Artist, theatre maker and musician Seamas Carey tells us how Covid-19 affected his plans for an outdoor show and how FEAST funding supported the new Indoor/Online Games.
This Autumn we planned to make an outdoor, free, covid safe, community affirming, silly game show to help us welcome in the uncertain future. This didn’t quite happen, here’s why.
During the early part of Lockdown#2020 I found myself at home in Camborne, freshly returned from a canceled national tour of A Monster Calls, feeling surprisingly OK about things. Obviously I wasn’t ok about the unfolding horrors of the global pandemic, in that respect I was an angst ridden mess. But in terms of making my own art work, I finally had an ample supply of time to “get on with it”.
I started (like most out of work-Cornish performers, so it seems) doing an online celebrant training course (which I never finished). This led me on to reading two books by the extraordinarily influential Welfare State International – Engineers Of The Imagination (1983) followed by Eyes On Stalks (2002). It’s impossible to deny the impact that this company has had on the landscape of British theatre over the past 40 years. If you’ve ever been part of a lantern procession, it’s John Fox’s fault. But much more than just that, these two inspiring books explain how WSI developed an anarchic, community based, political and highly visual style of theatre which undoubtedly influenced Kneehigh (pre Emma Rice) and Wildworks.
Often WSI’s show’s were in public spaces, highly accessible, for free and had the community’s interest at heart. It was uncanny to find myself reading these books at a time when all live performance had been wiped out. Theatre (in its most traditional form) looked increasingly like an abstract memory – groups of older, middle class people all crammed into a room somewhere. Probably coughing.
Would it ever come back? Should it ever come back?
Everyone kept talking about getting back normal. As the lockdown began to ease, surely what we needed was something like a Welfare State International show, to help us come outside, unite and remind us all of how good it feels to do the same thing in the same place at the same time – in other words – Collective Effervesce.
However, what we got instead was a very dubious and strange stunt pulled by Dominc Cummings, which collectively outraged us all so much, that we had to rebel in solidarity and take to the overfilled beaches. On second thought, perhaps that was a strange new form of Collective Effervescence?
Anyway, I digress.
Back in January 2020 we toured a free, work in progress show of Pagan Pandemonium around Cornish village halls and social clubs. Now, it was time to make a free, outdoor version which would involve families competing at a safe distance.
I managed to gain funding from Arts Council England, FEAST and Cornwall Museums Partnership. However the hardest thing was convincing the local councils and officials (all performances would be on public, council owned land) that this could legally go ahead. Providing you took all the necessary precautions (which eats up a lot of your budget, beware) we were all good to go. With the brilliant help of imPOSSIBLE (Charlie Bunker & Gabby Vautier), Will Greenham (Smugglers Festival) and Rufus Maurice (The Old Tractor Shed) I formed a team who would make sure this show actually went ahead.
In retrospect, due to Covid 19 we spent so much time planning and re-planning the production side of things, sometimes I’d forget that I also had to make some entertaining content. We always had the advantage that most of the show was just me presenting (and improvising) with a band of brilliant (again improvising) musicians. Unlike a normal sized theatre company, who would need several weeks of rehearsal time, we gave ourselves two days. Ambitious.
However, cases were rising, the six person rule came in and the general public attitude was shifting. Just as we were about to announce the public performances, doubt crept into our minds. Would we be criticized for being unwise, unsafe even? With two weeks to go, the fear of knowing it could all be cancelled at any moment became exhausting. We thought it would be better to act sooner rather than later, unlike the UK Government.
Therefore, we decided to still employ everyone for the same amount of time, but to film the show instead. Suddenly, some people’s job roles completely morphed, yet there was an exciting feeling of enthusiasm to keep working and to adapt the show into a TV studio style film. Ironically, we had come full circle, as the original concept was based on Japanese game shows. Also, none of us (bar one) had ever worked on a TV show before, so we really were making it up as we went along. Improvising once again.
What we made that weekend, under intense, spontaneous pressure is what you can now see in the final YouTube release. It was never meant to be presented in this way. At first, I felt stubborn about making a filmed version, feeling that I’d betrayed the original concept.
But now I feel happy that we actually managed to make anything at all. We also gave people some much needed work. This film represents what truly happens when you take the risk of making work in Covid World and it’s now available for free on one of the most accessible platforms there is.
We managed (surprisingly well I think) to adapt the original concept of a wacky game show, into a lament for community spirit and collective effervescence. I still get goosebumps when I hear the recorded voices sharing what they lost this year.
I hope the film goes beyond the audience figures we originally planned for the live performances. We will endeavour to perform the show outside, as originally planned, somewhere in the future. As mentioned in the closing speech – the future right now is still so uncertain, but we must undoubtedly seek the new.
The Pagan Pandemonium Outdoor Games will premier on Sunday 29th November at 7.30pm on YouTube. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/user/seamasify
Seamas is a multi-instrumentalist (accordion, piano, double bass, bagpipes, banjo, sousaphone) and has worked for the past nine years as composer, performer, choir leader, musical director, puppeteer, silent film pianist and piano tuner. He grew up in Cornwall and has toured all over the world with theatre productions produced by Wildworks, Kneehigh and Sally Cookson.