Features Published 6 January 2022

Pandemic Songs

Maddy Costa tells the story of Unfolding Theatre’s first pandemic year, and reflects on the unexpectedly hopeful lessons learned in 2020.

Maddy Costa

Unfolding Theatre’s pop-up. Photo: Michael Barrass

Annie Rigby, artistic director of Unfolding Theatre, spent a lot of 2020 biting her tongue. Her company was busy, with commissions, developing new work – but it didn’t feel possible to talk about it. “I felt so sensitive to the fact that venues were in absolute chaos; and on the other side of the fence, freelancers were in free-fall, not knowing how they were going to make ends meet,” she says. “It felt really uncomfortable – and inappropriate – to talk about not being closed.”

That shifted for her with a set of tweets by producer Jo Crowley, issuing reminders that “it’s Theatre not TheatreS. Theatres have been closed much of this year but Theatre hasn’t!” Crowley works with 1927, like Unfolding Theatre a National Portfolio Organisation, and Rigby recognises that with “NPO funding our salaries are secure, so we’re going to be able to keep going”. But she also points to another Newcastle company, Curious Monkey, who also kept working through lockdown without that status or security. The difference, she suggests, is one of flexibility: “There’s been more recognition as time has gone on, that if you’re an organisation but you haven’t got the overhead of a building, [the pandemic] has been a totally different experience. For us, it was easier to navigate, because we’re not very rigid about the work that we make. All the stuff that was rigid had to stop, like the touring, but we can still go to people’s doorsteps, we can still develop things online, we can still find ways of making and doing.”

I was a direct beneficiary of that flexible approach: early in the pandemic I’d signed a very open contract with Unfolding Theatre to document the making of a new show, with the working title B-Sides, that the company were embarking on with a group of musicians from Sunderland. It was one of the projects that had to be paused completely: “we did try and progress some ways of working digitally,” says Rigby, “but no one was interested in being in a Facebook group or doing creative challenges on their own”. So she suggested to me an alternative approach: telling the story of Unfolding Theatre’s first Covid year.

Pandemic Songs – named in honour of the Sunderland musicians – tells a very different story from the familiar one of closure, mothballing and identity crisis. (To be fair, it still contains a bit of identity crisis.) Sure enough, it describes projects that came to a stop: another was Hold On Let Go, which had already performed successfully at the Edinburgh festival in 2019 and was poised to tour, but had to be “unproduced” instead. Although the company considered a film version, “it’s such a show about hosting, and being convivial,” says Rigby, “that broadcasting it didn’t feel like the right model for us”.

Mostly, though, Pandemic Songs tells stories of discovery, affirmation and connection. On reflection, says Rigby, that first Covid year was “extraordinary. The relationships we’ve built, and how we’ve understood what we’re for, have been so shaped by it.” And to me their experience has a lot in common with something beautiful Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark: “Inside the word ‘emergency’ is ‘emerge’; from an emergency new things come forth.”

Here’s a really good example. Another project Unfolding Theatre were working on as the first lockdown happened was an outdoor story trail in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, accessed via QR codes dotted around the town; from that they developed a new idea, Doorstep Stories, which saw the company’s associate artists, Alex Elliot and Luca Rutherford, visit people’s front doors to create stories together. This eventually led, in summer 2021, to a new staged show for Northern Stage, called Free School Meals, involving 50 children from Byker and Walker in Newcastle upon Tyne. Although that began with “placeholder ideas”, says Elliot – who also performed in the show as a pot washer in a restaurant run by the kids – the content was entirely guided by the participants: “where they’re at, what they want to say, and how they want to say it”.

Free School Meals. Photograph: Luke Waddington

The same principles ran through a number of other collaborations, including a film project with the Young Mums Support Network in London, and Right Now People, which sees Rutherford meet with a small group of young adults once a week – something she and Rigby had previously thought impossible to reconcile with touring schedules. Everyone in Unfolding Theatre agrees that the key element of their work over the course of the pandemic has been attentive listening – the kind that’s “not necessarily the best in terms of a business model,” says Elliot, because “it takes more time and doesn’t necessarily produce an immediate output”. But it allowed other priorities to come into play: “the notion of being well, or trying to be as well as you can be, and supporting one another”.

It’s hard to see how this is an inferior business model to the accepted practice pre-pandemic: reflecting on the unproducing of Hold On Let Go, Rigby is devastatingly clear that “it’s actually financially better to cancel tours than it is to do them”. As annual fierce discussion at Devoted and Disgruntled events attests, the small-scale touring model supports neither theatre companies nor audiences. Since it’s broken, says Elliot, why not go for a radically different approach? Why not “make sure that we don’t just turn up and disappear, that there’s a genuine benefit for everybody who is there”?

This is what they did with Putting the Band Back Together, which was initially made with the same group of Sunderland musicians – some trained, some not, all of different ages, backgrounds and political leanings – who were returning to work on B-Sides. As Putting the Band Back Together toured, local musicians across the country were invited first to an afternoon song-learning workshop, and then to join the band on stage. It’s also the kind of activity that seems particularly suited to the community slant of Arts Council England’s Let’s Create strategy. Rigby sees Let’s Create as “a big opportunity for us, because it describes how we’ve always worked”, inviting participation, collaboration and shared creativity. But she also sees it as a welcome challenge: “How does that help us be bolder? And what does being bolder mean?”

One example she offers – and this too she credits to the changes wrought by the pandemic – is that the company are now more comfortable with “leaving space” for discovery. “In our business plan for 2022-2026, we’ve planned a project for the first year and the year after that, but we’re not going to define what we’re going to make in the last two years, because we don’t really know what stories are going to need to be told.” Another shift, she says, is around commitment to the people they encounter. “This period has pushed me to think: sometimes it’s easier to walk away, to do the lovely project and stop. But what we’re finding, because of the decision to keep operating through this time, is a richness in developed relationships. Sometimes I’ve had a nervousness around what long-term commitment looks like – because can we, as a small company, genuinely offer that commitment? So there’s also something bold about being committed to relationships longer term.”

Flexibility, porosity, commitment, emergence: if only more theatre operated by such principles. Instead, there was an overwhelming sense during 2021 of theatre buildings in particular turning back to the known and familiar, forgetting everything learned through periods of lockdown, whether talk of slowing down and working with more care, different kinds of audience engagement, or the manifold possibilities in working digitally. This is also why it felt important to capture this story of Unfolding Theatre’s first pandemic year: as a reminder of how positive risk and change can be. Michael Barrass, the company’s executive producer, acknowledges that they too could have slipped back, could have seen all the community and online projects that happened as “something that’s kept us busy”. As Solnit argues in Hope in the Dark, having a story to return to “has often been foundational to real change” – and maybe by sharing their story, Unfolding Theatre can encourage change elsewhere as well.

Pandemic Songs: A Very Strange Year in the Life of Unfolding Theatre can be accessed via the Unfolding Theatre website

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.

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