“We get to decide what goes onstage”

Penny Babakhani on sustainable producing, the climate crisis, and leaving behind the ‘old world’ post-Covid

Almost a month ago, a strategy consultancy company called BritainThinks published a report on the findings of their research programme, ‘Coronavirus Diaries’. For three months, from April to June, they monitored the mood, news consumption, and opinions on the government, of fifty people– from a variety of backgrounds, occupations, and geographical locations across the UK. The participants ranged from small business owners, to self-employed and gig-economy workers, to non-frontline essential workers, to people working from home. To supplement this more personal level of data tracking, BritainThinks also polled a much larger pool of UK adults on two separate occasions in April and June.

You’ve probably seen the headlines summarising their findings. Only 12% of Britons want a return to life “exactly as it was” before the Coronavirus crisis, and for many, “the worst-case scenario is that the UK returns to ‘normal’”. When looking at areas for improvement, the emphasis was on increased funding for the NHS (60% of respondents indicated they’d be willing to pay higher taxes in order to do so), increased wages for key workers, and an economic revival effort evenly spread across the country (rather focused solely on London).

Amongst other findings about the volatility of public opinion, and division surrounding how to achieve substantial change, one of the most poignant findings came towards the end of the report, in a single phrase. There is a desire to see good come from this. 

Of all the people I’ve spoken to about the future of the Arts post-Covid, Penny Babakhani is one of the few who embodies that phrase. She feels the constant, pressing potential of this moment– for it to be a turning point; a rupture in our attitude to the climate crisis; a time for the radical re-thinking of the organisational landscape of theatre. 

She talks about pressing commercial theatre producers to commit to systemic change in the wry, tongue-in-cheek sort of way you might talk about trying to get a toddler to let go of the remote control. She is limitlessly determined to changing the apparatus of cultural hegemony, and if you haven’t heard her name before, get used to it– you’re going to be hearing it a lot more in the coming years. 

I sat down to chat to Penny about her hopes for this moment, how her values as a creative producer have developed in tandem with her understanding of sustainability, and the cultural legacy to which she is heir– a legacy which lies somewhere in the intersection between Iran, Germany, and the UK. 

Penny graduated with a degree in English Literature from Durham in 2016, before studying an MA in Creative Producing at Mountview– which she completed in 2017. Since then, she’s gone on to work at Selladoor in programming, production and administration– and she’s now on furlough from her role there as full-time Administrator. 

At the same time as doing all of this, she’s continued to develop shows as an independent producer, with her most recent sell-out show, Dual, at the Vault Festival earlier this year, winning a ‘Show of the Week award’, as well as garnering a huge critical response. People called it ‘electric’, ‘powerhouse writing’, and Lyn Gardner said it was ‘a form of liberation’. 

You might know her from a recent Stage feature, in which she discussed her decision to donate her entire furlough salary to funds in support of freelance theatre-makers, and encouraged other furloughed staff to do the same. Or you might know her from her insanely well-crafted and thoughtful Twitter threads, which are truly in a league of their own. 

She’s one of the few people I know who, when faced with circumstances that benefit her, only becomes more resolved to use those circumstances to lift other people up, and dismantle the systems that perpetuate those privileges. 

You can find Penny on Twitter @PennyBabakhani, and make sure to check out her recommended charity, Arts Emergency. You can find the tweet we discussed at 19:38, from Tarek Iskander, here

To find out more about Dual, read about it here, and here

You can also listen to this interview on our Soundcloud

“I was catapulted from the norm”

We chatted to Beth Botham about starting her own business, de-mystifying entrepreneurship for her audience, and comparison on social media

Beth Botham was not your typical seventeen-year-old. In the four months leading up to her A-level exams, she recalls having felt like she was leading a ‘double life’. Her time went by in an exhaustingly upside-down manner; as she studied by night, and underwent chemotherapy treatment during the day. 

 In February of 2015, she was diagnosed with Stage 2A Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, after having found a lump in her neck. The diagnosis revealed, in total, twelve tumors in her neck and chest. 

 Determined to complete her A-levels and attain her conditional university offer, she went on to surpass all expectations, and finished the treatment just five days before taking her exams– which she then went on to pass with flying colours. She went off to Nottingham University in September, and it was only when coming towards the end of her degree did she feel able to process the experience. 

 The result? Beth started Rejuvenate Kits— a line of cancer care kits, with the aim of providing for others the things she didn’t know she needed. They focus on remedying the side-effects of chemotherapy; with products such as organic shampoo and conditioner, essential oils for helping with hair regrowth, natural lip balms, green tea, and broccoli seeds. 

 Around the same time, Beth also started her Youtube channel, as a way of documenting her experiences starting the business, and presenting them to a younger audience in an accessible way. She explains of that time, “As I was going through it, I was learning so much, week on week, so I naturally just thought, ‘I want to put this somewhere, for my own pleasure’, and it was like an archive [… It felt like] a waste for me to go through it and keep it in my mind.” Last month, Beth was named one of the UK’s top 32 Female Entrepreneurs to look out for– and her audience is growing every day. She’s continued to expand her Youtube and Instagram platforms, and is now posting a huge mix of lifestyle, spirituality, relationship and financial advice videos. 

 As recently as 2018, a study by Natwest as part of their Everywoman program revealed that less than five percent of UK workers who identify as female actually own their own business. While the participation of women in the UK workforce is still on the increase, and while the nation-wide lockdown has seen an explosion of side-hustles and burgeoning online stores from small sellers, women have still been projected to bear the brunt of the economic fall-out of Covid-19, while also being more likely to suffer from increased maternity discrimination, increased childcare responsibilities, an increase in domestic abuse cases. And we’re not even mentioning an increasingly widening gender pay gap, made worse by the exemption of employers from having to file gender pay data for this year.

In the aim of continuing the discussion around the gendered nature of business, Emma and Kirsten sat down to chat with Beth, about her experience of being a young entrepreneur, and the first year of running her own business. We chatted about being underestimated in the workplace because of the bodies we inhabit, the difficulties of maintaining structured ‘work’ time when working from home, and Beth’s outlook on having been set apart from her peers at an early age.

Beth’s recommendations: 

You can find Beth’s products at rejuvenatekits.com, and subscribe to her Instagram and Youtube Channel to find out more about her upcoming projects.

You can also listen to this interview on our Soundcloud:

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