Category

Artist Development

Welcome to your new home

By | Artist Development, Artistic Director

Nearly two years after leaving Darley’s, we’re ready to open our new space to the public. Artistic director, Paul Smith, explains how you can make it your own.

In the early days of Middle Child we used the phrase ‘more than a theatre company’ to give ourselves something to aim at, amidst having no idea what we were doing. It meant a variety of things to us at the time, but mainly it related to our dream, that this thing we were building would eventually have a wider focus than just putting on plays.

So, it is with years and years of excitement running through my fingertips that I write this post as we prepare to (finally) open our brand new space in Hull. I won’t waste too much time talking about how much sooner this was supposed happen. You all know why and we’ve talked enough about that for now.

But, I do want to reflect on how opening Bond 31, on High Street in Hull, feels more emotional than I ever thought possible. Because now we know what it’s like when we can’t be together. We know what it’s like to see our library books gather dust, and our rehearsal room sit in silence. We know what it’s like to one day leave our beloved pub, built over years of hard work and never go back.  

And it is with those memories at the forefront of our minds that we’re flinging open the doors and saying to you – to Hull – let’s be having you.

Because, yes, the sign on the door says Middle Child and we’re footing the bill, but our space 100% belongs to the people of Hull, and is nothing without you here making magic happen.

Two men in fancy dress stand on stage and point at a cheering audience

The opening party of Darley’s in 2018. Photo by Sarah Beth.

We’re doing all we can to make Bond 31 a place where anyone is welcome, and where anything can happen. Where people come together to dream, dance, play, create and learn. It can be your living room, your office, your library, your kitchen, your recording studio. We’re here if you want to pop in for a chat or camp out for months on end, crafting your latest masterpiece.  

We’re putting on events and making plans but we’re also open to your suggestions on what should happen here. So, think of this as an invitation. An invitation to our launch party, yes, but more than that. An invitation to help us shape this place into something useful that can last long into the future, and help Hull artists and arts workers be their brilliant selves as easily as possible. 

We know things are getting more expensive and we know how hard it is to work in the arts, so we won’t charge local artists and arts workers to use any of our spaces. We’ll also provide free WiFi, hot drinks and biscuits! 

So here’s what’s on offer so far: 

  • A rehearsal room with newly fitted dancefloor, available for free use Tuesday to Friday, between 9am and 6pm whenever we’re not using it 
  • A private writing room complete with desk (for the more traditional writers) and bed (for the more honest writers) 
  • Hot desking space  
  • Our Theatre Library of over 2,000 new plays, classics and textbooks 
  • Private ‘Zoom room’ or self-taping space. This currently has plain walls and one wall with a Middle Child logo but we’re open to suggestions.

Snazzy pics and video to come soon.

The rehearsal room for There Should Be Unicorns. Photo by Tom Arran.

We also plan to run a number of regular events here, such as: 

  • Our annual Writers’ Group, with Tom Wells 
  • Concrete Retreat writer residency 
  • Quarterly quiz events, bringing the local arts scene together to say hello in a low-pressure and fun environment (with a bar!) 
  • Our brand new Acting Gym: The Lab 
  • Regular Acting Gym workshop sessions 
  • 1:1 Script Support sessions with our brilliant literary manager, Matt 
  • Focus groups 
  • R&Ds on upcoming productions, including our panto and new writing work 

I’m certain there’s plenty we’ve missed, so if there’s anyone out there with a great idea in need of a home, then please do get in touch.

Perhaps you want to get together with some friends to try out accents, or you want a space to practise yoga, or you have to hear your latest music through a PA system? Whatever it is, give us a shout and if we can help make it happen then we will. 

I really hope to see as many of you as possible at our launch party. You’ll get to see the space in all its fresh new glory, we’ll talk a bit more about our plans and return to Middle Child’s old faithful: A PUB QUIZ! (NB: We bought a massive trophy for the Darley’s pub quiz, which never happened, so that’s up for grabs to our winners. It’s massive.) 

There’s a lot of space here, and we mean it when we say it belongs to you. Help us fill it. We’re really excited for what this could become and the impact it could have on our city in the coming years.  

Let’s be in the same place making good things happen.

  • Our space in Bond 31 opens on Tuesday 14 June. Booking forms and information packs about the space will be available on our website from the same date.
  • Book pay what you decide tickets for the launch party on Friday 10 June.
An excitable seated audience bathed in pink-red light, in front of giant lit-up letters that spell NSDF

National Student Drama Festival 2022: a “utopia that theatre could be”

By | Artist Development, Blog, Uncategorised

Middle Child company member, Marc Graham, writes about his experience of attending this year’s National Student Drama Festival as an associate – and why the festival matters so much

This was the first National Student Drama Festival back in-person since 2019. In the time between then and now it went digital, winning a Digital Trailblazer Award at the Digital Culture Awards and continued to do what it does best: working with young people and allowing a space for the future generation of theatre makers to flourish.

