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Artists on lockdown: Viv Gordon

A conversation with theatre-maker, survivor activist & arts and mental health campaigner Viv Gordon

Lockdown obviously has huge consequences for live events and performance. We’re having to drastically change the way we’re doing things – and we really want to listen to artists in that process. We want to make sure that the changes we bring in are guided by what will help artists to keep creating great work.

We had conversations with a couple of theatre-makers (and paid for their time), to get their input. Here’s what Viv Gordon – theatre-maker, survivor activist and arts and mental health campaigner – had to say:


What was your gut reaction when you first heard about lockdown? 

Panic and grief. I was triggered straight away into lots of old feelings around feeling trapped in a house unable to leave, that directly relate back to abuse experiences as a child.

Like many in the arts sector, all of my work was cancelled within a week. The icing on the cake was hearing that Arts Council England (ACE) weren’t going to assess an application we had made for 18 months’ work – my most ambitious to date – that our team had worked really hard to pull together over the previous months and invested financially in.

At this point I found myself screaming in a field. I felt thwarted – and again triggered: as a child, it wasn’t really worth me getting on with anything because I was constantly interrupted by abusers. It wasn’t a pretty time. I was shocked and angry and my well-honed mistrust of authority went into overdrive. 

How has lockdown been for you, and for your work, so far?

After a painful first few weeks, things have come out pretty good for me. I have been lucky my producers – Kate McStraw and Molly Scarborough – as well as you lot at Strike A Light stepped in to offer support, leading to Viv Gordon Company receiving ACE emergency funding. I’ve had other bits of work and the Self-Employed grant so everything is feeling more on track.

My home life is secure and we are all in good health, so I’ve been able to use the time to reflect and incubate new ideas. I’ve enjoyed doing some very silly projects that have made me think about my practice in new ways.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m having ups and downs like we all are, my concentration is quite poor, I’m grieving what could have been and I struggle to think about the future very much. We’re in a global existential crisis so I’m not expecting too much of myself…

If people want to support artists right now, what would be the most appreciated kinds of support?

The bottom line is a lot of artists need money to pay their rent and eat. At the same time, lots of us have new restrictions on our time or challenges directly relating to lockdown – those with caring responsibilities, those who are grieving, those with no financial safety net, mental health needs and other disabilities – meaning we have to review our access needs for a new context.

Anyone commissioning work needs to take that into account, target funds to those most in need, avoid being prescriptive and listen to artists about how they can work best in their current circumstances.

The ACE funding scrum has been pretty divisive and so I think it’s important to recognise a lot of people feel hurt, confused, angry and abandoned right now. Anyone offering support needs to be OK to hear that.

Do you feel any certainty/clarity at all about the future/post-lockdown/’the return to normal’? How is that certainty, or lack of it, affecting your work and decisions now?

I wish! Parts of my work can only happen live: they are about a very specific interaction with an audience that doesn’t translate online. So some things are just parked for now until hopefully we are able to pick them up again – even if we have to rethink how they are presented: maybe to smaller, socially-distanced audiences or outside.

On the other hand, before all of this we had already identified that survivor audiences face barriers attending live work and had decided all our projects would have live and digital strands to enable people to engage from their safe spaces online. Our current projects are focussing on digital, so in some ways we are just doing stuff in a different order.

What’s been your experience of taking work online so far?

I’m 48, my technical skills are basic at best. This is a barrier for me. It all feels quite alien so I’m doing as little as possible, keeping it simple and learning as I go along (as well as paying my 16 year old to help me!)

How do you feel about the general rush to take everything online?

It’s a mixed bag. Most theatre work just doesn’t translate well – digital is a completely different way of working. The best stuff I’ve seen is using the opportunities digital affords creatively and playing with that form.

My analogy for this time is that it’s like when people go vegan: some people are embracing the tofu and the chickpeas (complete change), others are going all meat substitutes, trying to reproduce the “real thing”. Personally, there’s only so much Quorn I can take…

Do you think this situation has affected everyone more or less equally, or are you feeling aware of some who have benefited or suffered disproportionately?

The arts sector is far from equal and neither is the wider culture. A lot of progress has been made to increase diversity – it feels like this came at time when a lot of diverse artists were starting to thrive and take up leadership – but not enough of us are yet organisations or NPOs eligible for the lion’s share of the ACE emergency funds or other big funders who have focussed their support on those they already fund.

I’m fearful that we will see things go backwards. I wrote a poem early on when I was pretty enraged. I’m sharing it on the understanding that it captures a moment in time and isn’t everything I feel. Hey, it’s all valid!


It Was Harvest Time

It was harvest time
I’d worked hard
Really hard 
And it was starting to flow
Then everything changed overnight from a yes to a no
No – you can’t make your show
No – your application won’t be assessed
No – it doesn’t matter that you’ve clawed your way in from the edges

It was a familiar shock
To be interrupted yet again
To never get to the thriving bit
To always be stuck surviving

I was angry
Angry to have been encouraged as a have not
Only to be dropped when the stakes went high
The failure of those with say so
To put their money where their mouths were
Only weeks before in their shiny new strategy
Diversity Schmiversity
Look – the backslide to a malfunctioning status quo
Look – the shoring-up of privilege in the name of infrastructure
Look – the well-worn schism opens up the same old wound 
We doff our caps
Please, sir – can I have some more?

My practice snatched from my hands
The gate-keeping of resources by ill-informed suits
Nice people
Who don’t know what they don’t know
If survivor-led practice was already part of the bedrock
There would be no need for me to push that particular boulder endlessly uphill

So what do I want now?
What I always wanted:
Trust
Change
Autonomy
The continuation of a long overdue conversation
Access to money on my own terms to make my work 
I do not want to be erased
I want to be asked what matters to me and why
I want to know that when the chips are down I still have allies
I want a future that is different to the past
Where survivors are just as important as ballet dancers
Because our tortured bodies extending along our own unique lines
Are all the more beautiful for the years spent watching from the side.


Massive thanks to Viv for her time, and her insight 🙏

As we’ve mentioned, at Strike A Light we want to use this time of disruption to make some bigger changes to the way the arts industry works. If you’d like to join us in that quest, you can read a whole lot more about the little revolution we’re trying to get started.