19 February, 2021

Dear theatre companies, lead artists and producers,

I don’t know about you but when this – the pandemic – all started, I felt like I couldn’t move for sector-wide zoom meetings sharing information and timelines as the industry dove into crisis management mode, trying to produce ourselves out of a global pandemic. I also know that there were lots of conversations that were happening that weren’t accessible, meetings that only a few knew about, meetings that claimed to be open but really were only open to those who knew and had the courage to say, “can I get in that conversation, please?” So, my nostalgia for Lockdown One is tempered with that disclaimer – it, and it’s outrageous, depended on who you knew and who knew you.

The pandemic outlived our capacity to talk about it. But we’ve gone from one extreme to the other – from talking every day in public forums to internal conversations in our own organisations and lots of looking around trying to figure out what other people are doing and planning. I come to Northern Stage from running a small touring organisation so I’ve experienced how cryptic and opaque it can feel from that side of the table.  And now I know how perplexing it feels at this side of the table. Mostly, I feel like I’m not doing a very good job because I can’t say yes or no but I’m committed to transparency and realised that there is some stuff I can say that lives between yes and no.

We are committed to transparency and I want us to be transparent in our vulnerability and confusion as well in our clarity. So here goes.

Since I started in November, we’ve gone from planning to reopen in time for Christmas (lol), to January 2021 (lmao), to April 2021 (okay, this isn’t funny anymore), to May 2021 (….) and now – at the time of writing – August 2021. Our plans and timelines change almost weekly – this week alone, I went to bed on Monday thinking – what are we doing, let’s play it safe, plan to reopen later so the plans we make with artists have more chance of remaining. Then by the time I woke up on Tuesday, I was like – no, hold your nerve Ibu. Let’s crack on with May. By the end of the artistic planning meeting on Tuesday lunchtime, we were back to the idea of an August opening.

I am filled with anxiety about how I do my job and deliver a vision when the goalposts keep changing. I’m worried about how to support artists, new work and how best to meet existing and new audiences. I oscillate between waiting and seeing and making plans – and galvanising my colleagues around that plan – only for them to change week to week. But, I also know I am very lucky to have a job and a level of stability that acts as a buffer to the personal and professional anxieties of the time. I know that my anxieties are multiplied in other areas of the sector and that being honest about where I’m am – or am not yet – could go a long way to helping others make plans. If This Is Us is about being together, then we need to share what we know now, even if it’s going to change in ways I don’t know yet.

As I write this, here in my home office – a mini satellite Northern Stage, on 19 February, here’s what I know:

We are planning to extend our Out On The Toon strand from April to July. That strand is both about leading our known audiences from their homes back outside and back into public life  – when lockdown is lifted - and beginning new relationships with not-yet-our-audience, where they are. I know that this strand will be radically local – or multi-local – across the North East but that’s all I know as yet. It is completely new and not yet formed into projects so I’m keen to hear from North East based artists and companies about ideas they have to make safe outdoor work, where they are, and where people are. I’ll also be publishing a brief for open submissions that I can then curate a programme.

In August we’re planning to reopen the building – we will be producing our own shows in Stage 1 but have capacity for visiting work in Stage 2 from September - March. It’s my ambition that this work allows us to continue to explore This Is Us – so I’m looking for work that expands our understanding of who we are, that brings us together, that offers some sort of healing. The pandemic has emphasised and increased long-standing inequalities in our shared world and our programming will aim to correct some of that as well as making visible those who – as a result of the pandemic – are at risk of being made invisible: disabled led work, work that explores the experience of older adults, work about the working, benefit, criminal, underclass experience, work by Black and ethnically diverse artists and that centres voices that have been marginalised by the pandemic. Don’t worry, I am not expecting you to bring your trauma – in fact, I’m so hungry to hear about work that celebrates those experiences.

 Whilst the Northern Stage building works in financial years, I think in calendar years because I want to think how our audience lives. So in 2022, I expect to see a return of a familiar model of received work, produced work and co-produced work. Before the pandemic, I wanted to explore diversifying our co-production model to see us not just partner with like-for-like but instead with companies of different scales, independent artists and organisations out of the sector. This feels even more essential in the world we’re emerging into. The idea is the thing, it doesn’t matter where it comes from or what shape you are.

So: you’ve got an idea – what now?

For co-production, partnership or Out On The Toon ideas, I’m your gal.

For our programming visiting work, contact our Producer Pippa Fox.

I work with The Lit Shop on future play-based-projects. We do not currently accept unsolicited scripts but I will be reviewing this in the future.

As an artistic planning team, we meet weekly to talk about the season we’re in and the projects we’re working on. We meet monthly to talk about future seasons and plans. I meet The Lit Shop monthly to discuss plays – submitted, commissioned or recommended.

I want to be of service and this felt the best way to be useful right now but if there are other ways we can be useful, let me know.

This Is Us, right now, 

Natalie

Photo credit: Christopher Owens