Given The Circumstances: Performing in a Pandemic
Andy Smith is a part-time lecturer in theatre practice within the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures. In this blog, he looks back on the past semester, thinks about some of the challenges it has brought to the teaching of his course in contemporary theatre making, and considers some of the steps that he and his students have taken to complete it.
I’ve been on the staff at Manchester since September 2018, but my theatre practice and teaching over the last ten years (possibly even more) has always focused on acts of theatre and performance as events or gestures that are social and collective. Our subject is social. Whether historical or practical, me and my colleagues teach and explore and specialise in a subject that encourages or even requires people to gather and consider things together. All theatre and performance invites experimentation; a challenging of and to the fabric of the given circumstances. In the theatre we can be other people in other places. Occupy other spaces. Explore other situations. Imagine different possibilities.
I think we can all agree that this has been a year like no other. Just like every other subject area in the University, in these given circumstances we’ve all had to work hard and adapt. Employ new methods. Learn new software. Re-write lectures. Deliver content differently. Make new plans. Change plans. Make new ones. Change those. Hope we don’t have to change them again. Change them again. We’ve all had heavy hearts while having to (and being asked to) stay light on our feet. We’ve all had to remain positive, but with a sense of pragmatism. Make sure we can exchange information without (hopefully) overwhelming our students or ourselves. It’s been pretty exhausting, eh? We haven’t been able or even wanted to pretend that anything different is happening, but we’ve had to work really hard to make sure that something different does happen.
And it has. I am biased of course, but I am in awe of the students that I got to teach on the Contemporary Theatre Making course unit in the semester we have just had. The hand that these ten were dealt was pretty harsh. Along with all the final-year professional practice modules in our department, this course was moved from semester one, when it is usually taught, to semester two, with the hope that we might be able to meet. Everything was opening up. We were all told we could see each other and work in rooms together; do the activities which are central to the thing we are interested in doing; meet and gather.
Then suddenly everything was all closing down again and we couldn’t. New plans were made. Questions already addressed in semester one came back to visit: how do you make theatre or performance in the given circumstances? It could have been difficult. Might have been seen as impossible, even. But seemingly impossible tasks are often what people in theatre and drama and performance enjoy – relish, even. As I said; we can experiment in the theatre. Try things out. Time and space can move differently. The theatre depends on the use of the imagination of everyone involved, including and especially (for me, at least) the audience. Using our imaginations is what theatre asks us to do.
During my course, these students are tasked with imagining and creating their own works of theatre and performance. So here we were. In the last semester of their degree, and in the last stages of what they thought would be three years of study in big rooms and spaces together – thinking together, being together, talking together about and researching and doing this most social of art forms. And at one moment during the first day of the first week of teaching the course, as we sat together in our separate rooms at our separate computer screens, I asked the assembled students the same questions I always ask at the start of this course. What is theatre? Why do we make it? How do we make it now? What can we do with what we have? Or, maybe, what can we do here and now, in the circumstances we have been given?
This is me using a pedagogical approach that is similar to the methods I employ in my life as a freelance theatre-maker: a desire to try to find a way to open up ideas and possibilities, then work out ways to hold them open and to try to keep things that way. I’m not interested in closing things down. Creating and making theatre and art is not about discovering finite answers but instead ways, I think, to keep exploring and making and moving and learning. In my experience, the open state that I describe here is also the state that a curious audience bring when they come to meet performance works. This openness is also what is likely to keep everyone who is involved engaged.
I have asked these questions, and questions related to them – seemingly simple but of course full of complexities – in the first teaching session since the first time I taught the course as a freelancer in 2017, and every year since. Though of course this year they took on a very different tone and texture. In the given circumstances, we had no central theatre space to meet and be together in. We had to find different ways to make and present work. Other forms were borrowed from. Different skills needed to be learnt. Existing tactics and methodologies had to be developed or adapted. Alternative approaches made. By them and me. Rather than a stage, we gathered around and met through screens. Acts of listening and storytelling took place remotely and were as intimate through headphones as they might have been in a shared space. The streets of the city became a place of discovery. The inside of our houses and rooms a place to foster the imagination.
These students showed me that ideas of the live, the temporal and the connected could still happen despite the given circumstances. That other things could still serve the function of bringing people together. When I ask these questions at the start of the course, and because I have constructed the course in this way, that’s always what I hope might happen, how I hope it should be. And I think that even though we haven’t appeared in a theatre, we’ve still been performing. In the given circumstances the outcomes this year have had to be necessarily different, but they haven’t lost any of the imagination and ambition. It’s all just appeared in a different shape.
I am lucky to have received a great deal of support from staff across the University for this project, as well as a satisfying response to the work from an audience of peers, friends and family. One colleague gifted me the title for this blog when they wrote to me to suggest that the projects were not merely impressive “given the circumstances”, but just impressive, and that they had made and continue to make impressions. This was it for me, really. It’s been a year like no other. We’ve all had to work hard. It hasn’t been easy. But finding our way together, and thinking and making together with these students has offered me opportunities to continue to consider ideas such as creativity, imagination, public and private space, agency, power, resilience and generosity in (for me) new and different ways. I’m grateful for it. I’m not pretending for a minute it has been a smooth ride – in many ways it really hasn’t; in many ways it’s been exhausting. But we’ve done it and I don’t and won’t take that fact for granted.
Like I said, I am biased. But I do think that the works that have come out of our explorations together do all the things that theatre should. Each in their own ways explore ideas and concepts around audience, spectatorship, temporality, duration, engagement and participation.
These works developed in ways that they or we would never have entertained doing in the quiet and safety of The John Thaw Theatre, which is where the outcomes of this course usually end up. Instead, we had an 8-hour durational performance online; poetic video artworks that meditated on origins and grief; a film shown over eight hours in Alan Glibert Square; marks made on walls and paper; a mindfulness podcast to listen to over a week; a celebration of faith; a collage of black joy; a set of invitations to make your own work; and a series of secrets scattered across the city that even made it into the local press.
All these works deserve (I think) a wider audience. As wide an audience as possible, in fact. And now they can have one. In collaboration with these students, all these works (or traces of them) have been collected on a website created especially for that purpose. At the end of their degree, these ten artists made ten individual works that will be presented online for one year under the collective title NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT. And now I have written this blog in the hope that it might direct you the reader to engage with that work a little too.
I hope that you can. This is what they made. Have a look. Take your time. Thanks for your time.
You can access Andy’s students’ performances at the website NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT, by visiting https://www.notimelikethepresent.co.uk. You can contact Andy Smith by email, at email@example.com.