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“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

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 Free Writing Response to ‘Misty’

By | Artist Development, Blog, Uncategorised

Each week as part of Recover, Restart and Reimagine, there is a set play text to read, which is then discussed at length in a session led by Middle Child’s Matthew May. During the second week of Restart the group had the spoken word play Misty by British playwright and actor Arinzé Kene to unpick and respond to. Michelle, one of the spoken word artists on the project, felt inspired to respond with this creative free writing response to the work.    

 

Misty by Arinzé Kene a creative response by Michelle Dee  

 It’s a play about race but it is not a black play 

cos the stuff that goes on is due to poverty 

and lack of opportunity it is not speaking 

about the black experience per se but the 

crisis in masculinity in the UK a lack of role 

models the scales tipped against success 

he says some things about gentrification 

fitting in adapting throughout the work 

Arinzé is told he should be changing his 

words how he couldn’t tell this story 

because it predicated a stereotype he 

tells it in patois in yardie speak dutty 

lingo in a ‘featre’ he paints a dangerous 

dynamic picture his world is full of characters 

who challenge his views like an argument 

on a social news feed echo chamber 

baiting the base scoring hit points on 

how society should think about race 

it is not Arinzé’s responsibility not to to 

offend there’s a great line maybe the best 

line page 56 ‘If the audience aint ready to 

be challenged maybe they shouldn’t come 

to the theatre…’ then there is a the Sixth 

Sense Fight Club return seats to the upright 

position moment and I’ve not mentioned the 

virus and blood cell ting I wonder how much 

struggle he really has had with the Rebecca’s 

and the Producers in this world to make  

this show happen: it begs the question.  

Two women walk and chat

Working Better Together

By | Artist Development, Blog, Uncategorised

Last week, the Recover, Restart and Reimagine group joined Steve O’Smotherly to learn about a useful tool for teams to more openly communicate about getting the best out of each other.

Most of us have worked with people who, despite all the will in the world, we feel we struggle to mesh with. I’ve worked with many teams, adapting to various working environments and systems, and I can pinpoint where it’s been a breeze or where I have had to exert a lot of energy to be at my peak. Interestingly, until listening in on Recover, Restart and Reimagine’s Four Season Profiling session, I had considered this to be a ‘me’ problem. Turns out that often where things don’t mesh can be related to the personalities in the room, and with reflection and communication, barriers can become significantly smaller. 

Four Seasons profiling encourages reflection on the impact we may have on the people around us. Based on traits and preferences at work, we fit into four different categories: Spring, Summer, Winter and Autumn. Each season has an opposite (Spring/Autumn and Winter/Summer) to how they naturally engage with the task at hand, with strengths and weaknesses in all. The model encourages a team to communicate their preferences and what they need from other seasons to get the best out of them. 

For me, the biggest lightbulb moment in this session was the concept that the better the day an individual is having, the more they lean into their season tendencies, which can naturally have a negative impact on their opposite seasons. Look at it like this: as a Spring, I am a ‘blue skies thinking’, big ideas person with an enthusiasm for new projects, problem-solving as we move, but this ‘go with the flow’ mentality is the foil of an Autumn. Autumns prefer a cautious approach, moving with purpose to avoid errors. They prepare, research and analyse, carefully planning every move until a project is complete. So if I’ve got a big idea, I’m moving existing projects and meetings around, raring to go THAT DAY on a shiny new passion project, so an Autumn is going to get hella frustrated with me. Equally, an empathetic people-oriented Summer, who prefers consensus and considering others to alleviate stress, is going to clash with an efficiency-focused Winter who wants quick and effective results – very ‘work now, feelings later’. 

Two women walk and chat

Our Recover, Restart and Reimagine group were made up of mostly Summers (9 people) with the remainder being Springs (4 people). With being only a small sample, this figures when we compare this to a typical organisation or groups of cultural leaders.

From the group, actor and writer Angelo Irving is a Summer. He had the opportunity to discuss various points with other Summers around strengths, weaknesses and preferences. The Summer group identified themselves as friendly, stable, laid back and authentic, being good sources of morale through comedy and understanding, although admitted that where they may negatively impact other seasons is resistance to getting stuck into a task and struggling to focus, finding themselves juggling a lot at once. Facilitator Steve encouraged the groups to communicate openly and honestly, giving prompt questions for each group of seasons to explore, something that comes naturally to Summers but other seasons may have had more difficulty with. 

