In September 2020 I was given the artist bursary award, in memory of Maurice O’Connell. I said that I would “explore how rituals and traditions have helped humans throughout history, but also how we could now repurpose and re-invent them for the new normal”.

I wrote this at a time when things seem to be getting easier. The sun was out, the windows open and Covid numbers falling. With the bursary money I intended to visit artists, seek advice, attend lessons, workshops and journey to Galicia in my van, home of Gaita bagpipe festivals and dancing in the streets.

However soon the autumn came bringing cold winds, closed windows and multiple lockdowns. All the things I had promised to do became either tricky, or plain illegal. There’s no denying it, this past winter was the harshest I’ve ever lived through and my grand dreams for the Maurice O’Connell Bursary seemed very distant. I’m still waiting to fulfill these plans, which hopefully will take place in some form this summer.

Yet, I’d be lying if I told you that I’d done nothing this past year (the title is written in jest) so here’s a report of what I did get up to instead. Hopefully all was not lost.

What I've been up to

Seamas Carey Image (c) Steve Tanner

The first thing this Bursary allowed me to do was call myself an artist.

Although it may sound silly, it’s taken me a while. Since dropping out of college at the age of 17 I’ve called myself a theatre musician, silent film pianist, multi-instrumentalist, performer, puppeteer, musical director, composer, choir leader, piano tuner, bloke and now finally – to sum it all up – an artist.

I’m not sure why it took so long, but I guess I worried it would sound too pretentious. I never knew what to say I “do” during small talk at the barbers. Normally I would say I “do music” and that would nip it in the bud. So thanks to Maurice for enabling me to move beyond that, I appreciate it.

Pagan Pandemonium

When I received the bursary I was already working on Pagan Pandemonium: The Outdoor Games. This show was dreamt up to be a large scale, outdoor, FREE, family friendly, Covid safe game show which would visit public spaces across Cornwall. Two local teams (households or family bubbles) would compete in ridiculous games for fairly impressive prizes. Sadly, this didn’t quite happen.

Read here for the full story - https://wildworks.org.uk/2020/11/guest-blog-seamus-carey/

However we did make a filmed, indoor version available now on YouTube:

The biggest challenge with this show wasn’t pulling it all together at the beginning, but rather the constant shape shifting and flexible thinking it involved towards the end. The goal posts kept changing; going from outdoors to inside; and from big audience to small audience, to eventually no audience. I rode the wave at the time, enjoying the madness (it has the word pandemonium in the title, so what did I expect?), but it left me feeling exhausted for a good while afterwards. Making live performance during Covid is hard work.

The main lesson leant from this project was; don’t attempt something too ambitious if you haven’t got the proper amount of money or time. Be realistic. Otherwise it inevitably comes down to you, the author, to loose a lot of sleep.

The other thing I took away from Pagan Pandemonium, was despite it being very different from the original plan, I felt a great sense of achievement in producing my own work. Over the past few years, I’ve been slowly stepping away from working for other people. For a long time that’s all I did. I loved the challenge of realizing a new collaborators’ ideas, bonding with a team and touring to new places. But deep down I knew that I was yearning to fulfill my own silly ideas and make them work.

I had to wean myself off working for other people, using cliché breakup lines as an excuse; “It’s not you, it’s me”, “I’m not in the right place for your project”, “I need to listen to the voice inside me”. Cringe. Starting a male voice choir (Men Are Singing) helped with this, as it was a weekly commitment that I loved dearly and would hate to miss. So any work clashing with choir rehearsals had to be really worth it.

The Maurice O’Connell Bursary couldn’t have come at a better time.

Theatre companies went silent, venues dark and there was nothing but time to dream of stupid projects. I should mention at this point that during the first lockdown I set myself up as SUPER TUNER, Cornwall’s youngest piano tuner. I had done the course a few months before, never intending on working full time, but now it seemed like a holy gift of forward thinking from my previous self.

I tune pianos on Mondays and Tuesdays, all over Cornwall for a huge variety of people and it keeps me afloat financially. I do a lot of driving, listening to audio books and talking to strangers about their pianos. It can get very boring and repetitive, so one must find oneself in a Zen-like state, attentive enough to tune accurately and not break strings, but zoned out enough to enable other thoughts to enters one’s mind.

