This article is part of the Dramaturgs’ Network’s Invisible Diaries series.
Slung Low is a company that is reactive to the “now.” In my previous posts, I have written about their relationship with The Holbeck (the College, the shared space, the largely unchanged social club), and its swift repurposing as a food bank hub in response to the current crisis. There often isn’t time to look back on what has been before.
But connecting things is in my job description, and yesterday I realized that their large-scale, four-part outdoor adventure Flood (2017) had dealt with an unprecedented crisis – not a pandemic, but a natural disaster which imagined flooding on a huge scale (specifically the City of Hull), with boats full of northern European refugees arriving from other flooded countries. As Flood unfolded across the year, it imagined the end of the world as we know it (or knew it in 2017), on a 100sqm dock basin. It also showed us attempts at rebuilding the world, represented by three islands, far apart on the water: one where people followed a religious leader, one where authoritarianism ruled and one where they battled on with a flawed democratic system.
Fast forward to Spring 2020, and here we are: pondering whether to battle on with a flawed democratic system, wondering how an arts sector which has ground to a halt will survive, imagining what will be the same and what will change.
It comes as no surprise that Slung Low is not interested in returning to the status quo.
On the closing panel of this year’s National Student Drama Festival, conducted via Zoom and Facebook Live on 10 April, discussion reflected on the phases of reaction since theatres closed and companies had to suspend operations in mid-March. After an initial surge of shifting things online and desperately trying to maintain business as normal through online adaptation, there has been a bit of a backlash about “productivity porn” and online creativity at all costs. Companies have made significant amounts of work available online, offering art as a coping mechanism, as a lift to morale, making it freely available to audiences, hoping not to be forgotten.
But amongst all the excellent adaptation to the crisis, there is also a need to pause, to recalibrate, to think about what kind of reboot it is we want when we gradually start returning to normal. Many of us don’t want to, however, because the normal we had was precisely the problem. And we don’t yet know which world we will be making art for when we can do so once again.
In the panel discussion, Alan argued strongly against ‘business as usual’ – while understanding the “pause, reflect, recalibrate” school of thought, as well as the impossibility of creating an online portfolio for artists who are parents, carers, guardians or, have to shield. He, however, didn’t feel that there was the option to pause his work, because he didn’t trust the system to give him that space. Nickie Miles-Wildin (Associate Director, Graeae) reflected on the fact that there will be an almost inevitable setback for disabled artists: there will be a reversal to them being “medicalized” and they will have to double down to be “socialized” again. As Kully Thiarai (Creative Director, Leeds 2023) asks, how do we push for progress while still holding the space for those who aren’t able to make art at the moment?
We need to close the gap while powerful people are scared but leave space for those who were disadvantaged before COVID-19 and will feel the effects more once we start emerging on the other side.
It does not stop with the huge inequalities within our sector, of course. One cannot work in Holbeck (or Gipton, or Seacroft, or Dewsbury….) and not be struck by the catastrophic damage austerity has caused – and is continuing to cause. Alan tells of a conversation that took place in the early days of The Holbeck’s repurposing as a food bank, where a local woman said: “I know why you’re doing this [food bank deliveries] – it’s because what you were doing before wasn’t important.” Alan concludes that we’re nowhere near connected enough; that there are still far too many people thinking ‘it’s not for us’.
I am tending towards the “smash it up, start afresh” school of thought (thinking about it, this also applies to Higher Education…), but I also value the cultural ecosystem of different-sized organizations; the range that has defined my dramaturgical and academic careers. A world in which I want to live has national companies and smaller independent companies working together constantly, sharing assets, sharing privilege, and making work which involves the community benefit, and benefits it.
So – how do we defend and critique something at the same time? How do we cherish the bits that work; how do we smash away the bits that don’t?
Let’s end today with the beginning of Philip Pullman’s manifesto for change, published on the Penguin website just a few days ago, which speaks of radical change for the sake of kindness and inclusivity:
It’s all got to change. If we come out of this crisis with all the rickety, fly-blown, worm-eaten old structures still intact, the same vain and indolent public schoolboys in charge, the same hedge fund managers stuffing their overloaded pockets with greasy fingers, our descendants will not forgive us. Nor should they. We must burn out the old corruption and establish a better way of living together.
Dr. Kara McKechnie is a German-Scottish hybrid. Born in London and educated in Germany, she worked for Opera Stuttgart, Opera Karlsruhe, Heidelberg Theatre et al. Her academic career started at Heidelberg University and continued at De Montfort University (Ph.D. thesis on Alan Bennett; monograph 2007). She has worked as a Lecturer in Dramaturgy at Bretton Hall, then the University of Leeds. Since 2000 and teaches and supervises for the Schools of Performance & Cultural Industries and the Schools of Music. She has worked with Opera North and Leeds Playhouse on many projects, has published a monograph on Opera North (2014) and regularly collaborates with opera director Alessandro Talevi in the UK and Italy. Kara is a resident dramaturg for Slung Low (Leeds), funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation. Slung Low has ‘repurposed’ as a hub for food bank referrals. Their short film, The Good Book, is released online on the 1st of May.
This blog entry appeared on the Blog of the Dramaturgs’ Network on 23 April 2020, as part of the Invisible Diaries series, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.