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In our latest feature, we sit down with the very inspirational Amahra Spence to talk Regional Theatre and its lack of support (still), what’s she doing to make a difference and why marginalised people are always the first to suffer.
Chatting to Amahra Spence feels like coming home – both of us are from the West Midlands, Spence from Birmingham, and I from a town just outside. Soon after starting our conversation, it veers into talking about our accents and I express how, after five years away from my home county, I really miss it. It quickly becomes clear that from our love for the Midlands comes a fierce protectiveness over it; in the wake of Covid it appears ever clearer that in the race to save London Theatre, the Midlands has been left behind. Enter Spence, co-creator of Maia, a creative company focussed on social change and a mission to breathe life back into this vibrant yet struggling and often forgotten area of the UK.
For Spence it was clear that something had to be done to help her beloved county, so she created the West Midlands’ Artists Coronavirus Emergency Fund which swiftly became a lifeline for many artists in the Midlands. “It’s so hard even when funding comes to the midlands as freelancers are towards the end of the list when it does finally trickle down,” Spence explains. “This system doesn’t work… We saw people falling through the cracks and we knew people who weren’t going to be eligible would put even more pressure on the Arts Council. States benefits just don’t cover enough people.” Spence goes on to tell me that the West Midlands’ Artists Coronavirus Emergency Fund not only provided financial release but also provided emotional support for those who clearly needed it the most. “We were overwhelmed with people needing support and it gave people breathing room”.
As Britain is slowly coming out from the worst of the pandemic and with people like Spence providing such a lifeline to so many artists, I ask her what needs to be done to ensure the survival of local and Regional Theatre. “We cannot ignore all the lessons we have learnt during this pandemic,” Spence tells me thoughtfully. “Access to theatre online are things that people have been advocating for before Covid happened.” It appears that the ‘new normal’ does not just apply to public health, “we can’t go back to the way things were and inaccessible ways of working, especially with the BLM protests following George Floyd’s death. We need to have a conversation about how we can help black artists in the industry”.
Even in this almost post-pandemic age, Spence is as busy as ever with her creative company, Maia as it begins to fund various community projects and spaces in her home city of Birmingham. “I did a practice-based degree,” Spence tells me as she elaborates on how Maia was born, “and when I graduated, I was posed with the dilemma – how do I form a career?” Again, it becomes ever clearer to Spence the disadvantage that non-London based artists face, “I began to think, how do we support artists who don’t have the funds and are non-London? For Spence, the key issue is “the displacement of wealth and in London they have this supply of giant buildings. It comes down to who has access to these buildings and therefore who has access to the community”. Whereas some major cities have theatre space galore, others are much more limited, making the fight for resources even more challenging.
Spence’s artistic projects show no bounds. The YARD in Birmingham (on the same road that Spence grew up on, and a stone’s throw away from where I would wander around the shops feeling like a very grown up fourteen-year-old) is currently getting ready to launch its first season, which will include Resolve Collection and local artist Ambient Jade. The space itself is unique in its openness of accepting all forms of art and those who make it and Spence lists off the incredible facilities it offers, “the ground floor is a flexible space so people can use it for all sorts of things from filming to recording podcasts,” she explains. “Then the first floor is project space and a recording studio, and the top floor has two en-suite bedrooms where artists can stay.” The inclusion of accommodation for artists who work at the YARD holds personal importance for Spence. “A few years ago, I was in residence with a theatre in London. I was in a vulnerable position as I had not been paid and had no accommodation, so I ended up slumming on my friend’s sofa whilst I was eight months pregnant. I thought to myself, there has to be another way”.
Spence’s attitude towards various forms of art working in the same space is unique, so I ask about her reasoning behind it. “It feels like there is no other alternative,” Spence replies, “we can’t work in isolation anymore and our sector can’t work if everyone is not thriving – one industry affects the other.” Spence emphasises the importance of grass roots and local theatre to continue this collaboration. “In Birmingham, if one theatre said we can’t work with you, it’s so much harder to go anywhere else and make it happen so we need to find ways of making our own opportunities and working our way across the sector.” Whilst talking to Spence, it grows apparent that a key focus of Maia and its projects is to allow opportunities for all, “it is rooted in justice and in community, nothing will grow without it – the collaboration has always worked”.
One of the key projects that Maia and Spence is working towards is the Abuelos (meaning grandparents in Spanish) Art Hotel. She hopes that this will be a key space for black-led artists. In the wake of George Floyd and Sarah Everard’s deaths, and the protests that have since happened, I ask Spence about the importance of keeping spaces like the Abuelos alive. “It’s one of those things, that in a sector relying on public money, the minority spaces are the first to disappear,” Spence goes on, “and these communities depend on them for everything, so without these spaces it adds to the issue as there is nowhere for people to go.” Spence also emphasises the emotional benefit that these spaces bring to marginalised groups, “within these spaces, we want to bring our own selves, not police or doubt that what we want to offer the world is of value”.
As Spence claims, her creative company does not want to “to replicate theatre that denies our marginalised communities.” As the country strives to get back to ‘normal’ and the ways of theatre that they have so dearly missed, hopefully audiences will flock to more theatres outside of London and see the importance of doing so. After speaking to Spence, this feels more important now than ever.
For more information on Spence’s work, head to the Maia website.