Creative theatre making and what we can learn from the fringe

By Matthew Short

The novel coronavirus pandemic has had a multiplicity of effects on creative practitioners. For some it has made them seek out alternative forms of creativity by reaching new audiences through different platforms and mediums. For others, the uncertainty and anxiety that this time has created has left them unable to focus in a creative way. During this time, attention to the self and the body is important, and so for some creatives, self-care has been a priority over the act of creation. For many traditional artistic creators, particularly within the theatre industry, this time has left them unemployed, or on furlough, with no surety as to what will happen next.

This is not an isolated problem that we can witness here in Sweden. In the UK the entertainment and media union Bectu has estimated that up to 5,000 theatre industry employees have lost their jobs during this time. As socially-distanced theatre going is being examined over there, a recent article in The Stage highlights the potential for immediate failure of these performances if producers aren’t able to insure their productions in an uncertain future. The climate here in Sweden does not look much different with the recent announcement that the Public Health Agency is recommending a change to the upper limit of people in certain gatherings, including the theatre, that can have designated seating. However, some people feel that this potential to bring in a larger audience isn’t necessarily designed with theatre in mind.

Whether or not the 1 metre socially distanced rule will apply to actors and other members of staff that physically need to break this limit as part of the art form, or whether the largest theatres can continue to sustain their business with such a dramatic drop in their audience size, the new regulations can seem vague and uncertain. Whilst this recommendation can be seen as having the potential to positively impact the theatre industry with a boost to their economy, it highlights that the form of the event requires a different approach to tackle the situation of creating a safe and valuable performance.

Photo: Johan Svensson, dictat.se

During the height of the pandemic I followed Johan Svensson of Teater Dictat as he developed a performance of Maqbeth Deluxe with consideration of all the limitations the corona virus had brought. Throughout the process, Svensson had to negotiate the difficulties of planning theatre in which an audience couldn’t occupy the physical theatre space. He had to think creatively to come up with ways of ensuring the delivery of a production in a way that was safe and accessible. As a small, fringe theatre company, Teater Dictat were able to work with innovative methodologies that allowed them to rehearse safely and produce a digital performance which ended up being able to reach a far wider audience. The work that Svensson put into the production highlights what large institutional theatres and cultural policy makers can learn from a more qualitative and human- focused approach.

“Working during the pandemic made me realise just what the theatre space could be. I like to think of my work as relational and so now that concept ended up looking at the relations of the actors, the space, and the camera used to film it live, it was, in many ways, very exciting” says Svensson.

As a researcher who looks at human focused insights, I gathered rich data from participating in multiple conversations with Svensson about his adapted working style during the pandemic, and how he made the necessary changes to move his production to a digital platform. One of the largest factors that affect all creative practitioners is the idea of space. Space in which to create, to rehearse, to perform, to separate from one’s own home space. Due to the small production of Svensson’s show, his team were able to rehearse according to the health recommendations and regulations in a safe and secure way. However, the space of the theatre itself became something different as the performance was shared as live-recording via YouTube. At an early stage of the production, Teater Dictat had to start reconciling the online space as a versatile performance space. They had to learn new skills and new technologies in a short amount of time in order to reach their audience. Creative thinking was key for Svensson’s adaptation.

Creative thinking is about adopting parallel or adjacent ways of thinking and perceiving the world around us. It is about dealing with risk and uncertainty as tools for divergence from the norms. Given the queer aspect of Teater Dictat’s performance, the cast and crew are not strangers to this sense of difference. They have all been living in the world as queer people and have since adopted a mindset that creates a different way of knowing the spaces that they move through on a daily basis. Of course, creative thinking doesn’t rely on a queer identity. Creative thinking is available to all those who dare to be different, who dare to take risks, and who dare to move forwards in uncertain times.

Large theatrical institutions, and the policy makers who help shape the regulations that aid/ hinder them, have their methods in creating productions that are tried and tested. This pandemic has faced them with a future that can no longer be guaranteed on past successes. And yet the perspective still relies on macro-understandings of the theatre based on a long and illustrious history of what the theatre is. Moving forwards from here, we can look to the smaller fringe groups who have survived many years through constant adaptation, new and innovative creative methodologies, and through the necessity of changing and catching up with the times in order to sustain their careers. These are the pioneers of reimagining the spaces in which theatrical arts can exist.

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