In the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, there were some creative organisations that never furloughed staff or stopped productions. In fact, charities like Lewisham Youth Theatre were working harder than ever to make sure our communities could stay connected.
On 17th March — the morning after Boris Johnson announced that we should work from home if we could — I walked in to the office (avoiding public transport) to make the transition for remote working. Already percolating in my head were plans for how we could continue to support our participants, most of whom face disadvantage and all of whom would be severely affected by the lockdown. At that time, 100 children and young people ages 8–24 were coming through our doors each week for creative sessions — and another 65 had signed up for projects that hadn’t yet started.
These young artists come to our free youth theatre activities each week to work together with people from different areas and backgrounds, different experiences and needs; to express themselves and to create live performances that are often moving, inspirational and push the boundaries of artistic form. Like many of our colleagues who use the arts to empower the most vulnerable in our society, there was never the thought in our minds that we had the option to let them down.
We had no idea how long we would be separated or when we would again have access to the physical spaces where we rehearse and perform. But our team of directors, facilitators and arts leaders came together that morning to find a way that we could continue the artistic work. We left that first meeting with some key goals that, it turns out, would guide us much longer than we initially conceived:
We would spend the Covid-19 lockdown creating opportunities for our participants to CONNECT with each other and their community; to CREATE and deepen their understanding of the arts and to creatively EXPRESS their experience of the current moment.
Within 2 weeks of lockdown, we were delivering online session via Zoom with all of our existing groups. Within 3 weeks, our actors aged 12–14 had delivered an online performance. Since then, we have continued to work with our groups to explore stories and characters that respond to the turmoil in the world around them; to write plays and perform together; to learn backstage skills like lighting, costume and make-up; and to develop what is essentially a new art form for the digital age. We have learned from other youth arts organisations and practitioners up and down the country — all of us trying to immediately develop a new way to serve our communities online with little support and less sustained funding.
We’ve made some interesting discoveries about what connects us by running our projects online: how being able to see others’ reactions on Zoom while you stream a play gives a different context and meaning to the performance than watching it alone; how young people’s experiences and voices often resonate deeply in a digital space; how what we most desire during this time is the chance to greet each other, laugh with each other, to ask and to hear ‘How are you doing?’
It’s not the seamless glitz of a film that we’re missing — for that we have Netflix. What we’re craving is the raw expression of where we are as humans, and the chance to be with others as we jointly recognise that.
Few but the most well-funded production companies produce broadcast-quality theatre — and there’s a reason for that. Theatre is not an art that you can sit back and consume placidly from your sofa. Theatre is an art about connection. It’s about how we –as an audience — connect to each other as we watch an event together; how we connect to what is created onstage and how the performers connect to and feed off us. And most importantly, it’s about how we connect to the ideas and emotions emanating from the stage so that — in the best scenario — we all (audience, performers, creatives and stage crew) spill out from the experience armed with the humanity to transform our lives and the world around us. How often can you say you’ve had that experience weighed down by a bowl of popcorn in your living room?
As we consider how the world of theatre might look in the post-Covid-19 era, let’s remember what the arts actually give us (and what audiences actually pay for) — Connection. It’s this connection that needs to be protected and nurtured — not just the plush seats of a socially-distanced auditorium.
If we are to rebuild a theatre that is relevant and vital to our society, then it is connection — to the voices, needs and passions of our diverse communities — that must be at the centre of our business models. How will we build an audience of the future without it?