Do you remember where you were when the lockdown became real? By real, I mean to a point where you realised it was going to affect the immediate future, everything?
It was Monday 16 March. Lou and Tony were on their way to Hull Truck with a boot full of raffle prizes, about to get stuck into a BTO bus tour of pubs and social clubs with actors Nicola Stephenson and Matthew Wilson (part of our work with Truck on TWO). Let’s be honest, those initial announcements and guidance about what we should and shouldn’t do were about as clear as mud, so we made the difficult decision with Truck to stop the events.
Almost immediately we were thinking about how our venue partners would survive being closed. How could we support them and keep people safe? We were worried, scared, uncertain, but, like many people and organisations who work in the Arts, we wanted to work out how we could keep on connecting. People and socialising are the very core of Back to Ours. If we couldn’t do that physically, how could we do it another way?
Our first idea came from those cancelled TWO evenings. Suddenly we had singers and DJs without a venue to play in, and who knows when they’d be performing again. Maybe we could give them another platform and reach people at home instead?
“Right”, Lou said, phoning me up the next day. “We need a new brand. We’re thinking about something that makes it clear we’re reaching people at home, in their front rooms. On their sofas.”
And so Right on your Sofa was born, with our first gig on 19 March – just three days after the decision to stop our live dates. You can’t say we don’t react quickly. We hosted Hull DJ’s Simon Forrester and Mike McKay in a head to head DJ battle, smashing out some classic tunes from The Living Room, our Bransholme chat shop. And it wasn’t perfect. The signal was pretty bad. The feed kept cutting out. We were all on tenterhooks every time the screen went fuzzy. But it was a hell of a lot of fun, and Tony even got his worm out (and gave himself a rupture).
Looking back, it was such a weird, unknown, even – dare I say it – oddly exciting time. No-one had any answers, we were all scared, we kept seeing footage of people panic buying toilet rolls and pasta and hearing rumours that the army were moving in to lock the whole country down, but the question for us was always, how can we keep connecting? To be honest, it probably got us all through it on a personal level, giving us something tangible to concentrate on in the middle of the absolute unknown.
In uncertain times you need people you trust, so we knew we needed Right on your Sofa gigs from our brilliant Dolly and Elvis. They’re both incredibly warm and talented performers, but we probably underestimated how weird it would be for all our performers – even the most seasoned – to rock an invisible audience through an IPhone in the seclusion of their own homes. How do you read the room through a screen, especially if there’s a delay on comments or no one’s talking? That’s a pretty immense talent to be able to channel.
The digital world throws up so many things you’d never even think about in the ‘real’ world; suddenly sideways videos, ropey Wi-Fi connections, backwards promo banners and accidentally deleted feeds became things we had to find answers for quickly, laughing at ourselves while doing it. One of the many beautiful things about Back to Ours is that we’ve never pretended to be perfect – the team have amazing attention to detail and love every part of it, but we’re human. Things go wrong, and the nature of live work is that when it does, people see it right then and there. Lou might have filmed a bedtime story upside down for a while, but we learned (who knew landscape could be so tricky?!), advised other performers, and it didn’t happen again.
So where are we now?
Three months since lockdown, and we’ve now hosted 25 events online, all streamed live through our Facebook page. We’ve introduced a regular Monday night bedtime story for families to gather round and watch, a Friday evening gig – music and singers across all genres, poetry, and most recently, a Circus on your Sofa – and artist takeover days from Studio McGuire (our digital partners), The Herd (our associate theatre company) and Lydia Caprani, (the artist on our Bilton Grange Mural Project and illustrator of our beautiful new children’s activity book).
Add into that regular zoom meetings and watch parties with our brilliant Hub members, a digital Easter Egg hunt, and our ongoing work at The Living Room…and yeah. It’s been busy. And the more we continue and our audience grows, the busier it gets.
On 16 March, our Facebook page was liked by 3373 people. This now stands at 4772 – a huge increase of 1399 purely through digital output – and we’ve had a whopping 81,443 views on all our digital events during lockdown. We’ve developed a whole new audience tuning in, reacting, messaging us what they like – and don’t. One thing we’ve always strived to do is to communicate; whether that’s to funders, artists, audiences, or other CPPs, we always want to know what people think, or how else do we know what works and what doesn’t?
And yes, we know there’s a debate about arts vs entertainment, but what Back to Ours has always done is mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. For us, it’s very much a journey. Someone who’s not particularly interested or confident in the Arts might have a dance to Suspicious Minds outside Kingswood Asda, but they also, somewhere down the line, might come to see Casus’ DNA or a certain 1940s punk-pop circus opera if they’re on that (metaphorical) big old BTO bus journey with us. Similarly, you might watch an hour of an online event on a Friday night with a bag of Monster Munch and a G&T, but that might just well lead you to one of our ‘real life’ shows when we get back to some kind of new normal. It’s about trust and connection and having a bloody good time along the way.
Speaking of Branny Cenner, I can’t not talk about The Living Room and all the work Jen, Tony and our wonderful volunteers Meg and Graham have been doing. When it became apparent the Living Room couldn’t open because, well, it’s all about people getting together, the team quickly moved to a phone service supporting the most vulnerable in our neighbourhoods. I haven’t got space to write about all the incredible things they been doing, but taking referrals, daily phone calls, collecting shopping and organising prescriptions, and even sorting pest control for rodent infestations has been the very tip of the iceberg.
Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, The Living Room is all about bringing people together and combatting isolation, and they’re continuing to achieve this under the most difficult of circumstances.
Alongside a new programme and a new way of delivering it, there’s also had to be a new plan. We’re working on a two-monthly cycle now, delivering the programme and then taking a week to discuss and evaluate the good and the bad, the ‘what we’d repeats’ and ‘what didn’t works’. It’s great to have that time to talk honestly as a team, to reflect on feedback and plan the next two months based on that experience.
So here’s where we are. You’re very welcome to hop on for the ride over on Facebook, and maybe even give us a message about what YOU’D like to see Right on your Sofa. Like everyone else, we’re still staring into an unknown future in terms of live events and what they’ll look like, but until we do we’ll keep atcha with online events that hopefully make things feel a little bit better, brighter, and Back to Ours…