There have been all manner of online theatre festivals recently, but I had never successfully managed to convince myself to open my laptop and actually experience one. But a few weeks ago I received an unexpected invitation to watch Northumbria University’s aptly named ‘On The Line’ Festival, an online programme of performances and a Q&A put together by 10 Theatre and Performance MA students. This year has robbed theatre students of their live showcase, so since they’d found a way to still share their art, there was no way I couldn’t at least try to show up.
Showcases give students the opportunity to put their learning into practice, offering them the experience of putting on a show with support, and then showing it off to an invited audience. It’s their launchpad into an industry which is very much viable and very much loved, but also honestly has never been the kindest in terms of stability. And now it will be an industry that will witness many of these graduating students fall through ever-widening crevices if we don’t turn around and help them bridge these first gaps.
But if you’re like me the most you might be able to do for them right now is just show up where you’re able too. And that’s alright, but what we then have to do is remember and share their names, and the knowledge of the art belonging to those names, where we can. Because you just never know, one day we might be able to do more.
So let me tell you about Daniel Dryden, Rebecca Johson, and James Moxom and their pieces.
The first piece I saw was ‘Centre Stage’ by Daniel Dryden. Dryden used their piece to shine a light on the amateur theatre scene that they were brought up in and its impact on them. It was filmed simply at home, with Dryden speaking earnestly to the camera, but I felt the heart from which they spoke come through. Dryden also included vox pops from members of the Sunderland Amateur Theatre scene, some who had been involved for several decades. Listening to the long lasting impact that being a part of a theatre group has had was heartwarming. And hearing their reasons for why they keep returning – for the connection with others and the supportive environment to explore their passions – just reminded me of how much I miss live theatre for those exact reasons. For the communities within those places.
There were also appearances from Dryden’s parents, who talked about what it was like bringing a child up through the arts. In a warm moment, their father talked of being proud of watching their son as the lead in ‘Oliver!’. Dryden also included their versions of famous musical songs from Aladdin to Hamilton, adapting the lyrics to fit his message of promoting his beloved theatre scene. I understood completely why they chose to include the songs, and it definitely worked to keep the dynamic shifting. But I do think it could have benefited slightly from a “kill your darlings” approach – either by omitting one song, or perhaps shortening them overall.
‘Their Words Not Mine’ followed. Created by Rebecca Johnson, it’s a fifteen piece made in part from Johnson feeling the need to respond to this year’s renewed global focus on racism- in light of the Black Lives Matter protests that have been continuing since May.
While we never see Johnson, in a five minute spoken word piece at the start of the piece, they start off by telling us that they are white. And because of benefiting from white privilege, Johnson admits that the focus when talking about race shouldn’t be wholly on them.
They also describe themselves as queer, and “pixie cut and eyeliner”, but admit that if it was ever needed, these aspects of themselves can be hidden, and that there is privilege in that. Johnson recognises two black women, Marsha P Johnson and Stormié DeLarverie, and their role in the Stonewall Uprising as being instrumental in the fact Johnson can now celebrate pride and being queer.
Once Johnson had finished speaking, the rest of their piece’s time was dedicated to sharing the work of black TikTok creators speaking about structural racism and how racism has impacted their own personal experiences. Johnson also credited the TikTokers, with their usernames placed clearly alongside the videos – and while that should be considered the bare minimum in online etiquette, it is still important to note that it was done.
There were TikToks that detailed how prisons are an extension of slavery, and ones exploring how colourism affects the black community. @andrewtheafricankid talked about the British experience of racism, calling out: “Am I supposed to be grateful for limited racism, instead of the eradicated racism that we deserve. The UK is not innocent”. There was an edited clip of MP Dawn Butler addressing parliament about their stance on racism not being enough, and that the government needs to “get off the necks of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people”
I believe ‘Their Words Not Mine’ could act as an example to other white creatives who want to talk about race. Johnson knew as a person who benefits from white privilege that greater good would be achieved by passing the mic over – or in this case dedicating three-quarters of their running time to showing a range of black creators discussing .
If Johnson ever decides to develop ‘Their Words Not Mine’ into a professional longer piece, I’d love to see how they’d go further with this idea, by asking black artists to either join their team or consult properly on the piece. I’d also love to see how Johnson would incorporate TikToks into a live performance, and see what transformations would be needed to make that possible.
James Moxom’s ‘The Future is Female’ was the final piece I saw. Moxom narrates over a silent video recording of him getting ready – from waking up to having a shower to finally putting on his makeup. It was a deeply personal piece to watch, almost like a long awaited conversation with a friend finally sitting you down to explain what’s been on their mind.
Moxom explains that he has always felt different. From looking back and seeing how as a child he wanted to be Hermione Granger when he was playing pretend Harry Potter with friends. And being dismayed when he let his friend Sophie always have the role.
Hermione Granger was the magic portal to a lifetime of female heroines to look up to. From the women in his family, to Little Mix and Iggy Azalea.
My favourite part of this ode to women was the final minutes of Moxom’s piece. We watch him put on his makeup in real time, as he explains one day he wants to go out in head to toe drag. As he put highlighter on his cupid brow, he tells of his love of feminine fashion. When carefully putting on a deep red lipstick, he tells how he just wants to feel good. He puts on earrings, as Moxom tells us that this piece was him saying he wants to be there for the women who have been there for him, and to honour them. And then once the whole look is put together, his whole face lights up from within – a beautiful moment to behold.
Finally, the audience was dismissed with a quote from another female idol of Moxom’s, Lady Gaga: “I want women-and men-to feel empowered by a deeper and more psychotic part of themselves. The part they’re always trying desperately to hide. I want that to become something they cherish.”
To accompany his show, Moxom curated a Spotify playlist of tracks by his “favourite empowering women in music” – I thought this was a lovely idea and there are some great tracks to sing in your shower to.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the full programme. But I still want to share with you the names of the other seven students and their pieces; David Connelly, ‘The Butler’s Perspective’; Isabel Dawson, ‘The Box’; Kyla Dean, ‘Channels’; Neve Jamerson, ‘Covered’; Holly Readshaw, ‘Heed My Words’; John Scott, ‘Towers’; Ian Smith, ‘Parked’.
I hope you keep a hold of those names. Whether that be in your minds, or in the back of your notebooks. It will be a duller world that we live in if the holders of those names aren’t able to make the work they have the potential of creating.
On The Line Festival ran from 23rd-27th September 2020. More info here.