Curious creative community during COVID-19
Wednesday 17 June 2020
We were thrilled with the reception received by Polyglot Spot when it unfurled into the world last week. The likes, comments and shares were warmly welcomed, and we’ve continued gathering snack-sized insights from our people. This week in edition #2 we’re delighted to share writing from the Chair of our Board, Sarah Hunt, a smattering of Sue’s working-from-home tips, and a Brain Food feature by Polyglot artist Sonya Suares. We hope you enjoy – please let us know what you think!
Governing a theatre company through a moment in history when theatre as we know it is impossible
Sarah Hunt, Chair – Polyglot Board
Before COVID-19, my role as Chair of Polyglot was clear, enjoyable and in the main, relatively relaxed. Since mid-March, however, life has changed dramatically, owing to the restrictions that have affected us all in so many ways. As a theatre company for young people our work, and especially our way of working that is so interactive, has been suspended, and for an indefinite time.
My first concern was, and still is, for the team – for Sue, Viv, the outstanding Polyglot artists, and the dedicated, exceptional administration team. While government support has emerged, arts companies have not been their focus; even now many artists and creative industry workers are without financial support, and they are feeling undervalued – despite the positive impact they and their artistic practice have on people’s lives.
My second concern is for the young people who benefit from Polyglot’s work. Like my fellow Board members, I’m in constant awe of all that Polyglot empowers in young people through its approach; the opportunities they can seize, the experiences they can enjoy, the fun, the joy, the exploration, the pride, the respect, the dignity, and the VOICE they can assert. I’m concerned that the young people in Australia and all over the world, are in danger of being put aside – to deal with “when we get back to normal”.
While my role as Chair is now busier, with less certainty about the way forward, this time of crisis has also delivered much to enjoy and feel grateful for. Our amazing, generous donors, supporters and network have stepped forward to offer advice, financial support, and different points of view. We talk more frequently, we exchange ideas about the way ahead. And through seeing more of the team at Zoom meetings I’m enjoying the exceptional culture that is ‘the Polyglot way’: the support, the warmth, the genuine care for each other’s welfare, especially valued during these times.
Thinking to the future – to Spring, Summer – my hopes are that we reflect on our busy lives and consider holding on to the things that we have enjoyed during these months. Such as the slow times, playing games, drawing, reading, listening to music, playing an instrument. I also fervently hope that no artist or young person is left behind when we return to a “new un-normal”. I’m excited to see how Polyglot emerges from this time, a time the company has used productively and creatively to dream up new ways of engaging with young people. If there is one thing I can feel certain about – it’s the sheer joy we shall all feel when we see young people experiencing a new Polyglot creative adventure.
Achieving and retaining clarity and focus while working from home
Sue Giles AM, Artistic Director and co-CEO
My work room at home is starting to fill with the extra items that have made it into Zoom chats with staff or artists: hats, goggles, plastic toys, trophies, gowns, fake fur coats, masking tape and paper, plants and a tiara.
I bought a desk from the op-shop and I’m surprisingly fond of it – I can focus well and get heaps done. I do find that I get a backache late in the day or when I’m writing without proper consideration of posture or where my keyboard is placed.
EyeLeo has helped me move more and take rests. I get into a flow and can’t stop sometimes and then find I haven’t eaten all day.
My jobs are on separate pieces of paper lining the floor.
I will continue some of the things I’ve discovered during this time – making more contact more often with artists over Zoom, calling Zoom meetings rather than face-to-face when that is what will work just as well, talking within our staff group regularly, examining my need to travel.
Also, I will continue eating, making bread and pesto, and knitting.
Considered commentary – Polyglot and beyond
Art in the time of Corona
Sonya Suares, Polyglot artist
It was the best of times, It was the worst of times.
