This Homelessness Week marks one year since Milk Crate Theatre's 2019 performance work, Natural Order, a multi-artform immersive work about the myth of social mobility; created collaboratively with our community of participants and artists with lived experience of homelessness, mental health issues and disability. One year on, and how the world has changed! ... Or - has it? Maybe COVID 19 has simply made manifest the serious social issues that have been pulsating under our consciousness this whole time? Or maybe another question could be, who has the world changed for?
While 'connection' has become the buzz word of COVID times, for many arts organisations like Milk Crate Theatre, who devise works using CACD practice with communities of people who live with the challenges of isolation, it's essentially another day in the office. We are not a "build it and they will come" kind of place, because firstly, why would theatre be important to someone trying to find food? Or a home? On any given day I feel a bit ridiculous offering theatre workshops to someone who is sleeping in their car or is feeling so low they don't really have the energy to talk to anybody. And so our first step in connection work is to flip the narrative and offer this: "What if for one day, you could be in a space, connect with others, create, express, engage, and then head back out to the world standing a little bit taller? What if after a while of doing this theatre stuff, you could start to see that your creative offerings are valid, that you are valid, and that you can ask for what you need?"
'Natural Order' (2019) Photo by Patrick Boland
Secondly, certain situations that many people have not experienced before the advent of COVID 19, actually form part of daily life for many of our participants, pandemic or not: unemployment, rental stress, lining up for welfare, violence in the home, mental health issues, addiction, or engagement with the legal system, such as copping fines or being monitored. These affect people's ability to keep regularly engaged, and so it has always been our practice to make phone calls to check in on those we haven't heard from for a while. Our work in keeping connected has never stopped, but with the advent of COVID 19 it has had to change shape - and that means taking into account the issue of digital inclusion.
Like many organisations we rushed to get our programs online, doing Facebook lives, weekly videos, and workshops on zoom - but we did so knowing full well that not everyone has access to the internet. It was a terrible irony, and I tell you - there is no feeling so futile as 'offering support' down the barrel of a camera during a pandemic, knowing some of the people you want to reach most are not there with you. Because the truth is that for many people, going "online" can be terrifying. Not everyone actually owns a device. Or they own a device, but do not have internet. Or the internet is crappy. Or there is confusion around rates, data, apps, connectivity - the list of ways in which technology can actually be a barrier in this world goes on. So in order to keep "creative and connected" during this time, we've also been talking through creative tasks over the phone, printing and mailing out worksheets, and even buying people wireless broadband devices.
It has been far from perfect! We have been able to gather a solid and enthusiastic cohort working with us weekly, but as a team-of-three arts organisation, we simply can't reach and support everyone. What we can do amidst this social upheaval however, is continue to encourage artistic endeavour. And in this regard, we see that COVID 19 itself has not inhibited the flow of artistic material by our community, at all! Despite some participants' initial fears around engaging with tech, and despite the aforementioned barriers they might be experiencing - what has emerged is a whole new creative flourish. People have risen to challenge, taught themselves how to use technology as best they can: phoning in for a zoom if they can't access a laptop, working out how to film movement pieces, and then how to send them in to me, even dabbling in a bit of editing (which I don't even do!) And the material that has emerged during this time - ideas, images, writing, ponderings, and creative realisations - has been nothing short of incredible. And certainly nothing short of the beautiful, resonant work our community creates at any other time.
Because ultimately, when you are an artist in your heart, you cannot help but create. Artistic engagement is also one of the very special ways in which we can move beyond our own sense of limitation, especially when we are at the mercy of systems that tell us we can't. That applies on any given day, and - as it turns out - even during a global pandemic.
Milk Crate Theatre