Art & Events Interview Caro Meets

Michelle Sewell: Unmute

By | Published on Friday 17 July 2020

As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hack Theatre’s Michelle Sewell has created ‘Unmute’, a series of six fully accessible short films based around themes of equality, diversity and inclusion. Six individual artists, writers and performers discuss how they are finding new ways to work and champion marginalised voices in the aftermath of the virus.

Many of our readers will be familiar with Michelle’s theatre work, in particular the show ‘Border Control’. I spoke to her to find out more about ‘Unmute’ and Hack Theatre.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the format of ‘Unmute’ – how were the films made and how will audiences access them?
MS: There are six artists, some I’ve worked with before, and some whose work I’ve seen and admired, and who I therefore reached out to.

For about 20-30 minutes we discuss how they are being creative during lockdown and some issues that COVID has really brought up for them personally, and how that’s affected how they are creative or see an issue in a different way. Then each artist has done a brilliant adaptation piece.

It was a really strange and interesting process doing the interviews. I spoke to the artists on my bed, as I share the communal area with housemates, so everything was done from a really personal space over Zoom. Audiences can access the transcripts, audio and video files on Hack’s website.

CM: Can you explain what sort of content to expect from them? What kind of topics do the discussions cover?
MS: The content is really varied. Of course we cover COVID and how artists are being creative during lockdown – and that’s an emphasis on the creative rather than the productive, which was a huge theme throughout. It’s one thing to keep your mind creative and thinking about things in new ways, but to create performance work during a pandemic isn’t always productive.

We cover topics such as the racial politics of mental health with Koko Brown; being a sibling of disability with Christina Murdock; food and identity with Sean Wai Keung; the different meanings of lockdown from a woman with a disability with Athena Stevens; how to be connected as a community in an online space, particularly focusing on the queer community, with Afshan D’Souza Lodhi; and the role of media, television and comedy during a pandemic with James Colley.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the artists featured in the films?
MS: The artists are all really inspiring people I’ve either studied with, worked with or seen work of. They are people who work really hard and are always working hard on their craft, and where all their work and touring plans immediately got put on pause with COVID.

I think what really excites me about releasing these interviews is that they are all young artists with something really interesting to say and are unafraid of being bold. They all have performed one person shows and there’s a mixture of performance poets, theatre-makers and comedians.

CM: What inspired this project? What made you want to do this?
MS: I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a little while and when COVID happened I felt as though this was the right moment to test out this project and see how I can advocate more for change in the arts.

I, like many other of my peers, am really tired and frustrated and fed up with the discrimination we see in the arts, the lack of diverse voices and just seeing the world through a white male lens.

I think we all want the arts to be more inclusive and to represent society and individual experiences much better and hopefully these videos will help to move that conversation along a little bit.

Also, just being connected with my artistic community during lockdown was, and has been, a really big thing from me. As artists we learn and steal ideas from each other and this has been a really wonderful thing to be able to chat with these artists and learn so much from them.

CM: How did you decide who to feature in the films?
MS: As I’ve mentioned, I knew most of the artists apart from Athena, whose work I saw at the Globe in February, and I just knew that these artists had something to say that was interesting and important.

I’m an emerging writer and my company is tiny – it’s just me! – so I definitely feel as though my reach was limited, and as we were only able to do six, there are so many artists I would still like to reach out to, and I plan on continuing the series with more voices to keep the momentum going.

CM: Who are the films aimed at? Who will benefit from tuning in?
MS: They really are for everyone. They deal with so many different subjects and topics that, if you just want to listen to a particular issue through the lens of an artist, these are perfect.

I do think that anyone interested in getting involved in the arts or interested in being creative will really benefit from them.

It’s such a lonely and isolating time but the experience of COVID is so universal, yet deeply unique in how we have approached what lockdown is or means.

This is due to so many personal experiences, but I think anyone who might be struggling right now may really benefit from hearing these voices and learning that not everyone is being productive and that all these artists who are constantly working have struggled through this period and that’s okay.

