An interview with Word of Warning’s Tamsin Drury.

Kellie Colbert in Social Butterfly filmed by Billy Morris

Tamsin Drury talks about Emergency, Word of Warning, Manchester Independents and keeping going. 

When I catch up with Tamsin Drury, she’s deep into the planning for Emergency, Word of Warning’s annual “taster event of live art & contemporary performance in all its forms”. Anyone who has attended previous versions of the event will know it must be a logistical nightmare to put together, with its day long programme of performances and happenings spread across various spaces, levels, and even buildings. This year however, Drury has additional considerations to factor in.

“The challenge for Emergency is we don’t know how it’s going play out. What’s going to feel like the right level of (social) distancing is a real (challenge). We’ve got nothing to guide us in it really, so we are just going – does this feel right? – does that feel right? – because we really want people to feel right”.

As a result, the usual format has been tweaked. “It’s not the kind of frantic free for all loop that it normally is, it’s a journey through a building through a series of durational or looping work, so it is lower key, and not as big a programme. It is a very different Emergency because it was conceived to withstand even Tier 3 last year, then it got stopped by a lockdown. We might have flexed a little bit, but it hasn’t markedly changed from that, so it is very much conceived for these times. You stay as long as you like, and you take what you want from it”.

This year’s venue for Emergency is Contact and I ask Drury how it feels to be the first public-facing performance event in the newly refurbished building since it reopened. “It’s great. It’s exciting. It would have been nice to have been able to be a lot more full throttle with it, because we’ve worked with them for a long time and it’s been a long time coming this reopening, but obviously (because of) COVID we can’t. It’s a privilege, and also a real learning curve for all of us. We are putting that building through its paces so there’s an awful lot of, both them and us, questioning stuff at the moment. It’s equally exciting and terrifying”.

I’m not sure I’m buying Drury as being terrified, little seems to faze her. Last year, when the impact of COVID was first being felt, Word of Warning very quickly pivoted towards new ways of showing work (through online and outdoor performances) while other significantly larger arts organisations in Greater Manchester struggled to maintain an audience offer.

Tania Camara Oreo Variations

For Drury “it just seemed the obvious thing to do. I don’t think I really actually thought about it”. They had 3 commissions already in development, and after discussion with the artists concerned decided to go ahead with online versions of two of them, Tania Camara’s Oreo Variations and Will Dickie’s White Sun.

“I suppose I had a bit of a head start because I ran a digital festival, from 1998 to 2003, when things were actually difficult to do. So it wasn’t that alien to me (and) I’d been having conversations about switching to online for about three weeks before lockdown came, we could kind of see it coming. It was more about the how do we do it because I was adamant I was not just going to dump a load of live documentation online. If we were going to do it, we were going to do work that was made for that medium, rather than a poor secondary option, (and) we want to be live, that’s what we do”.

Botanic (a stroll through Hulme Garden Centre with a series of performance encounters inspired by the healing power of nature) was an interesting one, because we were having conversations with a GP about doing it in a health centre. As the restrictions tightened in Greater Manchester we realised that wouldn’t be terribly responsible. So, we then pivoted that to being outdoors. But that was just an emerging scenario that came about as a result of the pandemic, so they were all quite natural decisions really. I don’t think it ever occurred to me just to do nothing”.

At this point, it’s probably worth stopping to fill in the gaps for anyone unfamiliar with Word of Warning. As an organisation, I’ve always thought they’ve tended to fly under the radar, putting the artists they are promoting front and centre. So, how would they describe themselves? “Word of Warning is a roaming programme of performance around Greater Manchester. We don’t have our own space but have worked with many of the venues – like Contact, the Lowry, the Whitworth, NIAMOS and in sites like Hulme Garden Centre, tower blocks and more”, says Drury.

She doesn’t “particularly like talking in artform boxes as it’s quite alienating”, but their focus is “the more experimental work – work at the Live Art/contemporary performance end of the spectrum – so not traditional character or narrative based theatre – more autobiographical or action-based performance. Sometimes it might be likened to stand-up comedy, sometimes nearer to performance art, sometimes nearer to dance. A lot of the work we show gives opportunities to local early career artists, and artists we have been helping to develop, set alongside great examples of national (and very occasionally International) work”. The underlying aim is to “fill a gap in the GM landscape for something a bit more risk-taking and different”.

Ron Athey Acephalous Monster

I’ve always tended to view the organisation as Word of Warning but Drury is keen to point out that they “are actually two things – hÅb, meaning hope in Danish, which is the organisation and (which) is largely industry-facing, and focusing on artist development; and Word of Warning which is the public facing project”.

