Tom Powell

DAD Artists at Home

Creative Response To Covid

 

Early 2020 – Context

2020 got off to an exciting start for me, having produced the first large-scale UK commemoration of the United Nations’ 75th Anniversary, using their UN75 initiative to galvanise youth and their elders in Teesside in a creative and cultural discussion which brought together a community often left out of national debates, never mind international ones. 

Following this, I was invited to help the Estonian government design its cultural programme to accompany the European contribution to the UN75 initiative, then to Tunisia, then an invitation by the Presidents of the United Nations General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council to attend a three-day gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York: the United Nations Youth Plenary.

Of course, neither Tunisia or New York could go ahead, due to the pandemic which followed the Estonia conference.

More info & photographs here.

Ongoing projects also included producing Something Inside So Strong the Labi Siffre musical, and Alpha Omega – a musical by David Gordon, which were both quickly developing through workshops until the Covid Crisis. I’m working on a process to move this workshops onto Zoom.

 

Pre-Lockdown – Money, Money, Money

I’d anticipated the lockdown about a week before Boris Johnson announced it. It wasn’t difficult given how the rest of the world was reacting, but Britain seemed exceptionally late to act (as I would contend it has been consistently for the past 7-10 weeks). This triggered quite a bit of anxiety about how things would proceed. 

As a freelancer, I was already in a reasonably precarious position financially – scraping by on money which was coming through from various projects as well as bi-weekly gigs as Tom Powell Music which subsidise my income – so as the three strands of my work (theatre, live music, and events) rely upon public gathering, any planned or prospective work would evaporate under Lockdown conditions. 

Of course, it’s well known that there was little-to-no guidance for freelancers at the start of the lockdown. Even when support for the self-employed became available, it was based on an average of 3 months’ profits over 3 years. Well, of course, new businesses aren’t able to provide this, and as I closed my previous company “Creative Vortex Productions” in 2019 and started “Tom Powell Productions” (with no staff or premises) I fell through the gaps for any support. It also made the Arts Council emergency funding pretty tough to apply for, especially as I’d moved away from the subsidised sector for recent projects.

Annoyingly, Boris Johnson seemed to be protecting his friends in the insurance industry by keeping pubs/restaurants/hotels open but asking the general public to stay home – meaning that they couldn’t close and claim losses on insurance so had to stay open and lose money with no customers. The first thing they cut, given the lack of audience, was the live music – again, my insurance won’t cover me because the government hadn’t insisted the venues shut, just that the public doesn’t attend them. It is difficult, and the wrong tone, to force the contract through – demanding one’s money, cancellation fees etc. – when you know your clients are struggling. It’s not their fault, and we want to see each other through the other side of this. 

This also led to significant cash-flow issues; usually, my music work enables a steady income to cover rent, bills, and my modest living costs; with gigs postponed (many cancelled indefinitely) this meant I was reliant on savings and remaining lump-sums coming through from the projects I’d been working on – I was yet to successfully extract the box-office takings from the January performance in Middlesbrough, likewise, my invoice still hadn’t been paid from a conference I’d managed in early March (all sorted now).

I ordered an OddBox subscription (Fruit & Veg rescued from going to waste, delivered each week) and sat tight, waiting for some more government guidance and support. I also registered for Universal Credit to plug the gap – alas, there’s at least a 5-week wait for those funds to come through. 

 

Lockdown – Claustrovert

Naturally, I’m an extroverted person. Not that I’m particularly loud, but I’m gregarious – I charge my energy through socialising with other people. When I have a period of time on my own, my batteries deplete. The problem of lockdown is that I can’t go and spend time with others! So, of course, my energy dipped. I couldn’t even absorb energy from friends and family via social media, because that energy was also very negative energy.

The second issue is that my only phobia is Claustrophobia. Not, as it is commonly misconceived, the fear of small spaces, but the fear of being trapped. I live in a 2-bed apartment in Greenwich, London with no garden – just a Juliet balcony (and lots of house plants). 

