Paul Smith, Artistic Director & CEO
No-one teaches you this, do they? There aren’t any Open University courses on running a theatre company in a pandemic. I couldn’t find any TedTalks on ‘how to smash socially distanced theatre’, or Buzzfeed articles on the ’55 Inspiring Things Artists of the Past Did During Global Health Crises’. It’s a thing we all say all the time – “I’m just making it up as I go along” – but it feels like it’s never been truer than right now, during All This.
So what do you do when you’re lost? You follow your instincts, you listen to others and you try to make the best of things. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do here at Middle Child during the last few months, and what we will keep doing as we move forward.
Both organisations and individuals are having to make impossible decisions throughout our sector, treading the line between staying afloat and offering hope. Teetering between crisis and optimism. Imagining how we can change the world while trying to make sure we’re around to be a part of it. In truth, it feels that there are no right or wrong answers to be found, only choices to be made.
As for us, we’ve made the difficult decision to furlough our remaining core staff from Friday 29th May until at least the first week of August, meaning a temporary pause on our public-facing activity for the first time in our nine-year history. We’re going to be going quiet for a bit so we can come back and make more noise long into the future. It’s not an easy decision and it comes with a sense of guilt and shame – should we be doing more? Should we be more innovative? More creative? Possibly. Or perhaps we should have gone quiet a long time ago, when All This first started. Then there’s the unavoidable question of privilege. There’s absolutely no doubt we’re in a privileged position, even being able to take a pause and take advantage of the government’s furlough scheme. Sadly, there’s a privilege in even being able to think about the future. We know that and we feel the weight of that. But the choice we’ve made is to use that privileged position to ensure we’re able to pay artists and employ freelancers long into the future.
We have made this choice because what we do best involves people being together. Whether it’s the shows themselves, our artist development programme, our theatre library or our various social events, our reason to exist is to bring people together in a physical space to think about what it means to be human. We’ve always prioritised liveness at our events, seeing theatre as a social event – a rare opportunity to fully be together in an increasingly digital world. And naive as it may be, we’re not rushing to compromise on that just yet. There are many brilliant companies who make incredible digital work. We are not one of them. And so we’re taking this privileged opportunity to stop. To think, reflect and hold. To not rush and to listen to what the world and the communities we work with need now.
But I should be clear – this is not a complete stop for our company. For while our core staff go on furlough, Middle Child’s preparation for the future continues. We’re putting money into artists pockets and faith into their ideas, giving them time and space to imagine the theatre they want to make in future. Because we will come back. And when we do we’re going to make sure we’re taking risks on the new, the progressive, the unknown. Because where we’re going there’s no doubt we’re going to need ideas, we’re going to need fire and fight and passion and politics. We’re going to need artists, actors, producers, stage managers, designers, technicians, and all of the other freelancers that make this industry great. Because for us, right now, that feels like all we can do. Having lost our two major projects this year we’re reclaiming 2020/21 as a year to do what we can in the short-term in order to be able to take a breath and listen to what people need in the long-term.
So what does this mean for us practically? What did we do in a pandemic? What are we planning to do next? Take a look at the below – presented without comment and see what you think, and remember we followed our instincts and made it up as we went along. Maybe one day in the future this blog post can be featured on a crisis management Buzzfeed article for ADs of the future to critique and contemplate.
Things We Did In The Short Term
- We cancelled/postponed our new show There Should Be Unicorns.
- We cancelled/postponed our tour of The Canary and the Crow.
- We’ve setup this open access Dropbox folder containing useful resources for companies and individuals.
- We pushed a 2021 project into 2022 but increased the commission size from under 70 minutes to over 70 minutes, increasing the scale and ambition.
- We posted an archive recording of both All We Ever Wanted Was Everything and Us Against Whatever.
- We released Us Against Whatever on Spotify.
- We created a DIY panto for people to do at home.
- We setup a GoFundMe, inspired by Luke Barnes, which – thanks to the kindness of friends and strangers – raised £6,520 for Hull freelancers who’s income was affected by Covid-19.
- We scheduled eight free Zoom Q&A’s on various aspects of theatre making and production.
- We honoured the contracts of freelancers, making sure we fully paid those who were already working with us.
