Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Suba Das: Love In The Time Of Corona and the Lighthouse Programme

By | Published on Sunday 19 April 2020

In the last few weeks we’ve mentioned a couple of times the Lighthouse Programme and the ‘Love In The Time Of Corona’ monologues that are the lockdown output of acclaimed, long established East Anglia-based HighTide.

You are probably well aware of the past work of Suba Das, the relatively recently appointed Artistic Director of HighTide. I put some questions to him to find out more about the lockdown programme, the monologues and HighTide in general.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the ‘Love In The Time Of Corona’ monologues: who is involved in writing and performing them?
SD: The monologues are written by the five incredible British playwrights already under commission here at HighTide: Dawn King, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Debris Stevenson, Ben Weatherill and Aisha Zia.

As we’re in such close collaboration with these artists, who are very much part of our family at the moment, and who encompass such a diverse range of theatre talent, it felt right to ask them for their immediate responses to the lockdown and crisis.

CM: How did you go about finding the performers to deliver them?
SD: We’re lucky at HighTide to have an extraordinary network of performing talent to call on from our thirteen year history, together with a few further friends!

Knowing that this project would require actors who would have to work at home themselves in some way to create the content, we reached out to friends who both represented the breadth of voice in the monologues but also had some of those making skills in their own DNA.

And we ended up with Jade Anouka, Shobna Gulati, Katie Lyons and Sophie Melville – Debris will perform her own piece.

CM: You have planned for five monologues: is there any chance of that number increasing if lockdown continues?
SD: We don’t envisage the series continuing past these first five. Really these were about immediate responses using resources we already had at our fingertips. As we begin to better understand how long restrictions will continue, and the implications for us a sector as a whole, we’re reserving as much of our energy and capacity as possible to see what other ways of working and creating will be required.

CM: Tell us about the rest of the Lighthouse Programme now: you are offering a lot of support for playwrights, aren’t you?
SD: Playwrights are at the heart of everything we do here at HighTide. In addition to our monologues, which are really the simplest, most audience-facing element of what we’re doing, we have set up a script reading service and an “adopt a playwright” programme, which will see us specifically support up to ten exciting, emerging voices from diverse and vulnerable backgrounds who we think will really need a friend in these times.

We’re pairing writers up with our incredible, world-class alumni – writers such as Vinay Patel, Luke Barnes and Anders Lustgarten – just to ensure these independent artists feel like they have some structure and support to keep going amidst the uncertainty.

We’ve also created our ‘Cancellation Catalogue’ through which we’re trying to keep track of as many premieres of new British voices that have been lost in this time, especially with the Edinburgh Fringe cancellation, and we’ll do whatever we can to ensure some of this work still gets to have a life and encounter audiences at our next HighTide Festival in Spring 2021.

In addition to these things, for more emerging talents, we have a beginners online playwriting course being led by Dawn King for which 60 aspiring writers have signed up. And with 4YP, the health service for vulnerable young people in our home region of Suffolk, we’re launching a digital youth theatre based on the brilliant Coronavirus Time Capsule project created by youth arts pioneers Company Three.

CM: I feel as though you set this all up pretty quickly: were you thinking about what might need to be done before we went into lockdown?
SD: Many of these initiatives are a reworking of plans we had already intended to unveil over the next few months.

Coming in to HighTide as new Artistic Director – I officially picked up the reins last October – we’d been in an extended period of reflection on what we do, how we do it, and who for.

As the crisis hit, it felt absolutely imperative that we should help create some hope, positivity and focus, as best we could, so we took all of those ideas, made sure they were widely accessible in the context of a pandemic, and offered them out into the world for free.

From the incredible response we’ve had so far, with over 300 artists engaging already, and a truly humbling level of donations and sponsorship, I think we got the balance right.

CM: I have been asking this question to everyone I have spoken to in the last few weeks, and I am going to ask you as well because I am really interested in what everyone thinks: do you think the online mode of delivering cultural events might outlive our current circumstances? Will there be more theatre-delivery via the internet in post-virus times?
SD: I think there will be, but I think the challenge for us is to work out how these plans can be dynamic and really use the technology to create experiences best encountered in that digital space, as opposed to simply being substitutes for the live experience.

For us at HighTide, specifically thinking about our home in the East of England, this is a part of the country already characterised by rural social isolation. Unlike London, where staying at home has felt like such a radical change for so many people, the experience of lockdown is a year-round lived experience for the audiences we are considering, so moving into this kind of form of creation offers us a really useful pilot process for ways of working we were already challenging ourselves to think about.

CM: Can we talk about what HighTide does in more normal times? Tell us about the company, its ethos, and the kind of work it produces.
SD: HighTide is one of the UK’s leading producers of new plays and we’ve helped launch the careers of major writers including Jack Thorne and Ella Hickson.

We seek to reflect the diverse voices of the UK and create accessible new writing that reaches audiences nationally and internationally, but which also offers ways in for communities in the East of England who do not currently receive a regular provision of new or experimental theatre work.

CM: What about you? How did you end up in this career? Had you always wanted to work in the arts?
SD: I grew up on a council estate outside Newcastle, in an immigrant family, so pursuing a career in the arts wasn’t necessarily a given! I was fortunate to have parents who embraced and encouraged storytelling, taking me to the library twice a week, getting me to read newspapers and all of that. That, plus the incredible support of teachers who fought for drama to be part of our curriculum, really set me on this pathway.

It’s been a fairly decent journey since then – I was the first British Asian resident director at the National Theatre; the first British Asian director for the Royal Opera House; and Associate Director at Leicester’s Curve Theatre, one of the UK’s biggest producing houses. What’s kept me going is knowing that I have some skill in enabling artists from diverse and under-represented backgrounds to gain a platform. That’s my responsibility in all of this really.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
SD: Staying safe and healthy and ensuring my team and all the artists we work with do so too. After that… anybody’s guess.

CM: What would you be doing now, if the COVID crisis hadn’t happened?
SD: Much the same: getting our amazing team of super-producers -Francesca, Rowan, Robyn and Holly – to make mad things happen. Only probably face to face as opposed to via Zoom.

CM: What are you doing to stay sane?
SD: Listening to Dua Lipa’s brilliant new album. A lot.

You can view the ‘Love In The Time Of Corona’ monologues on HighTide’s YouTube channel here and more about the Lighthouse programme in general here.

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