5 Lessons I’ve Learnt About Not Making Theatre


6 Minute Read

“Time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” says Hamlet, lonely and estranged, desperate to piece time back together, daunted by the prospect.

This week we begin the final stages of our purposes development of NoMa, over a year after we began the funded development. Lots and lots has happened since we were last in a studio together and which resulted in lots of learning taking place as we each reimagine what making theatre looks like in the present and future.

Here I have drawn up five lessons I have learnt from working on NoMa since 17th March 2020.

1. Have things to look forward to that cannot be taken away.

In March 2020, amid distant news of that virus, the plans for Bandwidth had fallen into place perfectly. We had received Creative Scotland funding to spend two more weeks developing NoMa, The Tron had supported us through this to present our work in progress to industry peers and the public, and, one month before presenting it to an audience, Stephanie Katie Hunter and I pitched the project and our ambitions to an assembled crowd of theatres, producers, and companies at FST Showcase Day. Despite elbow bumping instead of handshakes, we had received an incredibly positive response so far, and even a few offers of future support. Our plans were paying off.
Then, the week after our pitching and one week before we’d start rehearsals, the Government advised everyone in the UK to stay away from theatres. And you know the rest of the story. Our plans turned from artistic to financial: we pay everyone who has a contract with us and ask them to hold tight while we postpone.
In Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis, and pertinent reference for NoMa, there is a clip of a Russian woman saying how she does not hope anymore because they never materialise. I do still hope, as you’ll have seen from my work on Incubation: Hope, though it has shifted to holding onto what I can have control over. Now I have found things that I can look forward to: cooking new recipes I’d never have tried, a new book, stargazing, bird watching, dreaming. These cannot be taken away and will compliment all I do when I return staging work in venues. What a sweet day that will be.

2. Turn as many notifications off as possible when working.

As lockdown rolled on, Laurie, Kenneth and I watched the world descend into a fever dream of the ideas we had planned to make in the development. We were to make a show about how easy it is for governments to use their power in slight ways to radically alter the daily lives of civilians. In a sense, this was heartening because we saw how close we were to reality: limits to numbers of people gathering, use of mixed messaging, conspiracy theories raging, people picked up off the streets, permits to leave your home, statues tumbling, and looking forward to the way things were. We would be texting each other daily as the Conservatives seemingly stole another of our ideas. It was terrifying in a laugh as the world burns kind of way. 
It is this bonfire feeling that is so numbing when trying to make this show. The tiny fragmentation of focus with another idea being shaved off doesn’t constitute healthy creative practice for me. I wrote a year ago, after the first NoMa development week at The Tron, about how disconnecting from devices was important. Well, those devices certainly got the last laugh! Treat notifications like pollution, shut them out wherever possible – if only to get half a day of thinking done.

3. Be prepared to lose your notes.

For the first few months of the pandemic, not a lot of theatre happened. Many employees were on furlough while freelancers campaigned tirelessly to receive support to stay afloat with ailing support from the Party of Business. Eventually, the emails and applications returned. In the moments between each spark of life for the project, ideas floated away. The alluring challenge of working creatively in Bandwidth is how to collaborate with three disciplines simultaneously and equitably. Do we all like that idea or just me? Is this still relevant? What show were we making again? 
As the world crashed through 2020 the reference material poured in and soon I was digging through notes I had made that were over a year old across two journals and a bag of brown paper in the cupboard. Some notes are lost forever in the scribble of a fevered lunch meeting in the CCA (remember those?) or groggy Zoom meeting (want to forget those?). Good organisation means notes can be picked up and put away with weeks of interval between them, reacting to the flickering green light meaning that theatre can be made. I recommend GoodNotes 5 to keep everything within reach for those who have gone digital but still like handwriting.

4. Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

With each new proposition of a development comes the process of planning. What happens if we go into development in September 2020? January 2021? June 2021? Who would be available for that work?  Can we fit into this pace or that space? These conversations have become a regular of NoMa as we tried to materialise the project. Kenneth and I have been developing this idea since January 2017 in response to the election of Donald Trump at US President – which now feels a bit…irrelevant? We have ambitions to develop the work with an international market in mind and obtained funding for that process to begin in October 2019. We have now postponed three development periods, each requiring us to come together to explore all the intricate details of how making a show could work. I am now studying for an MA in Art and Social Practice and the assignments sometimes require an element of hypothetical planning for non-real events, and NoMa has very much felt like this: it has felt at times like we are planning for something that may never happen. Through this planning, however, we have found incredible camaraderie and resilience in each other. We have grown our skills and developed a shorthand. We have dreamt up other shows in the side chat of our meetings. This lesson is a quote of Eisenhower, and it boils down to this point: in an emergency situation things are unexpected, so they’re not going to happen how you think. Keep planning because there are great prizes in that process alone.

5. Collaborating is easiest when the material is in the same realm.

In December 2020, nearly a year after we began formally developing NoMa, things felt strangely familiar. Amidst the background a distant but rapidly developing new strain of the virus, we had agreed a 2-week development in The Tron’s main house fully supported – an adventure playground for theatre makers. Also featured was a Government whose slow and dismissive response to the threat posed by this new strain looked to derail the project. In a strange case of déjà vu, soon our plans were made irrelevant again by a lockdown, but at least this time we had an extra week to prepare. This is relevant is because until I knew whether I was going to be in-person with our team or online it was really hard to prepare any material. 
We are all familiar with sticking things up on walls, but what when there are no walls? What is the schedule now we will be sat on Zoom all day? And will we need to create short booklets so the three new collaborators know what we are exploring together? We just weren’t sure enough to prepare this material in ways that could overcome the clear digital and safety barriers now emerging. So we let Covid decide for us.
Now we are digital: just the four of us again, a team even smaller (or, read more focused) than our development this time last year. We are going to be imagining the full version of the production unlimited by resource or logistics at this point. It’s a way of making I inherited from Graham McLaren: what if we set out to make the billion-quid version of this show, then work back from there? I spent last week turning all my references, research, and notes into digital records so that I can quickly share them with the rest fo the team when required., All of the work will be shared in the digital realm, and we are now aligned for speedy exchange. We even have a digital wall to stick things up on and build connections through Padlet! Perhaps this will now make things a little easier while we work in isolation from each other?

And so here we are, back at square one with an enormous amount of learning under all our belts. So square one isn’t really square one: we’ve so far achieved just over half of what we were funded to do, with all but presenting performance material being covered in this next phase of development. With a year of rapid growth, I feel more prepared than ever, more hungry to make the “aggressive spectacle” we’ve wanted to make, and more ambitious than ever.

“Time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” says Hamlet, lonely and estranged, desperate to piece time back together, daunted by the prospect. But how does he end?

“Nay, come, let’s go together.”

Directed by Nicholas Barton-Wines
Written by Laurie Motherwell
Designed by Kenneth MacLeod
Created by Bandwidth, in association with Tron Theatre
Supported by Creative Scotland
In development