At what phase of the government’s road map, do we dare to imagine a new future for our sector?

By Prema Mehta

September already. Where does time go? I’m reflecting back on the last five months and the moments of feeling powerless, confused: feelings of despair and loss. But I am also keenly aware that there have been moments of feeling empowered, hopeful and understood in our universal desire for change.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I spoke at a Scene Change talk and shared my feeling of creative grief as we went into lockdown during the final week of rehearsals for our Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale. As a freelance Lighting Designer, the process from page to stage had been frozen. The production we were creating lives only in our minds, until we are permitted to return to our imagined space together. 

Alongside this creative grief, The Winter’s Tale was my chosen text whilst studying A-Level Theatre Studies. My tutor believed in a young Prema, who had decided to choose lighting as her individual skill. He somehow found budget to hire out some lighting fixtures and assisted me during the process as I designed the lighting from a scene of The Winter’s Tale. My A-Level tutor would smile proudly if he was able to see where that process took me, and how fitting for it to be at The Royal Shakespeare Company. Perhaps others too would have shared a sense of pride in the progress also that our sector was making in terms of diversity and inclusion, as lighting this production would have made me the first British Asian to light at the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company.

Through the use of imagination and a process of carefully selecting colours, choice of angle and direction of light, the way I have imagined for the scene to begin with strong diagonal backlight creating a dramatic silhouette as Leontes walks to centre stage in utter rage. The deliberate choice of shadows around his eye sockets to make the audience feel distanced from this character whose anger has tragically stemmed from an innocent action. Then gradually the light would slowly build to reveal all of the emotions, as Leontes delivers the lines “Nor night nor day no rest”. The intent to slowly transition the audience viewing an angry man to somehow being able to relate to this vulnerability within humans. This is my description of the imagined lighting for Act II, Scene III of The Winter’s Tale: a clear example of the way in which we use our imaginations as part of our process to create something new.

In a similar way, if we understand and recognise that creation is indeed a process, at what phase of the government’s convoluted road map, do we dare to imagine a new future for our sector?

Our industry is enduring a tough journey, and it often feels like we are caught in a sandstorm. Although when I dare to imagine the future, there are exciting possibilities around creating a new chapter, and developing new ways, as the need for change is greater than ever. My involvement within Freelancers Make Theatre Work and Stage Sight provides me with growth and the opportunity to disrupt the status quo. Organisations such as Freelancers Make Theatre Work, Stage Sight and Scene Change are guiding a process of change to a new imagined future. The only possible outcome of success through all of this, is that when our sector does return to strength, it does so in a renewed form, because we dared to envisage an improved sector.

How and when does this happen? Timing will be key. At Stage Sight, we knew many of our organisation members went into survival mode at the top of lockdown and that many still sit in uncertain times. Our usual approach in encouraging and supporting organisations to make practical change towards an inclusive offstage workforce (in terms of ethnicity, class and disability) needed to be considered with sensitivity. Whilst we feared the risk of losing any progress that was being made, we had to recognise that creative problem solving towards any issue requires mental and physical capacity that is limited in a time of crisis. Over the last five months, we have focussed on how we can support our freelance members. We listened as they shared with us the inequalities that they faced pre-COVID-19, and their concerns around the invisible barriers becoming larger than ever. Your contribution to The Big Freelancer survey helped provide key data and evidence towards the COVID-19: Routes to recovery report and listed those most likely to leave the sector. We encourage you to read the findings in the report. 

We must find space and time to explore, contribute and commit to a stronger future: working together as organisations and freelancers. If we wait too long to begin this conversation, we risk returning to the way things were. So here’s the ultimate question - Whose responsibility is it? Where and how does change begin? Who is involved?

Few of us wish to return to ‘normal’. We must strive for change through a process of imagination, empathy, collaboration, risk-taking and a shared sense of responsibility as we work together as organisations and freelancers to create the new. Initial ideas will no doubt take us back to a form that we are familiar with. But though our shared desire for change, we may just be bold enough to challenge one another, and have the courage of our convictions as we dare to envisage a changed landscape for our sector. It’s just as my A-Level tutor said ‘You’ve got to move forwards, otherwise you’ll sink.’ So, now is the time for us all to reflect on the past, bravely imagine a new future and use this moment to commit to transformation. Join us.

-Prema Mehta is a member of FMTW and also Founder of Stage Sight

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