Artists in Quarantine: Ruth Chan, composer

11 June 2020

Ruth composes for film, television and theatre. She has been developing a musical adaptation of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle for the National Theatre. She has worked for various theatres including the Royal Shakespeare Company, Chichester Festival Theatre, Royal Exchange Theatre and Traverse Theatre. Ruth has participated in the Genesis Music Theatre Programme at the National Theatre.

What’s your current confinement situation, who’s on your quaranteam?

As I write this, I am in isolation, preparing to move from my home with my husband to help him provide palliative care to my mother-in-law. Both homes are fortunate to have nice gardens and pianos, so I have been spending quite a bit of time gardening when not working and dusting off my rusty skills on the ivories by revisiting classical repertoire that I once could play: both are turning out to be therapeutic in these troubled times.

Are you able to work, are you inspired by what we are going through or do you find it challenging?

Earlier in my career, I was anxious of when and whether work would turn up. As I have built my career and professional network, I have been fortunate to build up a pipeline of work, which for the last few years has extended reassuringly into the future. This has been decreasing since the crisis took hold in Asia (one of my projects was due to premier in Hong Kong back in February), so this is a stark reminder that you can’t take for granted the work that comes in.
One of my main projects is the National Theatre’s Public Acts project with CAST in Doncaster, which is a musical adaptation of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. We were due to have a workshop week, which was cancelled due to the lockdown, so instead we spent most of April documenting the current stage of development. This involved video conferences with me playing Sibelius scores to Chris Bush (writer) and James Blakey (director), then having songs remotely recorded by singers to backing tracks. This has had challenges, but they have mostly been of a technical nature.

Do you have a routine to stay creative?

My aim is get up at regular times and start work/dealing with emails as I did before. I do daily walks, weekly zoom pilates and watch online shows in the evenings. Lockdown has been fantastic for catching shows that I couldn’t make it to when they were on: the National Theatre and the New York Metropolitan Opera have provided welcome respite from Netflix fatigue.

My creativity comes and goes depending on my mindset at that time, but the situation has made it more difficult: I fear for the industry and fear for friend’s health. These fears can become a blocker to my creative free-thinking, but walking has been good to focus my mind on nature and derive some inspiration from elsewhere.

Do you think what you’re going through will impact your practice long term?

In some ways no. I often work at home in isolation, only popping into London when needed or to watch shows. With the streaming available, I don’t think my practice will significantly change anytime soon, but I expect future projects in theatre, I’ll be working more at home than before, and remote workshops will become more common.

The situation does make me feel the need to be more proactive with my work. In the last few years, I have been looking to initiate my own projects, and I think I intend to push these more. I can’t rely on work coming to me, moreover I find I can push myself further creatively with projects I have more personal investment in.

Is there any advice you would like to share to fellow artist, audiences or organisations on how to find resilience?

First of all, look after yourself. Physical and mental health is paramount – go for those walks/runs/cycles, and try to find time for a meditative pastime (gardening, mindfulness, reading – whatever you find allows you to focus your mind on something other than your anxieties). I have continued writing, but also been wanting to get out in the garden and pick up my paint brushes, but there’s still too many weeds!

We need to keep fighting and part of that means building up our creative reserves. One of the only good things from this lockdown is that I have been able to watch all kind of productions online, from opera to theatre to dance, from regional theatres and those in other parts of the world. It’s all inspiring, great for research and a strong reminder of why I am in this.

What are your hopes for the future?

That we as a society take the theatre industry more seriously. The on-going crisis has shown how fragile this industry is without a paying audience. I think the importance of fringe, community and smaller theatres is not obvious to many people, and I hope this is not forgotten. I have been worrying about this a lot, and hope that as few theatres/companies as possible shut as a consequence of this. I hope we will come out of this with stronger links across the industry, and that we value these connections, emotionally and physically much more.

Feel free to add anything else you’d like to mention including any remote activity you’d like audiences to take part in or if have anything to plug.

I have been asked to write the music for ‘The Hatchling’, a spectacular outdoor event that will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s historic voyage from Plymouth to Massachusetts. This is now likely to be the 401st anniversary, but it’s going to be an awesome show for the people of Plymouth and the South West when it happens.

Obviously Caucasian Chalk Circle is going to be fab as well. It’s a community musical adaption of Brecht’s play. We have been working with the Doncaster community, in particular looking to involve those who are vulnerable; coincidentally people who are likely to be the most affected by lockdown. It will be a really emotional experience when we are finally able to release the creative energy that has building inside us all since lockdown began and bring extraordinary acts of theatre and community together.