Open Theatre's Melissa Daly discusses how the company has been working under lockdown.

When the difficult decision to temporarily close our doors was made in March, one of the first shows we were forced to cancel was The Twisted Tale of Hansel and Gretel – a quirky retelling of the fairy tale by Open Theatre Company.

Based in Coventry, Open Theatre are one of our long-term partners, having run a range of workshops and special events at the Belgrade. Using primarily non-verbal physical theatre techniques, they work with a wide range of young people with learning disabilities (YPWLD), creating quality art and challenging perceptions about YPWLDs’ ability to contribute to the creative and cultural life of the places where they live.

Of course, this is work that relies on their ability to build long-term relationships with their participants, responding to their individual strengths and needs through regular in-person contact. As such, the lockdown has presented major challenges for the company – but they’re challenges that both staff and the young people they work with have risen to remarkably well.

As well as regular Zoom meetings with their weekly groups (in some cases adapted to suit particular individual needs) and constant contact with parents and schools, they’ve also been creating a series of videos breaking down their methods of working, showing viewers how to try out some of their techniques at home.

We enjoyed their “Open Theatre opens up” videos so much that going forwards, we’ll be sharing one on our website and our social media channels every Friday and you can watch the first one below.

This week, we also spoke to Create Lab Associate Melissa Daly about some of the work they’ve been doing during lockdown.

The Twisted Tale of Hansel and Gretel was on tour when theatres started closing and the lockdown began. Talk us through your initial response and what happened in the first few days.

It was a huge shock to begin with. One of the first things we had to do was to make a decision on the performances that were happening that week, because we needed to prepare the performers and the company and let everyone know.

When the theatres started cancelling shows, we still hadn’t gone into full lockdown, yet so we made a point of meeting up with all of the company at Birmingham Hippodrome just before it closed, just to talk through what had happened. At that point, only the Belgrade and Attenborough Arts Centre that had said that our show definitely couldn’t go ahead with them, so I think we were still hopeful that we might be able to go ahead with the rest of the tour after that.

Of course, the news is changing all the time, so we’ve had to do it in stages. We’re still meeting every week via Zoom with the Hansel and Gretel company and with all of our regular groups just to make sure everyone’s okay.

You’ve been continuing with your weekly sessions via Zoom. How does that work? What elements of your work are you able to continue doing remotely?

In addition to the Hansel and Gretel Zoom, we have three other regular groups: a younger group for 8-16-year-olds which usually meets on a Wednesday afternoon at the mac in Birmingham; our One of a Kind 18+ group, which meets on Thursdays at the Hippodrome; and then our Friday group, which usually meets at Birmingham REP, and is made up of young people who have identified that they would like to pursue a career in the arts.

We’ve been running these sessions at the same time as they would normally take place. With the first two groups, we do a few warm-ups and activities, and I’m able to play some music to them through Zoom which helps. We’re also setting weekly creative challenges, which is a way of using their time during the week when we’re not seeing each other, and is something that can then be shared with the group. So for example, one week, we all made masks, which we then used for an activity during the next session.

It has been quite challenging managing lots of different personalities when everyone wants to talk at the same time, and it’s definitely not as easy as having everyone in the same room together, but we’re getting there, and I think for most of the young people we work with, just having that connection once a week is the most important thing.

We’ve had so many parents say to us that they look forward to it all week, and if we didn’t have that, things would be much more challenging for them at home. So we’re less focused on what we can produce creatively, and more focused on maintaining that connection and communication with the young people.

With the Friday group, we’ve been doing more project-based work. In the past we’ve made some films with them, and created an immersive experience at the REP. Some of them are working on their Silver Arts Award, so we’ve been sending tasks for them to do at home and looking at their wok over email. Our hope is that we might be able to create something together, because it’s a much smaller group so it’s easier to manage, and actually I know all of the young people in that group really well.

I think the big struggle that I’ve found is with people that I knew less well to begin with. If you don’t know someone already, it’s really difficult to build that connection for the first time on camera. It feels like you’re making eye contact but you’re not, you’re staring at a screen. There’s a lot lost in Zoom. I do feel like we’re limited, and I think it’s good to be honest about that. But we’re just trying to work through what we can, and as ever, the focus is always on the individuals that we work with and finding out what’s right for them.

Working with such a wide range of people at different ages and with different needs and requirements sounds complicated. You said that you’ve been chatting to everyone about how they feel about the situation – how do you think they’re getting on?

It’s a real mixture. Some people are thriving and love it. I think a lot of young people are managing it better because they’re much more used to getting online and doing stuff. I’m not the most technical person so we’ve had a lot of laughter over the fact that I can’t quite work things, which has been a good ice-breaker!

However, there are some of our young people who don’t want to go on Zoom – it’s just not for them and they get very anxious about it. So that’s been a real challenge. But we’re doing our best: for example, for one young man who we work with really closely, we’ve been making videos of our sessions and sending them to his parents. He doesn’t want to watch the videos himself, but his parents have been watching them and narrating to him what’s happened in them, which he has absolutely loved. So we’ve found a way to keep him involved that feels comfortable for him.

Another really big thing we’ve had to deal with is the fact that a lot of our participants don’t have internet at home, or don’t have computers. It’s really frustrating to get messages from parents saying they’d love to join the Zoom, but they can’t. It’s not something we can solve easily, but we’re making sure we stay in touch with them via phone and email as much as we can.

How did you start creating your Open Theatre Opens Up… videos?

It’s been very much a case of ‘try it and see’ because we obviously didn’t have a lot of time to plan it! The idea came about because we have about 12 partner schools in Birmingham and two or three in Coventry, which we usually go into once or twice a week, so we were conscious that not doing that would be leaving a gap for them.

Although some of our staff have had to be furloughed, we’ve got a team of freelancers that we work with who are contracted until the end of May, so they’ve been a huge help with creating these videos at home, and enabling us to offer something to the schools and the families of those young people so that they can still engage with the work we do in some way. They’ve been fantastic and I don’t know what I would have done without them.

So we started with the warm-up, because that’s what we start with in our sessions, we sent it out to a few headteachers to find out whether they thought it would be useful, and they were really positive about it, so we’ve carried on from there.

I think it’s important to say we don’t think that we’ve completely cracked it yet. For example, I’m now in the process of setting up some parent Zooms, because we understand that a lot of parents might not feel confident doing our activities at home, so we’re trying to find ways that we can support them and help adapt the activities where necessary.

How are you feeling about the situation at the moment? Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

I think at the moment the most difficult thing is that it’s hard to plan anything. It’s strange to be in a situation where every day is waking up and working out where we’re currently at with things, rather than looking a few weeks ahead. Without knowing what’s going to happen with schools and venues, it’s a bit of a scary place to be, because I have no idea how sustainable the Zoom sessions will be.

In a way we just need to accept it and wait and see, but that’s difficult when you have participants asking questions about when we can go back to the Hippodrome, and having to explain to them that we don’t know.

I think the only way that we can deal with this is through a connected effort from lots of different people and organisations in the arts. I’m really conscious that as a company we want to be working with partners like yourselves at the Belgrade, because none of us are experts on this situation and I don’t think it’s something any of us can work out on our own.

But for the time being, we’re doing it and learning things and I think that’s amazing. As I say, I’m not a technical expert, but I’ve picked up a few things. There’s real potential for us all to come out of this with so many more skills than we had before – but only if we’re honest and talk to each other and share what’s going well and what isn’t.