They’ve found new ways to connect with their communities – so there are some top tips too.

CM: We are aware of your work, primarily via Vault and edfringe, but can you tell our readers a bit about Hack Theatre: how long have you been producing and what kind of work do you do?
MS: I started Hack in 2016 when I was sponsored on the Tier One Graduate Entrepreneur visa by the University Of East Anglia.

I wanted to create a socio-political theatre company that championed marginalised voices. So I created a short play followed by a panel discussion about immigration and love – my show ‘Border Control’ – which keeps getting more relevant as the years progress due to Brexit.

As a regional emerging female writer I understood that to get my work seen I had to produce it myself, so I did that until this year when I’ve been lucky enough to receive money from the Arts Council’s Emergency Response Funding. This meant I was able to employ a producer, so I’ve been able to step back from that. This has really been an amazing feeling as I can focus fully on my craft and my relationships with the artists I work with as a writer.

Most of my work is about love in some form, but love from the point of view of people who aren’t allowed to love or whose love is being challenged. So, for instance, in ‘Border Control’, it’s the love between a Moroccan woman and an Englishman that’s being scrutinised by the UKVI [UK Visas And Immigration].

In my show ‘Dysney Disfunction’, it was about a woman who had been sexually abused, trying to understand how she can love after that and referring to Disney films for advice. Love is a really big part of socio-political issues for me and I try to delve into different aspects of it through my work.

CM: What would you have been doing now if COVID hadn’t intervened?
MS: It’s the last year on my visa, so I actually really wanted to travel around Europe and see friends. But creatively, I was hoping to tour ‘Border Control’ around the country and advocate for refugee issues.

We’ve been able to do some of that through podcasts, with interviews with people from refugee and migrant communities, and the show will be coming back in a digital format at the end of the year or early next year.

CM: What hopes do you have for the company in the future, when things get back to normal?
MS: I hope we never get back to normal. Because normal was and continues to be stifling for the majority of the population.

To be honest, after this, I don’t want to enter a theatre until it’s not normal. Where the normal is instead a place to see diverse board members, more women as Artistic Directors, spaces that are fully accessible, captioning and BSL interpreters at every performance.

Where I can see and hear from voices who need to be heard, not only because it’s important, but because it’s interesting and opens your mind in the way theatre should. I really hope I never see things again as they were pre-COVID.

CM: Do you have any plans for further digital/film content?
MS: I’m writing a one-woman show that is an adaptation of ‘My Fair Lady’ from the point of view of a woman with Down Syndrome. I’m working with Hana Pascal Keegan, Sarah Gordy and Ben Weatherill, from JellyFish, to develop this show.

I’m also having weekly sessions with my sister in Australia who has Down Syndrome and she is really helping me shape the script.

The team is working digitally and we’re having some R&D time for two weeks over Zoom to delve into the script. This has already been a really exciting and challenging process and I hope it encourages more people to work digitally and with people with disabilities. More news soon!

CM: How have you got on in lockdown? How have you stayed sane?
MS: For me lockdown has been a really emotional roller coaster ride, like everyone else, I think.

But for me, I come from a family where my sister has a disability and my father has a chronic illness. So if I’m locked down, it really does mean staying at home, being healthy and looking after the family and being there for each other, and I’ve not been able to get back to Australia, because my partner’s British and we had to get a visa and travel exemption for him before we go back. Thankfully we can now go back in August.

I’ve stayed somewhat sane by going on a morning walk with my partner and chatting about our well-being and what we’re doing that day and really challenging and pushing each other to be excited about something we’re feeling down about or to feel calm when there’s something to be stressed about. I’ve also been running a lot. Oh and eating Lindt hazelnut chocolate and binge watching Netflix!

The ‘Unmute’ series of films is free to watch and one film a day will be launched from 20 Jul. Access the films, and more information about the artists involved, via the company website here. The artists will also take part in Twitter Q&As on the day their films are released, follow the company Twitter account here.

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