Updated: Dec 16, 2020
We are the beating heart of a rehearsal room, and the thread that holds a company and production together.......MDA steering group member Jenni looks back at moving and learning through a pandemic
It is nearly eight months since the world changed, and despite the rhetoric around this time being a ‘pause’ for our industry, my experience has not been that. There has been upheaval, loss and we have witnessed a drastic annihilation of our cultural sector. I have rewritten this paragraph in response to the breaking news that Biden will be the new president of the USA, and whilst I am so relieved at the news, I feel deep down, that I don’t know what the world will look like in 10 days time. It feels like anything could happen. This kind of flux, of rapid change requires a huge amount of adaptability from us as human beings, and as a society. It’s hard to be adaptable when dealing with crisis.
I am sharing some lessons I have learned, and continue to learn, during lockdown.
Lesson No 1 Pain and grief are real, and it is ‘ok’ to ‘not be ok’.
Back in March, I was movement directing a production with Roy Alexander Weise at the Lyric Hammersmith. The play was Antigone: Burial at Thebes and we were in the early weeks of rehearsal, working with the ensemble and establishing the movement vocabulary of the chorus; it was physically intense and psychologically challenging work. When the Prime Minister advised people not to go to the theatre we were devastated and frightened. The week leading up to the cancellations were full of anxiety and fear of this unknown threat, unsure if we were compromising our families and colleagues by going to work, by going to the supermarket, by speaking to our neighbours.
I was booked on projects until the end of September in 2020, all of which were cancelled. I had residencies booked in to develop my own work - all got cancelled. There was so much collective grief, there was so much sadness. I felt like everything was crumbling and falling away from me. I remember being in varying states of fight/flight/freeze, as I balanced a fear for my family’s welfare, and the consequences of the lockdown. My partner and I put some paper up on the wall, listed our current bank balances, wrote down all the money owed to us from freelance jobs that had not been paid yet, and talked to our landlord.
Almost immediately, I started running online movement workshops for colleagues and friends. They were holistic in focus, using my practice not for performance this time, but to give focus to our bodies in 3D, as opposed to the 2D presentation we had found ourselves existing in overnight. It was a way of creating structure and being connected to each other, but also I was trying to create a space to engage with our own bodies. The body holds on to every experience, and it was a way of processing and allowing space for us to return, find some grounding, and reconnect with body as ‘home’.
I also remember the first slew of online work that seemed to come from every angle, and the overwhelming pressure to deliver digital content. There was a feeling of missing out or losing your relevance as a movement practitioner in this new digital landscape. As this was happening, I was also caught up in the process of ‘un-producing’ the shows I was working on, including my own work, which I had fought so hard to carve a space for. I went to zoom production meetings, and talked about socially distanced staging, we talked about digital avenues, and we drew up story boards of the work, all to be filed, whilst one by one, each project was curtailed.
As an actor, I could still self tape, I could take part in readings and workshops online. I worked with a US collective, doing live readings on a YouTube channel, and the digital world connected us across oceans in ways that we just didn’t entertain before the pandemic. As a movement director and theatre-maker, it was less clear. Movement direction is a discipline that works in collaboration with other people, but also, we deal in space, body and time. All these elements are abstracted in the online rehearsal room. Things that we take for granted when in the same physical space were fragmented, like not being able to see the whole body of the participants on Zoom, or not being able to hear breath; the elements that are not channeled through words but transmitted through being in a shared space with all the micro negotiations and non verbal communication that comes with it. I would have to radically transform my practice, or so I thought. For the most part, my knowledge and skills were even more important in a lockdown, but delivery was a different beast. What I learned was that we were all in the same boat in terms of this accelerated necessity for learning, and sharing practice became much more on the table.
I found a huge solace and solidarity in the meetings held by MoveSpace, and spoke at the online conference Digimove. These moments of connection with my creative peers had always seemed so hard in real life, due to scheduling clashes, or being in different cities, or being one movement director on a project. As a freelancer I was always tessellating projects, with barely enough time for myself, so to have space to do this was a welcome exhale. At this time, our collective fear was tangible, and yet those meetings went on to fuel activism in the months that followed. It was ‘ok’ to 'not be ok’, and sharing it meant that it was real, and could be talked about, and ultimately, quantified so that we would be able to bring it to the table when the industry started to pick itself up off the floor.
Lesson No 2 Activism, Artivism, Freelance Task Force; Our voice matters.
As the weeks went on, I realised the level of precariousness that we had all been operating at, and problematic hierarchies that play out in our industry. As freelancers we had no security and no visibility. It was frightening.
I put this rage, and sadness into working with other artists and so manifestos were written, meetings were had. I joined the Freelance Task Force. It was a way of dealing with the immenseness of it all, and also a way to putting whatever small platform I had spent ten years building to some use. Fuel’s letter to freelancers sparked hope and controversy; a call to activism; a call to the companies to create space for our voices. I was sponsored by Actor’s Touring Company, and we talked about how I straddled a number of disciplines, and that this perspective could be really useful in discussions.