They work with a lot of freelancers but at its core, the organisation is Drury, hÅb’s Director, and John Franklin-Johnston, the organisation’s Programme Manager. “For such a small entity we’re ridiculously complicated!” says Drury, but I suspect it would be fairer to say they manage to achieve an awful lot with their modest resources.

As hÅb, they’ve been especially active over the last 18 months as part of the Greater Manchester (GM) work to support independent artists. Drury explains how as theatres were forced to close early in 2020, what until then had been a “very loose network” of the city region’s artist development people evolved very quickly, (following a suggestion from Claire Symonds at The Lowry), into GM Artist Hub, offering advice and support sessions to independent artists and companies. “And then Arts Council announced the Emergency Funds, and it was like, okay, we are going to launch with a ‘how to guide’ on that, and it kind of went from there”.

For Drury, there was no question of not being involved. “I suppose as hÅb, for 25 plus years, I’ve had a bit of a mission to support local artists and to encourage more performance to be made. That was in a very specific art form, this has just taken it into a much more cross-art form vein. An extension and broadening of what I’ve been doing”.

The Hub is a thirteen-organisation-strong collaboration, but despite their relatively small size, Drury feels hÅb were able to play a key role. “I suppose because we didn’t have the option to furlough. There was a first crazy wave of launching (the Hub) and the emergency funds. I worked on 19 different artists’ applications for emergency funds. Then there was the furloughing wave, and there was a point in time where none of the big players from the Hub, actually had anyone working. So, the smaller players were the ones sort of able to keep things going”.

As well as that behind-the-scenes role, hÅb then found themselves helping to showcase work again with Manchester Independents, a new initiative to support, celebrate and cast a spotlight on the work of Greater Manchester’s independent artists and creatives. “Manchester Independents landed, and John McGrath brought me in on that, (we) kind of hatched what it would be and I’m maintaining an oversight of that”.

Family Vogue Ball, Presented By Darren Pritchard

Drury sees all that unplanned work of the last 18 months “as just an extension of what we do anyway, and that’s why it’s important. It has been quite an extraordinary point in time because I couldn’t begin to say how many people that I personally, let alone the bigger Hub have advised, both through 1-to-1s which are ongoing, and the funding sessions. And then there are 23 commissions underway as Manchester Independents. So, it’s been an intense time”.

Did she ever consider easing up and directing her energies more carefully? “It was knackering to start with, and I was doing sixty-hour weeks without drawing breath, so yes I had to pull that back a little bit. I have a kind of bloody mindedness about me, set me a challenge and I’ll go for it. It really was a drive to go – yeah, well we can keep going so we’ll keep going, and actually we’ll embrace it. And, to some extent, it was easier in a way to navigate the situation where the strictures were clear. I actually find now more challenging”.

There was a conscious shift at the beginning of this year to put the onus more on artist development than showing work as Word of Warning. “I made the decision to plan not to plan, because things like losing Emergency (in 2020) was a blow, but also I didn’t want to waste a lot of energy, and raise a load of people’s hopes, and decided to play it very much more by ear. I’m a peculiar entity, a weird mixture of logic and gut instinct. My gut was saying to me, the appetite for digital is going to wane, so back off that a bit, and the Manchester Independents stuff is going to start coming through so leave space for that”.

I wonder if all that effort over the last 18 months has resulted in more recognition and appreciation of hÅb and the role it plays within GM? “I certainly think I’ve been more noticeable. The great leveller of Zoom means I have been on so many more networks. But also, I have this idiotic sense of responsibility that somehow I have to compete with the big organisations, I don’t know where that’s come from. I sort of speak up a bit, but it is difficult (and) it’s not just about scale it’s the absence of a building that makes the difference”.

“I think I’ve been seen to be quite useful during a pandemic. The challenge will be whether the things that have been gained perpetuate or not, and I think that goes for some of the stuff I’ve been doing. I’m hoping there’ll be a future for things like GM Artist Hub and Manchester Independents but that all remains to be seen, because they do rely on multiple partners. But hopefully, we will all, not just us, have learned some things and gained some things from this”.

Word of Warning and hÅb came about as a legacy of Green Room, Manchester’s experimental theatre space which closed in 2011 (and is now occupied by Gorilla). For Drury, that closure is still a painful experience even after all this time. “It was devastating, and 10 years on it’s still devastating”.

Despite that, I can’t help but wonder if witnessing so many of Greater Manchester’s cultural organisations wrestling with the responsibilities that come with buildings (and large numbers of staff) over the last year or so, has caused her to reflect on hÅb’s current situation and adjust any aspirations for the future?