I first came to NSDF as a student in 2009. I straightened my hair for the show and was mainly carried around on the shoulders of my mates, while we reached for stuff in the distance.

I came back to do another show with the same mates a few years later, after we had graduated and were at the start of our careers, this time with curly hair and this time I shouldered their weight, whilst reaching for more stuff in the distance.

I became an associate in 2019, after having worked with that year’s festival director, James Phillips, in 2017, on Flood. I sacrificed my body by jumping into a freezing cold body of water in an old dock in Hull that winter, while a heavy set, boats and fire swirled around me. That was the job interview. They took two years to get back to me, but I got it.

So, April 2022. NSDF is back for its 66th year, it’s survived the pandemic, it’s a digital award winner, back in Leicester at the Curve and I arrive for kick-off. That in itself is a remarkable achievement and all down to the tireless effort of James Phillips, Lizzie Melbourne and Ellie Fitz-Gerald. JLE.

Under team JLE, NSDF has shifted from a competition to a festival that celebrates and cultivates great work.

This year the festival was free to attend. This year the festival also had access at its heart.

An excitable seated audience bathed in pink-red light, in front of giant lit-up letters that spell NSDF

NSDF 2022. Photo by Beatrice Debney.

First show, DJ Bazzer’s Year 6 Disco, from Chewboy Productions. As I sit down for this I realise that I haven’t seen any live theatre since the pandemic began. I was feeling a little emotional about this, but then the year six tunes began, I settle in, I’m a little too enthusiastic on the audience call and response stuff and I’m just enjoying a night out at the theatre. Then I get really sucked into this world, this character, the performance, the sound design, lights, everything. The show is great, see it if you can.

My first workshop, “Creating a Character from Very Little”, was the next morning. I was led to the space by one of the many incredible NSDF management team, who had forgone writing her dissertation to be at NSDF, a decision I wholeheartedly approve of.

The workshop basically uses some rehearsal techniques that Middle Child use today and some from our early years – before the police fines for disturbing the peace (not joking).

The session ends with me asking the performers to “take their characters for a walk” around Leicester on a sunny Sunday morning, before coming back to partake in a group improvisation. No one gets fined and they all approach the workshop with such drive and passion. Of course they do. They are all excellent.

Next I’m on a panel discussing “Is Theatre Shit? And How Do We Fix It?”

Topics discussed include de-funding the Royal Opera House and subjects of heavier weight, and a lot of this came from students themselves. That’s the best thing about these. Young theatre makers are unafraid to ask the big questions, the necessary ones. They’re inquisitive and it’s needed.

One of the big things here was, where are the routes for emerging theatre makers now? Edinburgh is unaffordable and Vaults has been shut down again. From 2020 we have lost two years of crucial development for emerging companies and, unfortunately, we have lost many companies completely. We didn’t have a specific answer for this right now.

Two performers on stage in front of a multicoloured kaleidoscopic background.

NSDF 2022. Photo by Beatrice Debney.

In between the scheduled programme, films are filming, emerging critics are critiquing, tech teams are teching. Conversations are happening: in the bar, in cafes, in outside venues, in the toilets, between associates, emerging theatre makers, students, professionals, writers, designers, academics and the people of Leicester. This is the real value of NSDF.

Ali Pidsley and I are treated to a viola rendition from Chris Thorpe. Without the viola. He declines every request I make. It’s fine, another show is starting and we’re gonna be late.

It’s also here where you meet emerging theatre makers of NSDF past who have now emerged. I meet the brilliant Definitely Fine Theatre, here with another show. I saw Ezra at Edinburgh uni pre-pandemic. They’re a company finding their voice, experimenting and it’s wonderful. We say hi, they tell me I’m the reason that they’re here, I play it down but only half-heartedly. I discovered them first okay… no I didn’t. But, you know, I sort of did. No, I’m joking. But also yeah, it was me.

RESERVATION. DaDaFest x NSDF. Box of Frogs. A group of young disabled, Deaf and neurodivergent performers having FUN on stage, sometimes at each other’s expense. Is some of it uncomfortable to watch? Absolutely, and that is the point. It is genuinely one of the most joyous experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre.

At the Q&A I’m buzzing and say things really loudly about how I just wanted to join in and dance with them onstage at the end. I later raise a second point which is basically the same as the first because I’m just so pumped up.

