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Theatre Centre's Rob Watt and playwright Chinonyerem Odimba discuss the ImagiNation Festival

The festival was launched earlier this year

Rob Watt and Chinonyerem Odimba,
© Left: Suzi Corker

With venues being locked down, the Theatre Centre and Theatre503 have launched a brand new partnership scheme, commissioning 19 playwrights to write a series of short pieces for the nation, for anyone to read and record a performance. Rob Watt, artistic director of the Theatre Centre and Chinonyerem Odimba, one of the writers on the scheme, explain what it's been like creating brand new work during a lockdown. Later this summer there will be an online festival bringing together some of the best recorded readings.

CO: Being asked to write something during this lockdown period comes with so many feelings. For me as a writer, writing is my place of solace. It's where I go to feel safe. And right in that moment, I needed to feel safe. However, who needs that kind of pressure – when I am barely finding the imaginative space to finish the things I had already started. What can a three minute piece actually say about the bigger things happening in the world in that moment? The instinct is to say 'NO. Thanks. No.' But Theatre Centre and Theatre 503 are companies I have worked with before, and there was respect there. You know ‘always go where you're wanted.'

So I read the brief and words like ‘gift' and ‘young people' and ‘nation' kept popping out at me. ImagiNation was a project bringing writers from across all stages of their career to write something that we would be a gift to families, schools, communities and young people across the country. It feels like a project born out of a bigger question, and questions intrigue me – so I say YES. And yes it's hard to resist adding your name to a line up of writers who I admire so much.

So I write my piece Say Something. And it feels like a gift for me too because I realise I've been missing writing more than I could say…

A couple of weeks later I'm back on the Theatre Centre zoom, this time running a writing workshop for young people and their teachers. And I'm looking at the eager, soaking-it-all-up faces staring back at me, and I feel again that this ‘gift to the Nation' feels like a gift to me. The catch-ups with other artists delivering workshops such Frazer Flintham, Nessah Muthy, Matilda Ibini, Natasha Sutton Williams, Charlotte Josephine, Keith Jarrett is feeling like a shea butter, coconut-scented balm in this new lockdown reality where all talk of the work, the thing that is a play, has all stopped…and maybe for now that is right. But for me the question still needs asking – How do we keep inspiration alive for those that value it beyond just the buildings, the schools, the ‘processes'? How do we keep a nation inspired and playful? Like I said I like questions.


RW: We couldn't have been more pleased or relieved when Chinonyerem said yes! Our dream for ImagiNation was to offer some of the best and freshest writing to people across the nation for them to record and she was high on our list. ImagiNation, our Online Writing Course for 11yrs and Journal resources have all come from our initial response to the Covid-19 crisis. Theatre Centre was in a relatively fortunate position as we don't run a building, didn't have a show on tour and have decent reserves.

We didn't need to furlough anyone – that would have stopped us working – but we did want to reach out to the communities we work with; young people, schools and teachers, and try to be useful. We listened and tried not to add to the noise. Where we couldn't do something better than other companies, like streaming shows, we just didn't do it. We aimed to play to our strengths and did just what Chino has said – we went where we were wanted. And we took gifts – the words of some incredible writers and their support to help young people write and make for themselves. We exist to support and nurture youth voices and we let that guide us in everything we did.

We also took our cash and we committed to commissioning work from as many writers and freelancers as we could. We're facing some really terrifying times in theatre right now and we want to emerge stronger, fairer, more accessible and relevant than we went in, with structures that include and don't exclude. We have hope.

Find out more here.

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