Posted: 27 January 2022
Looking Back on 2021: A Year in Review with Valerie Synmoie
The beginning of each new year always feels like the right time to look back on the past 12 months and reflect on what we have achieved – and perhaps this is particularly valuable at a time when the years seem to have blurred into each, such has the impact of the pandemic been on every aspect of our lives. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking that the last two years have felt like we’ve been in some kind of time-warp – with endless days spent in lockdowns feeling like they were stretching on forever, and then times when a whole month seems to have come and gone in the blink of an eye….
So, my retrospective of the past year is going to be more of a personal reflection on what has stood out for me over the past 12 months rather than a comprehensive analysis of our achievements.
Take yourselves back to early 2021 when the whole country was deep into our second lockdown, which for many was more of a struggle than the first lockdown. In the midst of the cold and gloom of January and February a particular highlight was the sharing of STARS, a highly original and magical new play by Mojisola Adebayo, which we were r&d-ing over the winter and tested out on a small audience of about 100 over Zoom. Despite the limitations of Zoom, the extract was powerful and moving and we all felt we just have to realise this as a full live production. We will be producing and touring the play in early 2023.
“There is something in the fabric of theatre that allows for collective processing, which I did not know that I needed till I saw this play. Audience members listen to Soltani’s immersive sound design through their own sets of headphones on chairs scattered across the stage. This allows for a surprisingly intimate experience that is, at the same time, shared by people across space.” (Exeunt Magazine)
By April, restrictions were easing and we began to plan our tour of UNDER THE MASK – created in lockdown by Shaan Sahota and an incredibly relevant piece that resonated deeply with so many of us during the pandemic. The piece was created as a socially distanced immersive audio event and the tour began in June starting at Theatre Peckham. Overall the show reached just over 460 people, which is relatively small for one our shows but given that this was our first fully live show in over a year (and the fact that social distancing measures were in place), it felt like a triumph just to be back in theatres!
Over the summer we launched two new initiatives to support those working with young people in education settings – Bitesized Playwrighting and Power of Persuasion, both of which are intended as long-term resources that educators can access to support curriculum delivery. Away from the public realm we also continued to support emerging artists from the Global Majority through our Developing Artists programme – providing an estimated c.100 developmental opportunities (the majority of which were paid) to support freelance artists during these very challenging times. Our offer to artists included a new strand Producers First, in partnership with New Earth – a yearlong scheme for 10 emerging producers, as well as our regular offerings through our Playwrights and Directors programmes – each providing targeted support for the next generation of talented theatre-makers from the Global Majority.
“It was a really empowering experience for me…a wonderful learning experience that has really altered the trajectory of my career and how I see myself and my power as a wrtier. I could not recommend it highly enough” (Playwright programme participant 2019/20).
Our Playwrights programme culminated in a month long online Scratch showcase of the work produced, providing an opportunity for the writers to test out their ideas and audiences to experience cutting edge new work.
Another particular high point for me was the production of a new audio play A STRANGER IN A STRANGE PLACE by Mel Pennant, commissioned by The National Archives. The piece, based on a true story unearthed in the archives, powerfully explores a relatively unknown period of British history, when in the 1920s merchant seamen from the Caribbean working in Britain were effectively forced to return to their homelands – many having to leave British wives and families behind. Listening to this piece (as a black British woman of Jamaican descent) really resonated with me, and we received an overwhelmingly positive response to the piece from people like me, who just had no idea of this history.
“That was amazing. Thank you to everyone involved. I can only imagine how emotional it is to explore these stories and share them widely” (Audience member).
Behind the scenes we’ve also spent a fair bit of time over the last year thinking about how we ensure we are resilient and flexible, given the continuing uncertainties we all face. We commissioned two pieces of research that will help us better understand our creative and business needs through an organisational review, alongside some research into better understanding our audiences. Both of these are just coming to completion now, but both are important as we begin to develop our business and programme plans for 2023 and beyond. Being the ED that I am, my other major preoccupation is always funding – as a relatively small organisation with a big national footprint and ambitions to do even more, we really need to increase our funding base, and during the last year we have been fortunate enough to bring in additional funds from the Culture Recovery Fund alongside a three-year grant from the John Ellerman Foundation. We also received a truly heart-warming gift at the end of the year from the Kusuma Trust – an award of £10,000 in recognition of our work over the past year.
The year ended with us finally realising the production of 10 NIGHTS by Shahid Iqbal Khan. This piece, co-produced with Graeae in association with Bush Theatre, was originally scheduled to premiere in Spring 2020, but plans were obviously derailed by the Pandemic. We stuck with it though and having been rescheduled around three or four times it finally happened, receiving overwhelmingly positive audience and critical acclaim.
“10 NIGHTS is something quite special. Shahid Iqbal Khan’s writing is beautiful as it speaks to the soul: examining consequences of our actions, our connections to the divine and ultimately ourselves. Bravo.” (Audience member)
As we go into 2022 we are still very much living with the new normal of Covid safety protocols for all the creative teams we work with, and stringent safety measures for our audiences. But despite this, we are really looking forward to the exciting and ambitious live and digital programme we have planned, and we look forward to welcoming you to one or more of our events in 2022.
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