The Monthly talks to Patricia Downey from Spanner in the Works Theatre Company about adapting community arts practice to Lockdown and beyond

If you could go back to the beginning of the Covid crisis and explain to us what happened to Spanner in the Works?

We had three shows cancelled almost straight away; “Buttercup”, a play, was due to go out in March. we had a play which was going to tour around schools, “Cuss the World”, and another play abut self-harm called “Overload” which was due to go out in April. Beyond those cancellations we were booked into the Buxton Festival in July and had performances at Liverpool University in July as well and they were postponed or put on hold.

So, a substantial amount of work was either cancelled or put on hold. That was a real blow to the actors and I felt for them as that was a lot of work for them gone.

I don’t think that many people realise how difficult it is for actors. Most of the people who work with our company are taking part time jobs to make ends meet even before the situation emerged around Covid.

What was your response?

We did ask ourselves how we were going to support the actors. Furloughing wasn’t an option as all the actors were self-employed. We are a very small company and we simply don’t have any financial reserves so we needed to think through viable options.

What we did at first was to take monologues from our plays and then get each actor to film themselves performing that work. We then put that out on social media and that meant that we could continue to pay the actors.

What that also allowed us to do was link the work to the various help lines and services that address the issues the plays were looking at. We wanted to maintain our connections to the young people the work is produced for.

Extract from “Overload” – see link below for video

Facebook video

What happened after that?

We started work with some statutory bodies and other organisations. We did 5 short films with Scamwiseni. These short films look at scams and how you can identify them and they have been very successful. They go out every Friday and have had as many as 24,000 views. So we are still educating people, partnering with other groups and communicating with people.

Scamwiseni – See video at the link below

Facebook video

Why was keeping the activities going so important?

We develop work which was for young people, for communities and the issues that they have to deal with. Those issues don’t go away, and probably under Lockdown the situation could become as bad if not worse, so our work is still useful and we had to find ways of getting that to the young people who couldn’t see the plays because of the Covid 19 situation

You have organised a tour of one of your plays in September?

We do. The play is called “Buttercup” and there are three actors, young women, and they are on high chairs and they never actually meet up or touch each other on stage. We checked the guidance and looked through that to see if we could put that play on and we think we can do that safely.

We have organised to check people’s temperatures at the venues. Chairs will be 2 metres apart. None of the actors will be near the audience. We have done everything we can to keep both the audience and the actors safe.

We are hoping that all the precautions we are taking will be sufficient to ensure that we are not responsible for transmission of the virus. We are even travelling in a number of cars to the venues to ensure that contact is reduced for everyone.

How have your funders approached your situation and your response to the crisis?

The Arts Council have been very supportive and understanding.

We do have one problem. We have a large contract which was due to take a production to schools in September and that might have to be postponed. If we can’t get our work out because we have to go into Lockdown again then we will have to review the situation but at this point I’m optimistic.

There are many organisations which seem to be struggling to survive. How is the future looking for your organisation?

We are a small company and we have a very small staff. We have a lot of very supportive volunteers. That allows us a fair bit of scope for maintaining our work. We are really just doing our best and you do get nervous because it does look like the Covid 19 crisis is going to continue for some time. We will keep reviewing the situation and thinking of ways to maintain the company.

The work you produce is important in that it looks at issues in our community?

We produce issue based drama. We take our productions to schools, community centres and of course other venues as well. We sometimes partner with experts in the field of the issues that we are aiming to address and there might be workshops which accompany our productions. We believe that the work we produce is useful in addressing conce5rns in our communities.

Beyond that we do aim to produce one new production a year that would be performed in a commercial theatre like The Lyric.

Does it affect your work to have the theatres closed to the public?

It does and it doesn’t. We have our own lights and sound equipment, so the technical side to deliver a production we can do. We can also perform in the various settings I have outlined, schools, community centres, and places like that. And we have our own transport. So we can deliver our material easily enough regardless of access to the main theatre spaces.

Whatever happens I think we will maintain our work, we will keep our actors as active as we can and as this crisis goes along we will respond in whatever way we need to, to maintain the organisation.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.