- We furloughed our staff and agreed to top their wages up to 100%
- We created a Mental Health while on furlough policy, which made a number of pledges to furloughed staff
- We cancelled our scheduled Acting Gym workshops, deciding to wait until we can do them face-to-face rather than putting them online.
- We ran two online pub quizzes.
- We carried on writing music for our new show virtually.
- We moved our Concrete Retreat Writer Residency programme and offered everyone involved early payment in full if required, as well as giving them the option to use their £200 research fund to pay themselves if they were in need.
- We posted Tom Wells’ brilliant writers exercises online for free.
- We commissioned a number of writers to write a short 10-minute response to the current situation, to be performed in-person when it is safe to do so at an event called Our Radical Future.
- We moved rehearsals for Out Loud – our scratch night with our resident company, Silent Uproar – online, with the event being broadcast live on Radio Humberside. We paid all of the actors and writers to take part.
- Along with Hull Truck and RTYDS we worked with Annabel Streeton on the first part of her directing placement, focusing on everything you do before you get into a rehearsal room.
- We pondered digital output and decided that’s not what we’re good at.
- We opened our submission window and asked writers to submit an existing piece of writing so we can get to know new people.
- We hired a team of local artists to read scripts for us.
- We put aside a pot of money as a development fund for people we meet through that submission window.
- We invested time in the things we always say there isn’t enough time to do.
- We tidied the Google Drive.
- We worked on an action plan and family friendly working policy with PIPA (Parents In the Performing Arts).
- We contributed in a small way to the New Diorama’s brilliant North Star project, helping individuals with their first-time funding applications.
- We developed our Mental Health Policy and our Working from Home policy.
- We created a fundraising strategy for the future.
- We finally became a charity.
- We talked with and listened to local artists and freelancers.
- We talked with and listened to our founding members as we do all we can to ensure Middle Child comes out of this okay.
- We talked with and listened to other local organisations in the Cultural Collisions working group to share best practice and plan for the future
- We talked with and listened to the Arts Council and our brilliant relationship manager.
- We watched digital theatre and chatted about it with local artists and freelancers.
- We commissioned writers to develop a treatment for a future idea.
- We commissioned writers to begin developing a full show for us at some unknown point in the future.
- We decided not to apply for the Arts Council’s Emergency Fund.
- We had a board meeting on Zoom.
- We welcomed a new board member from a finance background.
- We re-forecasted each of our budgets for the next four years.
- We paid the Roaring Girls a day rate to organise a Hull theatre-sector meet-up to discuss the ongoing situation.
Things We Want To Do In The Long Term
- We want to listen better to understand how we can work together to build a better industry after All This is over
- We still want to champion and commission the new, the progressive, the unknown
- We want to continue to ‘take risks’ and not rely on the established or the traditional
- We don’t want to close ranks
- We want to adapt what needs to be adapted and protect what needs to be protected
- We want to better serve our local community of artists and audiences, and listen to what they need now rather than make assumptions
- We want to re-open our building but only when it is safe to do so
- We want to relaunch our projects but only when it is safe to do so
- We want to work out what our function is in the post-COVID world and how we can spend public money in the best way possible
- We will check our privilege
- We want to do what we can to support other arts organisations and individuals in need.
- We will continue to fight for a fairer and more representative industry
- We’ll make sure our audiences and artists are kept up to date with our plans to return, as we hope to be able to bring us back together with a collection of new commissions from a number of brilliant writers imagining Our Radical Future.
- (We cannot wait for that day and to see you all again soon.)
So there it is. A list of what we did, and what we hope to do in future. There’s also an invisible list there somewhere of the things we didn’t do.
I want to reiterate a few things.
As a company, we’ve done what we think is right at this moment, and are in no doubt that the rest of our sector is doing the same. But it’s worth recognising that there are no easy answers here and we’re all having to hope that our best is good enough as we move into an unknown future. Our best is prioritising putting money in artists’ pockets and faith in artists’ ideas, because there’s one thing we’re certain of – we’ll be back, and we’ll be ready for the fight.
(While we’re away we’ve repurposed our What’s On page to include everything that’s available digitally. Check it out here)