The biggest take away from this session is that with good communication and clarity, polar opposites do not mean that there is chaos in a room when put together on a project. Rather, knowing your seasons and acknowledging your preferences can help start a preparation to better communicate an effective way of working with each other with understanding. And it works! In the past, I have been in a two-person team with an Autumn before, and as we had brilliant communication of what we both needed to be effective on the project, we played into our strengths with consideration of what we both needed from each other. 

If you’d like to explore the following season descriptions and think about which one you most identify with, then use the prompts at the bottom to think deeper into how we can better work with others. 

Spring – Is a preference for blue-skies ideas, creativity and spontaneity. A Spring is resilient under stress, being an adaptable ‘go with the flow’ personality. Seen as ‘fire starters’ they are enthusiastic about new projects and enjoy change, but certainly aren’t completer-finishers, causing other seasons stress by changing goal-posts and shifting focus often. With their passion, they are emotionally driven resourceful members of a team and offer much value through harnessing their wide network and skill base. 

Autumn – The opposite of a Spring, Autumns are evidence-based thinkers and act cautiously with purpose to avoid errors. Rarely taking things at face value (‘Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh’-types), they prefer to establish the facts, looking for clarity and information. Autumns are perfectionists and use a thoughtful approach to work, enthusiastically research and analyse. With being detail-oriented, they can get bogged down and over-analyse, and can be very sensitive to feedback because of the energy they put into a project. 

Summer – Being the largest represented season according to Steve’s research (49% of thousands of participants across various sectors), Summers are people-oriented. They lead through consensus, promoting harmony and balanced, often talking of the collective success of a team (“We” achieved X, rather than “I”). Warm and easy-going, they have a calm approach to stress, putting others first thinking of the impact on the team, but often become stress-sponges putting other’s problems on their shoulders. A Summer can have a lack of self-belief and undervalue themselves, struggling to take positive feedback, with an approach of ‘I am just doing my job’. 

Winter – The opposite of a Summer, a Winter leads through compliance. They like efficiency and focus and are extremely hard working with a preference for action, competition, achievement and results. They have high levels of self-belief and confidence, and some may define this season as the typical ‘Alpha work culture’ stereotype. Often seen to handle stress well, they may perceive a pressured work environment as an ideal which can result in a lack of empathy for others. Their output and work ethic is exemplary but can struggle to know when to stop at the cost of their own personal needs. A Winter won’t use 25 words if 5 is enough, and with that can be impatient, seeing their way as the only way. sometimes coming across as insensitive. 

  1. What do you bring to the workplace?
  2. What do you struggle with? 
  3. How do you like to communicate? 
  4. What does someone with a different season need to do to get the best out of you? 
A white woman in white vest and black leggings, and orange scarf, sat in a chair with her right arm held up

Invitation of Structure and the Stress Bucket

By | Artist Development, Blog, Uncategorised

Michelle Dee, writer and performer, is one of our participants for the Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme and she has taken some time to reflect on thoughts after the group’s first week, with a focus on recovering.

When you’ve spent the last 16 months on and off with your doorstep as your full stop, the invitation of structure is either just what you need or maybe tempting fate. The line ‘invitation of structure’ came from one of the other participants in the programme but it resonated with me, it landed in my lap like a warning.

During the three lockdowns, I quickly fell into a routine of getting up each day, eating breakfast switching on or avoiding the news depending on my mood. I moved around my flat like a robot from one space to the other, finding different ways to pass the time. I found I couldn’t bring myself to focus on reading an entire book, so read bits of poetry, articles online, the minute details of how to shield that fell through my letterbox on a regular basis.

The Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme demanded the attendance of each candidate 9am to 6pm, four days a week. That has come as quite a challenge but so far so good. I have got through the first week and not been late.

As a freelancer in the before times I didn’t have regular hours, that’s not to say I didn’t work hard, but it would be at irregular hours, forever changing and some weeks would be intense, whereas others would stretch out: empty as my bank balance.

We artists have to be able to adapt to different situations, some projects demand more from us than others, sometimes this is dependent on whatever fee we have managed to negotiate. With the Recover, Restart and Reimagine project the fee is set, the rules have been negotiated by each one of us, we all understand. I wasn’t prepared for how it would feel to be in a space, day on day with the same group, each one passionate about their work, each wondering how they can ever get back to how they expressed themselves creatively before. It has felt quite overwhelming at times and emotional. I have come to recognise how much I need this is in my life, the chance to connect with new and familiar faces, talking, laughing the ebb and flow of conversation, without a screen between us.

