Without Walls theatre company: An interview with David Morgan
2020 delivered a seismic blow to the UK theatre industry. Its usual practises and systems suddenly became outdated and insufficient in the face of COVID-19’s unprecedented impact. Spaces that were once revered and frequented became empty shells, no longer housing the culture they once did.
But theatre didn’t die – far from it: when presented with a challenge, the industry adapted and thrived, and no one is testament to this more than Without Walls. With a network of 30 outdoor festivals based in England, the company created theatre in an accessible (and safe) way, allowing the artform to survive in the clutches of the pandemic.
We sat down with David Morgan, programme manager of Without Walls, to find out what it takes to create a consortium of outdoor festivals, and what 2021’s iteration has to offer.
Happy New Year! How was 2020 for you? How did you deal with the pandemic?
And a happy New Year to you! I think my 2020 was like most people’s: getting used to this new normal that we’re all in, whilst supporting one another in what is really an unprecedented time.
For Without Walls, the pandemic has of course had a huge impact on our organisation and our partners, many of whom are based within cultural venues and local authorities.
However, Without Walls has very much stayed open for business and played a crucial role over the past year. Our focus has been to support our partners and artists during this difficult time to share resources and learnings, help artists to continue developing their work in a safe way, and providing partners with the funds and advice to continue connecting with their audiences and communities in creative ways.
What’s the elevator pitch for Without Walls?
Without Walls is a network of over 30 festivals based in England that work together to support artists to create and tour outdoor performances to public spaces across the country. It is a unique organisation, and we rely on our festival partners – who are based all over the country – to provide audiences with high-quality arts experiences right on their very own doorstep in the places that they call home.
At a Without Walls festival, you can expect an ambitious programme of diverse performances of all shapes and sizes. You will see dance, circus, acrobatics, sound and music installations, comedy performances, traditional street theatre; sometimes you will see huge aerial dance performances that take place above audiences, and other times it is intimate one-on-one experiences.
The shows are fun and entertaining and some grapple with serious topics in an engaging way.
What’s your role at Without Walls, as programme manager?
I am the programme manager for XTRAX, the management company behind Without Walls. My role is to oversee the entire Without Walls programme to make sure we are supporting artists to create outdoor arts shows of the highest calibre. I work with the artistic director of Without Walls – the festivals and partners responsible for the curation and development of artistic programme – to ensure we are succeeding in our mission to support artists be as ambitious and innovative as they can be. I also work with our partners and the multi-talented team at XTRAX to look for opportunities to expand our programme of sector development work and to bring in new partners to help raise the profile of the Without Walls and UK outdoor arts.
The 2021 programme of Without Walls is set to be announced in full in March, and the organisers have revealed that this year will be the biggest iteration yet. Was it important to come back big? Do you feel creative efforts and outdoor arts are in a strong enough position to support Without Walls?
When the impact of COVID-19 on our festivals and our artists became clear (which was, indeed, quickly), as a network we knew we had to do whatever we could to continue to support the artists we were working with. Over 2020 we worked with our artists and our festivals to understand how we, as a group, can work safely by putting health and safety measures in place.
Our 2021 artistic programme is set to be our biggest yet. Our intention was to keep our commitment to the artists that unfortunately were not able to tour in 2020, alongside adding some new shows to the mix. We’re confident that this year’s programme is something that will really excite people.
One thing that became clear in 2020 was that many artists, companies, and organisations were looking outdoors for the very first time – we’ve seen a high level of demand for our entry pathways, such as our Blueprint research and development scheme and our Discover professional development initiative. All signs point to an influx of new talent looking at the outdoor arts sector, which for me is exciting.
One of the new artistic partners of Without Walls for 2021 is Certain Blacks, a London-based organisation that uses multi-disciplinary arts projects to amplify diverse, creative voices. Part of Certain Blacks’ thematic focus is to “explore ideas around our post-pandemic nation and the idea of being ‘British’ following Brexit and Black Lives Matter.” Can you tell us a bit about your approach to this?
