May 11, 2023Features

Everytime I Try to Leave Something Keeps Pulling Me Back (me back)

In part as a way to pay the artists they care for and rely upon, and also to provide a worthwhile response to two years of cancellations and postponements, Basement Theatre created a podcast titled TBC. The podcast poster, designed by artist Sara Moana, depicts a lighting rig, ticket stubs, flowers and dreams all swirling down the drain. 

Ironically, TBC itself remains unreleased. It was, as former Basement Theatre Programmer Nisha Madhan puts it, “one of those knee-jerk ideas to keep busy and paid during the pandemic that ultimately was outdated before it even started”.

Nisha Madhan. Photo: Māhia Dean

But when the same conditions that led to the creation of the podcast meant the project itself was washed away, Basement gave me the raw material - the plans, proposals and unfinished recordings that made up the work. It’s hard to just walk away from something you sunk hours into. 

There are three recorded episodes. Host Nathan Joe spoke with Basement Theatre stalwarts Julia Croft and Marianne Infante. He also interviewed artists in an event he himself curates called Dirty Passports. The conversations are genuinely friendly and interesting, Nathan has a wealth of knowledge about the theatre scene in Tāmaki, and the host and participants are friends as well as admirers of each other’s work. It’s easy to imagine the podcast working as a way to catch up on what is happening in live art, to hear more about the struggles before a piece even goes live.

Sam Te Kani in Dirty Passports. Photo: Ankita Singh

In the episode interrogating his own cancelled show, Dirty Passports, a spoken word poetry and storytelling event prioritising BIPOC artists, Nathan Joe speaks with artists Samuel Te Kani and Manu Vaea. Nathan refers in the conversation to the fallout from all the uncertainty as “the space left behind”

Do you remember it? That void and the pressure to respond to it creatively? Way back in 2020, as soon as the pandemic started, there it was. Our livelihoods disappeared and in return there was a force, digging between our shoulders, pushing us to lyrically sum up our own terror and present it to audiences in a covid-safe way, as if to prove we had a right to our own work. 

Years of planning and work crashed to a halt. Theatre-makers had entire seasons cancelled on opening night. Studios shut down or operated at limited capacity. Festivals and gigs were cancelled for the year. Artists who were used to collaboration and transience were forced to reduce their personalities to the frame of an iPhone. 

Silo Theatre offered a residency, the output of which would be presented over Instagram. Actors, writers and comedians released homemade video content (to varying degrees of success). And there was piece after piece about what this time meant and how making art during it was important.

Looking back, there is something perverse about needing to respond in real time to the world so graphically unravelling. But there was little to feel positive about, and the urge to create something hopeful or true made sense in context. Even as the opportunities to ever present it vanished.

For so many artists I know, the process is the best part. Devising, drafting and redrafting. Mistakes that become inside jokes that end up in some way onstage. Edits. Erasing half and bringing a quarter back in disguise. Killing every baby to have twins. Development can be so freeing, it is space to explore and expand and mess up without the pressure of opinion. But this is only part of a whole. What use is it when that’s all you have? There is very little to be said about the things that didn’t happen. Like trying to justify heartbreak from a situationship. No one cares about what they can’t see.

Festival of Live Art Auckland. Photo: Megan Goldsman

Nisha Madhan and Julia Croft tried three times to put their first Festival of Live Art Auckland (F.O.L.A AKL) on. Twice it was cancelled because of the pandemic. This year it was cancelled because of the fallout from the cyclone. There’s not much to be done in the face of constant harrowing challenges that take matters out of our hands. But there is no shame in silence. 

At the start of 2020 I was two weeks into my first professional theatre gig in years, packing up my things. An English teacher had driven up from New Plymouth to see it and we all just filed past her, waiting in the bar. A small grief in the face of such large scale terror but it felt horrible, and it hurt. 

Making live art takes tenacity. It’s sometimes months, often years of work for something niche and ephemeral. Something that only exists in context, that responds to the perils of the world whilst providing some escape from them.

Art means more when there is little else to provide connection or release. And yes, it feels like shit to know that some years were just a write-off. But everything sucked. And there was nothing we could do about it. 

I read the briefs for TBC and thought about how much of the early pain of the pandemic I had forgotten. And then the floods came and so did Cyclone Gabrielle and I remembered. Emergency alerts making every phone in the house shriek at the same time. Empty roads. Refreshing the news every hour on the hour. 

Nathan Joe. Photo: Māhia Dean

Nathan’s reflections on 2020 and what we might have learnt from it tell a story of very little change. He told me “I feel like no lessons were really learned about slowing down for the sector. In fact, we need to survive more now than ever.”

And this is the state of it. The slashing of $36.5 million dollars from arts funding in Tāmaki is hanging over our heads, keeping us in the same fight or flight mode that forced us to react to the start of the pandemic with aggressive over-production of content in the first place.

When Basement commissioned and produced TBC they were trying to do what they have always done, and respond meaningfully to the events of the world around them. The drafts sound like an attempt to capture something temporary. They were still anticipating that there might be a future where things would be normal, where we would listen to TBC and remember. 

But the world reminds us daily that we are still here, pretending to be “post-pandemic” and failing.

Author: Saraid de Silva

Saraid de Silva is Sri Lankan/Pākehā writer and arts worker living in Tāmaki. She makes work about intergenerational relationships and is invested in queer liberation, the death of white supremacy, and television.