“Put it away, put it away, put it away now!”
Spoken word artist Rose Condo wants us to put away our phones. For an hour at least. In The Empathy Experiment, the Huddersfield-based poet’s third spoken word show, shortlisted for Best Spoken Word Show at the 2020 Saboteur Awards, she asks the audience to hand over their phones after she herself has gone the previous 23 hours without one.
“I wrote the show as a way to spark conversation about how much we are using our devices and to remind audiences (and myself!) that we can choose to put them away sometimes. There are some great benefits to digital communication, such as enabling disability access. However, we are increasingly aware of the dangers that can arise, including highly negative impacts on people’s mental health and wellbeing. That being said, during this Covid-19 lockdown I find it hard to imagine taking a full day away from my mobile phone.”
After touring the show heavily in 2019, including a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, she was meant to be on tour at the moment with The Empathy Experiment in the south of France. Tour dates have mostly been postponed, though she will be performing online with the Bradford Literature Festival on Friday 3 July and with the Yorkshire Festival of Story in early August.
“Instead of touring and performing, I’ve been navigating a lot of outrage and sadness at the news about the treatment of peaceful protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement and at the way Covid-19 has impacted so many people in the UK and globally. It’s hard feeling such huge emotions in isolation, but it’s also heartening to read about many acts of kindness and resilience. It was Empathy Day this week and I was one of many who shared words online in an effort to help cultivate compassion and hope.”
Nationally, the outlook for artists is bleak beyond comprehension. Everything is cancelled and although some qualify for government help, the majority don’t. A sector that contributes £10.8bn a year to the UK economy as a whole, and £2.8bn a year to the Treasury via taxation, is currently shut down.
“After the initial shock of lockdown I needed to take a bit of time to adjust. It was such a seismic shift, particularly for artists like myself who traditionally collaborate and connect in shared spaces. Through lockdown, many have advocated turning to art to help bolster mental health and wellbeing. Hopefully post-pandemic, this recognition of the arts as a core necessity for living well will continue. I know artists and venues face tough times ahead financially, but digital innovations are continuing to develop. It will be interesting to see how these kinds of non-traditional platforms can inspire people to create and reflect and respond. Art always finds a way.”
In performance, Rose avoids the cliches and pitfalls of many spoken word artists, many of whom are accused of the twin evils of obviousness and preachiness. Even in a more didactic exploration of an issue such as our relationship with social media, her work is grounded in a down-to-earth attitude and real craft. Starved of interaction with an audience, how has she reacted?
“I miss connecting creatively with people in a shared physical space. However, with the dawn of Zoom, I’ve done online gigs and am running digital creative writing workshops. I’m really fortunate in that I also work part-time for a brilliant charity called Arts Emergency as their Programmes Team Coordinator and we’ve been working hard to continue our support of marginalised young people through networking and mentoring.”
Time will tell if and how the arts industry will pick itself up off the floor. The country needs it, as do the estimated 363,700 people who work in the sector. While the government seems to concentrate on bread and circuses, talents like Rose will be crafting away at solutions of their own while hoping that those in power do not forget they are there.
After the Storm by Rose Condo will be published by Flapjack Press later this year.
What will it be like? A poem about possible responses to Covid-19: