Claire Hodgson Co-Artistic Director of Diverse City and Extraordinary Bodies
We are about to premiere a new circus show called Human and I have never felt so human. This past year has used all my very ordinary/extraordinary human skills of patience and optimism. I had the faith that live performance would be possible and have worked towards it.
We haven’t performed live for 17 months. In this time away, I have undergone a transformation. I am increasingly grateful for what I have, but angrier at what we prioritise as humans. We need to dramatically change the way we are living if our children are to thrive, and I am more convinced than ever that the arts are essential to our society.
Tilly Lee-Kronik and Jonny Leitch in rehearsal for Human
Early in the pandemic I realised that the virus was impacting disabled artists disproportionately. Black artists that I collaborate with were losing family members. I have cried tears of frustration at the injustice of the government response to the pandemic. I have been angry. The situation we find ourselves in was not inevitable. Many people are not currently experiencing freedom. Vulnerability to the virus (remember some people cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons and for some vaccination will not work well) means that many people are still living restricted lives. Theatres may be open but not everyone onstage or in the audience is in the same boat. Not everyone can be present in person.
We begin the tour of our new show Human next week at MAST in Southampton. At each of our venues, there will be a socially distanced performance. Extraordinary Bodies Young Artists will be performing alongside Human with their show Till We Win at The Lighthouse, Poole. Our youth company are our pioneers, with highly successful performances at Birmingham Rep back in July. These young people, disabled and non–disabled, were also the first in our company to start working digitally when this all started.
Human will have a digital version (available from November) and one of our performers will appear digitally onstage from his home during the live show. If we are going to return to live performance inclusively, we will need to find different ways of participating and performing. We have had to work very differently making shows remotely and feeling our way into making films. At many moments I have wondered whether we can keep the Company afloat. Theatre and circus, in essence, is the gathering together of large groups of people. Not the best business to be in during a pandemic.
We had an 8-day in person rehearsal period for the making of Human. Four of these took place during a sun-soaked week in early June, in a Big Top we put up outside Bristol.
Some of the cast of Human outside the Big Top in Bristol
The rest of the work has been done remotely on Zoom, WhatsApp, Slack, emails and texts. Occasionally we’ve used the phone, but it seemed weird to chat without being able to see one another. We filmed one of our artists at home. Much testing and mask-wearing was done. Wearing a mask is an act of solidarity with others. For some people the virus is a mild illness, whilst for others, it can be life changing. For any, it can become a long-term health issue. We are a company where some of us (both disabled and non-disabled) are clinically vulnerable.
Every time I have been with people again in-person I have had a cry. Rehearsing and filming has been quite amazing. It is a place I couldn’t quite imagine earlier in the year before most of us were vaccinated and during the third lockdown. To be with people as a director again has felt like I am back where I belong. I get my energy and drive from being with other artists.
I am very fortunate to work with all the people that I do. They have made me laugh and given me perspective throughout the last 17 months. I haven’t yet hugged any of them.
It is an enormous relief to be performing live again. It is important to remember we are returning to a changed world and to take everyone forward together, rather than grabbing individual freedoms where we can. If we are to be humans at all we are going to have to work for a collective, rather than individual, future.
For details of the complete tour, and booking links to all shows, please visit the Extraordinary Bodies website.