Outdoor arts can be a starting point for conversations such as Brexit and Black Lives Matter – topics that audiences might shy away from, particularly when we think about it in an arts experience. Many of our audiences might not go to see a play that is “political”, but they might stumble up a Without Walls show that is entertaining, but also political at its core without that perception of preachiness.
We have never directed the topics and themes that the shows we produce should address; however, we’ve worked with a lot of artists that are committed to creating an artistic response to some of the most pressing matters of our time. We’ve helped artists make work that spotlights modern slavery, female empowerment, immigration or migration, environmentalism and the natural world, gender politics, and shows that celebrate diversity In the richest possible sense, Including LGBTQ+, disability, the family and community spirit, and what it means to be Black, Asian and ethnically diverse in Britain today.
In our newest programme we have shows that talk about social justice, family relationships, environmentalism and much more – some of which you might not realise at first glance!
Another new partner is Timber Festival (an immersive festival that celebrates relationships with trees and sustainability through music and art). Working with outdoor experiences, Without Walls must be more aware than most of its environmental impact – how is it working with Timber, and what is Without Walls doing to be green?
Timber Festival is new to the partnership, however we have worked with the organisers, South Cheshire based Wild Rumpus, for many years, and we share their commitment to making work in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
Alongside producing fantastic shows that address environmentalism and sustainability, we have organised several training and discussion events that help artists and festival organisers to better understand how to work in a greener way. Last autumn we ran an online symposium all about sustainability, and many events that encourage conversations about how artists and companies can tour in a greener way.
A further new partner to Without Walls is The Culture House (a Grimsby-based project committed to widening access to the arts). Considering how the pandemic has affected who can access the arts and how, this mission is vitally important. What is Without Walls doing to further engagement?
The wonderful thing about outdoor arts and the work we do is that it brings high quality arts experiences to areas without traditional arts and culture outlets. The Culture House has a proven track record of getting the people of Grimsby involved in art through a free festivals and events – overcoming the financial barrier that a lot of people face – and community engagement programmes in places that they are familiar with and that they feel comfortable in.
Most of our partners are based in areas with audiences that do not engage with the arts in a traditional sense, and we’re re really proud of that. We work with all of our partners’ programmes and help them develop a good quality arts experience that is accessible to everyone. Our partners make sure that they have an event that welcomes everybody, celebrates our diverse communities and engages with people in their local community. We contribute to our partners’ audience outreach and engagement projects and help them evaluate this impact. We have the data to show that we are reaching people who would rarely – and sometimes never – take part in traditional arts events or experiences.
Of course, given the relentlessness of the last year, “COVID safety” is key. What steps is Without Walls taking to ensure all performers and audiences are safe throughout the festivals?
COVID readiness and COVID safety have been at the very top of our agenda since early last year, and we are constantly in talks with our artists and performers and festivals to make sure that this is considered right from the get-go. We work with a dedicated production manager who is focused on supporting our artists on the health and safety measures.
We had a handful of events take place last year, including the Greenwich+ Docklands International Festival in London and Arts by the Sea in Bournemouth. Both festivals had robust health and safety measures in place, and they have openly shared their learning from the experience of delivering a COVID-ready festival with others working in outdoor arts.
With many describing the UK arts industry as being in a perilous situation, following the impact of the pandemic, how do you imagine artists and organisations should regroup? How can they come back from this challenge?
We can all openly acknowledge that the pandemic has been devastating for a lot of our arts and culture colleagues, and we of course want nothing more than to get back to normal. The entire arts and culture sector, not just outdoor arts, have been incredibly supportive to one another, sharing resources and information and opportunities, and learning about how to continue to do that work in some form. I think this collaboration will remain and will be vital for overcoming this turbulent time. Artists and organisations in the arts and culture sector have also been exploring ways of using digital tools and techniques in innovative ways, and I think this will continue to play a key role in the sector’s recovery and keeping audiences engaged until we can get back to doing what we love to do.
Photos: Get Shot Studios and JMA Photography
For further information about Without Walls and future events visit here.