TBB Talks To… Clive lyttle – Artistic Director of Certain Blacks

In 2015, Clive Lyttle formed Certain Blacks, an arts development organisation that aims to challenge the norms of performance and what is seen as diverse.

Most recently, their performance company Svalbard presented Braintown, an exploration of the human brain performed onboard the iconic Light Vessel 93 that involved live music, contemporary dance, and circus.

Following on from Braintown’s success, this year Certain Blacks presents Ship Building, a festival programme that will be presented across the Royal Docks and venues across East London. Ship Building will explore the post-pandemic nation and the idea of being “British” following Brexit and Black Lives Matter, building on the famous song by Elvis Costello made famous during the Falklands War.

It has also been recently announced that Certain Blacks is joining the Without Walls Artistic Directorate, a network of festivals that works with artists to bring fantastic outdoor arts to people in towns and cities across the UK.

We spoke to Clive Lyttle to find out more about Certain Blacks and the advantages of outdoor performance – even when theatres re-open…

Please introduce yourself.

I’m Clive Anthony Lyttle, I’m Black British and I’m the Artistic Director of Certain Blacks. I live in Costume House in East London, close to the Royal Docks.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now...

Producing interesting work whilst being locked down…

After years of working as Artistic Director for a variety of festivals and venues, you formed Certain Blacks in 2015. What inspired you to form this company and what would you say are its key goals?

I was inspired by artists I had worked with and the need to present diverse work. I had worked on a programme named Decibel which showcased performances from people of colour and when this ended an artist had asked me “what next?”. Certain Blacks was formed to give a wide range of diverse artists the opportunity to develop new work and present this at venues and festivals. Our motto is: “from the margins to the mainstream”. 

Certain Blacks represents a diverse range of performance – from circus performance to live music. Does the breadth of performance represented by Certain Blacks represent your own diverse artistic interests?

Certain Blacks works in a number of arts forms that are not usually seen as being diverse. Our work in the circus has been developed in partnership with Upswing, a Black-led organisation, as we discussed the need for support for Black, Asian, and ethnically diverse artists. This is similar to the theatre work we have done with Crying in the Wilderness and our live art programme with artists such as Franko B and Brian Lobel. Also, we just like to work in interesting areas that produce engaging and challenging work.  

While many companies have been forced to turn to outdoor performance in the last year, Certain Blacks has been presenting outdoor and site-specific performances for a while. Even when we’re not in a pandemic, do you think there are any advantages to outdoor and site-specific performances in comparison to performing in theatres?

There are many advantages and challenges to producing work outdoors. We have been fortunate to work within The Royal Docks in Newham, London.  This has provided us with a spectacular setting for our work and the main advantage is being able to take performances directly to audiences. This is a democratic approach as these people may not usually attend the theatre. However, there are challenges that include producing a safe show, obtaining licences, etc. While outdoors, you are responsible for the safety of your audience and this is especially important with Covid-19. The rewards for this can be fantastic as producing Svalbard on Lighthouse 93 showed – it was a fantastic experience for artists and the audiences that saw the show live-streamed directly from the docks. 

Circus Circus (Certain Blacks) (C) Jemina Yong

Do you have any advice for those companies that might, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, be turning to outdoor or site-specific performance for the first time?

If you are doing an outdoor performance, it is important to seek advice from production specialists and organisations such as the local authorities, site owners, and so forth.  Most outdoor events and festivals will need a licence from the local council. We have received great support from The Royal Docks Culture team and the London Borough of Newham. Both of these organisations have helped us to develop safe events where audiences can enjoy the shows. We will usually work with a production company who can help us develop an event meets the licencing requirements, and it’s so important to follow current guidelines on social distancing and other safety measures for events. 

We’d also advise that companies check out Without Walls who are a fantastic and unique network of over 30 festivals that bring outdoor arts to people across the UK. Since 2007, they have developed and tour over 200 new shows and supported the Research and Development of 67 projects. They have extensive experience within the Outdoor Arts sector and provide opportunities to support artists turning to outdoor arts for the first time.

In December last year, Certain Blacks’ performance company Svalbard presented Braintown, which described itself as an “immersive live stream”. I definitely felt this immersive element, particularly with the way in which performers interacted with the camera. What was it like live streaming this performance? Do you know if the performers encountered any difficulties?

