Lockdown interview: director/producer Olivia Munk

Welcome to another Lockdown interview. I caught up with Olivia Munk, founder and artistic director of Part of the Main and Part of the Night, for a chat. Olivia was raised in Queens, New York City, and is now based in London.

She describes herself as a “director, producer, writer and entrepreneur” and has extensive journalism credits including in Fifteen Minutes Magazine and Harvard Magazine. This year she contributed a piece to The Stage.

Her directing and producing credits include assisting on Heathers at The Other Palace, and work at Theatre503 and Park Theatre. I would like to thank Olivia for participating in this interview, and Laura Horton PR for facilitating it.

Part of the Main has been doing a series of workshops on theatre practice as well as maintaining a spreadsheet of freelance opportunities. Can you tell me a bit about the development of the initiative and how it has been received?

OM: I first began running Part of the Main‘s workshop series, dubbed ‘Part of the Grid’ for the vast array of metal that suspends the lighting rig above a stage, in 2018.

Thanks to our residency at the Drayton Arms Theatre in Kensington, we first ran a two-day course covering the basics of Lighting and Sound design and programming. I conceived of this first course with designer Will Alder, who continues to run our technical courses online today!

Since that first pairing of courses in 2018, I’ve expanded the offering – we’ve had Stage Management, Costume and Set Design, How to Run a Theatre, Producing for the Edinburgh Fringe, and more. I love meeting new artists at these events and when the pandemic hit, I was planning to apply for funding for a tour of the workshops across regional venues.

After picking up the pieces of the various productions I had cancelled and postponed due to theatre closures, I began to notice that many theatre companies were diverting their funds into opportunities for virtual arts, mainly directed at writers.

I became a bit overwhelmed at all the opportunities, and realized there was no central place to find competitions. Fueled by a few cups of coffee, I sat down and compiled them all into a spreadsheet – it was a good way to channel my producorial energy with no productions on the horizon. I posted it on a few Facebook groups and on Twitter, and immediately it was shared by many and received a positive response.

This told me that there was still a desire for theatrical work and energy, even with the industry at a standstill. I set up a call with Will, and we agreed to try hosting a few QLab workshops to see if there would be interest in gaining new tech skills from home.

I also added a few other courses, such as a workshop on applying for ACE’s emergency funds and producing in April. I was delighted by the response and have been adding more courses in the months since – in June we’re up to 12!

I’ve been compiling the courses and the best paid opportunities into a monthly newsletter, too – it’s a great way to keep busy while I wait for directing and producing opportunities to return, and to engage in the wider theatre community.

Virtual workshops have allowed me to connect with artists I never would have been able to meet if they had remained in-person — on a workshop just last night we had someone joining us from Melbourne, Australia, at 3 AM their time! While I am itching to get out of the house, I think being forced to turn to Zoom for these courses have really compelled me to think and react in new ways I never would have before the pandemic. 

The future of theatre as we know it is in great danger of collapse: how do you think it might adapt to the “new normal” and what would you like to see changed?

It’s been both frightening and exhilarating to see the industry respond and adapt to the closure of theatres. While I don’t hope whatsoever that any more buildings go into administration, I do hope to see substantial change in the UK’s institutions as things slowly begin to open up.

The intersection of a renewed Black Lives Matter movement and the economic impacts of the coronavirus have shown us that theatre was in a fragile state even before it shut down. I’ve been inspired by Black artists and other artists from marginalised groups, who have used worldwide protests to seize a moment to reveal and amplify the racism and disparity of the industry.

I hope that the ‘new normal’ means that representation goes beyond casting and sees previously marginalised artists take the wheels at institutions big and small. In my own practice, I’m confronting ways in which I have been complicit by utilising my white privilege and how I can ensure that I am directing my energy, funding and resources to artists from all backgrounds.

This month I’ve begun by matching a generous donation by Matilda Ibini to offer twenty free workshop spaces to Black artists, and I have begun a concerted effort to reach out and find instructors from different backgrounds.

What has been your favourite performance or project to have come out of lockdown – your own, or someone else’s?

I’ve really loved being able to watch NT Live every week. It gives me the opportunity to see shows that played before I moved to the UK, and I get to discuss weekly performances with my parents who live in New York.

I think it’s shown us how important it is to gather archival materials of performances, and shown us what a truly national – or global – theatre can look like. As a producer it makes me slightly worried about financial models – will audiences still want to pay to come sit in a theatre post-pandemic and post-free shows online? – but if free platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and even network TV have found ways to monetize and support the experience, so can theatre.

What do you miss the most about creating theatre for live audiences in an actual physical space?

I really miss the ‘flow state’ I get from being in a rehearsal room. Though my work under lockdown doesn’t reflect it, I’m primarily a director, and had the pleasure of directing two short plays at The Space just before lockdown.

I love working with actors to really dig into the text of a piece, to try out the juxtaposition of music and to finally figure out the complicated staging of a particularly physical scene. I miss entering a theatre and not realizing rehearsal is over until it’s suddenly gone dark outside.

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose ‘weekly screen time’ reports are absolutely embarrassing, and I feel like my ability to focus and flow creatively has absolutely flown out the window now that my only connection to the outside world is via a data plan. I’ll really look forward to the day I’m in a theatre and haven’t had the urge to check my phone every five minutes!  

Theatre means lots of things to different people. How would you describe it and what it means to you?

I have always loved reading and writing, and to me, theatre has always been the best way to express literature. I’ll never forget the first time I listened to a recording of Macbeth in an English class – the previously flat text was suddenly elevated in a way I didn’t know possible.

It is an infinitely interpretable way of expressing and receiving stories, via not only text but also movement, imagery, music, and design. I’ve always been thrilled by the logistical intricacies (frankly, the logistical nightmare!) of making everything just so to ensure the magic is ready for the audience.

There’s just nothing like watching art be created in front of your eyes – it will never be the same from night to night, and to me, there’s something special in that,

Interview with Olivia Munk, June 2020

Performance exists across all types of venue, company, culture, and accessibility. What message would you like to see transmitted to those who are responsible for funding and supporting it, if you were asked why it should be saved?

I’d like funders and institutional boards to recognize that theatre is not immune to economic, social and political movement. Though the theatrical workforce is largely freelance, little has been done to recognize this change within granting bodies and larger institutional management.

Though we hear about large theatres going into administration or issuing redundancies, the real burden has fallen on the shoulders of freelancers who make a living in the arts by moving from gig to gig. Theatres and other artistic institutions simply are not designed to support a network of artists in the way that a network of artists support them.

There needs to be wide-scale, structural change in how theatres work with and value freelance artists in the wake of this pandemic. While I fervently hope there is a bailout to support the institutions upon which so many artists and audiences rely, I hope that things don’t simply return to ‘the way things were.’

Things simply weren’t good enough before this, as a mere 12-week closure has brought this industry to its knees. Funders, boards, and unions need to find ways to work together and create more of a safety net for the creatives who make the work that keeps the lights on. 

What has lockdown meant to you?

Lockdown has meant a complete reimagining of life – of my work, of my industry, of my relationship to friends and families.

While ‘life inside’ has had its ups and downs, it’s forced me to think about how I really want to spend my days and the trajectory I want my career to take.

I’m grateful for the artists and activists who have used their platforms to challenge us to think bigger and better about the world we need to rebuild after this is ‘over’ – if it ever will truly be over!