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Talking to Theatre Maker Gail Babb on nomination for The Black British Business Awards 2020

“One of the things I have always loved about theatre is that it’s about people. I love working with different people, sharing the stories we want to tell, talking about the ways we see the world and finding ways to share those conversations with an audience.Gail Babb

Gail’s a facilitator and theatre maker whose work  includes creative learning in schools, equality and diversity training in universities and workplaces, and devising with professional artists, young people, and mental health service-users. Creating shows for a range of settings, including theatres, a tour to South Africa’s National Arts Festival and site-specific pieces in museums and a derelict school her range of experience is varied.

Working as a Producer for Participation & Learning at Talawa Theatre Company from 2007-2018, she brought work with emerging Black theatre makers to the centre of the company and developed an innovative participation programme that placed an emphasis on bespoke, participant-led projects.

Gail has freelanced for a range of arts companies including Emergency Exit Arts, The Kiln, Musicians without Borders, Autograph ABP, London Bubble Theatre Company and RADA. She is also an active board member for the London Arts and Health Forum. Recently she has been announced as a finalist for The Black British Business Awards, the UK’s only awards ceremony that celebrates black talent in business. ALT caught up with Gail to discuss the nomination, BLM and more. Gail was nominated in the Arts and Media category.

Run it Back created by Gail Babb

1. How did you get involved in theatre and teaching?

I first got involved in theatre as a child, going to drama clubs, studying it at school and performing in school productions.  I loved it, but it was always meant to be something on the side. I planned to study Chemistry at university and when it came to applying, my brother asked me if science were really going to be the thing that would get me out of bed in the morning. I decided that I didn’t think it would. So, much to the surprise of the adults in my life, I wrote drama on my university application forms and haven’t looked back since. 

One of the things I have always loved about theatre is that it’s about people. I love working with different people, sharing the stories we want to tell, talking about the ways we see the world and finding ways to share those conversations with an audience. I do this with professional theatre practitioners, young people, adults – anyone who wants to play.  After my first couple of years working in this way and learning as I went, I was searching for more of a theoretical, political underpinning of my work so I did an MA in Applied Theatre at Goldsmiths. A few years later, I was invited back to run one-off classes for students and over time the number of classes I taught grew. I then got a part-time role in the department and now 13 years later, I have just started a new role co-directing the MA.

2. You were part of a black-led theatre company called Talawa for 11 years where you nurtured emerging talent. What was your highlight of working there?

There are lots of highlights from my time at Talawa, but the opportunity to support, collaborate with and get to know new groups of talented emerging theatre makers, year on year, is definitely the biggest. I value the conversations we had, the workshops we ran, the questions we asked of each other and the work, and the theatre we made together. We toured to South Africa, adapted one of our pieces into a short film and were in the process of remounting our last show, but Covid-19 has put the brakes on that for now.  I feel lucky that this highlight is an ongoing one. I continue to follow the work of that network of artists, technicians, and producers with genuine excitement, as they create their own paths through the industry and succeed in a variety of ways. And now I get to be their audience, work with them on new projects and work for them, which is pretty special.

3. How has Covid-19 affected your work? How do you think the theatre industry will recover from coming to a halt?

Covid-19 affected the two aspects of my work very differently. I was working on a show called Run it Back just before lockdown and leaving that rehearsal room marked the beginning of a series of cancellations and postponements in theatre. Meanwhile, my work in higher education intensified, as I and my colleagues found ways to create engaging learning environments online and supported students across time zones, with very different living situations and experiences of the crisis.

The theatre industry has lost a lot this year and there may be more losses to come, but it will recover. Organisations have been creating experiences for participants and audiences online throughout the pandemic, people across the sector are rethinking how we make theatre and venues are beginning to open up again. The question, for me, is what do we want to recover and what do we want to leave behind? Conversations around change and inclusion in theatre are decades-old, cyclical, and often feel never-ending. The pandemic has created a rupture and the industry has no choice but to change in response to the new challenges we are facing. In this rupture, we have an opportunity to be deliberate about how we move forward. To decide what aspects of our industry we will discard, what we will strengthen and what new and disruptive ways of working we will give space to in order to recover better than before.

4. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the urgent need to stamp out systematic racism. What impact has the death of George Floyd had on you?

George Floyd’s murder and the others that followed knocked me out for a bit, to be honest. The violence of racism and its catastrophic effects are not new, but alongside the loss, fear and isolation caused by the pandemic, as well as its disproportionate impact on the lives of Black people, I found myself drained, deeply sad and angry.

Now that racism, and anti-Black racism in particular, is higher up on people’s agendas, the biggest shift for me, professionally, is I feel more able to be direct about the issues I see and more strategic about where I put my energy. Since 25 May, the number of enquiries I receive about anti-racist training has increased and I have found it vital to discern between organisations who are ready to do the slow, uncomfortable, often painful work of examining racism within themselves and their structures and those who feel the urgent need to act, but can’t commit to more than a one-off zoom workshop.

5. Black British Theatre has made advances, but minorities still face undue barriers. What would you like to see for the future of Black British Theatre?

My biggest hope for Black British theatre is fundamental structural change in British theatre as a whole. I would like to see the industry move from providing avenues for Black artists and audiences to meet us, to fit into our processes, and instead start dismantling our exclusionary systems. There are many big questions I think we should be asking and readying ourselves to take action on. Some of the ones I’m considering at the moment are:

What are the essential conditions for making excellent theatre and how does our current culture of theatre-making (intensive rehearsal processes, long working hours, ‘the show must go on’ approach) exclude?

Are big artistic director-led venues the best way to fill our stages and community spaces with exciting theatre experiences for all?

How does the combination of salaried posts and freelance roles impact on how power is distributed across the sector; on who gets to experiment, play, fail and succeed?

6. Are you currently working on anything exciting?

Co-directing the MA at Goldsmiths is an exciting new role for me. I’m enjoying unpicking the curriculum with my colleague, Sue Mayo, identifying what we see as foundational for students of socially engaged theatre and am looking forward to getting started with the new cohort.

I’m also working on a performance that I’m pretty excited about at the moment. It’s a beautiful one-woman piece that invites the audience to engage with the performer and her content in a way I haven’t seen before. But I don’t know if we’re supposed to be talking about it yet, so I won’t!

7. How does it feel to be named an Arts & Media finalist in The Black British Business Awards?

Being named a finalist in the Black British Business Awards feels great! Not just because the news came at a time where good news was very much needed, but because much of the work I do is behind the scenes, on the margins or in closed workshop rooms. So, to have BBBA say ‘We see you. We recognise your work and we think it has value’, means such a lot to me. I’m also grateful to stand (digitally) next to the other two finalists in the Arts & Media category who are doing brilliant work.

8. What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt this year?

Touch is essential.

The Black British Business Awards (BBBAwards) has revealed its 2020 finalists, who have been selected not only for their outstanding personal and professional achievements, but against the tumultuous backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. These individuals embody the Black British community’s ability to prevail, excel, and lead through adversity. Winners for each category, as well as the Black British Business Person of the Year will be revealed at the Black British Business Awards Digital Ceremony taking place on 30th October. https://www.thebbbawards.com/

More about The Black British Business Award 2020

Interviewer Ameera Patel

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