Wonder at a ‘new normal’

From all the devastation of the fires across New South Wales and beyond last year, I was struck by a series of photos taken by my sister-in-law who went off to volunteer with BlazeAid for many weeks helping farmers to repair their land.  The photos were of tiny shoots of natural recovery amidst the wipe-out.  Now, just a few months later, we have our own devastation to our livelihoods and infrastructure amidst lockdown. Nature, here, continues unaffected and I hope everyone wherever they are can take some moments to look out of a window, take a walk, or get into the sun, and see the beauty of our world.

I am looking forward, to November 2nd when the first cohort of creative producers will gather from around the world to begin study with the CGO Institute on the very first Diploma in Creative Producing.  At this point we have no idea whether UK theatres will be open, whether audiences will be returning.  I understand from a zoom session with an international flock of young producers that some countries have already decreed that their theatres and public spaces will be closed until 2021. 

In the words of Charles Eisenstein in an extended article The Coronation, he talks of “feeling that humanity was nearing a crossroads”…and “all of a sudden, we go around a bend and here it is”…“We are right to stop stunned at the newness of our situation. Because of the hundred paths that radiate out in front of us some lead in the same direction we’ve already been headed. Some lead to hell on earth. And some lead to a world more healed and more beautiful that we ever dared believe to be possible.”

The 20 diploma studying producers will be joining us to look at a new landscape. Some theatre and producers around the world will be aiming to re-create the same, because that is what the public loved before.  Some of our closest friends and theatremakers will have chosen, or been forced, to shut up shop.  And some will be contemplating new pathways to reflect on, champion for, and be part of a new more healed world – daring to believe.

Nicholas Berger in The Forgotten Art of Assembly argues for “the urgency and value of our form”. “There are undoubtedly going to be casualties. Theatre companies won’t survive, and the ones that do will be more strapped for cash than they already were. But this environment of scarcity must not be a time for artistic safety, rather a time for leanness and daring. Provocative, risk-taking, unabashedly theatrical work is going to be critical when we are finally allowed within six feet of each other again. Only in our excellence will we make a full-throated argument for the urgency and value of our form. We can use this surplus of time to prepare for that triumphant return, not just to distract ourselves while we wait for it. “

My question at a gathering of the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA) last week with fellows from the UK and Australia was to wonder about the audience. I was wondering about the conflicting emotions between the fear of gathering and the need for community.   One expert talked of “furlough as a form of methadone” another the hope that we may see “the folly of so much that was normal’ and come out of our isolation with a desire to witness and be part of a more healed world.

These are big topics which the students gathering in November will be tackling as they learn the tools and rules of creative producing, and work with our faculty of 25 international practitioners.   Each of these people, working in the business, will be coming to terms with the need to understand their audience.

There is hope “history suggests that the performing arts world will be resilient. Bringing venues back on-line and reassuring audiences of their safety is not going to be an easy process, however people will be hungry for culture and engagement once lockdowns and self- isolation end “ says Byron Harrison of Charcoalblue in Performance Buildings in the Post-Pandemic World.

I wonder how strong and resilient theatre and the performing arts’ own natural ecology is. I too am hopeful.  But I sense (with absolutely no research or grounds for sensing this) that the first tiny shoots to grow out of the scorched landscape will be the theatres that are rooted in community. The producers who know their audience personally They will understand their fears and can adapt to grow an offer to feed the hunger for engagement.

As a marketing person I ask many many directors and producers Who do you want on your front row ?  Who are they? Describe them in great detail. Where have they come from? What else do they do with their time? What has drawn them to this particular event at this particular place at this particular time.  Now I think the question has another fundamental level to be explored.  Where is the front row? How are they getting to this place of gathering? How are they feeling about life and this adventure to join community?   Can we ensure that their desire for community and entertainment/inspiration is greater than their fear of gathering?

Felix Salmon in Axios Edge reminds us “A mistrust of mingling with strangers — or even with friends — is likely to linger for a generation” He then adapts Weisberg’s Law to suggest “Everybody more paranoid than you has gone way overboard, while everybody less paranoid is not only putting themselves at risk but is acting in a deeply socially irresponsible manner.“   We have to remember this knife edge balance may be deep in the core of many of our potential audiences. 

But Bryan Harrison believes” We will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with a new appreciation for how connected we really are, irrespective of the availability of global travel. At our best, we’ll find a “we’re all in this together” attitude that will embrace new and adventurous artistic work. …Our industry must find ways to be resilient; our humanity depends on it.”

Tonight I go to my second private house concert/international ceilidh produced by Edinburgh based musician and theatremaker Mairi Campbell.  Last week she had artists playing from their homes in Mexico, Nova Scotia, London, Los Angeles and across Scotland. Tonight we will gather again and celebrate the artistry created in community.  It is a glorious gathering without fear.  It is from these seeds that a ‘new normal’ arts and theatre community will grow, I believe.

I can’t wait to work with creative producers in November to explore the new normal. Between now and 6 months time the world will keep changing, and nature will keep growing. Let’s see who amongst the next generation of producer will choose to take roads less travelled.

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