In creating 10 films, set in 10 different cities by 10 different self-defined black writers, Eclipse Theatre’s new 10by10 project has taken any lingering ideas of racial uniformity and given them a good shake. Now available for all to see on the BBC’s digital platform, The Space, the films deliver a kaleidoscope of the black British experience: experiences full of humour and poignancy. Those responsible for writing the films include playwrights Bola Agbaje, Ben Tagoe and Ishy Din to name just a few, and each film is set in a different UK city, from Sheffield to South London. The only common traits the films share are that all do away with preconceived notions and all bloom under the steady direction of Eclipse Artistic Director, Dawn Walton, who speaks of what the pieces have in common and the importance of exploring perception.
Using their brevity to harness the beauty of their characters, the short-films again and again force viewers to reconsider characters that may invite assumptions. From two young boys lurking suspiciously in the shopping centre, to an unloved tramp rooting through rubbish, to a lingerie-clad young woman with a mysterious vocation, the pieces continually prove their characters to be worthy of respect and understanding. Walton reveals why this is so. “I think if there’s one thing that all pieces have it’s that they all sort of manage perception.” For example, “The Liverpool piece is a comment on extraordinary rendition which is a sort of fairly front-foot political piece but the only reason the guy is where he is because of how he looks and what his name is so the perception is that he’s a terrorist. Brown Widow is a matter of perception. The two young boys that we think are up to no good are beautiful young boys who are looking after their mother.” Though this theme was “unconsciously” carried across the pieces, Walton ruminates on its wider implications: “Maybe this is what it is being a black artist in this country – I don’t know, I haven’t answered that question myself – but it is interesting that all the pieces seem to be managing perception in some way.”
Each 10by10 writer identifies themselves socio-politically as Black. With 10by10 exploding the problem of society imposing identities upon individuals, Walton explains the importance of self-definition. “It doesn’t work when you tell people how to define themselves. It works when people are allowed to define themselves, more and more and I accept and go along with the definitions that people choose for themselves.” The stories in 10by10 of struggle, pain and joy resonate with audiences regardless of their racial identity. “When you go to a room full of people of colour, let’s say, who are writers […] they’ll write about actually really beautiful, everyday things that we all deal with.”
The 10 writers came together over a two-day workshop run by Ola Animashawun (Diversity Associate at the Royal Court Theatre) with Walton prescribing inspirational material. “I asked them to read a novel before they came and the novel I chose was one of my favourite novels, called A Rage In Harlem by Chester Hines.” The diversity within the films echoes the diversity found in A Rage in Harlem, as Walton explains. “You meet unbelievable numbers of characters; all of them are black and all of them are as varied and distinct as they are numerous.” In spite of the short preparation period, Walton’s was a successful approach. “It was two really intense days but intense in the most beautiful lovely way that people are happy to be creating and to be affected, if you like, by each other. So by the end of the two days everybody pretty much knew what they wanted to write about.”
By placing 10by10’s short films online, Eclipse is able to reach out to beyond the cities to which they tour, to anyone with an internet connection. “10by10 is an audience development programme – that’s where it started. We were very conscious of the fact we start relationships [in places] and then just disappear for a year.” The decision to go online allowed Eclipse to escape the physical limitations of being a touring company and access their audience virtually. “I have had a mission for some time to create an online sort of virtual presence for our audiences while we’re not touring right into the city. The second mission was to engage some cities we hadn’t been to before […] I’m very conscious of the fact that many people who we want to engage with, if they can’t find the work in theatre or on tv, where they go to is they go to online.”
The startling range of voices found in 10by10 is testament to how Eclipse Theatre both enriches and reflects British culture, theatre and experience. In fact, it was the lack of these voices and experiences in British theatre that led to Eclipse’s initial creation. “The history of Eclipse, very briefly, is it was an Arts Council initiative there was a moment in theatre history back in 2000 when their big survey was done,” she recalls. “It became apparent that there were certain gaps in theatre and one of those gaps that they felt they could address straight away was the presence of black stories on middle scale touring in the regions. And so they started this initiative.” Led by Walton as Artistic Director, the initiative developed into a fully-fledged touring company. “I was the first, and only to date, Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre. I did something which I don’t think [the Arts Council] were quite expecting which was that I don’t really know how to run an initiative,” Walton explains with a laugh, “I felt if this was a real thing and it had real legacy then it should run itself so I formed a company called Eclipse Theatre.”
Audience development remains crucial for Eclipse Theatre; with a startling average of 30% new bookings for every production, this is not a company content with simply appealing to those whom they reflect onstage. Walton finds pigeonholing theatre from a racial perspective particularly frustrating. “We believe that Eclipse is all about audiences. We are extremely proud about bringing new audiences to the theatre at the same time as maintaining the regular theatre-going audience. I think the objections I’ve mostly heard from people in terms of not previously having black work was that their perception was that their audiences wouldn’t necessarily want to engage with it. That’s not really true and we are on a mission to prove that!”
The next step for the 10by10 project is to develop one of the films into a full-scale production to tour around all the cities. “It is about you [the viewers] saying the pieces that you’re moved by and the pieces that you liked and why. The piece that becomes more – I hate to say this – most ‘popular’: has the most debate, stimulates the most debate” will go further, Walton reveals. Viewers are able to let Eclipse Theatre know their favourite by contacting Eclipse on Facebook and on twitter (@eclipsetcl) using the hashtag #10by10. Though one film may ultimately go on to further success, Eclipse Theatre have certainly succeeded in producing a set of films that engage with – and thereby transcend – familiar representations and experiences with a deft touch.
Eclipse Theatre’s 10by10 project films are available online at www.thespace.org.
Image of Bola Agbaje’s Parking Wars by Eclipse Theatre