This show must have a further life.

It’s captioned, audio-described and BSL-interpreted – as is every show this year. #PissOnPity

An audience invades the stage to dance with their hands in the air under various coloured stage lights

Reservations. Photo by Beatrice Debney.

After their last show, I meet Nickie Miles-Wildin in the bar, on the way to hosting the spoken word night. She says she encouraged the audience to do what I suggested in the Q&A and they joined the performers on stage. She said she got in trouble, something about the Curve’s health and safety protocols. That’s rock’n’roll. I’ll take responsibility for that.

Nadia Emam and I host the spoken word night. It’s on the purpose-built NSDF stage in the bar at Curve. The mic is live and ready to go. Nickie Miles-Wildin is now halfway through a bottle of champagne and is trying to heckle me from the front row, but unfortunately for her 11 years of being a panto dame means I shut her down without giving it a second thought.

The standard is phenomenal. We have actors, producers, technical staff, NSDF alumni, management staff all standing up in front of 100 people and speaking their words. Then we have Viktor. Viktor asks me at the side of stage if they can perform, I say absolutely. Viktor is second from last, Viktor steps up to the mic. Viktor says:

“I’ve never performed my work in front of anyone before. I’m a dentist from Leicester. I don’t know what this is. I’ve been out drinking and was passing by and saw the lights and heard the noise. Sorry, I’m nervous. This poem is Untitled. Thank you.”

It was about how they thought they could never be loved, that they didn’t fit in, in a strange body and a foreign land.

It was one of those true moments of magic.

The day after I ran a second workshop on drama school auditions, with a last-minute offer of help from Hannah Miller, head of casting at the RSC. The second panel discussion was also about drama schools. The main takeaway from that: schools are not doing enough to push for access. It must start there, they could be the industry leaders, if they step-up.

A group of people chatting with drinks in hand at NSDF 2022

NSDF 2022. Photo by Beatrice Debney.

NSDF is partly about the shows, but it’s more about the conversations over coffee, the sharing of experiences, providing a safe platform to experiment and discover.

It’s a place where theatre professionals meet student theatre makers as equals. I mean, many of us were all them at some stage. And if we weren’t students, we had to learn somewhere.

This does not happen in this industry enough. Some of the professionals I met 13 years ago I still work with today. I always say: find the people who share your values and opinions and hold on to them tightly. NSDF is a place where this happens.

It is the utopia of what the theatre industry could be. Every year that goes by in this career I get a little more jaded, a little less hopeful, but each year the next generation of theatre makers at NSDF revitalises that. It may only last a week, but I take the values of NSDF with me for the rest of the year.

On my last morning I’m sitting with Chris Thorpe at breakfast. We both have our phones in hand. He looks at me across his plate of hash browns, he slumps his phone down after losing to me at chess online and says:

“The reality is, is that we probably get more out of this than the young people do.”

Photos from Out Loud: Casino

By | Artist Development, Events

Last month we took over Humber Street Gallery, along with Silent Uproar, for three nights for the return of Out Loud, our scratch programme for new writers.

This time we presented a script-in-hand sharing of Casino by Larner Wallace-Taylor, a play about the impact of northern soul in Wigan during the 1970s.

Thank you so much to everybody who turned out to support Larner and contributed so generously to the post-show discussions. Every night was a treat!

Photos by Anete Sooda.

An Asian woman in a wheelchair and two white men, all holding scripts, make the cheers gesture

What does a literary department do?

By | Artist Development, Blog

Literary manager, Matthew May, writes about what a literary department does in an organisation like Middle Child and our plans for the next few years.

Middle Child are a new writing company. Writers and new plays are at the heart of what we do. That’s why in 2020 my job title changed, from artistic associate to Middle Child’s first literary manager.

Now we have a literary department, but what does that actually mean? And in particular, what does that mean when you work for a small NPO and your department consists of just you, working part time?

That’s what myself and Paul, our artistic director, have been trying to work out as we plan for the future.

This blog post is an attempt to explain that. It’s written for writers, because we love you and we want you to know what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.

It contains an apology, but also a plan that we hope is honest, achievable and exciting.

This is what a Middle Child literary department aims to set out and do:

  • Support the development of Middle Child productions
  • Identify and form meaningful relationships with new writers who will work with Middle Child in the future
  • Encourage and develop writers within Hull

I don’t think any of that is surprising, or ground-breaking, but I do think it helps for you to know what we’re trying to achieve and for us to say it out loud, so you can understand how we’ve made the decisions we have.