My main drives were movement directors, theatre for young audiences, and anti racism and inclusion. I worked with the Dance Freelance Task Force, who were front footed in highlighting specific challenges that working with bodies and movement entail. Challenges around studio safety, movement practice with COVID restrictions, and financial difficulties faced by the sector were high on the agenda. We met with One Dance UK, People Dancing, ACE, Equity, and the brilliant MoveSpace. Some of the work that has happened here has led to meetings with Equity around pay structures, and proposal of a National Portfolio of Creatives with Arts Council England. Who knows if we will get what we have suggested, but it is the first time that some of these financial gate keepers have had detailed discussions with freelancers, and specifically movement directors.
During lockdown, the Manchester Royal Exchange streamed a reading of ‘The Mountaintop’. I had worked with Roy on this production at The Young Vic (and tour), and it had been brought back to raise money and awareness for Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Katori Hall’s words shooting an arrow into the future and our humanity. I struggled to make sense of the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. I struggled to make sense of the murder of Vanessa Guillen. I worked with freelancers connected to Fuel to write a manifesto for change in how black artists are treated within the industry. ’The New Normal’ manifesto is currently working it’s way around buildings and unions. It demands change on a fundamental level. We need meaningful reform, and it is overdue for all those who experience racism and oppression.
All of this work, ran in parallel with the newly created MDA which is so needed. I found strength in realising how many of us have the drive to push the visibility of our work and to make sure that when we go back to work in theatres, we go back together.
Lesson No 3 Self-evaluation as a place to reset and reconnecting with artivism.
I spent so much time wondering if I should leave the industry and retrain. What is theatre? What does it do? What is my practice? What do I want to do?
What is Movement Direction?
I thought a lot about long term development, longevity and sustainability. I kept coming back to practice. I care a lot about practice, and when I look back at my journey to this point, I have spent a lot of time training, reading, watching and learning. I spent time in studios out of my depth with dance practitioners; I spent time reading about movement practice; I spent time analysing the works I admire, and the works I didn’t. My practice emerged first, then the career pathways followed. As your expression is unique to you, and only you can nurture it, and give it space and time. Think of it as enriching your creative well of experience, and it is not a one off deal, it is a life’s investment. At the moment, lots of theatre artists are opening up their practice and have become more accessible in lockdown; you can go to their talks, webinars and workshops to quietly feed your practice.
I am currently working on projects that examine the body in space. Asking questions such as ‘Who is allowed to take up space, and on what terms?’ So much of what movement directors do is about empowering the performer. During lockdown, I worked online with British East and South East Asian performers. In unpacking our work, we spent time talking about the racism that they encounter in the industry (which is real and present), and also the dynamics exacerbated by the recent pandemic, where members of the public feel they can openly abuse people in the street. The workshops served to create a safe space where interrogation of these dynamics was much needed; providing a holistic time to reclaim space and identity.
I see all my work as a challenge to the presented history and dynamics that society offers us. As a British/Bolivian movement director my work is a product of my relationship with the UK, and the duality of living between races and cultures. This is inextricable from my artivism.
Movement directors frequently work with communities. Throughout my career, I have worked within a number of community contexts, and movement has been the agent for reframing participation into creation. Creativity is part of our DNA, it is a necessary dynamic of a healthy mind and society. Community participants will need to be taken care of and placed at the forefront of theatre practice moving forward. It is through this practice we will be able to construct spaces to imagine and CREATE a kinder and more tolerant society.
Lesson No 4 Inclusivity as excellence
Inclusion should be the starting point of all practice.
Dealing with COVID safety measures has meant that we have been acutely aware of peoples’ boundaries and consent in the rehearsal room like never before. I have been lucky enough to be in rehearsal rooms as a performer, and as a movement director during the pandemic. We are having to negotiate space, our home commitments, shielding family members, and the work is part of that bigger conversation around consent. My hope is that what we have learned from this time is carried forward and becomes best practice. Movement direction has been pioneering this sort of work for years through various manifestations, including the ‘Me Too' movement, and the pandemic has shaken the industry into listening again.
Zoom room access to industry meetings and tables, previously denied to our disabled peers, suddenly being available can be carried forward. In the FTF, the meetings were held with inclusion at the forefront. BSL interpreters, live captioning, and methods of conducting yourself in meetings that mean that its clear who is talking and that the information can reach everyone. It took time to set this up, but it was worth it.
I have been running workshops with disabled and pre-disabled people across a number of platforms. Making sure I am communicating well across everyone’s needs takes preparation and thought. We all have to get that muscle ready to work and adapt. I am so hopeful about this, as I know we have been doing this work live in rehearsal rooms for many years and believe we can lead the way on this.
I want to see the industry, and our society learn from the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t mean reacting to the most pressing ‘problem’ the buildings are dealing with, which just result in a simple change in optics. I want full out, systemic change. I want the principle to be learned, not just the example. I want us all to embody it, and make those changes so that we can build some equity.
