This week saw the culmination of more than 3 months’ work creating a show with our Youth Theatre. What started as a seed of an idea, grew into a show.  One day back in February when the days were wet and dark and I was madly, and with great hope beginning my master seed growing project in the greenhouse, I was reading a book about participatory art, and it described a show where the cast moved under trees in to the light as the sun moved overhead. And I could see it. I could see the exact spot in the arboretum we love to perform in, I could see the cast stood encouraging the audience to stop, listen and look up. To be present in the show for a moment of quiet. And then I cried. It was the first creative thought about a show I had had in 12 months. It was the beginning. 

Reflecting on the year we had all collectively had, 2 words kept returning to me. Joy and Gather. We had lost a bit of both. We had lost the opportunity to gather in any format – whether to socialise, sing, watch – it had gone. And we had forgotten how it felt to do it safely without fear. I wanted to create a space where an audience and cast could gather together without anxiety and worry. Joy had also gone. I mean, not totally, many of us still found joy but it became harder. I am a permanent optimist, I find all manner of the absurd and sweet joyful, but if even I was struggling some days, I could only imagine what it felt for others who did not find it as easy as I. So, Joy and Gather had to be at the heart of what we created. It’s driving force, it’s beating centre.  

I worked with all our groups on zoom to make poems about what brought them joy. Wrote them down and kept them safe. We started to explore the idea as a staff team of doing an outdoor performance in July. Could we do it? Would we be able to? Would it be safe to? We made the decision to go for it. 

The biggest hurdle would always be that we couldn’t rehearse them all together. We had to rehearse the whole play in small pieces in separate groups only coming together at the end. How hard could it be?

The first week back in the room in April, out comes the sticks, the plates, the juggling balls. Better get them all up to speed. Our normal work involves creating physical movement pieces, but we are a bit scuppered because we can’t touch each other. So, we fall back on old favourites of creating sequences. Many many sequences. 

We move sites, the wonderful team at Forestry England offer their garden at The Queens House in Lyndhurst. I am totally won over by the buttercups, the lawn and the trees. 

The glorious designer Lizzie comes on board. It doesn’t take much time before she totally gets the vibe of this odd ball, rehearsed-in-separation piece of theatre, and we are off. Giant ducks, massive banners, space hoppers, bath tubs, deckchairs and a trapeze. It’s a surreal mix of the sweet; the silly and – hopefully – the beautiful. 

As we creep closer to the final rehearsal – our first rehearsal with the whole company on site for the very first time, we bring in Maia and Ryan. Circus skills specialists and downright marvels. They take all the ground work that we have done, jazz it up, add some magic, some expert eyes and boom we have some scenes. All the while the team is prepping, Dom has slid in with his technical pizazz. 

However, outside of our little bubble the world isn’t too kind. Creating theatre is always a precarious thing, the stakes are always high and so much can go wrong. Creating theatre with young people adds another level of uncertain as we deal with anxieties, friendships, confidence issues. Creating theatre in Covid times means that the whole thing is balanced on an ever crumbling, unstable mountaintop, anything, even the gentle hoof of a goat could bring an avalanche of consequences tumbling down. We devastatingly lost Max earlier in the term, and as we get to the show others fall, thank fully less hard, but to isolations, food poisoning and tonsillitis. We are shedding cast members, it’s a scary, wobbly time. Endless problem solving, re-rehearsing, picking ourselves back up and trying again. Resilience is the word of the moment and our wonderful cast and crew have it in bucket loads. The shadow of positive tests and isolations looms over and around us as we edge ever closer to having an audience. 

Monday arrives. Costumes on, props set, music cued, dress rehearsal achieved. On to the lawn wander our first audience, enchanted by the garden and the house, and the music. I cue the cast and they scamper down to show plate spinning, hoop catching, juggling, the odd cart wheel and a wholly unexpected human pyramid. We are off. 

I can’t describe the show. As is said, you kind of had to be there. I can say that along with the mirror balls, sunflower umbrellas, poetry corridor, some smart hat juggling, some massive bubbles and a grumpy gardener, was a cast with the most incredible energy, professionalism, kindness and skill. With boundless joy, an enormous helping of team work and a touch of mischief they brought smiles to the faces of all our audience members. The show was not designed to make people laugh til they cried. It was all about the smile. The smile of recognition, of disbelief, of recognition, of joy. 

I will never be able to express my gratitude to the cast for what they gave each other, the team and me. After 18 months of uncertainty, the opportunity to gather and share joy was glorious. They filled up my heart and I shall be forever grateful to them for making me fall back in love with making theatre. To my extraordinary cast and crew. I salute you. 

(Exit to the Benny Hill theme tune)

Lucy Phillips

Creative Learning Director 

Photo credits: Michelle House and Robin Small