Literature and Theatre

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The pandemic and beyond

Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts shares important insights into the effects of the pandemic on live performance in the UK. It features eight projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council between 2020 and 2022 to undertake research that would address the problems caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The researchers share what they discovered from working with practitioners and companies in the live performing arts (especially theatre and dance) who rapidly adapted their working practices and the spaces in which they were able to connect safely with audiences, whether digital or outdoors. Several chapters provide evidence of the impacts of digital innovations and telepresence technologies on artists and audiences and shed light on how government discourses and the support structures within the industry affected the mental health of creative practitioners. Addressing policymakers and practitioners, others demonstrate how artists and local government events managers approached programming community-based work outdoors. Throughout, the essays are infused with practical energy, inspired by the creativity and dedication of the practitioners, and mindful of how the pandemic exacerbated the structural and financial precariousness of the workforce in live performing arts. They offer evidence-based reflections on values-led practices in the creative sector that model more inclusive, accessible and sustainable ways of working. Adaptation and resilience thus contributes to shaping our understanding of the challenges faced by live performing arts at a time of crisis – and how these may be overcome.

Open Access (free)
Creating theatre on a telepresence stage
Steve Dixon
and
Paul Sermon

In the light of lockdowns, the authors’ Telepresence Stage research project (2021–22) developed effective, affordable approaches to connect theatre and dance performers from their separate homes and place them together within virtual sets online. Combining videoconference and chromakey technologies with virtual scenography, the performers are freed from Zoom-style walled boxes and are able to physically interact, including (virtually) hugging, kissing or fighting one another. The theatrical tradition of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to address the audience reaches another level, with the actors seemingly breaking a fifth wall, of space and time. Eight UK theatre and dance companies undertook residencies to develop new online performance works and to test and develop approaches using a range of software and hardware systems. The research findings are analysed from technological and artistic, as well as phenomenological perspectives, including considering issues of telepresence intimacy, empathy, proxemics, third-person perspectives, and the uncanny. Case studies draw on the verbatim reflections of participants, offering insights into the unique joys but equally the challenges of working on a telepresence stage. The chapter argues and demonstrates how the project not only had a profound effect on the resident companies, but is of lasting value and impact for the creative industries. The use of immersive virtual scenographies proved a significant spur to creativity, taking theatre troupes into whole new realms, and creating sequences and illusions that would be impossible in live theatre. The experiments herald new ways of working and performance delivery modalities that will long outlive the pandemic.

in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Creating a framework for ethical and ecological telematic dance practice and performance
Daniel Strutt

When COVID-19 hit we all quickly adapted to using two-dimensional video conferencing technologies to connect with others. However, these social interfaces were, for many, an alienating experience. It was especially challenging within the fully- embodied discipline of dance, with practices stripped of the co-presence, touch, and physical communication that performers depend on. At this time, a Goldsmiths-based network of academics, dancers and creative technologists turned our attention to think about the kinds of motion capture and real-time, generative graphics technologies that could converge to achieve a more effective framework for remote dance interaction. We offered Goldsmiths Mocap Streamer, a tool to bring multiple performers from anywhere in the world into connected virtual spaces. While initially framed as simple solution to physical distancing during the pandemic, our research led to the consideration of transformational experiences for dance and beyond. Through a series of workshops and showcases we evidenced that we are not only at a point of sufficient technical and aesthetic advancement to offer high-quality virtual dance work, but  that this mode of performance also has potential to mitigate the serious climate impact of touring productions. Furthermore, collaborator interviews and Q&As revealed that a distinctive mode of choreographic contact and intimacy emerges through these remote practices that have the potential to cultivate unique structures of empathy and awareness. Thus, we ask, can ‘dancing in the metaverse’ now develop as not only legitimate and ecological, but also as an ethical form of dance practice? 

in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Open Access (free)
Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Pascale Aebischer
and
Rachael Nicholas
in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Open Access (free)
Tales from the 2020s
Paul Heritage
,
Poppy Spowage
, and
Mariana Willmersdorf Steffen (2063)

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic aggravated an ongoing global mental health crisis in young people. With systems of care struggling to keep up with an explosion in demand, art resources became a fundamental part of the support young people could access during these challenging times. In this chapter, we invite the reader to join an imaginative exercise: to look at the findings of a study into how arts organisations supported young people’s mental health during the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic from a 40-year perspective. Writing from 2062, we consider what we remember and what we have learned. This fictionalised narrative revisits the archives of Far Apart, a research project led by People’s Palace Projects in partnership with young artists from ten cultural organisations in Latin America and the UK. Through surveys, interviews, and art workshops, we looked into how arts organisations that worked in under-resourced, lower-income communities functioned as part of the system of care supporting young people’s mental health during the pandemic. The research findings evoke a discussion around the need for re-positioning the arts and their role in society, calling for new integrated approaches to the arts and medicine.

