ITC Regional Members Meeting Report: Wales & the North

This Tuesday saw the (online) gathering of ITC members based in regions that had been particularly impacted by the recent covid-19 restrictions. At the Welsh Members Meeting Sarah Argent from Silver Crow started off with a positive and galvanising provocation about the creativity and resilience of the independent sector. She discussed the recent baby theatre piece that had been presented the month prior to the “fire-breaker” lockdown in collaboration with another welsh ITC member Theatr Iolo, highlighting the enthusiastic response of the audience and the hopeful realisation that people had not lost the desire and need to be together. This was a feeling that was echoed by the Lighthouse Theatre Company, who emphasised the importance of live art. From the ITC members survey carried out over the summer, a significant number of companies expressed how moving to digital platforms had vastly increased reach. However equally at our regular online meetings members have expressed the important of remembering the value of live art and human connection that are at the core of the independent theatre sector.

Following on from this, members shared the inspiring and creative ways in which they have continued to make work within the evolving guidelines. 20 Stories High, a member high based in Liverpool spoke about their doorstep theatre, Unfolding Theatre based in Newcastle also discussed doorstep theatre, and creating QR trails and narratives for families to follow. The ingenuity, speed and creativity of the sector to continue to make work in response ever-shifting goalposts has been a huge source of inspiration, and a vastly important factor in making the case for the sector’s value and need to be supported along with the ‘crown jewels’ arts organisations.

National Dance Company Wales discussed how, until the firebreaker, they had used this time for research and development and to start preparation for a work to be toured in Spring 2021. The challenge of communicating timelines was raised by a number of organisations both in Wales and the North. In terms of project management, productions due to start touring in Spring 2021 need to start preparation now, however the changing lockdown restrictions, and the uncertainty in general with the future of Covid-19 are making it incredibly challenging to manage risk, particularly with venue deals. Autumn 2021 is now being discussed as a more realistic date to aim for, however there is no concrete information. Many organisations agreed that even an official cautious “no sooner than” date would be better than basing schedules and funding on guess-work. In addition to timelines, the challenges around track and trace were discussed, with members keen to know from organisations who had entered into partnerships to get regular testing.We are very keen to hear from other members about what you need support with regarding planning work for the future – please do stay in touch or make contact with a board member local to your area. We were delighted to have one of our newest board members, Aled Rees of Theatr Iolo at our Welsh Members Meeting.

In addition to managing risk and timelines in touring, (within a structure that many members described as already broken) the other major concern was the loss of freelance artists from the sector. In our membership wide survey that we carried out over the summer one of the key concerns raised the long-term damage Covid-19 would have on the workforce and ecology of the sector. In these most recent meetings members in both Wales and the North discussed those concerns becoming a reality. Companies reported losing regular freelancers to other careers, with one actor leaving to join the police force and another the ambulance services. It was discussed how the lack of direct government support for freelancers has made it the responsibility to the sector to support the ecology and in particular those who slipped through the net in terms of illegibility for financial support. Many companies recognised the work carried out by Theatr Iolo and other members of the freelance task force in providing support and opportunities for freelancers. There was discussion about the recipients of the culture recovery fund using some of the resources to provide work for freelancers. Ethical employment and contracting of freelancers will be a key area of our upcoming conference (1st - 3rd December!) where we hope to continue this vital discussion with members across the UK and explore how ITC can support more.

Finally, as already mentioned the benefits and challenges of moving work to the digital realm was discussed at length. Hijinx spoke about the reality of digital poverty, with many of their regular audiences unable to engage digitally due to lacking both access to thee equipment and the necessary skillset. The need for this awareness was raised at a previous ITC meeting by People’s Palace Projects, who urged companies to not solely rely on digital means as a way of maintaining contact, at the risk of distancing marginalised communities even more.

Additionally, members’ in Wales discussed the need to skill up significantly, to be able to continue to deliver work at the same high standard of the live productions.It was pointed out that the development of high quality radio shows, online platforms, podcasts require expert skillsets that have been developed over years. It was clear from both meetings that the move to the digital has provided new outputs, and with pioneering work from organisation such as ThickSkin, we are now seeing that digital outputs have huge potential to reduce risk by diversifying the ways in which an audience could access a performance (a combination of both live and online). However, investment of time and money will be needed to make sure the high-quality live work that our sector produces is translated to the digital. If any companies have experiences of this journey that they would like to share, please do get in touch!