Another idea introduced by a participant on Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme was the idea of a Stress Bucket. They described how we all have a stress bucket and how it might contain a manageable level of stress-inducing things. With the lockdowns and Covid paralysing many of our lives, the levels of stress have increased. They talked about each of us having a background stress level before Covid, and how new stresses wouldn’t necessarily tip the balance. With Covid and all the different ways that has impacted and changed our every day the background stress levels have increased significantly so that a seemingly insignificant incident or issue can now fill the stress bucket so it overflows much more than it ever would before.

Recover, Restart and Reimagine has been designed not to add to that stress bucket but to try to understand and find new ways to counter the stress feelings, to lower the background stress levels to a manageable level. It does this in a number of ways, one of which is the introduction of Yoga sessions every morning. I have found I have had to adapt some of the moves to meet my own abilities, while some are in downward dog others are in tabletop or when warrior pose is called for I’m managing waving at seagulls.

The necessity of taking time out to breathe has never been more important or rewarding. I have been reminded once again that I have spent the last forty years breathing incorrectly, instead of filling the belly with air when breathing in, I have always pulled the stomach in creating a hollow, then releasing the breath. After these sessions, there is a wonderful sense of calm in the room, that before I might have disregarded as new age nonsense, but now I think there might just be something in it after all.

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

Why we’re supporting Hull theatre workers to Recover, Restart and Reimagine

By | Artist Development, Artistic Director, Blog, Uncategorised
Recover Restart Reimagine Artwork

Artwork by Joseph Cox

By Paul Smith, artistic director

This time last year I wrote about how Middle Child were going quiet for a bit so that we could make more noise in future. A lot has happened since then, with more uncertainty crammed into a 12 month period than I can remember at any other point in my 34 years. During that period Middle Child, like all of us in the arts, have had to try new things, find new ways of working and try to keep hold of our purpose as the world twists and turns. It has been, without doubt, the hardest period in our company’s 10 year history as we – a company who exist to bring people together, celebrate liveness and fight for the underdog – lost projects, lost our home and, truthfully, lost everything we knew how to do. Speaking personally, the year has taken its toll, leading to a crisis of confidence, of purpose and of “is theatre really the best way we can put something good into the world?”

But with this introspection and amidst all of this uncertainty comes a unique kind of clarity. A clarity around values. Around why we do what we do. Around the decisions we need to make. And it is these core values that have guided the way for Middle Child throughout this entire pandemic and which have led us to each and every decision we have made along the way. They were central to our decision to start a fundraiser for freelancers who had lost income, our choice to introduce flexible working to our organisation and our decision to continue employing freelancers and investing in people throughout the pandemic.

They are also the cause of areas of hesitancy, caution and nervousness. They tangle us up in knots as we try to navigate complex issues and they dominate our conscience as we try to grow as a company in a way that feels “us”. Our values are what we return to when balancing creative ambition, financial sustainability, politics, morality, health and safety, work-life balance and straight-up uncomplicated ego. They are there when we consider whether to apply for the Cultural Recovery Fund, whether to put the panto online, whether to take over this new building or that one. When all else is dark it is these values that light the way and lead us onwards. And so, in deciding what to do next and how we ‘re-emerge’ from the pandemic we must do so guided by our values. 

As a company whose guiding vision is for a fair and equitable world, where anyone’s story can be told and heard, it is clear that we simply cannot stand by and risk losing a generation of theatre workers either as a result of a pandemic or because of an industry that continues to be built to work only for a select few. And so we got to work.

On 11 March this year we hosted a day online, which we called Imagine the Future, that brought together a group of brilliant freelancers from theatre and further afield to help us consider four questions:

  1. What do you need post-pandemic?
  2. How do we better support freelancers?
  3. How can we be more inclusive as a city and a sector?
  4. What should an arts hub look like, feel like, what should happen there?

