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BWW Interview: Bringing Back Theatre — In Conversation with Caroline Calburn of Theatre Arts


How Theatre Arts is presenting physically distanced works to a new type of audience

BWW Interview: Bringing Back Theatre — In Conversation with Caroline Calburn of Theatre Arts
Crystal Finck in MODERNAI
which runs 14-18 October

Starting this month, CREATING THEATRE IN THE AGE OF CORONA presented by Theatre Arts brings back the excitement, joy and intimacy of live performance in a safe environment. Presenting five new, physically distanced performance works to audiences of only fifteen seats, Theatre Arts organiser Caroline Calburn discusses the upcoming season.

BWW: I think we can assume the inspiration of CREATING THEATRE IN THE AGE OF CORONA can be found in the name - but tell us a bit about your personal inspiration for starting this initiative?

Caroline: I spent most of lockdown trying to work out how I was going to reopen safely as soon as possible. It was my belief that the virus was going to be amongst us for a long time and I felt that if we started experimenting with and making socially distanced work, artists would have an income during the pandemic. I have had the huge privilege in my life of seeing a vast array of experimental work from all over the world at international festivals, and so have seen work which plays with form and breaks the idea that the audience is a single block of seated people. The pandemic was offering independent and experimental artists the opportunity to really experiment and explore within the confines of two metres apart and I felt the need to inspire artists to start thinking within this frame so that they could continue working.

BWW: How long have the pieces for this season been in the works?

Caroline: Its been a gradual process. Since about May, it was stop-start because I was met with a fair amount of skepticism and resistance on the one hand, while also trying to assess the mood of the virus on the other. Initially I put out a call and got almost no response and realized that it was not the right time - people were caught in the lockdown glare and were feeling very stuck. I put out the call in a different way a few weeks later and that gave people more time to think. After many conversations, I think we selected in late July and so the work has been mulling and brewing since then.

BWW: What was the process like choosing the pieces to be presented? How did you make the selection?

Caroline: It was very clear from the applications where people were at, the kinds of experiences people were having in lockdown, and the thoughts that were occupying them. Some projects were very clear in their presentation and their thought, and so BWW Interview: Bringing Back Theatre — In Conversation with Caroline Calburn of Theatre Arts those were easier to select. We had a group which we felt needed more time to develop and so took them through a different sort of process that involved conversations with the selectors. This allowed a fantastic discussion around different perspectives and a deeper understanding of what making this kind of work in this particular time involved. What was interesting about the pieces in relation to the pandemic was trying to understand the 'now' of each piece - when the right time for the idea of the work was.

BWW: How do you feel the five pieces are unique, and how does each one speak their own truth about the impact of the pandemic on theatre?

Caroline: The pieces are all exceptionally different: in style, content, thinking and artistic vision. That is what I love most about the season. As they are all still in process it is hard to speak about their uniqueness now, but I look forward to being able to reflect on that at the end of the year when all pieces have been brought to the stage. Our relation to the pandemic is also constantly shifting and 'truth' seems to be a word up for grabs right now in the world, so it will be interesting to see how each piece speaks to the audience and what it evokes for them. Interestingly one of the first pieces, MODORENAI, is a piece about touch - one of the first aches that people had during lockdown - and the piece is as much about that ache as it is about the raw emotion of being back on the floor in a theatre. I think each piece will have its own poignancy.

BWW: I love how you described this different level of experiencing theatre as "a new purity of engagement". Can you explain a bit more what that means to you?

Caroline: I thought a lot about how we wanted the audience to return to the theatre space and how to distinguish it from the pandemic of the world outside. We used a combination of elements when entering the space, as well as sitting alone with an uninterrupted view of the performing artist unimpeded by others, to create a different sort of focus. The space becomes meditative, focused; an inward journey, which in the end is always what theatre is. It just crystallizes and makes pure the actual act of watching a performance.

BWW Interview: Bringing Back Theatre — In Conversation with Caroline Calburn of Theatre Arts
Rafé Green presents MODORENAI

BWW: With each performance only having fifteen seats available, how do you think this will impact the theatre experience for artists and audience members?

Caroline: The feedback that we have had from audiences has been amazing. They love being in a small exclusive audience. It is as though the performance is just for them. Artists also love the total focus that they get from the audience. It is a different sort of attention and creates a different relationship. It is really intimate and still feels full.

BWW: And finally - when theatre is in its normal full swing again, what are you most looking forward to?

Caroline: Gosh, difficult one! Going to the theatre was always an integral part of my everyday life and as life is no longer normal and many of the changes that we have experienced over the last 6 months are going to become our new normal, I don't know. I think I can only really focus on what is right now. but I also think that the one thing I want to carry with me into the future of theatre is sitting alone. I've really loved that and it has given me such a heightened experience.

Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

CREATING THEATRE IN THE TIME OF CORONA begins on 10 October and runs until December 2020 at Theatre Arts in Observatory. Tickets to all performances cost R100 and can be purchased at Bookings must be made online in keeping with Covid-19 protocols and no cash sales are available at the door. For more information, please visit this article.

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