Journal and News

Blog: Reflections On 2021 From Our Board

Alison King (ITC Chair) – Turtle Key Arts

My out of office is on, yet here I am still working, I think that probably sums up this year for so many, not just me. I know that when January hit this year I was geared up for a return to our office and to see the team in person, that was not to be as we entered another lockdown. I think this one was the hardest one for me, working from home and by the time I finished at 6 pm it was dark outside and I found myself moving from one screen to another.

We had many projects running online at the start of the year and we also got back in the rehearsal room in Feb and March when theatres were closed to the public but some were opening their doors for artists and companies to use. We took full advantage of that and made a children’s show with Asif Khan and a film with Open Sky all ready for when spring hit and we could get back to live work and showings.

We also started live outreach projects again, we took our Turtle Song (our singing and songwriting project for people with dementia) into care homes and day centres, working at a social distance, sometimes outside under marquees. We also ran our We’ll Dance Again’ project for people with disabilities who were isolated. This had us dancing on doorsteps, on balconies and as spring hit even dancing in community centres. The results were a wonderful film with an aptly reworked version of We’ll Meet Again.”

As always the team at Turtle Key Arts were so stoic, hardworking and resilient. We seized opportunities, remained positive and got ourselves match fit, ready for when the theatre world could and would reopen.

June saw us back in theatres and touring a show with Ockham’s Razor that we produce. My Production Manager remarked it was like couch to 10K, we were the first show in some venues in over a year and it wasn’t always easy.

 During all of this last year, I have been acutely aware of how different everyone’s COVID experiences have been and how they feel about it. As a CEO it is so important to listen and respect that. We have made so many adjustments to our working practices and methods to try so hard to make sure everyone felt safe and supported.

Also as a CEO and Chair of ITC, I was very acutely aware of our sector and how that needed our help more than ever. I actively got involved in advocating for and supporting freelancers. During this last year at TKA, we have created our freelancer manifesto and pay pledge. This outlines how we will ensure best practice, support and pay for our freelance artists and practitioners that make up so much of our teams for our shows and projects. 

As Chair of ITC, I have sometimes felt like a football Manager/coach standing at the sidelines cheering on the team and making sure they have the support they need. In this last year the role of a good Chair, I think, has been a vital one for organisations. Knowing they have someone who cares and has their back. ITC has worked so hard to ensure that its members were not alone, isolated or left on the bench. We have listened and tried to run events online that can bring the communities together and this was demonstrated so well in our recent online conference, our training events and by the launch recently of the BECTU/ITC Producer agreement.

I am sure all that I have written will be so similar across the board and sector and resonate with many of you. It has been another challenging year and there have been some highs but some lows for many for sure. It does feel unrelenting for our sector and just when we think there is a glimmer of a return to some form of ‘normal’ something happens and we are off again. 

As we end this year I reflect and think this last year has been like a rollercoaster, up, down, sideways and sometimes completely topsy-turvey. The year has gone by so fast and it’s been enough sometimes to cling on. I would say to all the people who lead a team or Chair a board, accept changes, accept best-laid plans to go and make sure you take care of yourself as well as your team. I am not sure now what January 2022 will bring. We have survived 2020 and 2021 though, so we can, I am sure, get back in the cart and make sure we are strapped well in before the rollercoaster takes off and breathe!

SJ Watkinson – Independent Producer

As an independent producer, I carry a lot of responsibility for the artists and companies I work with, not just with the practical aspects of producing, but as moral and emotional support. In many ways, 2021 has been even harder than the devastating overnight cancellations and closures of 2020. Although things have begun to get moving again, the constant uncertainty for me and everyone I work with has taken its toll, particularly as we are all freelancers. As I look forward to a cheese fuelled break over Christmas, I have never felt more exhausted in over 30 years of working in the arts.
But at the same time, it has never been more of a pleasure and a privilege to work with such an incredible community of artists. Despite physical separation, we have stayed close and have shared brilliant days, terrible days and many Zoom drinks. Their determination to keep going and keep making amazing work despite everything that’s been thrown at them by Covid and Brexit has kept me going, even when I have been at my lowest. Nat Bellingham, Shane Shambhu, Paul O’Donnell, Iara Solano, Sammy Metcalfe, Mercè Ribot and Patricia Rodriguez – you are all fabulous.

Dienka Hines – Travelling Light

January 2021 was not an easy start to the year for the team at Travelling Light. The year started with a national lockdown, school closures and staff once again having to adjust to working from home alongside supporting their children with online learning. We had worked throughout the pandemic, continuing to support young people through online workshops and creative resources for local families and we continued this approach into 2021. 

Once schools re-opened, we noticed a real demand for creative activities to support pupil wellbeing. In the spring, we were proud to create 17 and the Squeak Gobbler, a new story for digital audiences, which reached 28,000 school children online. In the autumn we created and toured our new show Vixen to 11 schools as well as launched Light Up School Learning a new project to support teachers to use drama to help pupils’ speech and language and emotional literacy. This autumn our youth theatre groups returned to face-to-face activities in our studio and we continued our community partnerships with holiday activities for local children. 