It was an incredible day, full of brilliant ideas, generosity and a conviction that things can be better. We listened, learnt and were left with an overwhelming number of great ideas for what the future could look like. We felt the weight of those conversations, and also of those that weren’t had, of those who weren’t there. We felt energised by the potential of our action and tired by the thought of its scale. We were inspired by possibility and overwhelmed by choice. We looked at the list of suggestions with optimism and then at our budget with pragmatism. A few things became clear:

  1. We can’t do everything. Not yet anyway.
  2. We can do something. 

And so, what we are announcing today isn’t the “Middle Child 20 Year Action Plan for a Better World”, it’s simply our next “something”. It’s a something based on the listening, learning and reflecting we’ve been doing over the past year, and we truly believe it will make a genuine difference and is gently radical in its own way. And then one day soon we’ll announce another something, and another something and another something

Recover, Restart and Reimagine

From both our Imagine the Future day and some of the wider reading we’ve been doing, such as from Freelancers Make Theatre Work, it’s clear that there are calls for deeper, more meaningful engagement with freelancers, a call for more equity and power to be distributed to freelancers, and a call for an investment in people, rather than projects. Our Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme is built on these three pillars and designed in response to an acknowledgment that the past 12 months have led to a loss of confidence, income and opportunity for freelancers across the sector. 

Everyone at Middle Child is determined to contribute to a sustainable reimagining of our industry following the impact of the pandemic, and our first offer to this end is a partly-curated, partly-self-led programme, which will last for three weeks, paying 12 Hull freelancers £1,500 each to come together to rebuild confidence, develop skills and take stock. 

The programme, which runs four days per week, 9am – 6pm, from 15 June to 2 July, represents a space to think, breathe and play without the pressure of coming up with an output. It is designed to inspire, stretch and develop participants in a safe space, which acknowledges what we’ve been through and the impact on our work and our practices. Everyone involved will be paid for their time and also benefit from a wide range of free workshops, masterclasses and training alongside group time, individual time and free time. To partially quote one of our Imagine the Future post-it notes, it’ll be a bit like Byker Grove meets a Rocky montage, but with a spa soundtrack.

The first week will be dedicated to recovery with a focus on wellbeing, self-care and reflection. Week two will focus on restarting with time to refresh skills, make plans and try something new. Week three will be all about reimagining, with time spent envisioning the future, dreaming about what it should look like and putting actions in place to make it happen. Alongside all of this run a number of recurring events, from group play readings and coffee mornings to skill sharings and open discussions. We’ll create our own haven fuelled by respect, curiosity and care.

Our ambition is for these three weeks to be transformative for all who take part with participants leaving feeling ready for the battles ahead but not burnt out by deadlines or pressures of output. 

We would love to hear from people who live and work in Hull and who contribute to making theatre in any way, be it through acting, directing, designing, stage managing, producing, composing or any other role you might find in a show programme. We want applications from those we know and those we don’t, from people at the very beginning of their career to those who’ve been around a while. We welcome and encourage applications from everyone regardless of their age, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, disability or nationality.

We are a PiPA (Parents and Carers in Performing Arts) partner and are always happy to discuss solutions that allow people to balance caring responsibilities with working lives, for example through sharing a place on the programme or a flexible attendance arrangement.

You can apply because you know exactly what you want from life, or because you have no idea. We’re as interested in chaos and confusion as we are in clarity and certainty. Our application process is simple and straightforward, and all we ask for is honesty and for you to be yourself. In line with ongoing efforts to decentralise power and decision making in our organisation, choices around selection for this programme will be informed by an advisory panel of freelancers. 

This programme is representative of our ongoing desire to offer practical solutions, and take action to return with renewed energy for an improved theatre industry. We believe this radical programme, which invests in people, rather than projects, represents a good first step in doing so locally and is a meaningful investment in the freelancers upon whom our work depends.

We will continue to listen, take stock and lead necessary action across other areas of our company to improve what we do, and how we do it. There is much more happening in the background that we will talk about when we can, but for now we hope this programme is an exciting offer, which is proof that we will turn words into value-led action as we build a better future together.

Four performers on stage, posed as a band, singing into microphones, bathed in pink-red light

Cutting BTECs will hold back working class theatre makers

By | Artist Development, Blog

In January the press reported that the Department for Education was considering proposals to cut performing arts BTECs from the curriculum. These qualifications were critical stepping stones into the arts for both our artistic director, Paul Smith, and general and production manager, Emily Anderton. Here, Emily writes about her experience of BTECs and why they are so important to working class theatre makers.

  • Listen to an audio version of this post, right, read by Sophie Clay.

My education

Growing up in Hull, I was one of eight children and lived with my mum and stepdad in a council house. Safe to say I come from a working class background and I didn’t have savings in the bank to go to drama school, not that I was keen on being out of my comfort zone and leaving the city. My journey into the arts, then, was different to many.

