Updated: Aug 15
When COVID-19 struck, the Arts sector recoiled in uncertainty and worry. It dawned on the world how incredibly unfortunate it was going to be in the months that followed, especially for an industry that in its very nature thrives on human contact and entertaining kindred spirits tightly knitted together. However, creative folk will always find their way around a problem somehow, always. This is where the digital side of modern life became the new normal for theatre, and keeping the flame burning was ever more imperative. North East actress, writer, and director, Christina Berriman Dawson, with countless TV and theatre credits to boast of, took a punch, a deep breath, and then pushed onwards. She was only keen to tell us more.
With her career robust and healthy, Christina was intently exploring a fresh role by developing her play Children Of The Night with Live Theatre in Newcastle. She begins, “It was about to go to production as their headline show for the 2020 Summer Programme, and it was announced that I was Live Theatres new Associate Artist. I had acting work booked in until the end of Autumn, including Credit with Cap-a-Pie, The Night Witches with Sage Academy, and Beyond The End of The Road with November Club; this would have toured Ireland.”
To celebrate travel company NEXUS's 40th anniversary for its famous Metro service, she had secured a contract to deliver the North Tyneside youth programme for the celebrations. “I had such exciting work booked. Generally the region was about to have some significant change too in terms of creative leaders from Northern Stage, Dance City, November Club, and Live Theatre, all about to see new senior management appointments.”
It was easy to feel positive, with the theatre scene in the North East firmly becoming placed on the map and its reputation gaining heaps of respect and intrigue. When lockdown occurred, it felt like a knock of epic proportions to the progress made. “In the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure how long it would last, so I remained hopeful, but as the emails from my agent Janet Plater rolled in, I quickly realised that there was going to be a long term effect on our industry.”
“The biggest blow for me was the postponement of Children Of The Night. I had worked years on this to get to full production. As always, I began immediately to hustle, and, because I have had fifteen years of practise, I managed to continue working as an actor.” She recalls. Finding herself working steadily, and completing several monologues, she and fellow peer Elijah Young were approached by Darlington based Odd Man Out Theatre to become involved with an international pandemic-inspired Zoom project, The Art Of Facing Fear. “I felt like we had all had our fill of the monologue format, which lockdown had forced upon us. However, this was offering something new and thrilling. It wasn’t film; it wasn’t theatre, it was a new concept entirely.”
The Art of Facing Fear is the brainchild of writer/directors Rodolfo García Vázquez and Ivam Cabral from acclaimed theatre company Os Satyros. Exploring themes of loneliness, depression, fear, and sadness at widespread intolerance and extremism, it tells individual stories from across a planet changed forever. She expands, “The play was originally developed at the start of lockdown in Brazil and was a reaction to COVID-19 and discriminatory movements. It was hugely successful, and there was a decision to recreate the play with a European and African cast. Now, The play is being rehearsed with a USA cast.”
Our local lass muses over the differences during the rehearsal period and whether camaraderie is achievable through a screen: “The most surprising thing overall is that I genuinely felt like I was back in a rehearsal room. Every time I perform the piece, I have the same experience as if I was on Stage; I get nervous beforehand in the same way. I am privileged in the fact that, although I am working with performers from nine different countries, everyone speaks English.”
There is the odd word or sentence that she has helped to translate but remains in constant awe of the team. “There are some that do not speak the language fluently but have learnt the play in English. Also, we’ve dealt with some WiFi connection issues; this was always to be expected, and we have put measures in place.” Christina continues, “The first two performances ran smoothly, but during the third, the African players were struggling with their Internet connection due to the weather. As a cast, we improvised and supported in the same way you would on a stage in a live show.”
For further interactivity, the audience observes the play exactly as they would in a theatre, but are asked questions before the show begins. Their answers get incorporated into the text, plus there is a post-show discussion after each session. Dawson focuses on the positives that have arisen from these stark times. “It has opened up my world and has allowed me to work with performers from across the globe that I had not had the chance to previously. My main question is, why didn’t we do this before?”
We end with the innovator contemplating her home: theatre, and we wouldn’t have expected anything less than Christina to sum up her emotions using poetry. Key Change by Catrina Mchugh includes a section entitled 'I Miss'. She adapts and pays homage below:
I miss I miss the heat of stage lights The sound of a silent audience I miss, I miss The unspoken, unconscious connection The ritual I miss The sweat Applause I miss The tears, the bar, the gasp The repetition My family I miss
Article by Beverley Knight
Performances take place on Friday and Saturdays throughout August. Visit HERE for more details.