“We want people to see through new eyes”: An interview with Still, Here walking tour co-directors Helen Bryer and Adam Smith
Calmly breathing fresh air, wandering outdoors, simply taking the time to look around: Londoners have a great yearning to enjoy the beloved streets of London after so many weeks indoors. Although technology can be surprisingly effective, live experiences are hard to replace and, with the gradual reopening of all activities, Access All Areas Black Cab Company has worked on an exciting project that would bring together an in-person activity, the local community and the open air incentive.
Headphones on, and a collective of actors, poets, performers, will guide listeners through some of the key spots in Hackney. More than a chaperone through the borough, Still, Here is a sharing act and an invitation to discover and learn more about the places we too often rush by. The autistic and learning disabled artists of Access All Areas – the authors of this initiative – have encapsulated in the different stops their memories and their hopes, in the form of recorded conversations, spoken word and found sound. The planned duration of the tour is 90 minutes, with stops every five to ten minutes. However, with the participants moving independently through the posts and with no physical interaction required, each person could adjust the length and pauses according to their own preferences.
The audio guide will launch on Sunday 13th September, a day that, in normal circumstances, would have seen the community colourfully coming together on the streets for Hackney Carnival. With Still, Here, in a creatively different way, Access All Areas celebrates its lively neighbours and its treasures all the same.
We caught up with the directors, Adam Smith and Helen Bryer, to talk about the inspiration behind the project, life and workshops during lockdown, and picking their favourite spots in Hackney.
Hello, thank you both for your time. Still, Here is a timely project, encouraging its audience to walk and explore outdoors, after such a long time spent in our houses. Where did the idea come from?
Helen Bryer: Still, Here came out of the experience of talking to our regular learning disabled and autistic artists, colleagues and participants during lockdown. As a company, much of our time is usually spent in workshops and rehearsals, so as soon as restrictions came in we had to shift everything. Through our weekly phone check-ins we realised there were some really important stories to tell, from people who aren’t always heard and who are at a higher risk of social isolation, even after the pandemic has passed. Over and over we heard about how people missed Hackney, missed interaction with others, missed being seen. So Still, Here became an opportunity to get those voices heard and to tell those stories, whilst giving listeners a chance to get out and about and hear some new perspectives.
Adam Smith: Access All Areas’ Performance Company made a video called “We’re Still Here” early on in the lockdown. The idea was to show that, even though we are isolated, we are still here, we are still being creative, still being positive and supporting each other from home. This audio exhibition grew from that idea.
What motivated you to take part in it and co-direct together?
AS: I am one of the artists on Access All Areas’ Transforming Leadership programme. Eight artists are taking on leadership roles within the company and I was appointed to be Co-Director of Take Part. This means co-leading all of our participatory programmes with Helen, as well as co-directing productions like Still, Here.
HB: Part of my motivation for making Still, Here is the fact that it is so timely – although things feel in some ways like they’re getting back to normal, we’ve all been through a completely bewildering, life-changing event and it feels right that we take a moment to breathe and reflect on that. Selfishly, I was also motivated by the absolute joy of being able to create something that feels like theatre at a time when we still can’t get in a rehearsal room!
As for working together, for me it’s essential that all our work is co-led by learning disabled and autistic creatives. And I love working with Adam – I think we complement each other really well as directors.
Why did you choose audio, rather than a visual or a text guide? There has been quite a proliferation of videos recently…
AS: We wanted to focus on the expression in the voices of our artists and hearing their raw feelings on the lockdown and their experiences around it.
HB: Yes, exactly. We also want listeners to get the full experience of being in each location as they hear the audio. So lots of video or visuals could distract from the real-life experience of looking at the Town Hall, or the hospital, or whichever stop, as you hear someone’s voice. Many of the Black Cab Company artists are writers or performance poets, so we also wanted to give people the experience of hearing their words directly from their mouths. As a creative team, Adam and I are also both musicians, along with our sound designer John Kelly, so it made sense for us to go with something for the ears! Each stop will also have captions for those who do want to read along, though, as well as audio description.
The tour will officially launch on the day Hackney Carnival should have taken place. Have you been to the event in past years and why do you think it is an important moment for the community?
HB: We’ve been performing at the opening of the Carnival since 2017 and we love it! It really feels like a moment to celebrate Hackney and a chance for different communities to come together, as one of the artists says during Still, Here.
AS: I took part in the Hackney Carnival as a dancer and facilitator. It gives the artists a chance to show they have talent and can do anything that anyone else can whilst celebrating Hackney together. Even though the event has been cancelled, this audio exhibition is a fantastic substitute as it gives learning disabled and autistic artists a chance to express themselves through voice acting and celebrating Hackney as a company. Though a different medium, we are celebrating its culture, buildings and atmosphere in September like we always do!
What would you say is your favourite spot in Hackney?
AS: There’s so many! But my all time favourite would be Hackney Central, specifically Mare Street. The Hackney Town Hall that stands there makes me think of the powerful voices that could be heard inside. It’s a place people can be recognised and have the potential to change the world and make it a better place.
HB: Yeah, tough question! I like generally strolling around the borough (or more accurately running from workshop to workshop in non-Covid times!), but as for favourite places I like Ridley Road for colour, St John’s Churchyard for quiet, and our home at Bradbury Studios on Kingsland Road for creativity. Three is definitely cheating, isn’t it?!
Any highlights, and/or a funny moment that occurred during the production of the audio tour?
AS: Having zoom sessions with the artists and coping with the technical chaos of creating together through a screen! There’s always funny moments with internet delays!
