New Era, New Audience
This guest blog was written by Rosemary Jenkinson, Belfast playwright and short stories writer. It is part of our Dreams Guest Blog series. This blog series is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Organisations Emergency Fund.
The views expressed in this blog reflect the opinions of the writer. Thrive is providing a platform for people who work in arts and culture to express their dreams for the sector post-Covid and to create constructive debate and discussion. Publication does not mean that thrive endorses the views expressed.
It’s ironic that at the time we most need artists to make sense of the world, they are muzzled through closures of theatres, art centres, galleries and music venues. An artist with no outlet to create art is, to paraphrase Brendan Behan, like a eunuch in a harem. But while coronavirus may have stymied the production of fiction through novels, stories and plays, there has been a growing demand for factual writing. The arts are undergoing a reinvention, a quiet revolution, that can deliver ideas without the soft mediation and nuances of fiction. Right now, artists need to be relevant, reflecting the uncertainty we’re living through by speaking out politically and using the arts to reach the wider public.
Our way of life changed almost overnight in March and who would have thought you could commit murder simply by refusing to wear a mask – Agatha Christie would have had a field day with coronavirus! Even our language has transformed – having an infectious laugh, for instance, is no longer a good thing. I’ve found it therapeutic to write about these absurdities for publications like the Irish Times, the Honest Ulsterman and Pendemic.ie, which have introduced me to new audiences. The impulse to record this time has stopped me falling into the artistic vacuum.
On the bright side, coronavirus has also given us artists a rare opportunity to step back, reevaluate and try new art forms. It wasn’t in my plans to write a novel this year, or ever, but I did. If you’re going to be experimental, you might as well do it in this written-off lacuna of a year. 2020 has been disturbingly surreal, but its bonus has been the gift of unexpected free time like an extra day in a leap year, only this time almost a full year. All through these quiet months I’ve been wondering how I can broaden my appeal as a writer which has extended into how artists can broaden the whole appeal of the arts.
I have a strong vision about what the arts could be, but the first step to gaining a wider public in the UK is to make sure the Tories are voted out. As Boris Johnson is a blustering actor in the vein of a bombastic Brian Blessed, you’d think he would appreciate theatre, but apparently not. We’ve recently witnessed the British government’s contempt of the arts in their ad campaign suggesting a ballet dancer change her career to one in cyber. ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’ wrote the copywriter, but all I could think of was ‘Rethink. Reskill. Robot’. Besides, artists are too unconventional, cynical and anti-authoritarian for the majority of jobs which is why we became artists in the first place. Why inflict us on employers? My dream is of a new ad in which a IT worker is advised to retrain as a ballet dancer or a theatre practitioner.
A huge boost in gaining public recognition would be for a Writers Museum to be built in Belfast to rival Dublin Writers Museum and the new interactive MoLi. As far as literary history goes, it’s Dublin 2 - Belfast 0. How can Northern Ireland be considered a cultural hub without a writers’ museum? I’m not against hagiolatry but the Seamus Heaney HomePlace is dedicated unfairly to just one male writer, as are the C.S. Lewis sculptures, and we need to redress this balance. Politicians tend to value brick over book, so surely even they would be in support of building a new museum and gaining tourist revenue. Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales all have a dedicated Writers Centre, so where is ours? Writers are one of the biggest exports of this country and should be promoted to the hilt. When you walk out of George Best Airport, the corridor displays mundane local dishes like the Ulster Fry; when you walk out of Edinburgh Airport, you read brilliant quotes by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark. Food for the body lasts but a few hours; food for the mind lasts forever.
If the state doesn’t hold artists in esteem, how can we expect the general public to appreciate us? Artists need to be financially valued and awarded Universal Credit for seeking paid employment purely in the arts and for creating. I remember signing on the dole and being unable to say I wanted to be a writer as it wasn’t deemed ‘a proper job’. After all, other countries and cultures recognise our worth. I once had a Russian boyfriend who told me, as an artist, he was highly regarded by the state during the Communist era. Artists were given large studio flats and assigned easy street-cleaning jobs which only took up a couple of hours, leaving them the rest of the day to create.
One means for artists to appeal to a broader base is to make work featuring diverse voices. I’m currently writing a play for Kabosh about human trafficking which follows the story of a Nigerian woman enslaved in Belfast. In my opinion, there is no such thing as cultural appropriation – if I’m confined to my own limited cultural background, I’ll be labelled a Protestant female playwright which is a reductive stereotype in itself. Of course, it’s equally important to have writers from diverse backgrounds, but I aspire to be a wide-ranging international playwright and, with the pandemic being a global event, we should use it to expand our outlook.
In order for the arts to grow in the popular imagination, artists need to lobby for them to be designated ‘an essential service’ just like TV, but at least it’s encouraging that TV drama is considered essential during the pandemic. That said, there have been postponements and by the time Derry Girls returns it’ll probably be Derry Women! I personally find it ridiculous that Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, brilliant as they are, were rerecorded during lockdown instead of filming new lockdown monologues from current writers. Playwrights and actors are the seedbeds for TV and BBC commissioners should have provided much more work for us. It doesn’t help us artists that the world has been hierarchized into those who are key workers and those who aren’t. Boris often engages in photo ops, galumphing about in a hi-vis jacket and a safety helmet at a building site. Ozymandias capitalists like him can't see the value in anything but bricks and mortar which will collapse soon enough into rubble whereas music, art and the written word are eternal.
If there is one thing I’ve learnt this year, it’s that the arts must adapt more quickly to audience need, whether that be through outdoor performance, technology or short-form topical theatre. While writers have found new outlets through these Covid times via non-fiction, there is still a vast need for escapist fiction. A friend of mine hilariously bought a virtual-reality headset, so he could swap the shabby surrounds of his rented house for the luxury interior of a mansion. It’s important for writers to tap into this need for uplifting fantasy and develop a new readership. This is no time for gritty realism, but a time for dreams. We have to deliver alternate realities that are positive for people’s mental health. I’ve been so paranoid myself over these months I can’t tell if a hot flush is coronavirus or the menopause!
The more beleaguered the arts since the coronavirus lockdown, the more convinced I am they are essential, and in a world where science is so unreliable, people depend on solace from the arts. It's vital we reshape language to emphasise the importance of arts to the general public and let them know we’re key workers too. Let’s boldly impress on society that a theatre is a hospital for the mind and an artist is a doctor of the soul. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,’ which can also be applied to our politicians, but this year those of us who work in the arts sector have an unparalleled opportunity to change public perception and to reach out to find new audiences.