Look Mum! I Made a Show on Zoom – Anne Langford writes

Posted on November 6th, 2020

A poster for 'The Young Coney's School for Grown Ups'.

This week on the blog, Young Coneys Circle 2 Runner, Anne Langford, writes on her experiences with the Young Coneys over this past year, creating the Young Coneys School for Grown Ups totally online, and the rhythm and challenges of freelance facilitation in ever changing circumstances.

It’s early March 2020 and on a call with Toby and we decide that our next Young Coney’s session should probably happen online. And I’m thinking – what does that even mean?

Our last three sessions have included; building a huge model of Tower Hamlets and designing interventions we think the borough needs, a trip to Battersea Arts Centre to play an interactive game, and creating a set of story cards we used to generate and perform our own stories. All involving close physical contact and big movements. Now I have to do that on Zoom, a piece of video conferencing software.

Who can access the equipment, the technology and WiFi to join in? How do we keep everyone safe? Will the seven and eight year olds be able to cope with the technology? Will I? How do I make something engaging, playful and creative in these tiny windows on my laptop?

Our first online session is the Saturday before the national lockdown is announced. I feel sure that we will be working this way for some time. It makes me feel a bit sick, how can we sustain this?

Community arts practitioners are constantly in a state of reinvention. We always have to work within the boundaries determined by the wants and needs of the people we are working with, and the often limited resources we have. My practice also centres ethical decisions, it’s not enough to strive to make art – my process has to respect the rights of everyone involved in the making, and give away as much power as I can. The context of a global pandemic means we have to adapt quickly and step up our care for the Young Coney’s, and their families.

In ‘A Restless Art’, Francois Matarasso observes that community artists are like guides on a journey. We have travelled this route before, and collected some tools and experience that can support us, but each journey is unique. I sense the strange vertigo I’m feeling is because, for me, this process is heading way off routes I have travelled before and into ‘Here be monsters’ territory.

Pivoting my practice to work online has been a huge challenge. The generosity of my community of theatre makers, the Youth Theatre Covid WhatsApp group in particular, has shared resources and encouragement. It’s solidarity in action. But I  miss being able to sense the energy of the room, to offer personal moments to the Young Coney’s to encourage, challenge or support them. I miss the physicality of an embodied practice, I feel cramped in my Zoom square.

But – but – together we find a way. It turns out Werewolf is great fun, games of go fetch and balancing things on ourselves provide some hilarious moments. A menagerie of pets make us laugh and coo. We imagine and write and draw and play and tell stories and jokes. Some of the Young Coney’s thrive, comfortable in their own space they speak more and share more. Some of the Young Coney’s struggle with this format and stop coming to sessions. Some of them never start our online journey. I miss them and we check in and send letters. As the year turns to Autumn we hold space for each other through illness, despondency, fear and excitement. And we make. We make so much. It’s thrilling.

We work out how a combination of tools; short videos, a mobile phone platform, Twine, Whereby and Zoom can enable us to tell playful stories. At times I panic feeling out of my depth. Then I notice the similarities with so many other processes – were we improvise and riff off each other’s strengths and interests. It’s all always just making it up together. My role is still to encourage and invite Young Coney’s to trust their ideas, to be bolder and more playful.

Together with Toby, and a brilliant team of facilitators we create a School for Grown Ups. The Young Coney’s devise a playful curriculum of things that they think grown-ups should learn, and create a suite of lessons. We shape the final piece with care, of Young Coney’s and our audience, and playfulness at it’s heart. It becomes a week long durational performance with moments of live Zoom performance, short videos and a digital school to explore.

We do all this in about 20 hours, a two hour session twice a month, a couple of holiday sessions and a rehearsal. The balance between creating a meaningful process in which the Young Coney’s have agency and an engaging show is tricky. It’s hard to give over decision making, technical construction and leadership to young people in their kitchens and front rooms and bedrooms

And then – it’s done. As the School for Grown Ups Graduation Zoom ends I’m sitting at my desk wondering if the Young Coney’s realise how extraordinary it is that we have made something in this way. I hope they have a sense of achievement and pride and desire to make more. We share the brilliant feedback we receive from the adults who took part. I wonder how to create connection to a piece of digital work you have made but don’t experience the full sharing of? How can the Young Coney’s ‘sit at the back of the room’ and see the adults enjoy their work?

Another journey comes to a close, definitely a route less travelled. So many new tools and experiences gained. My extraordinary year with Young Coney’s is done. So it’s back to the beginning, because it somehow always is, to meet a new group of people and know nothing and set out on an adventure and bring something new into being together.

Thank you to the Backstage Trust and Derwent London Community Fund for their generosity, without which, this project couldn’t have happened.

About Anne Langford

I make theatre, as a devisor, director, performer and facilitator. I make theatre happen as a producer, coach and mentor to other artists.

A lot of my work is with people who aren’t professional artists. I’m driven by my values of creativity, generosity, integrity, rigour and kindness.

I’m inspired by half-forgotten and rarely told stories; by landscapes, justice and injustice, and by the human potential for transformation.  I’m curious about the place of theatre today, the form it takes, and the power it has to enact transformation amongst communities and individuals. I create work that is bold, humorous, and physical; that engages the imagination and has emotional resonance, and that explores contemporary issues using images, archetypes, and traditional modes of storytelling.  Inherent in all my work is a strong desire to explore how the relationship between the performer and the audience can be a dynamic one.  I work with communities, people are at the heart of what I do.  I make work in and for theatre, and non-theatre spaces.

You can read more about the Young Coneys programme here.

If you’d like to donate to Coney, and help us continue our offer of a rolling education in making play to spark change, you can do so here.

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