I’ve thus created the portmanteau, Claustrovert, which I’m sure will make a great band/album name in years to come.

 

Weeks 1-2 – Creative Adaptation

I needed to settle these anxieties, and somehow earn a little bit of money to pay for food over the next few uncertain and unsettling weeks of lockdown. Now, I don’t personally think any creative should feel the need to be creative at present – we are going through collective trauma during this pandemic, heightened if one isn’t neurotypical, has pre-existing health conditions, mental health conditions, are affected physically by Covid-19, as well as all the financial pressures – which really doesn’t lend itself to positive creativity. But for me, I always find comfort in my work. 

I’m a ‘work-a-holic’ because I love the work I do. So having that all cut-off so suddenly is something I couldn’t cope with. For me, I needed to get busy again, to be productive. I have a total compulsion to create! So on my Facebook page, I announced for Weeks 1 and 3 of lockdown, I’d be doing daily uploads of me covering songs. I could have made a pledge to post/record or even write my own original songs during this time – but I wasn’t feeling inspired enough for that, so covers it was.

 You can view these uploads here.

This was an endeavour to both stimulate my creative juices, in the hope that I might eventually be triggered to write some more original music, but also to entertain people at home when they needed a lift. Every day, one video, a few moments of light, creative relief. Ever-the-Entrepreneur, it was also an opportunity to make a bit of money! Each day there was a link posted with each video, which allowed the listener to download the song for a ‘donation’ of their chosen amount, via a Paypal.me [paypal.me/tompowellmusic]link. I received £30 in my first week, paying for two weeks’ worth of OddBox deliveries.

It won’t change my life completely – but at least I won’t be hungry!

At the same time, through my need to connect with people, I also recognised how my fellow freelancers were in need of a bit of guidance and solidarity. As a member of the Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship (and admittedly, an ardent listener of LBC which has provided exceptional informative coverage) I had a wealth of information that they may find useful or comforting! So I put together an information pack and sent it out to anyone in my contacts who might have been able to use it, or knows someone who might. 

 

The backbone of the pack was information sent to me by Siân Prime, director of ICCE, who contributed to this great ‘COVID Impact on Freelancers’ presentation.

Another way to connect to people was to jump on the Live Stream bandwagon right at the start, and so I was one of the first artists to start live streaming gigs, starting in week 1 of Lockdown. I had all the gear, so I thought – why not? As fortune would have it, my housemate is also a musician, so we created a duo, performing some of our favourite songs on a Saturday at 8 pm, and then from 9 pm taking requests like a human jukebox! Demand is such that we continue to do this each week at 8 pm through our Facebook Live. This has been such fun, and we have about 30-40 regular listeners who tune in each week, talk amongst themselves in the comment section, and once again we’re using art to bring people together.

 

Weeks 3-4 – Creative [Digital] Collaboration

By Week 3 I’d somewhat adjusted to the new lockdown lifestyle, still saddened by the loss that people I know had suffered, still worried about the future – both for me and my industry(ies) – but comforted knowing that my family and friends were staying safe, protected and that Covid hadn’t had quite such a disastrous impact on my family as it might have done. 

Because I’d remained active on social media, I’d kept creating, and just switched to digital formats, I was approached by the Tees Valley Music Service (TVMS), an amazing provider of music tuition and services for Teesside (and North Yorkshire, County Durham, and even some involvement in South Tyneside) to help them collaborate and get online. I’d been a member of their premier ensemble, Tees Valley Youth Choir, and received lessons from the choir’s director, Nikki Lycett-Findlay, as a teenager. As the choir were missing each other so much, used to rehearsing weekly, Nikki and the Service Manager, Susan Robertson, were looking for a way to facilitate a group-sing via digital means. 

I co-ordinated the audio-visual elements for a virtual ensemble rendition of Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong which went out onto their Facebook Page and attracted over 50,000 views in just 3 days with a lot of local press interest, shout-outs from local MPs and councillors, and praise flying in from around the world.

You can see the video here.

