Thought of the week: Our part
In a week where the Globe has been in the news, Michelle Terry reflects on the fears of this time and the importance of filling it with our stories
When the financial instability and threat to our artistic and cultural organisations made news headlines this week, Shakespeare’s Globe found itself at the heart of a discussion about the wider cultural landscape and what our country, and the world, stands to lose if organisations like ours don’t get a little help.
As the Artistic Director, I was asked to comment on the London BBC news, and Radio 4’s Today programme, and I immediately went into a panic. I immediately made it about me: ‘I am not qualified enough, I don’t know enough, I am not articulate enough’ – on and on went the very loud voices of doubt.
I was quickly pulled up short by my husband who gently reminded me that it was not only my job, it was also my responsibility to step up and speak out: not just about what I believe in, but about what so many others believe in and rely on, and who aren’t being asked to speak at the moment.
Of course these conversations are complicated and nuanced and there is no simple answer. When 1.3 million children around the country are being told that their free school meals will stop during school holidays, why should the government grant money to culture? What use is culture if you can’t afford to eat?
These are unprecedented times and raise existential questions rarely asked on such a scale and never before have the stakes felt so high, and at times of radical change and profound uncertainty, we don’t turn to ‘culture’ for clarity, comfort, possibility and hope, we turn to people.
We look to people to ‘lead us from hence’.
And we look to the stories that those people tell.
Culture is a collection of stories. Stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves.
When Trump announced this week that he was taking the drug, hydroxychloroquine, to ward off coronavirus, his justification was that he had ‘heard a lot of good stories’ despite health care officials warning the drug may be unsafe.
On this occasion there were people ready, able and asked to tell a different story, to counter the story of the most powerful man in the room, to make sure that everyone had the chance to hear multiple truths and ultimately make up their own mind.
The stories that we tell matter.
Who gets to tell them matters even more.
Cultural organisations are homes for people and their stories.
The best cultural organisations are home to all people and all stories.
At a time when clarity is so desired and answers desperately needed, people scrabble around for the quick fix, the sound bite, the hashtag and the clickbait.
As the simple, single-minded story threatens to take over the global narrative, now is the time that we need people, many people. Now is the time that we need stories, many stories, offering multiple perspectives, multiple points of view; not to make the conversation more confused but to acknowledge the possibility that there may be more than one way.
There may be many other ways.
On the evening before I had to do the interview on the Today programme I wanted time. I wanted to gather my thoughts, do my research, prepare for any question, make sure that I was able to articulate what had to be said: I needed to get my story straight.
But for that to happen I also needed my daughter to go to sleep so that I could get on with the work. She had already hijacked the pre-record phone call with the researcher and now I needed some peace.
But of course she wouldn’t sleep. Of course she wouldn’t. She had been told her bedtime story, but she had an alternative story to tell.
And as she still lay there wide awake at a quarter to ten, she turned and whispered in my ear:
I ignore her.
‘Mum’ she whispers loudly again. ‘Mum, I have to ask you something really important.’
‘What?’ I ask, using my low gruff voice.
‘Why did Uncle Edd break his arm when he was a superhero?’
Edd is my younger brother, this happened decades ago, and I have no idea why my three year old daughter has chosen tonight to remember this story that her Nanna told her months ago to try and warn her of the dangers of face planting off the sofa onto the floor.
I take a deep breath and answer her.
‘When I was little, I told Uncle Edd that if he jumped off the top of the slide, he would fly. But when he jumped it turned out that he couldn’t fly and he broke his arm when he landed on the ground. Now go to sleep!’
There is a pause.
‘Mum… Mum. I could help him fly.’
‘… OK… How would you do that?’
‘Cushions. I would put loads of cushions underneath the slide.’
It winded me.
She didn’t say: why didn’t he just go down the slide? Or why did he want to fly? Or why did he think he was a superhero? Going down the slide was boring. Being a superhero was taken as read. Believing he could fly was never in doubt. The only bit that was missing was making sure he had somewhere safe to land.
My three year old knew exactly the story she wanted to tell and that I needed to hear; that so many people need to hear: for a little while, some of us might need cushions.
This wide gap of time is being filled right now with stories.
And we all have our part to play in their telling.
Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand an answer to his part
Perform’d in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissever’d….
– The Winter’s Tale
THOUGHT OF THE WEEK
Each week during the UK lockdown, our Artistic Director Michelle Terry shares her Thought of the Week.
Using Shakespeare’s language, Michelle reflects on the individual and universal meaning of the words. By giving personal and emotional insight, she uses the quote to relate to, and express, the mood of this uncertain time.