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Liz Chege and Julia Negus share their stories and reflections on the Covid crisis

In this blog, Liz Chege and Julia Negus share their first-hand perspectives and reflections on how they and their organisations responded to the Covid-19 crisis. Liz and Julia recently shared their experiences and learning at our Covid-19 research webinar. You can watch Liz and Julia’s presentations, as well as findings presented from our case study researchers, here.

Fostering courage and compassion in film exhibition – Liz Chege

When working as a freelancer, I often wished for the film exhibition sector and industry as a whole, to experience a ‘reset’ and transform into something greater, kinder, more flexible. Like many, I certainly did not expect for this change to manifest in the form of a pandemic, but is this the catalyst the sector needed to build a more equal future? That is uncertain.

What has emerged, however, is an urgent need for cultural workers, organisations and funders to stimulate change in their own workplaces by fostering and prioritising compassion.

Perhaps the larger question is why it took a global health crisis and thousands of deaths, to arrive at a notion we’ve known all along. It does not bode well for the foretelling of our own futures that unhealthy practices that were present pre-COVID are seeping back in, but hopefully, enough of us are holding steadfast onto what has been learned over this period.

While adapting to this crisis has come at a great personal loss, observing it as an invitation to imagine a divergent, distinct landscape for cultural practice has allowed for the invocation of unknown forms of courage.

Recent horrors experienced from our reckoning with racial injustice meant it was vital for us not to cancel Africa in Motion, a festival which brings the best of African cinema to Scotland, and instead offer a space to grieve and laugh together, where complex notions of tenderness, resilience and expressions of love could be accessible in a broader way than ever before.

This crisis also allowed for the introduction of our new Notes Unbound platform for up-and-coming African and Black diaspora film critics and journalists from around the globe to deepen their knowledge of African cinema.

It is still costly to run an online festival, and it is a challenge to move away from a reliance on corporations like Facebook. Digital exclusion continues to be an obstacle for many, and the uncertainties surrounding Brexit pose a challenge, but the opportunities for hybrid screenings and events are vast.

Liz Chege is a film programmer, critic and curator. Recently she was appointed festival director of Africa in Motion. Read more about Liz Chege

How Theatre Absolute provided a space for connection and caring – Julia Negus

Theatre Absolute, an independent professional theatre company, and the Shop Front Theatre, a lo-fi 50 capacity theatre space housed in a disused fish and chip shop/restaurant in a Coventry shopping precinct, in partnership with Coventry City Council, for which I am producer and co-founder respectively, needed to pause as the pandemic seized hold. Yet, we needed to find a response that could be immediate and useful to both the freelance local arts sector and the communities we serve.

Our priority was to check in with each other – the small team behind Theatre Absolute being Chris O’Connell (writer/director), myself and our projects coordinator Lisa Franklin, and then subsequently with the other freelancers we frequently engage or work with.

We used our own visual arts and performance practice to create new work and utilise the Shop Front Theatre windows during the first lockdown. We created MEANWHILE, which allowed walkers and passers-by to engage with fresh, relevant work. We felt this was a way to support people who were experiencing isolation and anxiety. Works included film photography, text, mixed media and textiles.

“It was powerful to view these works at the Shop Front Theatre during lockdown.”

 “I felt that there were people I could still connect with through this work from Theatre Absolute.”

I also set about securing funding for the company; finding stability for the immediate future was crucial. (For context, we closed a show three days before its premiere as the first lockdown took hold and lost 100% of hire, ticket and bar income.)

We supported local freelancers as best we could. We hosted ten artists/performers with our Theatre Labs, which gave the artists the keys and solo access to the Shop Front Theatre, to explore narrative within their practice and to develop new work. Artists included Jessica Timmis, Connor Alexander, Melissandre Varin, Paul O’Donnell, Wes Finch, Amy Kakoura, and Lou Sarabadzic.

In partnership with City of Culture Trust, we ran a series of our City Voices writing workshops online for writers in Coventry and invited two local writers to help run the sessions, which helped in supporting their professional development as workshop leaders. We also invited two national guest writers/poets to run elements of the sessions, Liz Mytton and Liz Berry.

With this programme, we created paid micro commissions with dramaturgy support by Chris and Coventry playwright Vanessa Oakes. We then curated a live online sharing of the completed works, that had an audience capacity similar to the Shop Front Theatre.

During the summer, we also offered and delivered ten online dramaturg sessions to writers via a national call out. We had over 60 writers apply. The one-to-one sessions were delivered by dramaturg Ola Animashawun and Chris.

We also created and launched The Writing Box, the project encouraged the public to request a free box of writing stimuli that we delivered within Coventry on foot or by post. The first run was 300 boxes reaching every Coventry postcode as well as Nuneaton, Stratford, and Warwickshire, plus areas including Birmingham, Cornwall, Lincoln, London and even France!

In the autumn of 2020, we commissioned some new poems for our Shop Front Theatre Windows. The poets/writers were: Shahnaz Akhter, Laura Nyahuye, Andrea Mbarushimana, Lainaire Aderemi and Raef Boylan. All artists work responded to our central provocation of our ongoing re-scheduled artistic works, Humanistan.

A major takeaway from last year’s experience is that staying connected, in whatever form, is good for all of us. I hope that others who have the privilege to hold the keys to spaces (however large, small, or unusual), also remember to open the doors wider for our creatives, our artists, and our audiences. We all need each other.

Julia Negus is the Producer for Theatre Absolute, an award-winning theatre company in Coventry. After touring across the UK, she co-founded the Shop Front Theatre (SFT) in City Arcade in 2008 with Chris O’Connell. Read more about Julia Negus.


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