I went to a local mainstream school and school was school until year 10, when you chose your options. Not really knowing what to do, but also not really wanting to get bogged down in more desk-based learning, I chose the only other options that were available: GCSE PE, art and drama. I hated exercise and was more interested in the lights in the rig than performing in my drama class, but I looked forward to my art lessons.

My art teacher designed and painted the sets for the school productions under the watchful eye of the drama department. That was something I got involved in quite quickly, painting the sets and stage crewing for the BTEC drama exams and Rock Challenge. It soon became an extracurricular activity, doing it most evenings and weekends.

When my secondary school became Northern Premier winners of Rock Challenge, we raised the money to perform in Australia. Rock was a performing arts competition that started in Sydney in 1980, in which schools and colleges brought an eight minute long devised dance piece to the competition and were eligible for a number of awards. Australia felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity and that’s where my passion for the arts began. Those of you who know me will know that I’m not the type of person to conga around the arena on finals day, but the buzz from the whole experience made me want to forge a career in the arts. Behind the scenes, obviously.

Careers days at school always followed a formula. You would go on an away day to Hull College, where girls would be put in childcare or hairdressing demonstrations and boys in mechanics and engineering. You were programmed into thinking these were the only options available. When it came to enrolling in college, I did what most people did at school and signed up for a childcare course.

But during the holidays, abroad with family and away from my friends, I had a realisation: I didn’t need to follow the crowd, but look for something I actually wanted to do instead. So I went through clearing onto the BTEC Stage Management and Technical Theatre Course at Hull College, a course that wasn’t offered to me at school or even openly advertised.

Three performers dance with hands in the air on stage, in the round. A female bassist is silhouetted in the foreground.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything in the Paines Plough Roundabout, 2017. Lighting design by Emily Anderton.

My career

I had to fight my way into the theatre industry via the only pathways that were available to me at the time. After the BTEC I continued at Hull College with a BA Hons Degree in Stage Management and Technical Theatre, graduating in 2012.

Whilst studying I worked freelance for various production companies in and around Hull and, in August 2012, I was appointed the role of technician at Hull Truck Theatre. Whilst in post I continued to work freelance as a production assistant and lighting designer.

Whilst working at Hull Truck I had my first child and, due to the demands of the role and parenthood, I decided to move on, as the late nights and weekends didn’t work well with family life. In 2018 I joined Middle Child on their journey of becoming an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and became general and production manager.

Aside from the touring aspects of my career, I managed to graduate and remain in Hull. This is quite unusual in the arts, as people often migrate to London to start their career, because that is where most opportunities are perceived to be.

My question to the Department for Education is, if BTEC courses cease to exist in the arts and you are unable or simply don’t want to take an A Level, where do you begin in the arts industry?

How do you get the credentials to get into university? Consider an academic subject at A level you didn’t want to do at GCSE level, drop out halfway through because it isn’t what you actually want to do now you have a choice and not secure a place at university?

I strongly believe that the uptake on such BTEC courses in the arts isn’t as popular as others due to the lack of knowledge they exist, but none the less they are still a pathway for many.

When secondaries in Hull became academies, subjects such as music, art and drama were among the subjects cut in both time and budget commitments, with schools seeing them as less favourable. In 2018, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman even said academic subjects were the best route to higher-level study, particularly for working-class children. The result cuts access to the arts at one of its earliest and most accessible sources.

Performing arts isn’t just for the qualification; it is about expression and personality of the individual, whether it be performing, painting or writing, it is so much more than just learning the syllabus and putting pen to paper.

Four performers on stage, posed as a band, singing into microphones, bathed in pink-red light

Weekend Rockstars, 2016. Lighting design by Emily Anderton.

Plans to scrap performing arts BTECs

Recent media coverage has suggested that the Department for Education is planning to “reform” qualifications for 16–19-year-olds. The alternative options would-be A Levels, T Levels and apprenticeships. Other qualifications at level three and below, such as BTECs, will only be funded if they are high quality, are necessary, have a clear purpose, and lead to good outcomes”.

A BTEC is an alternative qualification to an A Level, based around practical rather than academic study, with course work taking the place of exams. BTECs can be done alongside other GCSEs and A Levels in school and college. Some schools offer BTECs depending on their values in relation to the subject and capacity, as the courses usually require attending college. Similar to an apprenticeship, a BTEC is a great way to do work-based learning, but a better option for theatre, as there are fewer apprenticeships available in Hull.

