The Wall of Hope

Pedro de Senna

I have been thinking about the future a lot, lately. Quite self-evidently, I wouldn’t be a part of this project if I hadn’t. It feels therefore strange that I am asked here to talk about the past. After all, for something to become ‘news’ it needs to have already happened. But in the context of emergence, perhaps we should not talk about the past, or the future but talk in the present continuous. Or, more grammatically, the present perfect continuous: I have been thinking. And in this process, ideas and practices have been developing.

Some of these ideas and practices have to do with my teaching. I teach theatre. In an online environment, this is a tough ask. After all, one of the most accepted definitions of theatre is that it is something that happens when bodies share a physical space. Last week, on Friday February 5th, 2021 I had the first combined class for the ‘Performance Project’ and ‘Design Project’ modules, with students in the second year of their Theatre Performance and Production, and Theatre Design and Production degrees at Middlesex University. These are practical modules, being offered to a cohort who have already seen the end of the last academic year disrupted to the extent that their planned end-of-year productions could not take place, due to Covid-related restrictions. The arrogance of planning, as Riel Miller would say.

So selling to my students the idea that this year our project would happen entirely online was not so easy. They (we) want to be in the theatre. But where does theatre happen? Is it in the space where your body meets mine, or in the space where your imagination meets mine? The theme I selected for the project this year is, unsurprisingly, the future. Beginnings are always and by definition futures-oriented, so I thought I would start the class (delivered on Zoom, of course) with an experiment: while I played some Brazilian music – Marisa Monte’s versions of Gilberto Gil’s ‘Cérebro Eletrônico’ and Lulu Santos’s ‘Tempos Modernos’–

students were invited to use the chat facility and write down their hopes. For the immediate or the long term future, global or personal, it did not matter. Just a wall of hope, appearing on our screens over the duration of two songs (I like to measure time in songs, not minutes). I and other tutors present in the session joined, too. The result (anonymised and redacted), our collective hopes in the morning of February 5th, 2021, can be seen here.

At this point, the students don’t yet know that I have determined their projects will be virtual, but the mood in the Zoom room is positive. When the inevitable blow came, and their anticipatory assumptions were challenged, students were quick to complain: they had hoped they’d be able to perform in a theatre. One of them asked: “So you are saying that even if we are allowed back on campus, we will do this online?”. My answer was that this is the kind of problem I’d like to have: that I would rather plan for an online event, and have the challenge of quickly realising the performance in the physical world if it became possible, than work towards a presential show that might then get cancelled, leading to further disappointment. Moreover, I argued, we are witnessing the birth of a new art form, one that is here to stay and which will evolve even after lockdown is ended, as performance companies engage with audiences globally. We should embrace it for its affordances, rather than seeing it as second-best: we are pioneers of the new form, helping shape its evolution from the beginning. So now, my students are working with hope, not fear; looking to face the challenge and invent something new, not make do and downgrade something old, familiar and beloved.

I imagine that the theme of the project will help keep students on this positive path. We are working from a play that deals with climate change[1], written and set a decade ago; but we are thinking about how our relation to the play and its content shapes how we prepare for and potentially transform the future. As evidenced in our wall of hope, this future can be about how we live sustainably in the planet or how we stage the next performance –or both. Back in the present perfect continuous, I realise I have been teaching futures literacy to my students already. I can’t wait to see how they will use it.

[1] Greenland, by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne, first performed in 2011 at the Lyttelton Theatre, London, and directed by Bijan Sheibani.