In fact, some of my best ideas come when tuning pianos. It can be a very meditative state. Naturally, I’ve wondered whether I could make an art project about the wacky array of people I meet on my rounds, all very different yet connected by one thing in common, pianos. Maybe?

Mummers Plays and Embarrassing History

I’ve had an idea for a while now. It goes away but then comes back again. The sign of a good idea perhaps; it won’t leave me alone. I’m waiting on some funding to get it kick started, but here’s origins in the meantime:

During my research for Pagan Pandemonium I delved into Cornish, British and European history, folklore and rituals. Soon enough I came across Mummers Plays or ‘Mumming’. Although nothing leapt out at me in terms of solid content for a silly game, the style and format did linger on in my mind however.

Sure enough, during the winter months I found myself watching many hours of badly filmed YouTube videos of Mummers Plays from around Britain. This is a tradition that I did not grow up with and admittedly have learnt about second hand, through the small screen(s), yet in a funny way I’ve come to love them.

  • They’re often performed in pubs or social spaces
  • By non professional players from within the community
  • Usually in aid of some kind of charity around Christmas time
  • They often tell archetypal stories about King George, a quack doctor and some kind of resurrection
  • Also the baddie is probably a bit of a racist stereotype…

(I don’t love the last bit, obviously)

To me, this seems very fertile material to be messed about with. In some respects these community plays seems dated, out of touch and a little irrelevant. Nearly always performed by men (no surprise there) they’ve become a sort of rural reenactment/preservation culture club for local blokes in the village (you may disagree – do get in touch if so).

I love their bland format and set ways of delivery (In come I, King George am I) but also how sometimes they can be powerful and symbolic – an actor can enter representing a whole country (In come I, France am I). What could the contemporary version of that look like I wondered?

Whilst I was becoming quietly obsessed about these niche slices of Englishness, I found myself reading more and more about systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, many questions were asked about inequality on a global scale, but also on a local level.
What is racism like in Cornwall? What is it like to grow up as a person of color within this rural community? And in a place where there can be such a strong sense of Cornish identity, how inclusive really are the Cornish?

This led me to read more about race in Britain, slavery and colonialism. One thing that really struck me during this research is how little I was taught about The British Empire at school. We learnt about the slave trade, the abolitionists and the American Civil Rights movement. But very little was told to us about how Britain ruled so much of the world, and how we fucked so much of it up. This got me thinking.

I love community theatre. I love taking old, out-of-date cultural tropes and updating them. I hate how dishonest we are about ourselves as a nation, but would love to confront the awkward history in a creative way and use it to educate.

So I started imagining a large-scale community show, like a modern Mummers Play, which through engaging and familiar forms helps us tackle our terrible and embarrassing past, whilst being cathartic and strangely entertaining at the same time.

It has to be performed in a public space, by and for the community. It has to tackle issues such as race and colonialism, but ultimately be a positive experience.

Let’s be honest, there isn’t much work like that being made in Cornwall. In fact, very few theatre companies have ever employed people of colour, let alone told a story of this ilk. I’ve had exciting chats with Black Voices Cornwall and Cornwall Museums Partnership, who agree with the situation.

This as you can see is the start of an idea and there’s a long way to go. It needs work -shopping in different ways, debates and discussions and most importantly it needs to be made by a diverse team right from the start. It’s all well and good that I, a white Cornish male can have the idea, but whose story am I actually telling? The concept needs to be formed by a strong, multicultural creative team. Watch this space.

So I’m slowly getting this idea on its feet. It may take a while, but that’s ok. I’ve come to love my post Covid work structure; two days of piano tuning to pay the bills, followed by three ‘Art days’, where I chip away at making big things happen for the future.

Although I do have a tendency to let other ideas slip into view, which, without fully intending it, suddenly become major projects. Two such cases have happened lately and I’ve found myself presenting, composing and producing an ambitious six episode podcast series. Something I’ve never done before, but feel tremendously excited about.

Find out more 

Seamas will be writing his (non) activity report from the field part 2 very soon, watch this space for details. 

For more information on Seamas you can visit his website: seamascareymusic.com