On the stage management BTEC I took, modules were studied and then applied in live productions. We learnt all the roles associated with making a production and what they did, we set up production teams, took on those roles, teamed up with other courses and made shows. Everything was learnt by applying the skills practically and being able to make mistakes without being failed by a teacher. The course work was paperwork that needed to be completed as part of the role; for example a deputy stage manager would submit their prompt script.

Working in the arts you are always learning on the job and there is always something around the corner that you haven’t dealt with before, so a BTEC is a good place to start. I imagine that the A Level equivalent would be very history based and not as interesting to the practical mind.

People who work in the arts will know that you don’t need qualifications to be good at what you do, but it certainly helps with your CV, in the early days, whilst you build your portfolio. Some employers are also still setting quite ambitious requirements in their job advertisements, which require higher education.

What should Middle Child do?

In the long term we have identified, along with other organisations, the lack of technical and production graduates based in Hull. Most creatives and freelancers are brought from London to work with local companies on a show-by-show basis.

Middle Child offer a programme of freelance training opportunities, taking unnecessary higher education qualifications out of essential job requirements. We have a great artist development programme, and are currently looking into how we can incorporate production and technical opportunities into this.

We are under no illusions that the skills do actually exist in the city, but performing arts graduates tend to move on and people in other fields don’t know their skills are transferable into the arts. Maybe arts employers could help by considering where they advertise and make their job advertisements clear that desired skills could be a conversation point. From personal experience Middle Child know that you don’t have to have five years’ experience to be able to do a good job.

The plan to scrap BTEC courses would mean that arts-based courses, like the one I took, would no longer be available, putting a roadblock in the way for anyone from a less academic or working class background to gain arts qualification for their CV.

What else can Middle Child – and the wider theatre industry – do to protect BTEC qualifications and similar routes into the arts for young working class people?

A finger points at an illustration of Cinderella on a computer screen

How we animated #Pantoverse with My Pockets

By | Blog, Panto, Shows, Uncategorised

Middle Child have asked me, Peter Snelling of My Pockets, to write a blog post on what it is like to create the digital content for their Christmas show, Pattie Breadcake: Into the Pantoverse. They have also said that what whatever I write, to be honest.  They have, to be honest, asked me this more than once. In fact, it might even be eight times. I don’t really know why I am resisting doing it. I don’t always like unpicking a creative process: I’m sometimes a bit lazy and sometimes I feel weird about putting things on the internet that will be there forever, like the terrible photo of me taken in 2004 that never goes away.

Anyway, I am going to do it now. I’ve made a cup of tea, I’ve got a salted caramel Hobnob snack bar, I’m going to keep writing until it’s done. Hello, if you are still reading; this is everything I know about making a piece of digital content for a Middle Child panto.

Animator Peter Snelling holds up a hand drawn picture of Pattie Breadcake

First of all Paul [Smith, artistic director] rang me up. I think it’s weird how people get to a point where they ring each other up. I met Paul at one thing somewhere, then somewhere else, then saw a Middle Child play and emailed to say I liked it, then asked him for a favour on something, then he rang me up to ask if I could animate a panto.

Over the years as an organisation that only wants to make creative work we have had times when we’ve been on the brink of running out of money. So I find it almost impossible to say no to creative projects. As My Pockets has become more established it’s something I need to address. I know that Elvis had the same problem with food. He’d been hungry once and so when he reached a point in his life where burgers were freely available, he found it impossible to not eat them all.

Not that Middle Child is just another burger that Elvis is stuffing into his mouth. Paul ringing felt more like an invite to a gastro pub. So we started to think about how to turn the panto into something that would work online. Our animations at My Pockets take ages to make. We create about 10 seconds a day. The conversation was in November and the panto needed to be the length of a play, so there was no way we could make it in the normal way. This year we have been experimenting with software that tracks your face and moves a kind of animated puppet along with it, then you wiggle the arms and legs with a mouse and the animation is made. It’s much quicker than the conventional way of doing it and felt like the perfect solution.

A pen in a hand, drawing all of the various panto characters on white paper

Next we needed to design the animated puppets. For me this is the fun bit. I’ve always loved drawing; I like the way it is so quick, that you can do it anywhere, that it needs no technology.  I also don’t think I’m very good at it, which is liberating. I think wanting to be good, or thinking you are good can be really limiting to creativity. It can get in the way of just saying what you want to say. Why is it that those blokes that joined Oasis after Bonehead left are much better at playing guitar, but somehow can’t make the same noise?