With that in mind, let’s get to the apology.

Open calls

For the past two years our website has said: “Following our 2020 open call out and subsequent launch of the Next Up associate writers programme we will not be accepting unsolicited scripts until Spring 2022. This is to ensure we are able to fully and fairly engage with writers and their work.”

Suddenly it’s spring 2022, which feels ridiculous, and so we should be putting out another call for scripts from writers we don’t know.

Sadly we’re no longer going to do this, and rather than subtly remove this from the website and hope that no one notices, I want to be up front about that.

Firstly, I want to say that hearing the reasons behind the decision and the programme we’re putting in place don’t make it any less frustrating if you’re a writer who wants to send us your work. I’m genuinely sorry.

You might well point out that just a few lines earlier I said that part of my job is identifying new writers.

These relationships need to be meaningful, though. We want to engage with you properly, actually chat with you and, hopefully, at some point make work with you.

And there’s the rub: right now, we don’t think we could do any of those things with the levels of care and attention we’d want to give, and that you would deserve.

Working part time means reading the work of, and responding to, the writers we already have relationships with, takes up most of my hours.

And as we make one new full-length show a year, there are a limited number of commissions that we have to offer.

The question we had to ask ourselves then was, if we couldn’t properly support you and we might never be able to commission you, why were we going to put a call out for more writers?

So, we’re not going to do that. Not right now, anyway.

We will at some point, because we really do want to meet new writers and hear new stories, but for now we are going to focus on how we can best support and provide opportunities to the writers we’ve already built relationships with, through previous open calls, writers groups and the work we’ve seen.

With that in mind, this is the programme we’ve put together for the next four years. We’re really excited about it and we think it gives writers a variety of meaningful ways to develop their work and get it seen.

Our programme

We will continue to work with Silent Uproar to commission two early career writers each year for our Out Loud scratch programme.

In Out Loud, we work with writers to develop an early draft of a script, which is then shared by professional actors in front of a small, friendly audience, over multiple nights in Hull.

This gives writers experience of staging their work without the high stakes of a full production, plus a framework to develop it further if they wish.

In fact, we have an Out Loud sharing coming up at Humber Street Gallery, but it’s sold out.

Concrete Retreat will return. This is an invited residency where four writers are paid to spend the week with us, developing individual ideas together as a group of peers, without any pressure to produce an outcome.

An Asian woman in a wheelchair and two white men, all holding scripts, make the cheers gesture

Writers’ Group sharing, February 2022. Photo by Simon Herring.

Our annual Writers’ Group will also continue, run by acclaimed playwright Tom Wells, who will guide a small group through the process of writing their first scenes. These will then be performed in front of an invited audience, as we did last month at Humber Street Gallery.

Raise Your Voice is our schools programme, supported by Creative Voice, in which professional writers mentor eight students across two secondary schools in Hull and help them write their first short play.

These will then be performed in front of an invited audience and we’re excited to share work from the first group of young writers in July.

Our Theatre Library will re-open this summer, making available a collection of over 2,000 plays free to residents of Hull and the East Riding.

The 1:1 Script Support sessions will continue, offering free dramaturgical support to local writers.

Finally we will continue to commission an amazing writer every year to create a new show.

We are already working with Ellen Brammar on a 2023 drag-farce-comedy-musical-play about the artist Elizabeth Thompson.

Then in 2024, Maureen Lennon will write about the intersection between romantic love, familial love and the patriarchy. Think Violence and Son meets a family wedding.

We’re yet to commission a writer for 2025, but they will be somebody with whom we already have a relationship.

We think this programme offers a clear route for writers to grow with Middle Child and is grounded in proven success over the previous five years.

A young Black man in school uniform with blazer sings into a microphone. A white man and white woman play cello on either side.

Daniel Ward in The Canary and the Crow, 2019. Photo by The Other Richard.

Daniel Ward’s The Canary and the Crow grew out of a residency with us in 2018 and eventually earned him the George Devine Award.

Hannah Scorer and Chris Pearson are among our Writers’ Group alumni to progress into Out Loud.

Jay Mitra took part in our first Concrete Retreat, then wrote for our 2021 cabaret, we used to be closer than this and is now a member of our board.

Meanwhile associate writers Tabby Lamb and Natasha Brown have also written we used to be closer than this and Deborah Acheampong for our 2020 animated panto.

In total, of the 35 people we have paid to write something over the past five years, 26% received their first professional theatre contract, while 68% have been women and non-binary people and 29% from the global majority.

That’s what we think a Middle Child literary department should look like right now and we’re actually pretty proud of it. Considering the department is just me, we think we offer a lot.

