Play and process during Covid-19

There’s been so much written about the product, the economy, the money that theatre makes – that I wanted to write something about process.

Common Wealth are going to do an R&D next week and bring together a team of 10 performers and creatives. R&D stands for research and development and is a stage of exploration, play and discovery, often a lot gets chucked away. It wouldn’t be considered ‘essential’ but every creative knows just how essential that type of play and artistic time is.

We’re making and rehearsing our new play Peaceophobia, a play performed by drivers from the Bradford Modified Car Club that responds to the growing rise in Islamophobia and was dreamed up by the Speakers Corner Collective, a collective of young women, first as an activist campaign before we envisaged how it could become a theatre piece and started working with Fuel, our co-producers. We’ve had one R&D with writer Zia Ahmed and the 3 performers in early March 10 days before lockdown which already opened up so much.

Making theatre is a sensitive process, it’s always a journey. Which is why we decided to go ahead with our R&D at the end of June. We didn’t want to have opened so much in March and then not go deeper and build with that. This next R&D was always intended to be more practical and technical – Peaceophobia will be performed in a car park and composer Wojtek Rusin will be creating ways that the cars talk to each other, how the music played from cars becomes a kind of sound sculpture, designer Rosie Elnile will be playing with set ideas and visual moments, the idea of the car and the body being one organism. The R&D will start to show us all how the deep conversations from March about why the performers like to drive fast, about recovery after the Bradford Riots, the experience of living alongside 20 years of ‘a war on terror’ from being a little kid to being in your twenties, about how cleaning a car for three weeks becomes a form of therapy – how all of this can become a theatre show.  Theatre needs time to figure things out and that’s what the R&D and further rehearsals in September will gift us – we’ve postponed the show until  2021, so the time pressure isn’t there but having this time to play, to go away and reflect, to come back together and build – feels like the essence of a making process.

Most of our work at Common Wealth tends to be working with people who aren’t trained performers and building political theatre with people from their lived experience. We spoke to David Jubb recently who said how he’d been to a few of our shows and seen how powerful the relationship was between the casts and the experience they’d had. The thing is, I would say that that powerful experience that people have through the process of making theatre is built whether you’re a group of professional actors or people who are doing it for the first time. Not always, but most performers have had that magic in the rehearsal room where bonds and trust are built and the group goes on a journey together that is so outside of normal life – playful, thoughtful, expressive. Lots of actors and creatives stay in this precarious industry because of that magic. And that magic of experience is felt for professional actors and people new to theatre alike. If more people/audiences got to experience this magic of process as opposed to just watching the finished product more of the public would understand how and why theatre is important beyond revenue and capitalism. As David asked us, what is public subsidy for? For art and theatre as experience and expression or to feed the commercial models (we’re going to be exploring these ideas more with David on a podcast, coming soon!)

Rehearsing at the time of Covid-19, bringing together 10 people in a rehearsal space presents lots of challenges. Our production manager and the team from our co-producers Fuel have done a remarkable job of preparing a Risk Assessment that is so thorough and thinks of everything, from how we can go to the toilet safely to where and how we eat lunch, how we can prepare the rehearsal room to keep distance.

It’s going to be an R&D completely different to how we’d normally work, which as all theatre people know is usually about intimacy and fun. Every day we’re going to do a health check –for physical health and for mental health. For most of the group it will be their first time in a group of people since lockdown and we want to be aware daily of the impact that might have on people’s anxiety and how as a group we can be respectful of each other’s different relationships to Covid-19 and how present it is for each person.

We would usually always have a feedback sharing with lots of people who have a connection to the subject feeding in, activists, family, drivers. We’re going to film a kind of R&D highlights sharing that we’ll screen on zoom followed by a Q&A (join us for this if you can) – this allows us to take the pressure off a bit – usually this would be at the end of an intense week when everyone is feeling a bit vulnerable. Madeyah from Speakers Corner suggested that because it’s online we can host this R&D sharing feedback session the week after when all the team have had a bit of space from it – it’s these kind of things that end up being gifts from going into a process at this time.

We’re going to see what happens, how much we can still discover and play whilst socially distancing, if we can build on the magic of it all or if it just doesn’t work at all. As creative people; the performers, Speakers Corner, the team, I know we’re all excited to build something from nothing, to play and see what happens, to try things out and let them go, to express how we articulate the growing islamophobia in the world. If work is about having purpose then this really feels like work – even if it is play (;