I think it’s because being good is not as important as… I’m not sure what it’s not as important as, but I know that if you ask me to draw a vase of flowers with a 2B pencil, the results are always very disappointing. But when I drew Pattie Breadcake in 10 seconds after reading the script I was like, “Yes, that’s her!”

In fact almost all of the characters were drawn first time in seconds, immediately after reading the script. I felt guilty about it and drew each one a few more times afterwards to try and justify my fee, but the first ones were all the best.

A finger points at an illustration of Cinderella on a computer screen

I know that the Middle Child panto is loved by lots of people and that it has this kind of anarchic energy. It’s alive and so the quick drawing seems right. It seems like a performance.  We made a few adjustments. Cinderella went from being in a pink princess dress to a tracksuit with headphones, while her face also went from being pink, to green to orange. But really I think that the spirit of the drawing and the spirit of the panto were so well matched it was pretty easy. I think finding creative people who share your spirit is the key to making things that work.

So the fun part was now over. Now I had to bring in the drawings, colour them in Photoshop and make them work with the animation software, against the backdrop of Natalie Young’s set design: photographs of an actual model box! Then I had to perform the whole panto, wiggling my head around in front of my webcam to capture all the movement, lip syncing to the audio files recorded by the actors over Zoom and mastered by Ed Clarke, with music composed by James Frewer. And then export it all, which took a whole weekend of checking the blue bar creeping across my laptop screen. Don’t waste your life watching the blue bar.

A screenshot of the animation software, with a picture of the Evil Queen being motion captured by Peter Snelling in another image box

I’ve finished my cup of tea. I’ve eaten my sugary snack. Now I’ve got to do some terrible Zoom call on a project that I’m not entirely sure I really want to do. Maybe this will be the one I’ll say no to. Maybe now is the time to make a break for freedom.

Working with Middle Child has been a real pleasure. It’s been fun and creative. And they have been so supportive, it’s a breath of fresh air. I can see why their shows are so great; it’s because the people and the company are great. I hope that our animated show helps to plug the 2020 gap of panto anarchy that people will be missing. I can’t wait to see what people think of the Pantoverse.

Pattie Breadcake and four animated panto characters are sucked into a vortex, against a pink background. Text: "An Interview with Finn (Age 5)"

An Interview with Finn (Age 5)

By | Blog, Panto, Uncategorised

Five year old Finn, the son of Middle Child’s general and production manager, Emily, is a regular fixture behind the scenes at our annual, rock’n’roll panto.

You can often find him sat in the middle aisle during tech rehearsals, making his way through a bucket of pick and mix while his mum works on the show.

Finn is as much a part of our panto as having a dame is these days, so we’re missing his beaming little smile as we work on an online, animated Christmas show this year instead.

Who better then, we thought, to speak to ahead of the release of our panto-inspired YouTube production this Saturday – Pattie Breadcake: Into the Pantoverse.

Give Finn a listen, right, as he’s interviewed by his dad, Matt, or read the transcript below.

An Interview with Finn (Age 5)

Matt: What’s your name?

Finn: Finlay

Matt: And what do you do?

Finn: Go to school and play with my friends and play with Lego.

Matt: What’s your favourite thing about Middle Child panto?

Finn: Watching shows.

Matt: Why do you like watching the shows?

Finn: Because they’re funny.

Matt: Who’s the silliest character?

Finn: Pattie Breadcake

Matt: So you get to see behind the scenes, what do you like about that?

Finn: Playing with the light and sound. And playing with Paul.

Matt: Can you describe what Mummy does on panto?

Finn: Bosses people about!

Matt: What are you missing about panto this year?

Finn: Watching the shows.

Matt: Anything else about watching the shows?

Finn: Playing with the light and sound.

Matt: So if you could be any panto character, who would it be?

Finn: The crab

Matt: Why would you be the crab?

Finn: Because he’s funny.

Matt: What would you like to say to all of the children who might be listening to this?

Finn: Come to Middle Child, it’s good.

The Little Mermaid - Hull Pantomime - Sarah Beth

Christmas, coronavirus and… panto in Hull?

By | Artistic Director, Blog, News, Panto
The Little Mermaid - Hull Pantomime

By Paul Smith, artistic director and joint-CEO

Somehow it’s already that time of year. You know the one? Where we dust off the rat puppets, cobble together an under-rehearsed yet well intentioned finale and let our dame, Marc Graham, run wild on Hull audiences. But it’s not quite the same this year, is it?