That said, I am still very sorry if you were waiting for our open call and I really hope that if that is you, we’ll get to hear from you soon. Please don’t stop inviting us to your work – we genuinely love seeing work from writers we haven’t met before.

Like everything we do, this department will change and grow. It will also adapt in response to what writers need, so please do talk to us, and let us know where you feel the gaps are. We do love writers and we’re going to keep trying to prove it.

Tickets on-sale for Out Loud at Humber Street Gallery

By | Artist Development, Events, Shows

Artwork by Ur My Type

Pay what you decide tickets are now available for a ‘scratch’ performance of a new play set in the world of northern soul.

We take over Humber Street Gallery from 24-26 March to share a lo-fi version of Casino, by Larner Wallace-Taylor, set on the dancefloor of Wigan’s most famous nightclub.

Casino follows friends Linda and Tina as they discover soul music, fashion and amphetamines, in a time of strikes and power cuts.

These short, ‘scratch’ performances will feature professional actors, but no set, props or costume.

Casino is part of Out Loud, a Middle Child and Silent Uproar programme that supports writers to stage new plays, without the stress of creating a polished show.

Pay What You Decide tickets are now on-sale, with a BSL performance on Thursday 24 March.

Plus: Soul Syndicate DJs will be spinning classic northern soul in the bar after the show, on Sat 26 March.

A white man in blue t-shirt leaning against a wall

Free 1:1 feedback for Hull playwrights

By | Artist Development, News
A white man in blue t-shirt leaning against a wall

Are you writing a play and looking for feedback on your latest draft?

Starting in March, Middle Child literary manager, Matthew May, is offering 1:1 Script Support meetings with writers local to Hull to provide notes and support.

The sessions are aimed at writers without current access to dramaturgical support, such as those not under commission or attached to an existing project.

Writers will be chosen at random from a pool of applicants to attend a one-off, two-hour meeting with Matthew.

Meetings will run throughout the year and applications are now open to bag one of the first three spots.

See the 1:1 Script Support page for more details, including how to apply.

A white woman in a black t-shirt holds a white coffee flask

“Like a spa retreat for creatives” – Kerrie Marsh

By | Artist Development, Blog
A white woman in a black t-shirt holds a white coffee flask
Kerrie Marsh reflects upon taking part in the Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme.

It’s funny how quickly you can adapt to routine, especially when it’s one that aids you. Waking up to a new week, but realising, “why am I alone in yoga this morning?”

Because I’m at home, in my front room. Awakening my body, mind and soul on my own and not with the amazing bunch of people I have done during those three weeks.

Middle Child’s Recover, Restart and Reimagine residency is over and, after a reflective weekend, I knew I’d pine for it as a new week dawned.

In a few reflective words I shared on the last day, “it’s been like a spa retreat for creatives”. One I would have happily paid for too, never mind be financially supported to take part in.

It was too hard to put into words as the programme came to an end just how important, special and inspirational the three weeks have been for me and I know I’m singing from the same hymn sheet as the rest of the group.

The love in that space was unquestionable. It was emotional and I can’t cope with emotions. If you tell me a movie you watched was sad and you cried, then I ain’t watching that movie!

I’m much more comfortable saying “was alright that, yeah”, rather than speaking from the heart and crying a river into the room. Peeps would have needed floats for real.

Though in saying this, I did share a tear or two hundred as others reflected, sharing their words with the group and trust when I say, it was most certainly a safe space to do so.

It’s still hard to put into words just how epic this experience was. I have never been part of anything like this before and I have never known of any other companies offering anything like it.

A place where artists can share, be vulnerable, be supported, offered guidance and provided with the space and expertise to allow themselves to exist, be heard and seen without any pressure of an end result other than personal gain.

It feels dramatic to say, but it felt ground-breaking as I looked back over it. I honestly have not stopped feeling inspired.

I hear echoes of the words people have said from my awesome group members to the workshop leaders or the Middle Child team. I smile and I’m prompted to jot a note down into my writing pad, a Middle Child one they provided us… for free. Who doesn’t love merch, right?

I have a growing list of inspo from as simple as changing my bio, writing a manifesto to taking over the world in an attempt to save humankind and nature, implementing green-only policies and making humour the only source of entertainment. Laugh or leave! Book now with Elon Musk.

A white woman in black t-shirt and red shorts sits in a chair by a white wall, next to a man in a black jumper.

So, although I’m still finding it hard to put into short, definite words, and sum up such an experience I am full of all the feels.

This residency will stay with me for a long time and the gratitude I hold for being blessed to be a part of it, is still overwhelming.

