The lockdowns and physical distancing measures introduced to contain the spread of Covid 19 have had a devastating impact on the performing arts – music, theatre, opera and dance. Barely able to perform in public for almost a year, artists have had to experiment with ways of working remotely and/or using digital technologies in creating work. As we approach the anniversary of this crisis, it’s becoming clear that the situation is not going to end soon, so these novel ideas will become both necessary and normal.
Last year, I began working with three community opera projects, as part of Traction, an EU funded project that is researching opera, digital technology and social inclusion. Like everyone else, we were blindsided by events, and spent most of last year trying to make progress through the storm. Workshops began in Covid-secure conditions, were suspended, re-started, postponed. Some moved online, others out of doors. But one way or another we are going forward.
A small-scale production will take place in Portugal in June, so that we can test the co-creation process, the technology and the art itself. Other projects are happening in Ireland and Barcelona. We are doing what we can, and we are learning all the time. We are also working hard to build, test and operationalise innovative digital technology to support the co-creation and performance process. (When I say ‘we’, I mean the Traction consortium, with research centres and universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Ireland: my competence in digital technology does not extend very far.)
As we move into the next stage, experimenting with how to rehearse and produce community operas in Covid-secure conditions, we want to enlarge our discussions to involve others with experience in this field. I know that some music and theatre companies have responded to the crisis with imagination and creativity, finding new ways to work online and adapting technologies to new uses.
If that includes you, I’d love to hear about your experience. Over the coming weeks, I want to host two online discussions focussing on:
- Co-creation and participatory art online (workshops and/or rehearsals)
- Performance and digital technology (online and/or hybrid)
Please share your ideas about how digital technology can help sustain participatory and community art practice during and beyond this crisis. You can use the comments box below or the contact form to write to me directly. I’ll draw together everything I learn and share it as widely as possible. The collective knowledge of people who co-create participatory art is an extraordinary resource, and we need to it now as much as we ever have.
PS In focussing on digital technology, I recognise the inequalities that deny access to millions of people, and create new structures of exclusion: they are part of what the Traction project addresses. Still, we need to do what we can with these tools in the present situation, while working to remove barriers to equal access. And of course digital technology will never replace the existing ways we have of creating and experiencing art: it’s just another range of tools with which humans can be creative.
The photo above shows user testing of a digital tool for co-creation in Barcelona for Traction in December 2020 (Photo: Vicomtech).
At Blue Apple Theatre we were able to perform our most recent production live via YouTube, using green screen placed in 4 of our actors’ houses and live mixing in many other pre-recorded elements featuring our other performers. What gave our project some urgency was the fact that all our performers having learning disabilities and they were already hugely disadvantaged by their cultural marginalisation pre-pandemic. You can watch a recording of one of the live shows here: https://youtu.be/4fnVTytjHyM.
Apart from supporting our main theatre company we also run a programme of participatory theatre, dance and music groups for people with learning disabilities in Hampshire, and of course all our sessions have been held over Zoom since March last year. There have been lots of challenges as well as learning to manipulate the technology we have been confined within to create moments of real art and magic. We’re also developing a smartphone-based waling theatre test project with another of our performance groups, who also all have learning disabilities, which will embed their devised characters in geolocations in Winchester for people to interact with – although we hope to work this up to include an alternative option that can embed some live performances alongside the tech in future iterations.
I am also aware that people with learning disabilities are some of the most marginalised members of the population when it comes to technology access, and we’re clearly cresting content that would exclude some of the very people we seek to empower. But I do think there are potential solutions in creating community tech resources and arts projects having support workers built in – people with learning disabilities have struggled to have fair access to art, music and theatre full stop even before the reliance on tech became so pronounced. When being surveyed by ACE about our digital work I suggested that perhaps Creative People And Places should be one project area that really focusses on solving these issues of access.
I’d love to make louder noise about all of this and be part of a bigger debate about cultural inclusion and technology. And so would some of the performers we support!
Simon Morris – manager, Blue Apple Theatre
Many thanks Simon – great to know about your work. I’m just at the beginning of this, but I will be in touch further down the line.
I’ve been running inclusive music workshops with young people with learning difficulties and of neuro difference throughout the pandemic as well as teaching community music practice at Goldsmiths and elsewhere. It’s been a huge challenge – some of my neuro diverse young people love online engagement and others find the focus difficult. I’ve also done a dozenor so live stream gigs with my own electronic music and learnt quite a bit from that challenge too.
Creating new music together has demanded new ways in – more improvisation, more soundscaping and a bit less rhythmic based.
I have spent the last few months looking at what people are doing in the community music world and trying to learn for myself and share practice. There is such a wealth of stuff out there. Started to deliver some sessions now sharing this ‘research’ – if you can call it that! Happy to be part of anything you set up… Pete
Many thanks Pete – it would be great to have your input to this. I’ll be in touch
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