Charmaine Childs - Strong Lady Productions tells us about the impact of the post Brexit creative touring crisis will have on her career.
I am a circus strong lady. As a self producing freelance artist I‘ve been touring circus-theatre shows internationally for 20 years - primarily to outdoor arts festivals. Mostly I tour my own solo/duo shows and sometimes I work for companies as part of larger ensembles.
My work is a playful mix of muscle, comedy and grace, that uplifts audiences while dismantling limiting ideas around strength, gender and body size. The major drive in my work (and why I focus on creating outdoor arts festival shows) is to build a sense of optimism and connection with the widest possible range of people.
While I have performed in Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Canada, America and of course the UK - the majority of my performance work has been in Europe. I have translated my shows into most European languages - but everyone laughs in the same tongue. The festivals I work at usually run from 1 to 3 days, though sometimes longer. In a regular tour schedule I would pool shorter gigs, sometimes bouncing to three separate festivals in three separate countries over the course of a week.
The strong culture of outdoor arts festivals in Europe creates a brilliant abundance of gigs, which has allowed me a level of stability in my work that is not possible without that market. More importantly, the long history of people engaging with performance outdoors in Europe has created space for an astonishing breadth of style in outdoor arts.
Photo - credit Aleksandra Warchol Photography
In European festivals it is mostly the case that audiences arrive early for a street theatre show, they pile into the courtyard or square and sit on benches or raked seating and behave much like an indoor theatre audience. This is not better than the experience of gathering a crowd on a high street - but it is different. The Covent Garden style street show (born in the UK and adopted heartily by many Australian and Canadian artists) is a spectacular way to connect with audiences. That was the style I began with when making outdoor work and is still, proudly, in the bones of what I make. That being said, the way my work has evolved over the past two decades has been heavily shaped by the expectation of depth and subtlety that European audiences have. It has also been impacted by all the many incredible shows that I have watched and been inspired by on tour.
In the years I have been touring, the landscape of outdoor arts in the UK has been hugely impacted by cultural exchange with Europe - many of the key outdoor arts festivals in the UK have worked to expand the picture of what outdoor arts can be, by bringing shows from Europe. There have been people who worked tirelessly to set up reciprocal partnerships that supported UK artists to take shows to a country, while supporting European artists to tour here. These exchanges have impacted audiences in the UK, who have grown to expect a great diversity in the styles of outdoor arts they get the chance to engage with. This has created the space for a dazzling range of work now growing out of the UK scene. Giant puppets, jugglers on unicycles, delicate intimate shows, hilarious hoop artists, dancers in wheelchairs and spectacular acrobatic shows - we have grown used to having it all.
Failure to create an EU-wide cultural work permit and visa free travel for touring professionals and artists will have a catastrophic impact on my career and the many other artists who rely on the European touring circuit for income, bookings, audiences and inspiration. It will mean that I need to pivot in my work because, as a self producing freelancer, I will not be able to manage the logistics and financial costs of arranging individual visas for every gig. In 2019 I had my most densely packed European tour to date. It was wonderful. When I mentioned the ballooning bookings to a few different European festival producers, they all made basically the same comment: they wanted to get in and book me now, before Brexit made it too hard. Once Covid eases and the world opens up again, I am nervous the we UK artists will be considered ‘too hard’ and we will be overlooked in favour of artists who can offer a European passport as well as a show.
The government needs to step up and create a smooth path for UK artists to continue to tour in Europe (so that we can survive) - and for European artists to tour here (so that our communities continue to benefit from the wonder of a diverse artistic landscape). The beauty of outdoor arts is in how easily it allows us to build connections. In a time that is divisive and where things feel ever more isolated - I hope that we can open more doors than we close.
Charmaine Childs Strong Lady Productions
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