They say (I’ve no idea who ‘they’ are) that “a change is as good as a holiday” and after nine days in Birmingham I can honestly say that I’ve never been more delighted to be exhausted. Exhausted but enthused, tired but thankful and the Next Generation programme as part of On The Edge Festival/ASSITEJ International Gathering is the change I needed and am grateful for.
I almost didn’t apply. Open to “young and emerging artists interested in the practice of theatre for young audiences and international collaboration” I had written myself off (I’m 33⅓ in an Irish accent) but I read further. I wanted a shot at stepping in to the worlds hinted at in the bullet points of the call out. Rarely are such opportunities available to people who perhaps have already ’emerged’ in one way but, like me, found a new area of arts practice and passion and were as ripe for the learning as anyone else. I won’t lie, I was also looking forward to the many shows on offer as part of the programme. All of them. Being handed an envelope of tickets bearing the promise of multiple show days carefully scheduled around workshops with my next gen friends and colleagues with a fair few symposium sessions squeezed in for good measure felt like such a treat. For someone who jokes about spending much of her time facilitating other people’s creativity, I was ready to play and it’s just as well, as we dove straight in from day one.
We came from all over. Almost. Some of our cohort-to-be were denied visas and less than a week after the Brexit vote, this resonated more than it might have a week previously. I experienced many moments during the week when I realized that the stakes are high, for some more than others and that those of us lucky enough to be working in a country where we can do, say and go as we please have a responsibility to find ways to support and encourage those who aren’t.
Next Gen gave me the opportunity to absorb so much, to listen and learn as well as lead. I’ve returned to Dublin and I’m looking at my work through fresh filters. Not just my own practice, but also the practice of the artists and people I support, collaborate and work with. It’s only been a couple of weeks but already, I’m asking better questions. I’ve come home wanting more, which is always a good sign. Yes, I’ve come home with the offer of a couch or a spare bed in so many places I’ve yet to visit, but whether I make it to all of those couches or whether my fellow NGers make their way to mine matters not. I’ve come home with a network I feel I belong to and not in a “networking” (shudder) sense. There were so many opportunities to engage with the gathering and the festival as a whole that I feel like I’ve come to know an entire international cohort of people connected by their creativity and their desire to encourage, encounter and collaborate. Those connections don’t just happen. Like any show, that connection has to be designed, crafted, and curated. That this little festival with a big heart can bring people with different practices and experiences together – and not just on paper or in the bar after a show, but meaningfully sharing ideas, opinions and space is remarkable.
I’ve come home with an expanded circle, a list of people I can text or email with a daft idea or a spectacularly silly question, a response to a show or a call out for a partner in crime to see or try something new. I’ve come home and I’m more at ease with being home again because I’ve found new ways to step up and out in what I’m doing. I’m thinking about access and inclusion. I’ve a sign name. I’ve seen what a team of brilliant, bright (yellow) volunteers can do in terms of welcoming people not just to a festival, but to an entire city. I’m thinking about gender and why it is that everyone is happy that projects like GendersaurusRex and Aunty Ben exist but many of them are glad not to be doing the work themselves. I’m challenged by that and I hope that makes me better not just by being more aware, but by being more active. I’ve snapshots in my head from shows I loved or strongly disliked and I’m excited that at 33⅓, there are still new ways to see a lightbulb, thirteen teenagers and a bodybuilder or a feather on stage that can weave stories through even the most jaded audience member’s mind.
At a time when news headlines might tell us otherwise, a gathering ‘on the edge’ of people trying to create and change from the heart or in the margins matters. We’re not just invited to make connections and develop cultural leadership for the next generation, we’re called upon to do just that and to expand the ways our work can impact upon the audiences we serve or have yet to serve. Now matters. Next matters.
Niamh Ní Chonchubhair