Creativity in the time of coronavirus
Thursday, April 2, 2020
The acclaimed British cellist turns his family garage into an arts venue for local arts students to showcase their talents to worldwide audience
‘Travel light and you laugh in the robber’s face.’
I didn’t stick at Latin beyond year nine. But I did have the great, mind-broadening pleasure and privilege of singing and recording Mike Westbrook’s epic and erudite big band song-cycle, Chanson Irresponsable, many years ago. Mike quotes those words from Juvenal in the final song.
And, bizarrely, it was those words that flooded back along my neural pathways as I delivered Coronavirus helpline leaflets around my village a couple of weeks ago and put a figure on the financial abyss that had, almost overnight, opened up in front of me and for the foreseeable future.
Rewind to a little over two weeks ago, and the long-held plans for this current period had been rehearsals for the French premiere of Laura Bowler and Frédéric Pattar’s We Need To Talk at the Détours de Babel Festival in Grenoble before heading off to Ireland and the US for some opera and concerto projects.
Of course, these and many months of performances and collaborations have now been postponed or cancelled. Millions of musicians, and artists and performers of all kinds, not to mention taxi drivers, plumbers, plasterers – I could go on – are sharing this reality.
As I did the maths on my leafletting round, I realised that – in terms of the postponements and cancellations I knew about – something like a third of my yearly income had simply disappeared.
So, Juvenal came to mind and I decided I needed to sell one of my two cellos. I support a family of five. I like to walk the talk. I’m lucky to have two cellos! At that stage, the UK government was keeping very quiet about support for the self-employed. So I got home and put the word straight out there.
The response from my friends, family and online community was immediate and overwhelming. And through the creative thinking and support of my creative compadres, I have found creative solutions to the immediate financial problems that mean I don’t have to sell my cello … for now.
Since that day, I have devoted energy to raising awareness and funds for the precarious state of self-employed people in the UK. Though government support has finally come for a proportion of self-employed people, many fall through the cracks of this package. The situation has also laid bare the striking, persistent and – some would say – age-old neuro-linguistic deficit this country has when it comes to thinking and talking about culture and artists. Foibles that exist without and within the culture sector. Some will say such attitudes are in the DNA of the UK. Whether or not that’s the case, when these troubled times have passed, I think a refreshment of these mindsets and blindspots will not only benefit culture but also the divisions in our culture.
I’m continuing to take Juvenal’s words to heart and travel light – control the things I can control, take one day at a time. I’m raising spirits online, I’m enjoying the waves of invention, vulnerability and authenticity that I see daily from fellow musical adventurers online – qualities that can only refresh the overly airbrushed, formica-topped and vacuum-packed. And I’ve turned our garage into The Garage Theatre.
I’ll be streaming family shows from there, shows like Tommy Foggo – Superhero, a 75-minute, one-man musical epic for seven-plus year-olds and their carers about a life saved by music. It was made to work equally well in cultural meccas and school halls and has toured all over the UK and internationally, inspiring countless children to get stuck in to the cello. The plan is to stream the show within the next week or so as the launch event for The Garage Theatre, and to provide some family entertainment as home-schooling morphs into the ‘holidays’.
The venue will also be giving the world premiere of The Strong One by award-winning TV, opera and theatre writer Martin Riley. It’s a story I’ve been exploring for a while, inspired by Carl Dane, the original Rank Films Gong Man, who lived and died in our village (Crick, near Rugby, in Northamptonshire). Two years ago, as part of ‘Crick Creates’, a week-long creativity project hosted by The Wheels on Debussy (a company co-founded by my wife, the theatre producer Fiona Sharp), local residents participated in a storytelling workshop about Dane, who would, we discovered, pull buses down our high street, crush apples in one hand and bang nails into the pub walls with his fist. So positive was the public reaction that we applied for, and received, funding from Northamptonshire Community Foundation to turn the story into a brand-new youth theatre piece, rehearse it with a group of professional theatre makers and perform it as part of Coventry City of Culture events in 2021.
But our aspirations have changed. When the current pandemic put an end to school exams this summer, our hearts went out to all of these teenagers who had been focusing their passions and curiosities on a goal that has now simply vanished. We wanted to offer them a fulfilling alternative, so we’ve now decided to create and perform The Strong One – a powerful, one-act multimedia drama – with the online participation of GCSE and A Level drama, music and art students who we’ve targeted via our contacts in drama, music, youth theatre and the arts in the region.
We’ve already sent out an introductory video ‘invitations’ to potential participants aged 13 to 18, requesting their electronic submissions, and we’ll soon be sending three more, each with a specific ‘task’ to act as a springboard for their imagination: ‘inspiration’, ‘reflection’ and ‘impressions’. Material will be generated from the responses to those tasks, helping us formulate the script, music, songs and visuals. We’ll then send out a further set of ‘commissions’ on May 1 for specific written and recorded contributions. The final performance, which we’ll premiere on May 30 and 31 – to be broadcast live from The Garage Theatre – will have a massive live element (me, playing the cello acting and singing, plus rehearsed live input from our young collaborators) while also incorporating the contributions we’ve received along the way. It’s certainly a journey into uncharted waters … what could be more exciting?