Posted: 28 January 2021

Rising from the Ashes: Theatre and Society in a post-Covid world

I’ve been a playwright all my life. It’s all I ever wanted to do. I decided I wanted to be one age 17 (much to the annoyance of the school career’s Officer, who wasn’t much help). I’ve invested everything since in working out how to get there, how to stay there, and how to pass that knowledge on so it isn’t so damn difficult for other people.

Theatre is my first love. It’s what I do, it’s who I am. So this past year, watching what’s happened to the theatre industry, has been like watching an old friend contract a life-threatening illness. There’s just so little you can do.

At Tamasha, we’ve been doing what we can within our scale and resources. As a company, I like to think we’ve risen to the challenges of the past year.

Whether it’s coming up with morale-boosting lockdown initiatives like Ask Tamasha and Tamasha Trax; the ease with which we’ve transferred much of our training offer online; supporting teachers and young people with Bitesize Playwrighting; or harnessing our digital offer to diversify the content being shared during lockdowns, Tamasha has done what we can to carve out a place for the new and diverse, within the strange new world in which we find ourselves.

This feels like a fitting moment to acknowledge the small but inspirational team behind all this.

Our Marketing Manager Rema Chandran not only covers everything we do on a part-time contract, but also managed to get an entire Tamasha rebrand and new website up and running during lockdown – check out the slick new look of the website you’re reading this on!

Our tireless Assistant Producer Samia Djilli oversaw moving our entire Directors Programme online, after the group had had only one in-person session, before confidently and successfully delivering our first virtual online scratch, as well as supporting our Associate Companies.

Our Lead Producer Debo Adebayo, another part-timer, not only maintained positive relations with our venues and co-producers, as we work out how to reschedule existing work, but also led on our Covid safety policies so we can continue to record audio dramas in a Covid-safe way. Debo also supported several successful Project Grants applications, as well as Titi Dawudu’s just-launched Hear Me Now podcast, a spin-off of our popular audition monologues project.

Our gifted fundraiser Penny Saward, along with our super-committed Executive Director Valerie Synmoie together raised the funds for a raft of Covid-response projects, including Tamasha’s innovative forthcoming binaural audio drama Under The Mask, written by a junior doctor (so far postponed twice… but we will get there! Watch this space.)

Executive Directors really are the unsung heroes of British theatre, the steady hand behind every successful company’s long-term plans. God knows they’ve had their work cut out this year. At Tamasha, Valerie didn’t just keep the ship steady but was the driving force behind our recent successful application to the John Ellerman Foundation, for a new three-year Digital Producer post. This was recently announced as the brilliant Tuyet Huynh, who will build on Tamasha’s existing digital programme to create a raft of innovative formats with our regional venue partners between now and 2024.

Also behind the scenes is our Finance Manager Mandeep Gill, with us for just under a year, and who we’d all met just once in person before the pandemic hit, but who has so seamlessly fitted into our operations.

And where would be without our administrator Aitor Gonzales, another hard-working part-timer, whose attention to detail (not least the transfer of all our operations to cloud computing, overseen under lockdown) empowers the rest of us to deliver at full capacity for the artists we support.

Behind us all is our ever-supportive board, and in particular our chair Deepa Patel, who I sometimes think of as this company’s soul; her warmth, positivity and ingenuity bleed into everything we do.

I am grateful on a daily basis to be working with such a hard-working, committed and talented team. Tamasha is in great shape, and we have all played our part in steering this ship through choppy waters this year.

The future is still unknown. But hope is on the horizon – whether it’s the vaccine, or the incoming Biden/Harris administration in the US. Spring isn’t quite in the air yet, but already I feel that the past year’s extraordinary shake up to every aspect of our lives and work, despite its pain, has opened some unexpected opportunities for a small company like ours.

Last year, while venues were almost completely frozen up, touring companies have never been busier. In fact I’d go so far as to say that, for a while, between us we temporarily inherited the theatre industry. Such companies are often the smaller players. But the Black Lives Matter movement stepping up to another level has given fuel to those of us who have long been calling for greater equality and inclusion, and moved this issue up the agenda to a point where it feels like meaningful progress might at last be made.

Similarly, the fact that we won’t be able to make shows in venues for some time longer, I see as an opportunity. Plenty of audiences would never dream of setting foot in a theatre, and many of them are potential Tamasha audiences. Having to make and present our work outside of the main venues means that instead we’ll have to make it in schools, streets, minicab offices and community centres. Well, companies like Tamasha have been doing this for years. It feels like this approach, and these values of grassroots co-creation, might finally be in the ascendancy as we re-shape and reimagine how, why and for whom we make theatre in this country. We might just find, when the dust settles, that Tamasha has more willing partners in this work than before.

Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might emerge from all this, in terms of the relationship between publicly-funded arts and society. I’ve written here before about my time as writer-in-residence at Mulberry School, and the extraordinary impact it had on everyone involved, including me. Over the past 7 years, it has inspired me to explore similar models to train Tamasha’s writers.

What lies behind this is a personal question I’ve been exploring in different ways throughout my career: how can playwrights can make themselves essential to their society? I define these encounters as a symbiotic facilitation of creative potential and personal change between an artist and a citizen, community, or institution. Parity of esteem is key. At Mulberry, we were all artists, and the work truly collaborative. We created something together, greater than anything we could achieve alone, and in doing so, created meaning in one another’s lives.

This is in contrast to the traditional model of running most theatres, which is essentially like a cinema; a top-down broadcast model, with audiences passively consuming, and run like a business rather than a community resource. In our old world, there was nothing wrong with that, of course. But I have always conceived of theatres as having more in common with places of worship. Somewhere you come to participate, to think, to feel, to be part of something, and to leave renewed. In the new world in which we now find ourselves, it feels like that idea might find a welcome reception.

My post-Covid vision for 21st century theatre is something between the two: to be a place you come to take part in your own entertainment. To create meaning with those around you, by creating something new, together.

Because if we are going to continue to make the case for long term public investment in our work post-pandemic, that means theatre artists making ourselves essential to the Great National Rebuilding which will surely now dominate the rest of our working lives. Given the nature of what we’ve just been through, that rebuilding will be emotional and psychological, as much as physical – areas at which participatory arts excel.

There’s no doubt that times are tough, and may well get tougher before this is all over. The greatest tragedy is undoubtedly the generation of young talent giving up on their dreams and exiting the industry. At Tamasha it feels like we are at the coal face, doing what we can to try to stem that flow. I know that I have a team around me that feels the weight of that responsibility.

There are some chinks of light in the gloom. These are the things that it helps me to think about when battling my natural playwright’s tendency to dwell on tragedy, and feel that all is lost.

Stories aren’t going anywhere – the urge to tell them, or experience them. It’s what makes us human. Stories find a way, whatever the circumstances.

Audiences aren’t going anywhere – if anything, absence makes the heart grow fonder and they will flock to what work returns.

Creativity isn’t going anywhere – even those leaving the theatre industry will take that into their new lives and careers, and pass it on to others.

And Tamasha isn’t going anywhere – and that’s largely due to the hard work and talent of everyone in this extraordinary company, including you, our artists, who inspire us every day.

Hang in there.

Tamasha is here to stay, and doing what we can for you. The company celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Looking at its strength and resilience during 2020, undoubtedly our darkest year, makes me feel confident in saying that those three decades were just the beginning.

Happy new year – things can only get better. And they will.

Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director