There have been many challenges during the year, including working within the ever-changing Covid restrictions, arranging, undoing, re-arranging plans and activities as well as the personal impact that the pandemic has had on our staff and freelance workforce.  As a leader, the challenges of decision fatigue, constant risk assessments, burnout, holding together a team while working remotely, trying to support my wellbeing and staff mental health have been very real. For me, in many ways, the pressure of pretending to be ‘back to normal’ when working within the context of a global pandemic has been the most difficult, as well as trying to explain that we were never closed but working all along, and therefore by the time we ‘re-opened’ we were already tired. 

I’m incredibly proud of our staff and freelance team, who have worked with such commitment under difficult circumstances.  As a team, we feel this time has given us real focus on our mission and impact and the families, children and young people we reach. We do believe that stories, creativity and imagination matter to children’s lives and knowing why the work we do is important has helped to get us through.

We will be starting 2022 in a time of considerable uncertainty, in many ways, it’s hard to think too far about the year ahead. I do know that relevant work which speaks to children and communities, and moments of imagination and joy will continue to matter, and we hope to keep on creating them. 

Lian Wilkinson – New Earth Theatre

I believe it was Talawa’s Carolyn Forsyth who, in a conversation at the opening of Woolwich Works earlier this year, smiled as she described Covid years as dog years for producers- the feeling of having seven years of planning, unplanning, joys and stresses all in the space of 12 months. It has stuck with me since then, as the year seemed to speed by with scenario planning and risk assessing, and now at the end of the year, I’m able to look back on the hard-won achievements of 2021. Here at New Earth Theatre, we joined forces with Kanlungan UK with our project Bayanihan with Love for Filipino healthcare workers; were among the first touring companies on the road as we presented Miss Julie with Storyhouse during the Ping-demic; tripled our New Earth Academy intake from pre-pandemic times; and helped launch the Anti-Racism Touring Rider that is now available to use by everyone in the sector.

More widely, artists continued to present work in all guises from podcasts to post, proving that when theatres are closed but audiences are willing, we can always find a stage to create magic on. It’s not been perfect, and looking forward we still have our work cut out: listening and taking action on the pressing discussions of talent retention and improving our sector, and promoting more understanding across its diverse ecosystem to strengthen our collective voice, particularly as Covid isn’t going away just yet. But since it’s always said it takes time to see a big change, perhaps these dog years will help speed things up a bit.

Douglas Irvine – Visible Fictions

Today was quite a day. For the first time in two years, I watched a live pantomime. In a theatre. It was great to experience live actors connecting to a live audience in a venue that was alive with laughter and booing. And how joyous those boos felt – proof if ever it was needed, that after two long years of this pandemic, it hasn’t managed to debilitate any of us. It was reassuring to hear the actors – or maybe it was their characters – say how much they’d missed being with us the audience, and how happy they were to be back on stage. But something didn’t feel quite right – it was as if their genuine passion was tinged with a hidden sadness; maybe we would never really be back, and perhaps live theatre couldn’t find its place again. Perhaps covid has indeed caused irreparable harm.

At Visible Fictions, we’ve been incredibly fortunate. This past year has given us an opportunity to continue diversifying our artistic product – celebrating theatre-making and developing new work whilst also exploring new forms – and through our digital work and other outputs have connected with and inspired thousands upon thousands of young people across the country. I know, having spoken to many members of Scotland’s theatre sector, that our collective well of optimism and resilience has been stretched to its limit this past wee while. Our community has rallied and fought and found ways to deliver live theatre somewhere, somehow, whilst also trying to ‘pivot’ to explore digital theatre, to see what online work might mean and to view the challenges of 2021 as an opportunity to explore and not to be brow-beaten. It’s been far from ideal and casualties have been many but the brave steps theatre makers all over have taken to fly or just stay afloat have been really inspiring.

And though I’m proud of everything our company has achieved in 2021, as the actors today in the pantomime, there is a hidden feeling for me too. A tinge of guilt. A tinge of sadness. A feeling that despite the harm our general industry has experienced this year, I shouldn’t be as positive as I am. And as the Scottish Government make new announcements that mean that theatres are closing their doors again, and today when Omicron cases increase and shows are being pulled as illness sweeps through, I feel a sense of disquiet. A sense of uncertainty. Yet also a feeling of hope. This community is one of the strongest I know – disheartened perhaps but also resilient. And I believe, I have to believe, that somehow we will all continue to serve as best as we can, and continue delivering with and for our artists, our creatives and most importantly our audiences.

Ria Parry – The North Wall

2021 has been full of ups and downs, and it’s worth reflecting on what we’ve managed to achieve under very difficult circumstances. When the building re-opened our small team stepped in to run every event safely, with everyone taking on FOH roles and working together to manage different check-points, one-way systems, e-tickets, pre-orders, limited capacity and social distancing. Our year has had its fair share of risk assessments and covid-measures; but it has also been full of the most amazing youth and community projects, artist development programmes, shows and exhibitions that have taken place in spite of everything. The moments of connection with our audiences, local young people, and artists have been even more significant, more detailed, more overwhelmingly special – because we know what it is for these relationships to be put at risk. My colleagues have demonstrated courage, resilience and sheer hard graft as we have navigated changing guidelines, conflicting attitudes and a constant unknown. The next few months will very likely throw more challenges at all of us. But we move into 2022 with Hope. Because what are we without it. 

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