by Michelle Dee (she/her) – writer and performer
This piece was written in June 2021 as a reflection on our Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme
As I look back on the past three weeks participating on Middle Child Theatre’s unique Recover, Restart and Reimagine programme, an initiative unique to this city and perhaps to the sector, that recognised the precarity of being a freelancer not just here and now in 2021 as we try to emerge from a global pandemic, but at any point in a career, and decided to do something real and meaningful about it.
Picturing the twelve artists in a space – an empty shop unit in the city centre – some known to each other, others not so, I am struck by the paradoxical nature of having a bespoke place to play, indeed the emphasis on play was one of the things that prompted me to apply back in May, but not to interact in a pre-pandemic way.
Within RRR we felt like family one day, comrades the next, freedom fighters the third. Somewhat shielded from the reality of the outside world we were given time dedicated to the important things like thinking, dreaming, planning, growing. Within our bubble of creative sparks and personal revelations and breakthroughs we felt completely safe, freed from the pressures of everyday processing of the impact of the pandemic, despite the four-day covid testing regime; strict adherence to social distancing; mask-wearing while moving in the space, and the ubiquitous hand sanitising.
Over time all these behaviours become normalised. What never does though nor should it, is the lack of human touch, the desperate feeling of wanting to reach out knowing that you cannot, when the person beside you needs a hand to hold, or a supportive shoulder: crossing your wrists over your chest like some bemused cartoon superhero doesn’t cut it.
During one of the yoga sessions, I remember the accompanying music took on a Lynchian quality think Twin Peaks ‘Roadhouse Singer’ Julee Cruise, as the moment and the music moved me, transported me I lay quietly sobbing, at the beauty of the music and at the sudden and rapid decline of my body over the last two years as it succumbs to the rigours of rheumatoid arthritis. I lay there weeping for all the things I wanted to do post-pandemic but now seemingly will not. And little did I know in the immediate future I would experience a flare-up in my left hip that would leave me struggling to walk, to sit, to do anything really: so it hasn’t all been a jolly old time.
When people ask me what it was like I will say that it has been tough, for myriad reasons, but that I am so grateful to Middle Child for inviting me to take part. Needless to say the theatre company’s response to seeing my struggle was to offer every support they physically could, and warm genuine words of support… I have never met a more caring organisation, I’m not sure if one could even exist.
Likewise, my RRR family offered support to, lifting and carrying for me during the peak of the episode.
One more thing on Middle Child’s approach to working: never have I been invited to share my pronouns quite so much as I have done in the last three weeks. Middle Child do this as a matter of course, not to jump on a gender identity bandwagon, but just as a matter of course, as a sign of respect, to show that they actually care about who they are talking to, working and interacting with.
It hasn’t been all heavy sessions reflecting on traumas and pain pandemic related or not, there was much joy in the room and laughter, lots of it coupled with a luminous spirit of sharing and openness, not in a wanky way but in the way everyone had the opportunity to be heard – some more than others, being shut in your flat for a year will do that to a person – and how each speaker, workshop deliverer gave of their knowledge and insight so generously. We all have a little bible now filled with notes to reflect upon in the coming weeks as we search for clues, answers and solutions to better deal with the challenges to come.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the shutter’s starring role during Zoom sessions and the bemused look on the screen, as they try to work where the hell we are, announcing they have never done Zoom when the ‘audience’ are all together in the one-room: neither had any of us up until three weeks ago.
Before I leave you with a few notes to scroll through below from my now bible, that will hopefully lend an insight into the experience. I’d like to call on all disciplines, not just theatre, but dance and music and visual arts who work with freelancers to learn from Middle Child, and devise a programme that shows you recognise and value the work they do to keep your sector alive.
“…crippling imposter syndrome as I walk in on day one, surprised to see from the fears on the wall I’m not the only one. Why am I here? Do I belong? These people are better than me… these people aren’t looking at me like I’ve got two heads, maybe I’m going to like it here. I think I’m going to like it here.” – General scribblings
“If you are not the biggest fan of your work then who else is going to be?” – Communication and Marketing Session
“It’s not feasible to serve the world and save the sector, it’s difficult to dream outside of the isms and schisms” – On ‘Restarting’
“Feedback is a kind thing to do” – Difficult Conversations Session
“The onslaught of place-based policy is affecting cultural production” – On collaboration not competition
“It makes about as much sense as a dream which means, yes I’m having fun and I’m giving you permission to put worries aside and join me on my wild ride, we can just sit on stage and commune with the dead.” – On my next project
“In Poland we make punk rock theatre – in the UK you are still making Wind in the Willows” – Political Theatre Session
“This paper has been headlined as the solution to the trauma felt by the theatre industry and that of the those who work in it caused by the pandemic, but really it is the germ of an idea that might begin to address the inequalities that persist across the sector” – WATCH THIS SPACE Session