It’s now officially summer! As we finally begin to open up the Shop Front Theatre again, it’s useful to take a moment to reflect on our experience of last year.
As the global Covid pandemic seized hold of 2020 (and continues into 2021), we, as a company, had like many others a need to pause, yet still find a response that could be immediate and useful to both the freelance local arts sector and the communities we serve. Our primary objective is always to create work that is excellent in quality, and remains engaging and relevant to the citizens of Coventry.
Our priority was to check in with each other – the small team behind Theatre Absolute being Chris, myself and our newly-appointed-as-the-first-lockdown-hit projects coordinator Lisa, and then subsequently with the other freelancers we frequently engage or work with.
Using our own separate visual arts and performance practices, we set about creating new work to generate some content for our Shop Front Theatre windows whilst the physical space was closed. It also meant that other people passing by on their daily lockdown walks could at least see and engage with fresh, relevant work. We felt this was a way to support people who were experiencing fear, isolation and anxiety. Works included film photography, text, mixed media, and textiles.
“It was powerful to see and view these works at the Shop Front Theatre during lockdown”
“I felt that there were people I could still connect with through this work from Theatre Absolute”.
In amongst everything, I also set about securing funding for the company, although I had lots of priorities, stabilising the company for the immediate future was crucial.
For context, we closed a show three days before its premiere as the first lockdown took hold and we lost 100% of our hires, ticket and bar income that all help to keep the lights on.
Once I had succeeded in raising some project funds, we then set about supporting local freelancers as best we could. We supported ten artists/performers with our Theatre Labs, which gave the artists solo access to the Shop Front Theatre to explore narrative within their practice and begin to develop new works for performance once everyone could get back on their feet. Artists included Jessica Timmis, Connor Alexander, Paul O’Donnell, Wes Finch, Amy Kakoura, and Lou Sarabadzic.
We also commissioned Coventry artists/writers to create work for our Shop Front Theatre Windows. The artists/writers were: Shahnaz Akhter, Laura Nyahuye, Andrea Mbarushimana, Lainaire Aderemi and Raef Boylan. All artists responded to the central provocation of our ongoing re-scheduled artistic works, Humanistan. Their work can be viewed in the windows until the end of this summer, 2021 and we will be featuring their practices and the poems weekly through our social media channels.
Additionally, during this time, we supported the ‘In-Betweeness’ Collective. Artists were: Adele Mary Reed, Lindsay Jane Hunter, Lanaire Aderemi, myself, Melissandré Varin and Emily Woodruff. Having space to converse, be together ‘in-between’ everything on zoom, and critique each other’s newly generated work was genuinely rewarding and stimulating.
In partnership with City of Culture Trust, we also ran a series of City Voices writing workshops online for writers of all abilities and ages in Coventry, and invited two local writers to help run the sessions, (Josh Leach and Alexandra Johnson), thus supporting their professional development as workshop leaders. The workshops ran for six weeks and we invited two national guest writers/poets to run elements of the sessions, these were Liz Mytton and Liz Berry (check them out – they are both amazing writers!). This programme also included paid micro commissions with dramaturgy support by our artistic director Chris O’Connell and playwright Vanessa Oakes. We then curated a live online sharing of new writing with an audience capacity similar to the Shop Front Theatre (60 in attendance). The event was incredibly rewarding, retaining the intimacy of the Shop Front space although it was a digitalexperience.
Continuing our efforts to remain connected to artists and the public, we offered and delivered ten online dramaturg sessions to writers via national call out. We had over 60 writers apply. The one to one sessions were delivered by Coventry dramaturg Ola Animashawun and Chris.
Carrying on our support of local artists, we hosted a photography exhibition in our windows of work by local photographer Neil Catley who founded Confidence Through Photography – a local network dedicated to the wellbeing and mental health of visual artists. We also supported painter Jonny Nicholds with an exhibition of his stunning artworks in the windows. It was a pleasure to support both local artists.
In addition, we tried to remain in touch with our regular shop front hirers and a wonderful outcome was a new ‘Window artwork’ collaboration with Grapevine Coventry which emerged holding informal online ‘check up on each other’ sessions.
Finally, we created and launched The Writing Box. The project encouraged the public to request a free box of writing stimuli that we delivered within Coventry on foot or by post. The first run was 300 boxes reaching every Coventry postcode as well as Nuneaton, Stratford, and Warwickshire, plus some national and international areas including Birmingham, Leeds, Cornwall, Lincoln, St Albans, London and even France! Tres bien!
A major takeaway from this last year’s experience is that staying connected in whatever form is good for all of us. We will endeavour to still create content that can be accessed both in person at the Shop Front Theatre or online and we hope to create a new postal Writing Box later in the year. In the meantime, come and see the next show at the Shop Front (Stephen Lightbown’s A Life With PIP – available online too in August).
This experience has made me realise how lucky we are in Coventry, to have such a unique and flexible space like the Shop Front Theatre. I hope that others who have the privilege to hold the keys to spaces (however large, small or unusual), also remember to open the doors wider for our creatives, our artists and our audiences. We all need each other.
Winners of the Writers Guild of Great Britain (WGGB)
Olwen Wymark Awards 2021 for Exceptional Encouragement of Theatre Writing
PS: And if you haven’t seen or been to our wonderful Shop Front Theatre yet, check out our soon-to-be award winning trailer below!