It was the first time that the theatrical event, the musical of our time, had been seen on stage since Broadway was shut down by the pandemic a year and a half previously.
“Live theatre is back,” exclaimed the creator of what is on track to be the most successful musical of all time. “I don’t ever want to take live theatre for granted ever again,” he promised.
The video of Miranda’s declaration resonated over this side of the pond because we haven’t really seen that kind of public statement on these shores yet. Here, theatre is slowly peeping its head above the parapet in a socially-distanced, half-masked, is-this-okay sort of a way, not the bold ‘theatre is back’ way as is the wont in New York.
Partly, of course, that’s a cultural thing, but there is something else at play in the UK theatre scene.
Anyone declaring ‘theatre is back’ over here is being shot back at by a significant coterie within the industry quickly claiming ‘actually it never went away’.
Theatre companies across the country are swift to point out that actually they’ve been making work and making it available to audiences digitally all the way through the pandemic. Just because we haven’t been able to physically go to the theatre, doesn’t mean that theatre has stopped, the companies have declared – they’ve been there, just digitally.
There are many theatre companies that have been embracing the possibilities of digital for some time, pre-pandemic, and have continued to create work in such a way during it. One such company is Bradford based Freedom Studios.
Set up by Madani Younis and born out of Asian Theatre School, the company’s raison d’etre is to ‘be the home for new and experienced artists in Bradford with a view to bringing together audiences and communities by creating new work’.
In 2017 it made North Country, a post-apocalyptic story of humanity all but wiped out by a plague, staged in an abandoned building in Bradford and filmed by the cast on mobile phones, which seems coincidental if not straight up prophetic. One of the actors in North Country, Kamal Kaan, is now the writer of a new, similarly digitally bold story, Freedom Studio’s latest production.
Aaliyah : After Antigone was commissioned as a live/digital hybrid piece pre-Covid in 2019 as a collaboration between Freedom Studios and digital company Carbon Imagineering.
Kaan says: “This project was always intended to be a hybrid show and was commissioned pre-Covid. With the limitations and social distance of Covid, it gave rise to the popularisation of digital work.
"The show was specifically created to be a hybrid experience as this would allow a wider audience and access to live theatre on a more national and global platform. I like to make work that doesn’t allow building to be a barrier in terms of travel and access and hybrid work offers a generous way to invite a wider demographic.”
The medium may be thrillingly modern, but Kaan has turned to the ancients for story inspiration.
“I have always loved the story of Antigone and studied it for A-Level, years before I knew I was ever going to be a writer. It was the first Greek tragedy I had read and loved and it was an honour to have been asked by Freedom Studios to write my own contemporary version. The story still remains relevant for a modern audience; as the themes of family, love, justice, faith are timeless and universal themes.”
The play tells the story of Aaliyah and Imani, trying to get on with their job of cleaning an office in Bradford while anxiously waiting for news of their brother Syeed, threatened with deportation to Bangladesh. Featuring a Home Secretary called Parveen Parvaiz, there’s no mistaking the contemporary political undertones.
“What sets Aaliyah: After Antigone apart from streaming theatre is that it is not a pre-record. It is designed and will be produced more like a live television drama – with a five camera set up and what the audience watches on the live stream is fed through a software; an editor that will decide what’s the best shot for the audience to see from each camera.
"It’s very exciting as theatre is rarely produced like this. But to capture that exciting live element of theatre feels like the most honest way to give two types of audiences a similar theatrical experience,” says Kaan.
As a Bradfordian, working with the Bradford based company is an opportunity for Kaan to tell a more positive story of his home city than the one we often hear.
“I am Bradford born and bred from a large British-Bangladeshi working class background. My father worked in the mills and was very proud to be a Bradfordian,” he says.
“Having lived away for several years whilst I undertook my undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge and my Masters in Glasgow, I returned home to Bradford for personal reasons.
"I strongly objected against having to move to London to make it in the arts. I found, once I rooted myself back in my own city, my work began to flourish and I’m constantly and infinitely inspired by the people and landscape that envelop me.
"Bradford has the space to breathe and allows the mind to dwell and I have found that is crucial for the creative process.”
Live and digital performance
Aaliyah: After Antigone – When Home Secretary, Parveen Parvaiz, announces that Aaliyah’s brother is to be deported, she must rise up and face the might of the State but her political activism puts her own life in danger.
The production premieres as a simultaneous live and digital online performance from October 8-16 at 7.30pm (BSL interpreted matinee 2pm on October 16).
The live performance is taking place at Impact Hub, Bradford and tickets for both the live and online performance are available from www.freedomstudios.co.uk
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