A global shut down of an industry that, in our local context, has already been ravaged by years of austerity measures and culture wars. How else could we describe the impact of the dual forces of COVID-19 and the latest round of funding cuts on an already fragmented, largely freelance workforce. A sector that despite its myriad constraints, still manages to contribute $111bn a year to the Australian economy at last measure? And yet …
An unqualified crisis such as we are experiencing forces us to reflect. Arts practitioners and organisations alike tend to operate in continuous cycles of activity and are not often afforded a ‘still point’ to step back and evaluate. Certainly not one like this, from which there is no escape. There is a gift in this moment, should we choose to embrace it.
For as much as we are naturally inclined to direct our advocacy outwards at this time – from the specifics of ensuring practitioners have access to government stimulus packages, to the overarching goal of reframing our value within society at large – we must concede, we have some soul-searching of our own to attend to.
In his May essay, Simon Hinton makes an impassioned case for moral leadership. “If our industry now finds itself facing an existential threat” he probes, “are we willing to do the difficult work of examining our own behaviours (as individuals and as organisations) and ask whether they have contributed to the situation we’re now in?”
For instance, few companies have placed their artists at the centre of their thinking or structures, either before or amidst this crisis. As a practitioner who is also a creative producer and was across multiple simultaneous projects when our industry ground to a halt in March, there was a stark divide between those organisations and individuals who felt an urgent sense of responsibility towards their teams and those who lapsed immediately and conspicuously into radio silence. These loud silences – or as Hinton describes, lacks in leadership – have had a profound impact on several artists I’ve been in touch with over the period; in some cases, it has pushed individuals out of their practice entirely.
Similarly, as the #blacklivesmatter movement gains momentum around the world, we are once again asked to confront the issue of white supremacy in Australia, and how it is perpetuated at every level via our storytelling. Companies rush to express solidarity, but anyone who has been campaigning in this area over the past two to four decades will tell you this is near meaningless without a strategic plan in place. Indigenous and PoC artists have long been asked to accept value statements in place of action. We are tired of optics exercises or worse, pathway programs that lead precisely nowhere. The relentless focus on ‘development’ in these conversations is in fact compatible with the logic of erasure that we’re repudiating. We’re already here. As Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin articulated at last year’s Tony Awards: “This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job it is to imagine the world the way it could be. So, let’s do that.”
Which brings us neatly back to this moment: our shared existential crisis and involuntary still point. In theories of acting, the still point is the idea of the ‘moment before’: ie. a loaded moment, after which the action spins off in one or another direction. Dramatically, it is a moment ripe with potential, where multiple realities hang suspended in space, where many trajectories are possible.
Here is the gift, if we choose to accept it. Its power and potential is transformational, much like the dimensions of art itself. It does not, however, come free of cost.
The fragility my colleagues and I frequently encounter when working to effect meaningful transformation within our sector might come as a shock to some. But it should not. Our organisations are comprised of people who feel embattled on a daily basis and also self-identify as politically progressive. Those two factors alone conspire to form a closed and highly defensive mental loop, giving rise to a set of maddening responses that run the gamut from obfuscation to downright regression: ‘give it time’; ‘it’s a big risk’; ‘it’s a difficult period for the organisation/ we’re just flat out at the moment with …’; ‘we already have this [show/ program/ artist working with us] so …’; ‘hmmm yes, we know, we’re all doing our best’; ‘I don’t see colour’; ‘I understand diversity, I’m gay’; ‘we’re losing our sense of humour’; ‘I know a lot of white men who are really struggling at the moment’. My personal favourite is ‘shouldn’t it just be the best person in the role’, as if we all exist in a neutral and perfect meritocracy. This is how power validates and replicates itself. This is not the path to change.
Of course, unwillingness to engage in difficult conversations meaningfully (i.e. with self-reflexivity, rigour and accountability) is not exclusive to our industry. It is the hallmark of our times, and arguably how we have arrived at the toxic political polemic that surrounds us and that we rail against. The point is that we are not immune within our cosy arts bubble. While our theatres and community spaces are dark, perhaps we could practice that which we regularly ask of our audiences. What if, at this unprecedented moment, we lean in, really listen, extend ourselves, take risks, allow ourselves to be challenged and commit to actively reimagining our world?
Photography: Theresa Harrison