The Monthly interviews Paula McFetridge from Kabosh Theatre Company about the challenge of responding to the pandemic – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

What happened to the company when the pandemic started?

What was difficult was that we were going into a phase of several back to back projects, we had secured all the necessary investment for that work and each of them had been in development for a very long time.

In mid-March we had secured Arts Council funding for a rural outreach project in Coalisland. We were about two and half weeks into that project and it had to be postponed. Luckily we were able to pay the freelance tutors thanks to the Arts Council.

We were 9 months into a Peace 4 project where we were working with a group of Transition students just outside Dundalk on their relationship with the border and cultural identity. We had to cut that project short and we were unable to deliver the final workshop or the showcase with the participants. We are hopeful we can fulfil our commitment to them.

Coming out of that project was a new commissioned play by Laurence McKeown s investigating emigration and trans-generational relationships along the border, that was due to go on tour in June 2020. That was fully funded and it obviously couldn’t happen but we are hoping that we will find a way to produce that work in the New Year through embracing digital possibilities

We were due to go to Prague International Theatre Festival May 2020 with “Green and Blue”, our piece inspired by  border stories gathered from the RUC and the Garda. That would have seen us do a week of performances in The Mac, then head to Prague, followed by a tour to Donegal, Cavan and  Galway. That work simply could not continue so it was completely knocked on the head but again we are hopeful of reviving this show in 2021 to coincide with events around centenary of partition

That seem like an incredible amount of work that had to either be postponed or cancelled?

There are actually projects beyond the ones I have just mentioned including ‘Belfast Bred’, ‘A Bellaghy Tale’ and ‘A Boy from the Bridge’..

We had been working on a project for nearly two years called the “Shedding of Skin” by Vittoria Cafolla looking  at gender violence and conflict. That project was due to premiere at the Belfast Festival in November 2020, we  secured investment  from the Joseph Rowntree Trust, the DFA and ACNI, so we are looking at a socially distanced multi-media touring production March 2021 so it can happen in this financial year and fulfil our commitments to our many stakeholders. .

Is it not possible simply to reschedule these projects?

We are looking at the possibility of reinventing some of those projects, but it is important to realise that a lot of our work deals with issues which are extremely sensitive, and because of the sensitive nature of a lot of these projects, the issues they are examining, means that a lot of preliminary work goes into how they are delivered.

We have to consider curated communal safe space, we have to consider how we manage participant expectations, we have to ask whether the time is right to look at particular issues, we have to work out how to deal with participant care, how to ensure we don’t retraumatise, and so one avenue that we might have gone down, moving our work online,  we didn’t think was right for Kabosh. Our work, I think, won’t transfer easily to a two dimensional setting. It needs to be experienced as a live performance.

Now we had just secured money from the Cathedral Quarter bid to deliver our two Belfast City Centre walking tours on a Monthly basis.

One is “Quartered, A Belfast Love Story” by Dominic Montague which looks at LGBTQ+ activism and identity in the Cathedral Quarter. That is actually back since August 2020 and though the numbers are much smaller, we have put a lot of care into how we go about delivering that project within government guidelines. The other is  “Belfast Bred” our popular food and drink Tour in partnership with the local hospitality sector. ‘Belfast Bred’ has been running for over ten years but we have postponed it since March 2020 as several of our project partners are still not open and so are unable to host the audience.  Hopefully we will get it back up and running in 2021.

So what happened when so much of your work fell away or had to be postponed?

There are difficult situations which have to be addressed, and then there are some good things that emerge.

We were working on a project called “The King of East Belfast” with  local playwright and actor  Stephen Beggs. The story was based on his in-laws, the Groves,  a notorious family in East Belfast who were involved in several local businesses. He had been gathering stories for quite some time and over 6 months he had written a one man show.

Mid-June 2020 after doing a weeks development we agreed that we wanted to make sure that we pushed hard to do it as a live experience. Project partners the Eastside Arts  introduced us to the director of Connswater Shopping Centre, Mark Rainey. From the beginning he was extremely supportive, he understands the value of arts engagement and he believed the subject matter would appeal to their users.

With their support we managed to produce the first live, socially distanced, show in Ireland and in the old Danske Bank unit at the Connswater Shopping Centre.  We were able to do that because we pulled together a really top production team who had worked with us before, who were used to working in unusual spaces and communicating with a range of stakeholders. We spent a lot of time assessing how to make the space Covid safe. Supported by our board of directors, we produced a robust Covid risk assessment looking at artists, audience and location.

We were very strict on audience numbers and 2msq social distancing, we had the necessary preparations front of house and the audience wore masks. Each audience member had a designated seat that was sanitised post performance. There was the added bonus of a metal shutter within the unit that doubled as a show curtain: reinforcing the ‘live’ experience.

There was a pretty incredible emotional response by audience members because they were actually at a live event. Many audience members told us on the evaluation forms how safe they felt. That was a real success and we ended up having to add 4 extra performances, it completely sold out.

Now, I’m not sure if we could do that now given changes in government guidelines, although  public space is well equipped to do live events because they have the necessary facilities such as toilets separate to the artists, the ‘foyer’ space, on-site security, ample car parking,  it’s regularly cleaned and has a ready-made footfall.

That sounds like it was a very positive experience?

Yes it was but generally it has been a bit of a rollercoaster. It has been difficult to deal with the finances because of the way our business model works in that we need to generate a lot of work to supplement our core investment.

There were some projects that we could slightly reinvent or adjust to the circumstances and make them work in line with the guidelines. Mainly these were projects that we had a fair bit of control over.  And there were many projects where many people involved, particularly in council venues, felt that the guidelines couldn’t be met.

So after all that, how are things looking now?

The spring is looking very busy, effectively we will be flat out from January through to March 2021. The Peace 4 Project needs to be completed, the Gender Violence project which has to be completed and current completion  deadlines are the end of this financial year. It is about how we fulfil our commitments, produce quality work and plan for the year ahead.

And going online is not an option?

We haven’t moved our work online because so many of our peers  are doing it brilliantly, we didn’t want to compromise the artistic vision of those we have under commission and  it doesn’t fit our style of work, it is not our area of expertise.  We have created a number of small pieces specifically for online engagement.

We feel that we are part of an industry and we aim to offer complimentary approaches to the work that others offer in this industry. We could see that Maiden Voyage Dance, Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre, Big Telly Theatre and Cahoots NI Theatre were all very quick to move online, producing innovative work for a broad audience base

Also once something goes online it can  be quite difficult to transfer that back into a live experience, so for example “Green and Blue” the piece about policing, because this looks at the border, I feel that it has to be a live experience especially in 2021 to coincide with the anniversary of partition. It is a very interesting investigation of questions around the border, and if that is put online we would miss that dynamic interaction between the material and the audience, between the actors and the audience.

As I have already said, I grapple with the idea that we need to provide a package of care with our subject matter for participants, with our audience, we have to be especially careful too, to make sure we don’t re-traumatise people.

So apart from the work that we have lined up, we are working on material to be produced later in 2021 and into 2022.

We are still looking into online possibilities and there may be an option of producing hybrid approaches to our delivery but we will have to see how we go with that.

And you have been able to work with your funders to do that?

That is one of the other things we have spent a fair bit of time doing, negotiating with funders so that our freelancers can maintain themselves and we can find ways to get the work that we offer available to audiences and so far most of our funders worked with us. As soon as we have the opportunity to deliver our work safely we will make that happen.

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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.