 

Weeks 5-6 – Creative [Digital] Collaboration

TVMS appreciated it, offering me more work of a similar kind – so of course, I accepted. I’ve since helped them put together an online virtual concert, resources for community choirs to continue learning their respective parts for the curriculum planned (including Whistle Down The Wind, an Andrew Lloyd Webber Medley and other pieces) which, by the way, any community choir is welcome to use, and have ongoing projects which include a digital collaboration – as commissioned by conductor/composer Edward-Rhys Harry – of his new composition ‘We Should Take Comfort’ set with special permission to the words of the Queen’s Covid-19 address. Other projects include putting together sing-a-long videos for care homes, VE day celebratory videos, and an online Opera concert! 

Cue many requests for other groups/organisations to do the same for them! One example is the collaborative orchestra/pit-band video of 42nd street I put together for musician George Shrapnell.

You can see the video here.

I’m currently working on a Euro-Med collaborative video of Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’ in both Arabic and English for the Anna Lindh Foundationand We Love Sousse networks, alongside a project for Amy Richardson’s Studios (a performing arts school in Hartlepool) where 50 children are singing ‘Seasons of Love’ from Rent!

I was also flattered that creative networking organisation Nothing To Perform (N2P) asked if I’d contribute to their online Networkshop initiative by creating a video detailing what I’m up to in isolation. 

You can see the video here.

 

Week 7 – VE Day

At the time of writing this, we’ve just completed a 7th week in Lockdown and many have had to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE day in isolation. This year, I was celebrating Europe’s victory against fascism, remembering the 450,000 Brits and millions of Europeans who lost their lives in WWII, celebrating the formation of multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, IMO, WTO and the European Union who have contributed to 75 years of PEACE in Europe. I reflected upon how, out of post-war deprivation, a shift in perspective and priorities, our fantastic NHS was formed – who are now our frontline soldiers against Covid-19. 

I hoped for another 75 years of PEACE, closer co-operation with our international allies, and that post-Covid we can strengthen our welfare state, shift our perspective and prepare properly for the green issues ahead of us, and stop judging our success as a country by our GDP, rather by the welfare of our citizens.

I had planned a little socially distanced “watch-from-your-window” concert in my courtyard, for all the surrounding flats. About 30-45 minutes at 2 pm, to commemorate VE day, bring some community spirit, help wellbeing through music, and bring people ‘together’. 

Unfortunately, as I walked into the [empty] courtyard with my guitar (before even making a sound) a woman decided to complain, saying that she just wants peace and quiet (with her balcony doors wide open) and that if I make a sound, she’ll call the police. 

The idea was to provide a little bit of commUNITY spirit in a time of such separation and isolation, to bring happiness, entertainment and cheer, through some acoustic music, from the safe distance of their windows and balconies, on a bank holiday – not public disturbance (and a waste of police time) – so I returned to my apartment

What a turn of events – the ‘show’ must go on! I put the cancellation onto my village community Facebook group to let them know that it’ll be cancelled – but after 50 comments to say “NO! Don’t do that!” they organised amongst themselves a schedule for me to move street-to-street, driveway-to-driveway, performing up-beat songs as I went. 

Over 50 subsequent comments thanking me for bringing the community “together” even when we can’t be physically. What an experience to see everyone out on their driveways and balconies, enjoying the music. A big thank you to everyone in Brook Village for making it a wonderful community event, staying socially distanced, and for singing, dancing and clapping along. I had the most WONDERFUL time!

You can see the video here.

Summary

While acknowledging that I now have regular projects to be getting on with, my mental health is coping well which is something that many people are really struggling with, my physical health hasn’t been affected by Covid-19 and I’m physically able to manage everything at present – I am missing friends and family terribly. 

Most of my friends and family live from West Yorkshire, to Teesside, up to Hartlepool and County Durham. I’m based in London, and though I know the physical distance means little, given that I couldn’t see them even if I lived closer, I’m desperate to be with them.

I’ll keep busy, stay creative, and hopefully, my words can help others.

 

 

tompowellmusic.com | tompowellproductions.co.uk

Contributors