#savethearts Sabrina Mahfouz: ‘There are embers of hope across the creative industry’

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  • As part of Marie Claire’s #savethearts campaign, poet, writer, performer and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz – one of the nation’s most prolific creative talents – writes about how she’s coped this year, and why she’s supporting Black artists disproportionally affected

    Whilst there have been huge disappointments in terms of cancelled and postponed shows and projects, I’m so grateful to have been able to use those ‘lost’ chunks of time and the frustrated creative energy to start writing my debut non-fiction book, These Bodies of Water. It’s a personal exploration of the legacy of British imperialism on Middle Eastern identity. It has also been a blessing to be working collaboratively on a number of postponed theatre projects, because when one person is feeling like giving up, another will lift it all back up. In this way we have managed to keep creating work, so when theatres finally reopen, we will have material to begin working on in a real life room, which is ridiculously exciting. 

    Helping artists in need

    I launched a fund earlier in the year called Artists Fund Artists, in an attempt to create independent financial solidarity between artists, without expectation or outside organisational input. There are so many artists who do end up making a huge amount of money from the industry and it has always struck me as strange that these people are not always actively engaged with enabling artists who do not get paid much to keep creating the art that essentially keeps the industry going.

    sabrina mahfouz

    Sabrina launched Artists Fund Artists (Photographer: Greg Morrison)

    Soon after the fund launched, the global BLM protests began and the decision was made for all the funds to be redistributed to Black artists working within the UK, who were disproportionately affected by Covid-19. And who were also hit by the emotional, physical, mental labour that was being unfairly put on them around educating the nation on anti-Blackness. We awarded small grants to 64 artists and we hope to continue the concept at a later stage. Since then, thankfully there have been a number of funds set up by wealthy artists to help others during this time. 

    There have been lots of extra mentoring and collaborating initiatives set up this year and I’ve been honoured to be part of ones for the Royal Court Theatre and Clean Break Theatre company, who work with women in prisons and those rebuilding their lives on release. 

    Watching young people creatively stifled is hard

    I wrote a play called Bad Bored Women of the Rooms for Scottish theatre company Wonder Fools. They’ve provided this free, with guidance resources, to any youth groups around the country wishing to take part in their Positive Stories for Negative Times, which groups can do via Zoom or at school or in any way they feel comfortable doing. It’s brilliant seeing young creatives seize this opportunity and responding with innovation and joy, despite all the restrictions. Seeing young people being physically and creatively stifled has been one of the saddest things for me during 2020, though their vibrancy shines through no matter what.

    Work plans for 2021 are starting to feel real now, there are embers of hope across the creative industries and that is such a wonderful way to be ending this mean, little year. I’m co-writing the first show to reopen Shakespeare’s Globe in London for February 2021, an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, alongside Sami Ibrahim and Laura Lomas. I’m part of one of the writing collectives creating the first shows to reopen The Royal Court from December to February, called Living Newspaper, inspired by an arts project that took place across America during the Great Depression. There are a few TV projects I’m developing which are hugely exciting and I hope they keep pushing on.

    Missing the communal feeling

    It took me seven months to watch a live-streamed theatre show. Initially I told myself it was because I was too busy, but once I watched one and broke down crying, I admitted it was because it was too sad to face up to not having that live space to experience collective transformation, awakening – or even shared boredom! Everyone talks about the online world being an ‘echo chamber’ but for me, it’s the opposite, it can be debilitatingly divisive. 

    Being in a live space of stories, ideas, perspectives and experiences that get the time and focus to be felt and considered with depth and empathy has been sorely missed. I’ve filled the gap with conversations, podcasts, articles – but it’s not the same. I think most people have missed the feeling of a communal, live experience –  whether that is a sports event or a music festival or a school play. It is partly about the event itself and partly about the framing of it – what happens before, after. Who do you see, where do you go, what new ideas come up, new challenges?

    I think not being able to do this can result in a stultifying lack of gear change in your own head, which for some can lead to struggling mental health. I really cannot wait to be in the same space as people who enjoy the same thing as me, without needing to know anything else about them, and feeling connected to the years of human existence through those shared experiences.

    Forging a sense of national necessity 

    I’m really grateful for the self-employed grants that were made available – they were essential to me but I recognise they were not sufficient as far too many were left out. On an ideological level, I would love for theatre and the wider creative industries to be thought of as a public service, something essential to a healthy, progressive society and supported as such. I don’t think the answers all lie with the government though. The industry itself needs to consider why that is currently not the case and from that interrogation, which aspects might be within its own control to change and to forge this sense of necessity within the UK.

    * These Bodies Of Water by Sabrina Mahfouz will be published by Tinder Press in Spring 2022

    * Get involved with our Save The Arts campaign this week via our social media platforms @marieclaireuk #savethearts

    Black Friday 2021

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