This was originally written for Theatre Absolute's blog which can be found here. It's a reflection on a 4 day, freeform, collaborative R&D at which took place at Shop Front Theatre, Coventry in July 2016. The collaborators were: Ola Animashawun, Marius Mates, Julia Negus, Chris O'Connell, Sneha Singh and me.
Recently, I was privileged enough to share space with 5 incredible artists from various artistic disciplines, regions of the UK, and cultural backgrounds at Shop Front Theatre in Coventry. We had a space, 4 days, a short story stimulus, and a simple provocation: ‘We are not where we are but in a false position’. From there, we began R&D on an ambitious multi-disciplinary performance project called Arc – an exploration of contemporary, global living, and the disruption of system, structure, and storyline.
New as I was to Coventry, to Theatre Absolute, and to truly ground-up, collaborative practice, there’s no understating the impact of those 4 days on my approach to theatre-making practice, my outlook, and my connection with those around me. Now that I’m back in the bustle of London, I’m stuck for ways to begin – so here’s a jumbled set of thoughts:
I came into the project via Chris O’Connell, who had been a brilliant writing mentor on a playwriting residency in April 2016. When he first mentioned the project, the brief which was so open-ended and thrilling, it was both daunting and difficult to turn down.
Chris and co-founder Julia Negus set the tone for what was to be an eye-opening 4 days of uncensored and honest. The mostly leaderless devising process seemed to tap into each of our authentic instincts, responses, and memories. Whether it was a gnawing uncertainty following the results of the EU referendum, the mindful satisfaction of drinking water consciously, or a first-hand reaction to a machete-wielding priest, we collectively worked our way towards our ‘arc’. As much as I found the creative impulses to be loose and organic, I knew I was working with consummate collaborators – weaving together spoken word, new writing, movement, multimedia, music, dance, and textile art so evocatively and with skill.
I continue to be floored by Marius’ breaking prowess, Sneha’s verbal and physical lyricism, Julia’s free-flowing conduit between concept and creation, Chris’ bold eloquence, and Ola’s incisive insight. The opportunity to work in such uniquely skilled room is rare. Diverse interdisciplinarity is such a strong backbone for any project, practice or organisation as a pathway to connection. The fact that Theatre Absolute’s commitment to this is so strong is terrific, and I’d love to see more of it across the UK.
At one point during the 4 days, I was challenged by a self-abnegating thought: “While we live in such exceptional times, with news of fresh devastation every day, what use is our art-making?” The tried and true answers are sometimes so etched into every artist’s being that it makes little sense to renew the question. But as the R&D went on, as we kept responding, creatively, to the world of today, up to the hour, up to the minute, it became clear that the question was, for me, a much-needed spur to action. A provocation to renew my sense of responsibility and purpose in my art-making. A vocation that I can’t imagine replacing for anything else.
So in response to that initial provocation: “We are not where we are but in a false position”, I wonder: where could we as artists be but where we are? What could we do but what we’re doing?
There’s something about Coventry
As a newcomer from London via Sydney, the city struck me as forward-thinking, forward-reaching, constantly in-progress. And I have to say it’s a new favourite destination for me. It’s a city that’s easy to get along with, easy to find out more about, easy to build a rapport, or an exchange with.
Sharing the work-in-progress on the final day of the R&D cemented my real admiration for Coventry’s arts community. Artists and companies looking to engage with or create audiences in the region are in for a treat. There’s something really lovely about the Coventry audience that I’ve not experienced elsewhere. Those who were there came to the work with full intention to be involved in the conversation that Arc was creating, and an appreciation of the complexities of the artistic process. And the warmth and brilliance of everyone I met left a lasting impression.
I can’t thank Chris and Julia enough for inviting me onto the project and for expanding, provoking, challenging, welcoming, giving, and sharing all throughout. I arrived as a fish-out-of-water writer/performer and I leave as a collaborative theatre-maker, with an intention to be back in Coventry soon. I also leave with a renewed sense of what it is that makes collaborative performance so valuable, and such a vital form of communing and creating in this period of immense global flux.