Swimming against the tide: street arts company Surge vs the pandemic

These are challenging times for Scotland’s street arts scene, but it’s still possible to make work, Surge’s Alan Richardson tells Paul Cockburn

A performance of Fish Fandango by Surge

One positive to take from the Covid-19 lockdown, in terms of its effect on Scotland’s growing street arts sector, is that it offers a genuine opportunity to experiment with digital work.

“Initially, of course, everything was cancelled,” says Alan Richardson, director of street arts company Surge. “Because we act largely outdoors – and, obviously the entire season is May-to-September in this country – effectively a year’s worth of work was cancelled.”

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Having lost a sizeable portion of the company’s income – Richardson is assuming at least £50,000 in income this year – the company nevertheless responded quickly to the changing circumstances, not least regarding the Surge festival in early July – one of the few arts festivals in Scotland to go ahead this year, albeit online.

The festival’s original line-up was split, with – after discussion with the artists – only those acts which were considered to be worthwhile remounted online making it into the revised schedule. “Those that just wouldn’t have worked online, for whatever reason, we’ll be doing sort of one-off, possibly unannounced events – depending on what the laws are at the time – over the autumn and into the winter, from September to December,” says Richardson. These latter works may well make use of social distancing as a theatrical tool rather than a practical hindrance.

As a small company – Richardson is the only full-time member of staff – Surge is one of Creative Scotland’s regularly funded organisations, and was fortunate to not need to furlough any of its four part-time staff.

This also means it was able to almost immediately launch its online, weekly cabaret, which unintentionally built on the company’s pre-Covid-19 interest in the integration of digital work and performance.

“In terms of us putting things online, we had a head-start,” says Richardson. “Also, in terms of the lockdown, it’s helped us move on a bit because there’s loads of artists who haven’t got anything to do, because they’ve lost all their work, and a captive audience with everyone in their houses, so we’ve used this time to experiment. We’re encouraging people to have a look at it, because any kind of digital literacy – which is not necessarily high up the agenda of people who work in outdoor arts – is probably quite a useful thing for people to have.”

Richardson also recognises that people working in theatre generally, especially in Scotland, were initially slow to react to the change in circumstances after lockdown was imposed. “I think there was a bit of shock; everyone felt a bit paralysed for a while, so just a few people came forward, but since the first month there have been more. People are getting their heads round it now; but it’s still not great.”

But while lockdown has provided an opportunity to experiment with digital work, Richardson points out that money – or the lack of it – is a problem. “We’re doing it all on next to no money because we haven’t got any,” he says. “We’ve lost a lot of income, and we’re still trying to pay artists with what little money we do or don’t have, because they don’t have any either.

“There are not many companies that work in outdoors arts that have an interest in [making online work] as yet, because it’s quite new. Things like VR headsets are now affordable to the general public whereas five years ago they weren’t; it’s still not cheap, but it’s becoming more affordable.

“It’s quite tricky; we support a lot of artists, and one of the main problems is that all year round largely we assist people in making work. We don’t run training courses as such, but we give bursaries and residences and are trying to assist people to develop their own practice and create work. So that is vulnerable.”

As for the future, Richardson has little truck with complaints we don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming months. “We just don’t know the timing of it. In terms of the responsibilities of artists and companies creating work, actually there are three scenarios. A vaccine will arrive and we’ll be able to do all we could before; that’s one. There’s the social distancing rules of two metres – or ‘one plus’, whatever that means, in England. Or we’ll all be locked in our houses. That’s it: there aren’t any other scenarios. So, as long as you prepare for all of those, one way or another, you can do work.

“If you’re a theatre venue, I get it: that’s much more difficult. But if you’re an artist making work, you can go: right, there are things we can do. Outdoor art is a particular thing; outdoors, Covid-19 transfer is almost nil, if social distancing is observed, as far as I can gather from research I’ve been reading. The spread of Covid is indoors, where people stay around with each other for a period of time, and quite close together.

“I’m not suggesting that digital work should take over, because I don’t believe that, but I think using this time and thinking about doing stuff that is more landscape based or more installation-based stuff [that]people can walk through [makes sense]. There’s all sort of things; just have a go at it and that can inform your practice later on. But trying to experiment without the money will be really difficult.”

For more on Surge, visit www.surge.scot

This interview is part of a series commissioned by the Federation of Scottish Theatre to highlight the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on theatre and dance in Scotland and the connections performance makers are continuing to make with audiences. The views expressed in them are those of the interviewees. To find out more about what is happening in the sector and to lend support please follow #Love TheatreScotland and #LoveDance Scotland

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