Massive thank you to Middle Child, the magical members of such an inspiring group to be around and to all the professionals who shared their wisdom with us.

This has been an experience like no other and one I would champion other companies to do, please.

Please do it!

Invest in your local artist, your freelancers, your creatives. You will undoubtedly make an important and extremely valuable impact upon them. That I can reassure you of, I promise.

I may never be able to say that the Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme by Middle Child was…

[Fill in Black]

Though, believe me when I say, I’ll be going away from this with such a positive mindset and I do feel truly blessed.

I’ll also be going away with a free tee, tote bag, keep cup and yoga mat.

As I said, who doesn’t like free merch eh?

Photos by Anete Sooda

In the foreground Black hands holds a notebook. In the background a white woman sits, looking at a notebook.

Learn how to write a play from scratch – with Tom Wells

By | Artist Development
In the foreground Black hands holds a notebook. In the background a white woman sits, looking at a notebook.

The Middle Child Writers’ Group, led by Tom Wells, is back in October!

Burning to tell a story on stage, or just curious to see if you can write a play? Then our free introduction to playwriting course could be for you.

Led by associate artist and Hull-based playwright, Tom Wells, the six week-long programme will take you through a series of workshops, to help you find your voice and set you off writing your first script.

And you don’t need to have written anything before.

You just need to have a few good stories to tell – funny stories, sad stories, tough stories, tender stories – stories we’re eager to see on Hull stages.

The workshops will run weekly on an evening from Wednesday 6 October.

Applications are now open and close at 9am on Wednesday 15 September.

See the Writers’ Group page for more information about the programme and how to apply.

A white man and white woman sit on a floor discussing a playscript

What’s the cost of value?

By | Artist Development, Blog

By Joe Hakim

Beginning June 2021, Middle Child facilitated a three-week programme entitled Recover, Restart, and Reimagine. Partly inspired by their Concrete Retreat writer residency, Recover, Restart, and Reimagine was a period of masterclasses, workshops, and self-development. But what separated this programme from your usual artistic residency/development opportunity was its acknowledgement of the effect that the previous year has had on everyone trying to eke out a living in the creative sectors, not only freelance creatives, but as human beings.

One of the main driving forces behind the inception of Recover, Restart, and Reimagine was the Imagine the Future conference that Middle Child organised back in March. Taking place almost exactly a year on from the first period of lockdown in 2020, I don’t mind admitting that I was initially sheepish about attending it.

For me, ‘Imagining the Future’ meant thinking ahead for the next few weeks or months and wondering what I’d be doing for work. However, I put my misgivings to one side and what I found was a room full of grouchy, angry and confused creatives, from many different areas/fields, all ranting and moaning about pretty much the same issues I was grappling with. And it was exactly what I needed. It was exactly what everyone who attended needed. After over a year of isolation, inactivity and watching projects, opportunities – and in some cases, careers – go down the plughole, the chance to spend time in a space, even if it was virtual, with other people who felt the same way was a tonic.

Imagine the Future wasn’t about networking or meeting people to get specific projects up and running. It was about venting, connecting through shared experience, and asking difficult questions, not just about the practicalities of the industries we work in, but how we work within them and more crucially how they work with us.

Recover, Restart, and Reimagine was a direct response to the issues that emerged during the conversations. I wanted to follow its progress and examine the programme as a direct response to the circumstances that we’re all currently coping with as we crawl from the wreckage towards a post-pandemic world, and I was given permission to drop into the final discussion of Recover, Restart and Reimagine to observe. I sent some prompts for discussion, but I knew that after three weeks of intense, emotional work, the key points, themes and observations would rise up like steam escaping from a New York manhole cover. And while I won’t be quoting participants directly, here are some of my thoughts.

A group of performers stand and watch somebody speak via a projector screen

Recover, Restart and Reimagine. Photo by Anete Sooda.

Recover

Ordinarily, I would have applied for an opportunity like Recover, Restart, and Reimagine, but I decided not to, on account of receiving other support from different sources. It didn’t seem right to potentially take up a place that could be used by someone who hadn’t been as fortunate as I was in that regard. But I felt invested in it as a project and I was curious as to see how it turned out.

Shortly after the Imagine the Future conference, Middle Child, along with other organisations based in Hull, such as  Hull Truck TheatreHull Jazz FestivalArtlink, the John Godber Company, the Adelphi ClubWrecking Ball PressNorthern Academy of Performing ArtsITSL and HPSS, were successful in their applications to the Cultural Recovery Fund, which were made available by the Arts Council.