Nothing’s quite the same. Instead of excitedly planning this year’s family Christmases or work parties we’re sat wondering what’s going to be left

It’s just Christmas” some people say, but really it’s about more than that isn’t it?

It’s about seeing family and friends. About seeing kids’ faces light up. About belting out some Wizzard with strangers on Whitefriargate, while dressed as a Christmas pudding. And for us at Middle Child it’s about panto. Usually it is, anyway. But not this year. This year we haven’t said a word about panto.

Panto.

That much loved tradition that is, frankly, a bit odd, but a lot special. Where else in this stressful, anxiety-inducing world do adults and children alike come together to share in such unbridled joy? To cheer and boo, laugh and cry, hope and dream together, all while watching a dame dressed as a milk bottle tearfully sing to two actors bent double in a cow costume? 

We love panto. 

For us it’s what all theatre should be: totally devoted to its audience, woven into the fabric of local communities and able to magically transport us away from the real world, into one of magic and wonder. 

But this year it is the very nature of panto that makes it so challenging to realise. The things we love about it have become a barrier to it happening at all: being together in a space with loved ones and strangers, being noisy, being close, singing along, dancing together, avoiding the dame’s eye contact, being dragged up on stage, flashing our wands, rustling our sweets, elbowing granny to wake her up and reliving our favourite moments together in the interval.

It’s about connecting with other human beings through a story that is ridiculous and silly and soppy, but full of searing hope and belief.

It’s everything we’re already missing.

So why haven’t we said anything about panto? Why haven’t we been bombarding you with posters and trailers and ticket offers?

Nigel Taylor dressed in yellow with a blue baseball jacket and fish hat with his hands on his hips

I guess you know why.

In every good panto there’s a moment where all looks lost and we have to dig deep to believe we’ll get to the ending we’re all hoping for. 

We’ve been stuck on that plot point for a while now, hence the silence. Honestly? We didn’t want to say it out loud. That panto can’t happen for us how it usually happens and has happened for the last eight years, from our beloved Fruit to the last two brilliant years at Jubilee Central. 

We’ve had an inkling for a while now.

The nature of our show is proudly intimate. It matters that you (yes, you) are there with us. If you shout out we will hear you. We will respond. Your voice matters. You being in that chair matters. So, frankly, right now a live panto simply isn’t an option for our humble show. The production usually ‘pays for itself’ and without your support, there is no panto. We don’t use celebrity casting to bring in audiences. We rely on word-of-mouth. We rely on the hard work of our incredible local cast and crew. We rely on you, coming together and having a great night out. 

So I guess this is us saying it out loud. 

Panto can’t happen for us how it usually happens.


But that’s not the end of the story. Like all good panto heroes we’re refusing to accept defeat when the odds seem stacked insurmountably against us. We’re trying to find a way up the beanstalk, to the ball, through the enchanted forest. But there are challenges lying in wait and the ending is truly uncertain.

So what we want to do at this point is be honest with you. Tell you how it really is.

We aren’t going to be able to bring people together in a space to do panto this year.
We’re really sad about that.
Like, really sad.

But, we’re trying to do something else. Something digital.
Which, as I’ve said before, isn’t what we do, so we’re linking up with some brilliant people who do.

It’s something that we think could be really special.
It won’t be the same.
But we really do think it could be really special.

Thing is, we’ve never done anything like it before.
And we’re excited about that, but we’re also a bit scared.
Will it work? Will you like it? Will the internet be able to handle Pattie Breadcake?

Marc Graham as Hull panto dame Pattie Breadcake, in a sparkly top and pink dress, with blonde wig and crown.

And then there’s the virus, which is making it even more difficult.
Giving us even more to overcome.
Causing unpredictable twists and turns at every stage and in every detail.
Making us ask what happens if we tell you what we’re trying to do but then, for whatever unforeseeable reason, it can’t happen like we hope it can happen.

So this is where we are. 

We would like to make three promises to you:

1/ We are trying really hard to bring you something special this year to combat the gloom. Something you can enjoy for free from the comfort of your own home which will help us celebrate Christmas together again.

2/ We are doing all we can to make it happen, even if we don’t know what is around the corner. 

3/ As soon as we can, we will tell you more.

All we ask, is that you keep the faith and don’t give up hope. In us, in panto and in being together again.

This story isn’t over yet.

Big love and stay safe.

Paul x

EN PL