Inclusion will be the starting point of all practice.
Lesson No 5 Play and joy as a source of healing.
I am all about play. Play as a state of consciousness that can be accessed by anyone, which has the power to energise, enliven and ease our burdens.
It is also “…a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animal species to promote survival. It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.” (Stuart Brown, from Play, 2009).
Play is not frivolous. Play makes learning possible, it makes connection possible, and it helps to ground the body. I try to make work from a place of playfulness. Games feature heavily in my practice, and I want to challenge the things in our society that are not working, with a playful radicalness.
Our training in finding the games, setting the parameters, creating the rules, are all designed to make play happen. Often directors want to movement directors to ‘release’ something in the actor, in the ensemble. What they really mean is ‘How do I get them to play?’. As movement directors, we are often looking for the way to enter the imaginative world of the production, where the body is engaged and the mind is active. We don’t just lay the foundations and create the fertile ground in a rehearsal room, it IS the work.
Lesson No 6 Dream big and keep on dreaming
If we are going to build back, let us build back better. This is the time to dream, so here are some of mine (I could go on for hours, but here are a few)
Movement directors as experts. Our bod(y)ies have become a battleground. Touch and proximity has become dangerous. Preserving our lives meant we couldn’t share space and be together. We are now acutely aware of the space between us.
I am worried that people think movement directors and theatre choreographers only deal in physical contact, but we are experts in space, and time too. We understand the power of the visual image, of composition, and the stories contained within and between bodies.
The future of movement directors as artists. We are the beating heart of a rehearsal room, and the thread that holds a company and production together. It is a skill to be able to make that happen. I want awards categories for what we do, and more options and career paths for us. So many of us don’t make work as lead artists. I want to see that change.
Platforms and funding for movement director development: whether that is more of us becoming Associate Artists to companies and buildings, or being funded as other disciplines are. I want to see some direct investment into the Creatives that make the work. Our practice is developing and growing, and I want to see respect and time given to it.
Dramaturgical opportunities - we get into many rooms and experience a lot of practice and forms. We are hardly ever asked to contribute to dramaturgical conversations outside the rehearsal room. Tap us, we have a lot of experience!
Boards: Get us on boards. We often experience the ‘buildings’ we work in across a season, or an Artistic Director’s tenure. We are articulate and sensitive to the cultural climate in these buildings. Use us!
Better relationships with producers. I would love for us to share knowledge and unpick some of the systems we have inherited around budgets, technical rehearsals (are three session days really that productive?), planning around company calls, understanding our prep time, and transparency in the casting process.
To reconnect with ourselves and be able to live an embodied practice. I would like to hear more talk about what we do, and how we do it. As movement directors, we curate experiences through the body. How we enable a group to enter, stay, and then exit a creative space, is something we give a lot of thought to. The structures may seem invisible when working with a company, but now we are at home and there is no delineation between work and regular life, these structures are necessarily acknowledged. What can we learn from living an embodied practice that can take us into the next phase of recovery.
Jennifer trained at East 15 and is a movement director, actor and theatre maker.
Movement direction includes: Invisible Summer (Royal Court), Antigone: Burial at Thebes (Lyric Hammersmith), Caucasian Chalk Circle (NT Public Acts, postponed), Wuthering Heights, Cuttin it, Death of a Salesman, Queens of the Coal Age, Our Town (Royal Exchange Theatre), Midnight Movie (Royal Court), Amsterdam (ATC/Orange Tree/ Theatre Royal Plymouth), Pops (Jake Orr Productions), I Wanna Be Yours (Paines Plough/The Bush), Parliament Square (Bush Theatre/Royal Exchange Theatre),The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (New Vic Theatre), Be My Baby, Around The World in 80 Days (Leeds Playhouse), The Trick (Loose Tongue/Bush Theatre/High Tide), Philoxenia (Bush Theatre), Mountaintop UK Tour (Desara Productions Ltd), Mayfly, Out of Water (Orange Tree), Brighton Rock (Pilot Theatre /The Lowry), I Want To Be Yours, Island Town, Sticks and Stones, How to Spot an Alien (Paines Plough Roundabout), The Mountaintop (Young Vic), Black Mountain, How to be a Kid, Out of Love (Paines Plough & Orange Tree), Death of a Salesman (Royal & Derngate), The Ugly One (The Park), Why The Whales Came (Southbank Centre), Stone Face (Finborough Theatre), Debris (Southwark Playhouse/Openworks Theatre), Macbeth (Passion in Practice/Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), Silent Planet (Finborough), Pericles (Berwaldhallen), The Future (The Yard/Company Three), Other-Please Specify, Atoms (Company Three), Takeover 2017 (Kiln Theatre).
Assistant movement director: Lungs, The Initiate, My Teacher's a Troll (Paines Plough Roundabout 2014).
Jennifer is currently an Evolve Artist with Oxford Playhouse, and in 2019 was a Developed With Artist with The Lowry. She was appointed the 2019 Leverhulme Arts Scholar with The egg Bath Theatre Royal.