Almost immediately following the news, Middle Child made a statement via their website, outlining exactly how much funding they received, and exactly how they were going to use said funds. They announced they were going to focus on working with freelancers, both in terms of activities and development and opportunities for paid work. But something that really stood out for me was their tacit commitment to focusing on physical health, mental health and well-being.

The staggering cost of the pandemic on our collective mental health has yet to be fully grasped. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or what your circumstances are, all of us at some point – if you aren’t already – will have to wrestle with the consequences.

And let’s face it, the creative industries don’t have the best track-record when it comes to promoting and encouraging good mental health and well-being. I’m going to break it down in more detail in the last section of this piece, but the very nature of freelance work and its precariousness – whatever your chosen graft – adds up to a completely seat-of-the-pants existence, that is perpetually one or two jobs away from total extinction. And this freelance, ‘you’re-only-as-safe-as-your-next-gig’ way of life now extends far beyond your creative endeavours and into every other aspect of working life, even the jobs you’d ordinarily fall back on when the stuff you’d rather be working on doesn’t pan out.

Gig theatre. Gig economy. Gig life.

All it takes is an illness, a bereavement, the arrival of a child, an accident – y’know, life stuff that happens to everyone, all the time – and you’re out of it. No benefits, no sick pay, no paid leave. No holiday time to book in. Nowt.

Imagine carrying that worry, that anxiety around with you, all the time. That feeling in your gut, that voice in your head: “I hope such-and-such is OK, so I can get focus on the next three weeks, get some work and pay the bills.”

What am I on about? If you’re reading this, chances are you don’t have to imagine it: you’re living it.

A white woman in white vest and black leggings, and orange scarf, sat in a chair with her right arm held up

Recover, Restart and Reimagine. Photo by Anete Sooda.

Restart

When the participants were announced for Recover, Restart, and Reimagine, something I immediately noticed was the range of the circumstances and backgrounds of the participants and the different areas they work in. This meant that when I got to sit on the final session, I got the chance to find out how lockdown and Covid-19 has affected practitioners across a wide range of age and experience. One of the key issues highlighted was how these past few months has been for actors, writers, directors and producers that graduated last year.

If you’ve been doing the freelance thing for a few years, put yourself in the position of being at the beginning of your career and graduating into the wasteland that was 2020, because the next generation of talent will not only have to overcome the ‘traditional’ barriers to careers in the arts, but will have an entirely new set to break through. And when you consider that theatre as an industry is notoriously difficult to break into, those impossibly high barriers to entry have just become stratospheric.

When I was starting out, a sense of belligerence and injustice was enough to keep me going. “I’ll show you,” was my personal mantra, “I’ll prove you all wrong and make this work.”

It was sheer bloody-mindedness; a somewhat naïve belief that if I worked hard enough and kept writing, things would eventually work out. But when I was in the Recover, Restart, and Reimagine process listening to a young person talk about what they’ve been through this last year, I knew in my heart of hearts that, if I was starting out today, I’d have been crushed by the weight of it all. So what, exactly, is being done by the establishment to address this? While it’s very nice that things are ‘returning to normal’ and we can start filling buildings again, what are we going to do about the precious few pathways into the arts that are becoming even harder to find? Whose responsibility is it to address this?

Because I’ll tell you something now: if there was a lack of diverse voices in theatre and the creative industries before, that gap is only going to increase unless we start to address it now. And I’m not talking one-off opportunities; I’m talking dedicated, long-term investment and development for young artists. Genuine opportunities and pathways, with increased support for those who really need the leg up.

Actually, scratch that; dedicated support for emerging artists, no matter what their age. And while I appreciate that we’re all in survival mode – buildings, organisations, and companies as well as individual artists – unless we start to take stock of where we are and encourage these difficult conversations NOW, we’re potentially going to lose that generation of new artists. One of the criticisms around theatre and the arts is their tendency to be elitist. To be fair, over the last few years it feels like there’s been a little progress – not a lot, but some – owing to a willingness for more discussions around these subjects, but we’re in danger of an atavistic slide back, not just back to how things were before pandemic, but to a much worse time when inequality was even more pronounced than it is now.

A woman with orange hair in jeans and black vest leans to her right

Recover, Restart and Reimagine. Photo by Anete Sooda.

Reimagine

We can’t carry on like this.

It’s difficult for me to be objective when discussing the issues that have been thrown up, but there’s one thing I’m certain of, and that’s Covid-19 has had the effect of peeling back a layer, to expose the dysfunction and inequality that already existed.

As buildings, companies and organisations have begun to grind back into life, a lot of the funds that are being made available to artists and practitioners have been in the form of small, contained opportunities or commissions.