in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Richard Misek

This chapter outlines the accessibility and inclusion implications of the widespread ‘pivot to digital’ by UK performing arts organisations during COVID-19, and provides a summary of the key findings that emerged from the Digital Access to Arts and Culture project’s quantitative and qualitative research. In particular, it highlights the significant benefits experienced by d/Deaf and disabled, older, and geographically isolated participants, but also notes various areas in which the potential of digital technologies to improve accessibility was not fulfilled. It then explores the reasons underlying many theatre’s’ return to in-person- only programming in 2022, and the implications of this shift back to exclusively venue-based performances for accessibility policy and practice. It concludes by identifying a potential shift in interest within the UK theatre sector from streaming video to immersive experiences. Like video streaming, immersive technology provides the potential for significant improvements in accessibility, but has so far also fallen short on delivering on its potential.

in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Open Access (free)
A case study of digital adaptation in the creative workforce
Pascale Aebischer

This chapter revisits the infamous ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ ad which questioned the viability of creative professions in October 2020. It concentrates on the experiences of the creative workforce (freelancers and permanent staff) employed by Oxford’s Creation Theatre, often in partnership with Big Telly (Northern Ireland), throughout the lockdown periods. Interviews and surveys shed light on the longer -term consequences of the values-led adaptations and innovations that have made Creation Theatre emerge as a leading digital production company and an example of how ethical employment practices within the industry might enhance a company’s resilience. For the creative team involved in producing a digital Tempest at break-neck speed in April 2020, digital work offered hope, structure, income and significantly better mental health outcomes than those reported by freelancers who did not benefit from such a safety net. The chapter explores the rapid adaptations this group of theatre workers made to pivot to digital formats as they upskilled within their chosen professions. Live digital performance, the interviews show, is technical and physical and draws on hybrid skills sets drawn from theatre, television and radio. While requiring adaptation to demanding physical regimes, it also has significant wellbeing and accessibility benefits for the creative team, along with sustainability benefits for the company. The agility with which the company used its technological innovations to pursue new partnerships in turn unlocked new funding opportunities that made it possible to offer fairer contracts, more inclusive working practices and increased financial stability for the workforce.  

in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Local authority event management during the COVID-19 pandemic
Giselle Garcia

This chapter details the findings from interviews with local authority event managers in the UK from June–August 2021, the summer during which England began a phased exit from lockdown. More than having to adjust their working structures to accommodate the immediate and changing responses to government guidelines, I argue that the COVID-19 pandemic urged event managers to reflect on inclusive and sustainable practices for the future in their use of public space in outdoor arts programming. Their tactical responses involved reconfiguring dramaturgies of place, which meant rethinking and restructuring the formats and templates of their previous practices within their local areas. These included experimenting with different interpretations of traditional performance elements such as the space, scale, time, proximity, and audience engagement. Such practices called for an attuned understanding of their own histories, geographies and place-making strategies to curate an arts and culture programme that is community driven and ecologically sensitive. This research makes a case for local authorities to mobilize the city’s creative spirit to collaboratively deliver innovative solutions tailor-made for their own specific localities.

in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Sarah Pogoda
and
Lindsey Colbourne

This chapter presents a take on resilience, sustainability and recovery in the arts sector and creative industries that is distinct from the digital projects presented in the first part of this book: we present two case studies of small-scale, local, socially and environmentally- engaged arts projects in a predominantly rural area. Our case studies offer alternative narratives to those of the urban and metropolitan creative industries and the macro-solutions that often do not suit the social and economic realities of artists and audiences in remote geographical locations. This chapter therefore complements the thinking about outdoor arts facilitation by local authorities in Chapter 7 in this volume and aims to enable governments, funders and the creative sector to take decisions which improve the wellbeing, prosperity and cultural vivacity of the creative sector and communities., It is based on research carried out in rural North Wales.

in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts
Creative freelancers and pandemic resilience in South Yorkshire
Sarah M. Price
,
Stephanie E. Pitts
, and
Renee Timmers

From the early days of COVID restrictions in the UK, freelancers were highlighted in the media as being particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. As financial support such as furlough and self-employment income support schemes were announced, it quickly became apparent that many freelancers would fall through the cracks and not receive any financial assistance as their work ground to a halt overnight. This has been particularly true of arts and cultural freelancers, whose portfolio careers often rendered them ineligible for either support scheme, and whose work was legally prohibited in England for long periods of 2020 and 2021. This chapter reports on the experiences of freelance arts and cultural workers in South Yorkshire, as part of a larger AHRC-funded COVID-19 response project documenting the impact of the pandemic on the arts and cultural ecology of the region. We show that the emotional and mental wellbeing of the freelancers in our study deteriorated as a result of being unable to work during this period. We look at the negative impact of rhetoric around ‘viability’ and the poorly -timed campaign around retraining as a source of anguish for struggling freelancers. We highlight the creativity and innovation that freelancers showed in making their business or artistic practice possible in a pandemic context, and suggest how freelancers may be better supported in the future.

in Adaptation and resilience in the performing arts