In times of adversity, creativity doesn’t grind to a complete halt – how else do you think theatre has survived since its birth in Ancient Greece over 2,500 years ago? Instead it adapts to the conditions in which it finds itself, making the most of the options available. In the case of the coronavirus crisis, online technologies have helped to facilitate the growth of a new medium and give voices to the many who may have expected to find themselves out in the cold when everything went dark.
The latest project to come to fruition is #IsolationEnsemble, a company formed by director Abbie Riddell to raise urgent funds for theatres across the UK; it was created in response to April’s 2.6 challenge, which provided the idea of forming a company of 26 creatives. The plan is to distribute money raised between the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, Wiltshire Creative, and the Birmingham Hippodrome; the photos dotted around this post were taken last year at the first three venues on that list – these theatres are obviously vital for local communities, but do also draw in visitors from across the country.
While we wrestle with the precarious state of closed theatres, cancelled festivals, and empty cinemas, Isolation Ensemble features a verbatim script; it draws in real people’s words (ranging from wise to silly, but always honest) heard by those “we love, have loved and want to love”. Some of these stories will probably sound rather familiar…
The cast includes: Sophie Powles (Emmerdale), Lucy Aarden (Game of Thrones, The Show Must Go Online: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III), Rianna Ash (War Horse), Becky Mills (Curious Pheasant Theatre), Rory Dulku, Matt Fitzgerald, Luke Palmer, Jack Boal (a.k.a. Grace Fool), Joseph Scatley, Bobbi Blaza, Sophie Mensah, Ruth Mestel (Shifting Tides Festival), and Edward Crook.
I chatted to Lucy Aarden to find out more…
What made you want to get involved in this project?
I wanted to do something to help raise money for some of the very special regional arts organisations across the country that are struggling so catastrophically at the moment. The Birmingham Hippodrome, Royal Exchange Theatre, Wiltshire Creative and Belgrade Theatre are all important to Isolation Ensemble’s members in different ways. I’m also fascinated by the idea of verbatim theatre; the art of combining real words spoken or heard during lockdown without directly commenting on the ‘situation’ explicitly. You get a lot of energy from working with other inspiring performers – even over video chat – and I was keen to continue to devise in a stimulating creative theatre space, albeit a virtual one, regardless of the circumstances.
The script is made up of real things people have said – is there anything in there that you particularly identified with, or perhaps were surprised by?
Each week the 26 of us would work in different groups to share honest words of wisdom, and silly but truthful stories, with the common theme of navigating through the varying stages of love, singledom and relationships. I was surprised at how comfortable we felt as a cast so soon after meeting one another in this online format, and particularly how vulnerable people were prepared to be in the group’s company. Even the simplest of one-liners made us laugh out loud or could move us in such a way that it would impact the direction of the piece. Without giving too much away, one of the stories concerning the outcomes of lying on a dating app particularly tickled me. Isolation Ensemble’s meetings became a safe space where we could open up to each other about the things that were impacting our lives and relationships, not just to other people, but also ourselves.
How do your experiences of performing in online theatre compare with the ‘real thing’?
Its strange how your sense of connection to your fellow actors is still very much present with online theatre; the frizzle of excitement during an improvised scene as the rest of the group watches on, or the sense of intrigue as someone pulls you into a story they’re sharing in a video chat rehearsal. The direction from Abbie Riddell was playful and provocative, forcing us to think on our feet and come up with authentic, unexpected responses to the stimuli. We managed to unite actors from across the UK without the constraints of travel and we still got to spend time improvising, using props and experimenting with ideas for costume. Of course, as fellow Ensemble member Bobbi Blaza stated, “I don’t think it could ever replace live theatre and nor should it”. We long for the audience interaction, eye contact, and rush of endorphins you get from a rehearsal room but during this strange time, I’ve found immense gratitude in Isolation Ensemble for helping me to feel busy, encouraging my fellow actors and keeping some hint of what theatre provides alive.
Isolation Ensemble will be available on YouTube from 6 July 2020.