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Culture in lockdown: 2. Matthew Xia

A socially distanced crowd watches 846 Live on a public basketball court in North Woolwich, London

This is the second part of a five-part series. See also our profiles of comedian Dom Joly, classical musician Yana Tsanova, Elvis impersonator Brendan Paul and indie-rock musician Elizabeth Stokes

Matthew Xia, theatre director
London, UK

For theatre director Matthew Xia, 846 Live came from a place of frustration. “George Floyd lost his life on the streets of America, and I think many people of African diaspora heritage wanted to speak to that moment,” he says. “But I felt hamstrung by Covid. Sure, I could scream into Twitter or write a blog, but [as a director] that’s not what I do. I bring people together.”

Commissioned by Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Royal Docks Team in response to the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, 846 Live began life as a series of short audio plays written by black and Asian writers. Theatre with live audiences hadn’t taken place in the UK for six months, and when Xia was asked to bring some of them to life – in a basketball court in south-east London – he jumped at the opportunity.

The outdoor setting allowed for the Covid restrictions in place at the time, but also seemed to give this raw, urgent political theatre extra potency. Xia recalls a moment in 846 Live when Michael Elcock performed Say Their Names by playwright Sumerah Srivastav, which saw the actor shout the names of black British victims of police violence through a megaphone. “People in the tower block would do raised fists [the symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement] from their balconies and shout the names back at us,” says Xia.

The basketball court, which due to Covid measures held a maximum of 75 audience members for each performance, was a long way from the rarefied settings of London’s indoor theatres, such as the Royal Court and the Young Vic, where Xia has staged plays in the past. “People [without tickets] would just walk up and heckle and shout and dance,” he recalls. “Some shouted ‘Black Lives Matter!’ Others shouted ‘Turn it down!’”

While Xia loved directing a play that people in the working class, ethnically diverse North Woolwich neighbourhood could see just by walking down the street, staging a show in such unusual conditions posed challenges. “The risk-assessment parameters were unlike anything I’d ever seen,” he says. “Due to health and safety requirements such as distancing, cleaning and registration, the show could only be 30 minutes long because we needed 45 minutes of turnaround between performances…” The Zoom rehearsals were also tricky. “They were a whole new world for me,” he says. “How do you direct a piece of physical movement with an actor cramped on a chair saying ‘Sorry, I can’t go in the bigger room cause my kids are there’?”

For the first week Xia and the cast exchanged notes based on videos recorded in kitchens and living rooms, and then they met in person for rehearsals. “We had a big grid on the floor at Shoreditch Town Hall so you could always assess when two people were too close,” he says.

The pandemic hasn’t been too tough on Xia, he says, because he’s the artistic director of Actors Touring Company, which has been able to use the furlough scheme and enter “semi-hibernation”. But he’s seen the careers of colleagues in theatre “devastated”. “Many people have slipped through the gaps and are not supported by the government’s self-employment scheme or the furlough scheme,” says Xia. “I’ve seen people exit the industry. I don’t think we’ll understand quite how devastating this has all been until we’re six months into some kind of normality and we look around and notice all the people who didn’t survive.”

Although the government’s roadmap offers a possible path for the return of indoor theatre this summer, Xia is seeking further alfresco opportunities. “I’ve started looking at bus stops and thinking, ‘Oh look, there’s a stage.’ I even looked at my back garden and thought I could fit 20 people in there. Maybe I could do a tour of back gardens.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #41 of Delayed Gratification

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