For pretty much everyone working in theatre, the months of adjusting to pandemic have brought into question anything that might before have been assumed or accepted. People being in a room together is pretty fundamental to theatre, no? So what happens when that basic ingredient is neither safe nor allowed? What is live performance if it can’t be experienced simultaneously by humans breathing the same air? And is participatory theatre even possible when all the potential participants are stuck inside their own homes?
Brighton People’s Theatre spent the early lockdown period finding the quickest possible answers. By March this year, its open and informal weekly workshops were “motoring”, says artistic director Naomi Alexander: “We had 200 people coming in and out of that group between September and March, and it felt like there was a lot of energy and joy in that room.” Although the company had reached the end of its initial Paul Hamlyn Foundation funding, it had just received a small grant from Arts Council England to continue its activities until July, and the plan was to apply for a bigger grant in September to begin the research and development process on what might be its first major show. When all those plans were overturned by Covid-19, the company turned to its participants, asking who would consider meeting online. Receiving plenty of enthusiasm in response, the BPT team spent April rapidly putting together a temporary online programme that would allow the company to “keep going in this new context” between May and July.
That online programme kept as much continuity as it could with what had gone before: so play readings, theatre clubs and special guest workshops looking at some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of making theatre. The big difference was that the weekly workshops became fortnightly, with a much smaller, invited group of 20 attending on Zoom. And BPT’s access budget, usually available to anyone who needed travel or childcare costs covered, was now used to buy a tablet and internet access for anyone who might have been excluded without them.
It wasn’t until the season was underway that BPT realised: “effectively we were R&D-ing a new way of working”. And everything that the company learned through that accidental research fed into the autumn programme that became possible with the announcement in October that BPT had been included in the Cultural Recovery Fund.
One unexpected, positive discovery is that, for some people, being online enabled them to participate. Attending a workshop – even one as friendly as BPT’s – can be an intimidating business, says Naomi. “People who have never done any theatre before said to us that the workshop is quite scary: you’re feeling like everyone is better than you, or knows what they’re doing. Whereas that internal dialogue was much quieter for a lot of people because they are in their own homes, there’s less of a sense of being seen, and they were able to do the creative challenges that we set in their own time.”
This meant participants “had to have really high levels of motivation, but actually, people got stuck in and had a great experience – and surprised themselves with what they could do.” As one attendee of the online workshops said: “It’s so interesting how we can all be given the same task and yet come up with such different responses.” Feedback also revealed that people felt: “a greater sense of agency and control and creative expression because they were largely working on their own,” says Naomi, “whereas in a face-to-face workshop there’s quite a lot of compromise and collaboration.” And while separation might suggest disconnection, the participants also spoke of feeling “connected to others taking part”, with the workshops maintaining “a sense of community, connection, humour and joy”.
On the downside, there were a few usually keen participants who tried working online and decided it wasn’t for them. “Personally I’m in their camp,” Naomi admits. “Collaborating in person is visceral, playful – online it feels much harder.” Plus, there was one social group who found it particularly difficult to attend: carers, in particular mothers of young children. “Pretty much everyone who is a mum, who was coming along to our in-person workshops because they managed to get out of the house for some me-time, said: ‘It’s impossible for me to get an hour at the computer without being interrupted.’ Being in the house meant they were ‘available’,” says Naomi. It’s encouraged her to reconsider the timings of future workshops, the better to enable carers to attend.
The autumn programme has also been guided by a key realisation: that it would have been helpful over the summer to have “more of a focus, more of a clear creative output that we were all working towards”. Instead, a purpose was found in retrospect, with participants being invited to record texts they had written or movement sequences they had composed, on their doorsteps or in open spaces near their homes, to become part of a series of short films to be posted on BPT’s blog. “We didn’t plan each session thinking about making a film, we just planned each one as a stand-alone creative challenge,” says Naomi. “But as it went on we thought: this is beautiful, let’s ask everyone to perform on film.”
The editing process has been hard work. Naomi believes it’s important to: “balance people’s feelings with artistic quality. If you’re putting something out in the public domain, you have a duty to put the audience’s interests alongside the interests of your participants.” That could mean the makers’ favourite work ultimately not being shared. Editing with care and consideration requires attention much earlier in the process, Naomi argues: also, it can be better supported by, for instance, having a commissioned writer working alongside participants, “crafting what people are coming up with into something of great quality”, which can be made even better by the participants in the performance.
All the summer’s learning helped the BPT team design the autumn season “with a clearer, more joyful focus”. Already work has started on another short film, which “everyone is working on together”. To bring lightness and fun to the encroaching winter, the film will be: “a pantomime riff on the 12 days of Christmas, but celebrating key workers in Brighton”. This time a writer and musician are part of the process, and the script is being generated through creative challenges set in the online workshops. Brighton Dome is supporting the work, and have offered its stage for filming, although the new round of national restrictions has reopened the question of where and when that might happen. “We have to have a super flexible plan because we have no idea what we’ll be allowed to do from one week to the next,” says Naomi, understandably frustrated.
But there are other ways in which being flexible is a benefit, allowing BPT to be more accessible. Perhaps surprisingly, given the context, BPT has been able to attract new participants even during lockdown, whether through Facebook (“our number one way people find us”), conversations with community workers, or chats on people’s doorsteps.
BPT’s ambition is to be as bespoke as possible, meeting people where they are. Naomi aspires to hold weekly workshops in different communities, as well as the city centre, as well as online: “You’ve got to have multiple entry points, multiple ways and times and days. But developing relationships with people so they feel confident enough to come along is really time-consuming, and that costs money. It costs money and we’re a tiny team: the equivalent of one full-time member of staff split across several freelancers.”
Naomi and I had this conversation before BPT received its Cultural Recovery Fund, bringing an amazing and much-needed injection of resources – but no change to the bigger system that forces companies like BPT to survive on project funding, a hand-to-mouth existence that benefits no one. Before working with BPT I did some research for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, looking at the relationship between participatory or co-created arts and funding, and so many of the organisations I spoke to said that short-term project funding, and the expectation of quick outcomes connected to that, were two of the biggest challenges or even barriers they faced in their work.
“I don’t want to be scrabbling for little scraps of money knowing we could achieve so much more if we have decent resources,” says Naomi. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in BPT’s work – she does, profoundly – but she also knows how easy it is for people in the arts to damage their mental and physical health making up for shortfalls in funding. “We’re a tiny intervention in a massive system,” she says. Just how massive has been underscored by the local community led research published under the title Open Up Arts, in which people who live in different social housing areas in Brighton talk about how overlooked they are by the arts industry. Naomi and BPT are ready to reinvent theatre to ensure everyone in the city is able to participate and be creative. Her challenge to others in the industry is to find ways to do the same.