Svalbard’s Braintown was a great event to develop and produce. We worked on Lightvessel 93 which is in Victoria Docks. The stream was produced by Deadbeat Films who make feature films, videos, and the project three-way production between Deadbeat, Svalbard, and Certain Blacks.  The key challenge is to capture a live performance rather than make something that is just for screen. The performance included a live band, circus artists, and a choir. The challenges included providing power on a ship in the docks, allowing the artists on deck to hear the music performed, and … keeping the artists warm.  We were on the ship for three days and there was a great sense of fun and play in the company – this was helped by our cook Chippy who provided three meals a day for a crew of 15 people. 

This year, Certain Blacks presents Ship Building, an exploration of the post-pandemic nation and the idea of being “British” following Brexit and Black Lives Matter. Can you tell us anything more about Ship Building?

Ship Building is Certain Blacks’ festival theme for 2021. As stated, the idea is to explore what it means to be British and different post-Brexit and Covid. The theme is inspired by Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding which was made around the time of the Falklands War. The language used today is that we are in a “wartime situation” – fighting them on the beaches. 

The first part of the festival will be an outdoor programme take place in the Royal Docks between 23rd and 25th July. The festival includes performances including Strong Enough from Strong Lady productions, Roll Play by Simple Cypher, a cooking show called Do What yah Mama told yah! and Jason Singh’s The Hidden Music of Trees, which are all part of the Without Walls 2021 Programme.  All of these performances challenge expected norms whilst having fun using circus, cooking and Augmented Reality.

The festival will also present a new work from Emergency Exit Arts and artist Robert Montgomery called Recovery Poems and the work reflects on the current Covid-19 climate. The Royal Docks is home to the Excel Centre which has been a Nightingale Hospital – this work will be the festival’s thank you to the work they have done.  

It goes without saying that the last year has been incredibly difficult for the performing arts industry. As an Artistic Director, is there any way in which you would like to see the industry change as it begins to re-open?

This year has shown how important freelancers are to producing art and performances. These are the people who have been hit hardest by the loss of work caused by the pandemic. Also, it has shown that many diverse workers at venues have been hit with many of these being made redundant. There does need to be a change in how arts workers are supported and also the diversity of staff within the arts sector.  They should not just be in the lower paid jobs, and if they are, they need to be equally respected. On the plus side, being able to live stream performances has been a great benefit and has enabled us to reach new audiences across the country and around the world. 

Have you got any other projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?

We have been working with new companies to produce new outdoor work in partnership with 101 Creation Centre in Newbury through their Seedbed programme. It will be exciting to see this work develop. This includes a piece from Vidya Thirunaryan which was originally called Lives of Clay and includes dance, theatre, and clay, and Out of Order Circus Collective who are producing a new work that may include a flying piano.

It was also recently announced that we are joining the Without Walls Artistic Directorate this year. As part of this, we will ensure an influx of new shows for the Outdoor Arts sector by investing to support artists to develop and tour ambitious new projects.  

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

  • A book you have to have in your collection? The Scholar by Courttia Newland. I got this when we worked together years ago and we both lived out  West!
  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date?  A Love Supreme, John Coltrane and Electric Lady Land, Jimi  Hendrix. I’m a guitarist and Jimi Hendrix was a big influence. Later, I got into Jazz and John Coltrane and was really impressed with his use of harmony, modes, and the cycle of fifths.
  • A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? 2001 – A Space Odyssey – I will watch this again with my partner when we meet again with a break in lockdown.
  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance, or concert)?  Pravda featuring Anthony Hopkins at the National Theatre and Raggamuffin at Hackney Empire.  I was so impressed by seeing Anthony Hopkins who used a style belike a lizard to portray a media tycoon. Ragamuffin introduced me to Toussaint Louverture – the black revolutionary that led Haiti to freedom. 
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? – Sad – Bunny Wailer’s Death; Mad – Nurses pay 1%? Glad – Harry and Megan’s Oprah interview. I don’t really have time for the Royal Family, but this is England laid bare. 

Find out more about Clive Lyttle and Certain Blacks here.

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