reached us through the senses becomes foundational to the practice and crucially politics of applied theatre.”

2 Comments

Baz

Some good points there and reflective of my own feeling of helplessness and uselessness during this ghastly time as a performer. Some have suggested to me “Hey Baz, why don’t you do a live performance and stream it?” They’ve been bewildered by my refusal. Thing is, for what we do, it’s all about interactivity. Put me in front of a live audience and… magic happens. That bond/conflict between performer and audience creates that special energy. I love to SEE and sense my audiences so I can gauge what they’re thinking and how they’re reacting so I can respond and adapt to it. So many magical moments have happened over my career thanks to that, so performing to a static camera in the privacy of my own home with no idea who’s actually watching? No thanks, that’s not what we’re about.

No energy, no vibe, no interactivity = no point. A calamitous time for performers and I fear it could be a very long time before we may be “permitted” to perform/work again in spite of the fact humanity is in desperate need of cheering up, and of each others company. Then people wonder why I’ve been grumpy and lost during this lockdown – it feels like I’ve had my life force and being taken away from me. No energy, no reason – lifelessness and stagnancy.

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Melanie Whitehead

Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts Baz
There is so much untapped potential here – we can but hope that one day soon, we can once more tap back into that and also create some conditions for that to flourish and breathe new life back into all of us.
Hang on in there x

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