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The show goes on: local artists are returning to work

It's often said that great art is born of adversity. We spoke to four local artists about their experiences creating new work during a pandemic and the resilience of the arts.

Katie Hryce

2020 may well go down in history as the year with the most thinkpieces written in its honour.  The year of ‘un’ – unprecedented, uncertain, unbelievable. With states in lockdown, borders closed and day-to-day activities paused indefinitely, until very recently it’s been almost impossible to see the forest for trees; and for artists, to see a home for their work. 

In response to the challenges facing Australia’s arts industry, the Sydney Opera House has recently announced New Work Now, a new initiative established during the coronavirus pandemic to provide meaningful support to local artists, arts workers and creatives at this critical time. The quickening pace of many theatres, concert halls and other public venues reopening in recent weeks has underlined the importance of providing opportunity, backing and space for creators. 

Diverse and exciting local artists have been chosen for the initial line up of New Work Now commissions. Sydney Chamber Opera, the Indigenous World Art OrchestraFrieda Lee and Branch Nebula are the first four, with more to come. Each have their own unique voice and vision – grappling with the year of ‘un’ in their practice and continuing to create despite it. 

During this period, the realities of physical restrictions on performances, audience attendance, staff movements and theatre closures have posed significant challenges to artists staging a work in any classical sense. Choral concerts, large-scale blockbusters and full operatic productions were some of the earliest shut down by the pandemic, and may well be among the last to return to the stage. However, there are glimmers of hope, and indeed works that are uniquely suited to this new environment.

Jack Symonds, Artistic Director of Sydney Chamber Opera, says their performance of Janáček song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared, staged in an empty Joan Sutherland Theatre, was a fortuitous fit for the current circumstances: 

“The extreme set of limitations in making stage work involving singing at the present moment mean that the vast majority of repertoire is simply off the table. However, this Janáček is always something we planned to do, and it is a great compositional fortune that its specifics fit within the NSW Health guidelines ... There was no artistic compromise necessary here. The conception was always designed to make a film work in an appropriately 'safe' way for the present moment – this is inherent in the expression of the performance both musical and dramatic, the design and the aesthetic of the total artwork.”

This hauntingly beautiful chamber opera work features just two singers and a pianist accompanying them onstage. It’s a love story without physical touch — the closest contact being the lighting of a cigarette, the spark that sets everything in motion. 

No matter what restrictions we must live under, we have to continue to respond with creativity, to comment, propose new perspectives.

Many arts companies, from grassroots through to blue chip, have responded to the pandemic by providing digitally available performances to view for free or at low cost. This has worked in the audience’s favour throughout lockdown periods, with countless hours of archival or new work being experienced at home. 

For performers however, filming or otherwise recording new work under these conditions can be a stilted act of one-way communication. A new thought experiment for the pandemic age: if an artist performs and no one is around to hear it, are they really performing? 

“It's seen us move from live stages and creating an energy with live audiences, to performing to empty auditoriums and video cameras. People get to experience you, but you don't get to experience the people”, says Mindy Kwanten, artist, musician, and song woman of the Indigenous World Art Orchestra, whose commission for New Work Now is currently in development.

“As artists, we know the story of constant evolution through experiencing affliction all too well, you know, creating something great out of the ashes ... In the world prior to the pandemic I feel we all took music as a creative expression and tool for connection for granted. Not having that platform as an Artist or as a punter is something we are all feeling. If anything it's solidified how music and Artistic expression connects us. It's the currency of the universe. Like a river finding its way to the ocean. It needs to be and it will find a voice.”

Lee Wilson from the Helpmann Award-winning Branch Nebula agrees: “No matter what restrictions we must live under, we have to continue to respond with creativity, to comment, propose new perspectives.”

Branch Nebula’s CRUSH will be the next New Work Now commission to grace our stages, and promises to be a boundary-pushing performance piece. Wilson has considered the creative process as a salve during these challenging times, and can’t wait for both artists and audiences to return to the experience of live performance: “I hope that they experience the rawness of it, the immediacy and viscerality, without pretence or artifice”

Emerging theatre-maker Frieda Lee will then present The Bright Side of Bum Town, a play for kids and families set in a post-coronavirus recession. With the long-term economic impacts of the pandemic only just being teased, Lee hopes the work will give insight and perspective for children and parents alike as we navigate the upheaval, in our homes, and worldwide. 

“Right now, it’s impossible to make art that reflects our times without considering what the impact of the pandemic will be for each of us and for society both locally and globally [...] What is compelling as an artist is the opportunity to speak to the many points of shared experience.”

Creating new work – quite literally making something out of nothing that no one else has ever thought of – is both an immense freedom and enormous privilege that should be celebrated as one of the greatest achievements of human civilisation.

It could be argued that one opportunity a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic presents is a deep understanding of shared experience and its myriad manifestations. As global citizens we’ve watched the world as we know it change; as workers we’ve given new meaning to flexibility and agility; and as arts makers and lovers we’ve heard, seen and felt in new ways. Sydney Chamber Opera’s Jack Symonds says: 

”What this strange moment in history has shown me above all is that artists are burning to make art. Without institutions to be able to produce it, they are boiling over with ideas and these find their own paths to fulfilment. Creating new work – quite literally making something out of nothing that no one else has ever thought of – is both an immense freedom and enormous privilege that should be celebrated as one of the greatest achievements of human civilisation. Of course, artistic work has been deemed 'inessential', and, by many measures it is inessential to the routine functioning of a society crippled to its barest needs. However, as has been continuously and movingly demonstrated over the last months, the resilience and force of creation is ultimately stronger than a virus and any government's response to it.”

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