HB: I’ve just loved the chance to spend so much one to one time with the artists, gathering their ideas. In a physical workshop we’re usually very high energy, working with lots of people at once and bouncing off each other. But this project has allowed us to be much more reflective and person-centred. That’s been an unexpected lockdown positive, actually!
How has the unprecedented situation of the pandemic affected your work with Access All Areas?
AS: It has affected me as I wasn’t able to do things that were planned for this year like facilitating workshops in person and performing at Edinburgh Fringe – but we’ve survived and we’ve still been able hold sessions with participants and perform live on Zoom.
HB: As Adam says, a lot of things have had to change, but as a company I think we’ve been remarkably resilient and creative. We’ve worked in new ways, posting paper resources and DVDs to people who don’t have internet access, and running workshops online. Within our participatory work, our focus has shifted to include a lot more wellbeing support with participants as we’ve supported people to cope with the changes to daily life. Over the next few months we’ll continue this work, using our theatre practice to prepare people for re-entering the world and for the changes which I’m sure will keep coming!
How have you spent these months of lockdown? What activities and connections have enabled you to get through this time?
HB: Working out how best to run workshops over Zoom has taken up a lot of my time. But I’ve also been doing loads of reading and discovering new places to walk in my local area. I also think I’ve connected and communicated more with family and friends I don’t see so often – through all those Zoom quizzes and catch-ups we did at the height of lockdown.
AS: I’ve been taking part and having lots of Zoom meetings with a number of companies including AAA. Within my jobs as co-director we’ve created support packages for participants as well as top tips and exercises that they can do from home. As an artist I was involved in a music video called Just Stay at Home by Jonathon Kitching with a number of other artists. Being involved with projects like this definitely helped keep my creative juices flowing which led me to create my own music as well.
What did or do you miss the most from the theatre world, right now?
HB: Oh my goodness, everything! Well, that’s not entirely true, but I am hugely missing live performance and hearing stories from diverse voices – something I hope we can give people a little of with Still, Here and something I hope we can return to when things do get back to some kind of normal.
AS: I miss being able to travel to various venues and meet with many companies I work for. I miss being able to perform live and contribute artistically face to face.
How has been the experience so far for you, Adam, of the Transforming Leadership programme?
AS: It’s been such a privilege. It has given me the opportunity to see how the Take Part programmes operate and I have loved getting to know the participants and seeing how they contribute to the sessions. It has been fantastic to facilitate games and activities as well as contributing as a musician and having the opportunity to compose bespoke music for the groups I work with. I have loved singing and signing with various groups whilst engaging them in the work we made together. As part of Transforming Leadership I also have a Support Mentor, Katie. It has been great to have her so I can feel supported during my role – with Katie I have learnt Makaton and learnt how to create accessible resources. If I’ve even felt low I have had a huge amount of support which has helped me gain a huge amount of confidence as a co-director.
What has been the theatre work you have performed and composed that stays the most in your heart, Adam? And what would be your dream music collaboration?
AS: During lockdown, I was very proud of the Just Stay at Home video as it shared a message about staying safe during the lockdown which was so important. Musically I have been composing throughout lockdown. One if my favourites was a song I wrote called Soldier On which was great for keeping my spirits up at the beginning of this madness! I have loved composing music for AAA Performance Company projects as well as Blue Sky Actors radio plays and Tramshed’s live performances on Zoom. I’m proud of myself gaining this new skill of acting and performing online. My dream music collaboration would be with Gary Barlow, Andrew Lloyd Webber and many more musical icons to create one song for the world that would bring everyone together and unite us all after the pandemic.
These have been very challenging times for the learning and for the arts sectors. Helen, how do you think it will be “returning to class”? And how has distance learning changed your practice?
HB: We’re not back in face to face workshops yet, but I think I am most excited about just being in a room and getting creative with people. As a facilitator I really work off the energy in the space, letting participants lead the pace and flow of each session, and that’s really difficult to do online. What I am proud of, however, is how Adam and I are still able to ‘bounce off’ each other as co-leaders, despite technical delays and distractions. There have been moments where my internet has died and Adam has swooped in to take over an exercise whilst I’ve been trying to fix it, and vice versa. I think this period will make minor distractions feel easy when we’re back in the room – phones might go off, taxis might arrive early, plans might go awry… but at least we won’t be battling alone in our bedrooms.
How would you like the listeners to be inspired by this tour? What would you like their takeaway to be?
HB: I’d like to give people the chance to see things through new eyes, and hopefully to smile, laugh, cry and reflect on the things that this strange few months has given to us and taken away from us.
AS: I would like the listeners to understand and take a moment to listen to the stories of learning disabled and autistic artists. This pandemic has been very difficult and isolating for learning disabled and autistic people. Even before the pandemic they may have already felt quite isolated but the pandemic has made that feeling even worse. I would like the listeners to feel appreciation for where they live, not just in Hackney but everywhere. The buildings, the green spaces, the environment and how lucky we are to enjoy the world around us and all the facilities we have available.
Finally, what play/artistic event would you like to attend first when it’s safe?
AS: I would like to see live music events again, classical and pop. I would like to see more inclusive plays and performances about LD artists breaking barriers and celebrating themselves. I would love to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time again as it is one of my favourite shows – I really relate to Christopher’s story.
HB: I actually saw a couple of shows at the New Normal Festival in Wandsworth in August, and it was a real delight to see some live performance, albeit outside and socially distanced. I’m excited for Black Cab Company to get back inside a theatre to perform, though – they’ll have some cracking stories to tell!
Thank you so much for your time.
Still, Here runs from 13th September until 31st October 2020. For further information or to book visit Access All Areas’ website here.