Making music theatre in a pandemic

A socially distanced outdoor meeting in session at Walpole Old Chapel

This project took life again as the world was in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the creative team had not worked in the same physical space as other artists for 9 months by the time of our residency at Walpole Old Chapel. A lot of us had experienced cancellation and postponement of work, and some had been shielding due to health risks. We asked team members how they felt leading up to the residency in December 2020.

I became increasingly nervous and dispondent about taking part as the start date for the residency approached. I even considered not taking part. I feared it would be impossible to do my job under the circumstances and that the measures we had to take to avoid infection would distract and dominate to the point of obliteration of the creative process. I worried this would mean we had risked our health for nothing.

I won’t pretend I wasn’t anxious – after so much time spent not performing, and indeed not with other people, I had no idea how I was going to cope with either. All performers feed off one another’s energy and I wasn’t sure how much I had to offer. 

I was really excited to be involved in a proper, ‘normal’ creative project after a long time with nothing. Having creative conversations and using my skills and knowledge felt good, without too much pressure on outcomes.

The project team, led by our brilliant producers, put in place a variety of practical measures to mitigate against the risk of covid-19 infection, including plastic sheeting, screens, masks, social distancing, outside working, limited social interaction and ventilation. We asked the team how this felt.

Made me feel very safe, but obviously it was cold! However, I really enjoyed the walks, as we pretty much laughed all the way which was joyous – having that connection again with other creatives/performers. 

It can always feel clunky having to wear a mask a lot. I was surprised how much I got used to it. You are constantly aware of everyone else’s safety though.

The COVID safety measures meant that our workshop and rehearsal process was dramatically different and in many ways restricted. However this new way of working also presented creative possibilities that may not have arisen had we not been given this new perspective. The team reflected on how this impacted their ability to carry out their role.

The social distancing meant that the company couldn’t work on some of the more physical attributes of the piece, so everything was very static. On one hand, this meant that the very sparse physical moves that did occur, had a powerful effect. But in a non-covid setting, a great deal more of ‘movement’ would have been allowed.

The main issue from my perspective was positioning. You want to be seen as clearly as possible, when conducting, without appearing to be the main character. This was difficult with the distances needed. There were also issues balancing the instruments and the voices. 

Sifting through the potential difficulties provoked some interesting ideas – do we do a silent version with recorded music etc? It got the creative juices going and made us rethink how we approach performing. I found that very interesting. 

Despite the differences in our processes, and lack of opportunities to socialise, team bonds were quickly established, and a warm, supportive sense of company developed. We asked everyone why and how they thought we were able to achieve this.

It was fantastic. We gelled so fast as a company, and perhaps the adversity pushed that along. But Emma and Aga were the perfect director and MD for it – they created that space for us as much as anything.

Being able to do warms up outside before every rehearsal helped us grow together and feel stronger as a company.

There is a bond shared with people that have had the same destabilising experience. If you’ve battled the obstacles in parallel with each other there’s a sense that you’ve known each other for longer.

Final words and reflections from our amazing company…

I loved feeling part of a community of players who came together to do battle with a pandemic and an amazing piece of work. A joy. 

For me it was amazing to do this wonderful piece in Walpole. Walpole Chapel has been struggling to define itself and this piece gave it a voice in a time when it is trying to redefine its identity. Everyone benefited – the music, the company, the community and the chapel. 

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