By Bill Bankes-Jones
While the news this week is very bleak, I volunteered a newsletter in our FMTW weekly meeting. I wanted to tell what’s, on balance, a happier story. A big part of this story has been me getting involved in Freelancers Make Theatre Work. That has supported me so much both as an individual freelancer and leading a huge cluster of other freelancers as Artistic Director of Tête à Tête.
Workshop for The Paradis Files with Graeae. A tiny role for me as dramaturg. What this really meant was helping many old friends from opera align with other terrific artists making their first or early steps with opera. A very happy couple of days where I saw the project really fledge, and with much to look forward to myself; plenty of lovely shows to direct coming up as well as a stunner of a festival of new opera with my own company Tête à Tête.
Ten days before lockdown, and the writing was clearly on the wall. No point in hanging about, I triggered a twitter storm from @teteateteopera with the hashtag #CoronaChorus. As the crisis blew up, lots of artists graced this with specially made videos, while others’ work was appropriated and added to the thread by all and sundry, mostly joyously and singing and laughing at the virus. (Do not miss Helena Dix’s wonderful singing toilet roll!)
My beloved mother died. It was her time, and as good as it could have been, at home with us all around her, very much loved. But any death in April 2020 was really messed up. It’s really important to remember that, however dire our industry and working lives are, lots of us have been harshly bereaved, really ill or even died in the shadow of this virus, while many of us have been shielding for six months.
The week a major co-production with Tête à Tête had been due to happen but had become quite impossible in lockdown, I launched my Manifesto. Really unable to bear any more “art in isolation”, and with dozens of freelance artists wanting to be part of our festival, each of them leading hundreds more in their companies, this Manifesto was me putting down a marker saying “THIS is where we are going, a live festival playing to live audiences. If we can’t get all the way, at least we’ll have something to show for embarking, however far we have got.” It was thrilling to have so much buy-in, and to be offering artists a goal, something creative to work on aim for and look forward to. By this time, every bit of freelance work I had been looking forward to had collapsed. The implosion of our industry is not just a financial issue, we are sustained by our creativity as well as our income.
My first Freelancers Make Theatre Work Friday meeting. Locked away in my remote Cornish granny annexe, I had been fighting away for our troupe of artists like never before. I was determined all these freelancers should not be left in the dark. Doors slammed in my face all over the place. Bigger institutions were too focussed on their own implosions to help others with decent information. Nothing came from the government or statutory bodies. I stumbled across FMTW on the internet, spotted friends from happier times Hazel Holder and Paule Constable among the number, had a chat with both of them and in I came. It was thrilling to enter what felt like a really diverse, inclusive group that was fizzing with energy and really kicking ass, at a time when most meetings were tying themselves in knots. A lot of energy has gone in since, and I hope I’ve been useful. I’m in an odd, possibly unique position being freelance and heading up an Arts Council National Portfolio organisation. Anyway, I remain so grateful to FMTW fighting so brilliantly for us all and also helping keep my Tête à Tête artists informed and empowered.
Tête à Tête runs the only opera DCMS Pilot Performance, also, incidentally, my first visit to London since March. Boy, this took a lot of ass-kicking. The more the crisis rumbled on, and the more all the Festival artists and TàT core team were committed to keeping going, the more I felt driven to fight everyone’s corner. Each time I knocked on another door and it slammed shut, I’d move to the next, accumulating friends (and probably enemies) along the way. The circuitous route that led to this performance is a whole other story in itself, but the untold and I still think extraordinary tale is that this passed without comment in the press or media. To my knowledge, there only were 11 DCMS pilots in total, mostly concerts or comedy. While no news programme was complete without yet another report on some major national NPO not doing anything and lurching further into crisis, we quietly paved the way for theatre to reopen. While Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s pilot seemed to backfire, ours succeeded. It’s almost as if the money and big boys didn’t want it to happen, and didn’t want freelancers to work.
WE DID IT! Hand in hand with The Cockpit, 19 companies of artists staged live world premiere performances to live audiences under our wing in Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020, all also broadcast online/by phone and with another dozen online/by phone only. 107 aritsts/freelancers in the theatre, and with the online/other work a total of 332.
This was a real white-knuckle ride. For our core team and lead artists, we bonded like never before. Constant Zooms building up to this to cope with goalposts moving daily, at times it took very strong and energetic leadership. There were also wonderful outbursts of extreme democracy, where the artists would brainstorm how to price the box-office, how to present work online, almost every aspect of the festival. Every single work was reinvented again and again to make performance possible. A painful but also very creative process, artists had to single out what really mattered to them in their work, what they really wanted to create, what could still survive once the covid-non-compliant was cut away.
For the performers, this was mostly their first connection with a living public for six months. For many of the audience, ditto. The work was humble, miniaturised, simple, but the live connection was back and that alone was transformative. For the media, it’s as if this never happened. For funders, bizarrely, thriving in adversity has made us ineligible for anything from the Cultural Recovery Fund or any other ACE grant. The fundraising was a whole other massive and massively tough story. But anyway, many happy endings, a theatre well and truly reopened, over three hundred freelancers not on the scrapheap for at least a brief moment, and a feeling of strength in facing the future whatever it may be. The last six months have been so tough. The next six I fear will be even tougher. More than ever, the key to survival feels both to cling tenaciously onto your dreams, and to find ways to let go freely of whatever you really can’t hang on to.
In a couple of hours, off to host the last online presentation of this year’s festival, where it all began, Graeae’s The Paradis Files. And then, it’s definitely time for a bit of a rest and a lot of surfing back home in Cornwall. :-)