Full disclaimer: I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with smaller commissions. In fact, they’re my bread and butter, and if it wasn’t for receiving three of them in quick succession at the end of last year, I dread to think how I’d have got through Christmas after losing my job. But let’s do a quick thought-experiment, shall we?

Let’s say that I want to fully focus on getting my work out there. I want to create, to make stuff, theatre, literature, music, whatever. If your average commission is between £1-2k, that means to stand a chance of a decent yearly income, you’re looking at doing about one a month per year to earn in the region of say £18k (national average wage is £31,461 as of 2021), and that includes applying for them in this time as well.

“But that’s ridiculous, Joe. Most of these opportunities come with the caveat that additional funding must be found, to get the project up and runnin.”

Okay, so let’s say I cut down my yearly commissions to half, take the pressure off, and set about getting one every two months instead. However, what we make up for in time by taking on less commissions is immediately lost to applying for six additional pots of funding, to support the other applications. And that’s before you even think about hiring on additional artists and producers help you achieve this. And because you’re taking on fewer commissions, not only do you have to find the funding for the projects, but you’ve also got to make up for the roughly £9k you’ve already lost by applying for fewer opportunities. Plus, there’s no guarantee you will receive additional funding, so if you don’t, you’ve got to produce something anyway.

And here’s the real kicker: this is how it was before the pandemic.

And now?

Good luck. You’re going to need it.

A white man and white woman sit on a floor discussing a playscript

Recover, Restart and Reimagine. Photo by Anete Sooda.

I realised something earlier this year, something about Hull specifically. Following the shut-down of our local institutions, there was an explosion in creativity and art as freelancers and practitioners quickly tried to adapt to their new circumstances. But then something occurred to me: where are all the major works of art emerging from Hull? Where are the novels, the scripts, the films, the albums? Where are the young spoken word superstars, comedians or musicians heading out on their first tours?

If you ask many organisations this question, they will often reply that, by bringing work of a national and international calibre to Hull, they expose the city to new influences, art and opportunities, which in turn benefits everyone, including Hull’s own artists and creatives, by raising standards.

Fair enough, I’m sure you’ll agree. But if that’s the case, where are the results of this creative and cultural osmosis? As I say, where are the big works that are being produced in Hull to that same standard, that have been inspired by exposure to these events and activities? That take advantage of the networks and opportunities established by their existence?

And I’m not talking about City of Culture and its legacy; personally, I’m over all of that. I’ve moved on. I’ve had to. I know many other people aren’t ready to let go, but what are we going to do, erect stocks in the city centre? I’m talking about now, here in 2021, following a global pandemic.

And this isn’t to denigrate the achievement of Hull artists who have managed to find success and recognition in their chosen field. In fact, now I’ve got your attention, let me ask you this: for everyone who has had their novel, script or performance picked up or developed, how many of you had to seek advice, resources and networks outside of Hull, in order to have your work fully realised?

Obviously, these are gigantic issues we’re grappling with, but they’re not going away.

While Recover, Restart and Reimagine didn’t seek to specifically find solutions, by inviting its participants to consider them, and to explore and share their own experiences, it ignited discussion and created a space in which the participants could be honest about where they’re at, professionally and personally, which creates an atmosphere in which people can begin to talk about these issues.

Because when you boil it down, what we’re left with is this: a completely traumatised sector of freelance creatives who are being drawn back into the rat-race of punting for work and opportunities, while dealing with everything they’ve been through this last year. All these people who have been abandoned – emotionally, financially and artistically – are now expected to jump back on the merry-go-round as though nothing’s happened.

We need time to heal. We need time to recover. We need opportunities and programmes like Recover, Restart, and Reimagine, that put our health and well-being front and centre, that seek to find another way of doing things, or at least talk about it and imagine it.

Because I’ll say it again:

We can’t carry on like this.

Joe Hakim is a freelance writer and radio producer from Hull

A white woman in brown dungarees with long dark hair gestures with her hands

Gallery and podcast: RTYDS assistant director, Belle Streeton

By | Artist Development, Podcast

Throughout the summer Middle Child have been joined by the wonderfully talented Belle Streeton, on an assistant director placement with the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme (RTYDS).

Her time with the company and Hull Truck Theatre picked up on an original three-month long placement that was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

During Belle’s placement she spent time in rehearsals with the company of we used to be closer than this, our first live, in-person performance in over 18 months, featured in Anete Sooda’s photographs below.

You can also listen to a mini-episode of the Middle Child Make Theatre podcast, featuring Belle in conversation with guest host, Jenni Harrison, about her placement.

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