“Would I like a space of our own? Absolutely! We have been looking for a long long time, and I’m not talking somewhere flash, I’m talking about a shoe box. If I had power in my garage I’d have been using it by now”.

“Because this sort of power imbalance between space and no space is enormous. It’s disproportionate, and it’s more important than money in fact. Having the freedom to have a space that you’re in control of, (where) you don’t have to negotiate everything that you do, (and) you don’t have to worry beyond your own business plan, about the financial imperatives and the scale of the audience”.

“There’s an absence of the kind of rough dirty space to really try things out and take risks. There’s an absence of space where you can do say durational performance or installation. If I could find a shoe box, I would take in a heartbeat, but at the same time obviously over the last 18 months I’ve been very grateful not to have one. Although if I had a shoe box the worries wouldn’t have been huge!”.

“It was very liberating that we could just carry on with what we did because we didn’t have to carry those burdens and those responsibilities and I know they’ve been really difficult for the people that have been doing that, and I am mindful of it, but you know there is this disproportionate lack of balance between the two things – and now we don’t have an office (they were recently given notice on their existing office), actually the imperative to have space is in fact stronger. But I’m also not going to jump into anything unless it seems right”.

With their existing public-facing model reliant on partnerships with cultural venues in the city, how easy does Drury think it will be to maintain those relationships at a time when many of those organisations remain strongly focused on their own internal issues? “Counterintuitively, it’s almost been easier to maintain those relationships because I’ve been dealing so frequently with the artist development folk through GM Artists. I’m now on the Cultural Leaders Group so I’m in those conversations (too). So, to some extent, maintaining the relationships is fine”.

“Looking at it, I think now is a challenging time, and looking at those partners, they’re all going through massive changes. Where will we end up fitting in that mix? I don’t know. We’re sort of biding our time a little bit – but yes we are talking about future work with our more regular partners, so it is just how it all comes out in the wash really”.

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It’s still a bit early for any clues about what to expect next from Word of Warning but I’m assured they are “trying to tie down a couple of other pieces that hopefully will go public, quite shortly”. So “watch this space”. But also, hÅb are very keen to promote the Manchester Independents work “because although we might not be front and centre in it, it is a lot of what we’re supporting and working on at the moment”.

And obviously there is this year’s Emergency. I ask Drury if she can sum up what anyone coming to the event for the first time can expect. “A real taster event of live art and contemporary performance in all its forms. We have anything from a feminist piece about pole dancing, to echoes of lockdown Manchester, and a merthings environment. We (also) have a piece about the importance of bread in Egypt. A real mix of work. It’s a sampler of works either from emerging artists or emerging work, they’re not all emerging artists. For them, it’s testing work out on audiences, and for audiences it’s getting a feel for a real range of the kind of work that might fit into this strange live art, contemporary performance territory”.

As someone who sees a lot of work, from a wide range of artists, at various stages of development, has she been struck by any themes or trends emerging in the last 18 months? “I haven’t seen as much work because it’s been so difficult, and you don’t always want to see the pre-recorded work. I think inevitably mental health will remain a very strong underlying theme. I know in talking to some of the global majority artists I’m working with, there’s a desire not to perform trauma and to move away from being asked to perform that. I do think that inevitably coming out the pandemic, themes of social justice and themes of mental health will bubble through”.

Having been ‘public-facing’ as Word of Warning for just over a decade now, what is Drury most proud of achieving in that time? “I suppose, keeping going, because actually, it’s not the easiest thing to do without a venue. It’s lots of brokerage and stuff. I suppose the things that stick in my mind over the years, tend to be the more unusual things like the original Domestics in tower blocks or Ron Athey at NIAMOS. We’ve done well over 100 events. And you know, there are only one and a half of us”.

“So, yeah I’m just proud of the whole thing. Maintaining it, and I hope remaining kind of current. Being able to shift to fill gaps where I see them emerging in the greater ecosystem, and sort of forming a bridge between artists and audiences, and increasingly between artists and institutions. I think it’s the bigger picture that I am proud of really”.

 

Word of Warning.

Emergency – “takes over the brand new Contact in a journey of live performance” on Saturday 25 September 2021.

hÅb produce Weekly Warning – “a no-nonsense weekly signpost to the bizarre, the beautiful & the best performance in Manchester + beyond”. It’s well worth subscribing.

 

Images – in order

Kellie Colbert in Social Butterfly filmed by Billy Morris/Domestic

Tania Camara/Oreo Variations

Ron Athey/Acephalous Monster

Family Vogue Ball, Presented By Darren Pritchard/Manchester Independents

Kelvin Atmadibrata/I Believe You!!/Emergency 21

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