The young people we work with have not closed down so why would Open Theatre? We don’t.

Open Theatre is still very much in action during this strange and challenging time. And the main focus, as it always is for us, is the young people and young adults we work with. People we have connected with may be at school, through another arts organisation or often just by chance. We were hugely disappointed about having to cancel our tour of Hansel & Gretel after only reaching a few of our booked venues, but it has been fantastic to find ways to still share the production with as many people as possible through the promotion of a film of the show online. We plan to do more of this kind of work with other films that we have made over the past few years.

”Open Theatre is still very much in action during this strange and challenging time.”

There’s great value in doing this: continuing to engage with a wider audience, giving longevity to the work we do and so on, and even reaching new audiences we might not reach in any other way. What we realise though is it can never replace the core of what we do at Open Theatre, in that our practice relies on immediate connection and interaction with groups of people in the same space. For us, there is an inherent contradiction between online digital work and the ways that we have developed over many years to effectively engage with the young people we work with.

Can Zoom and other digital platforms help us overcome this contradiction?

We need to be careful not to fall for the illusions that digital interactions like these can create. For example, we may think we are making eye contact with whoever we are talking to on a screen but, in fact, we are just looking at pixels – and all the subtle, important, non-verbal communication that goes on between people through eye-contact is lost. In effect, we are left with relying on the information contained in the spoken words to let us engage and connect with everyone on the screen. This is possibly why it is so much easier when you are communicating through these platforms to do so with people who you already know well, and consequently where there is already a great deal of common experience to support this form of communication. It is perhaps also why those people who are heavily reliant on words to communicate usually are thriving in these times! But we do have to seriously consider what this means for the majority of people we work with who are less likely to communicate verbally.

I am finding it really is challenging – and I am not afraid to say that out loud. Why are more people not opening up about this? It’s okay! I am attempting to run three live zoom sessions every week for our participants and I am probably the least technical person in our company. Many of our participants find this hugely comical so at least that starts the session off in a fun way. But I am there. And we laugh about how long it takes me to share one video with everyone. But the point is, I am there and so are they. And we talk. And I will battle all my fears of technology to be there for that. And maybe that is the only real moment of proper connection for some of our participants in their entire week. Because isn’t that ultimately what the Arts is all about? Whatever things look like at the end of this time, I really don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to stay connected and find ways to learn even more about the artists of the future. That is who we are working with and we need to keep nurturing that creativity and finds ways to encourage them to stay connected, particularly at a time like this.

”I really don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to stay connected.”

I am also beginning to realise that many of our participants have chosen to disengage because they just don’t want to Zoom. Fair enough!! (I really am beginning to relate to that feeling.) And others don’t even have the luxury of that choice – a large percentage of the people we work with do not have regular access to a computer or the internet. This situation is not what we are used to and we are not going to be able to quietly slide back into the way things were. I am starting to accept this and am beginning to figure out how we can continue the work Open Theatre does but informed by what we are doing now in this different world. And not only informed, but enhanced by it, for every situation we encounter gives us a chance to learn and to improve what we do for others and how we do it. This situation has forced us so radically to look at how we engage and communicate and that it is vital for us to seize upon the rare and unexpected opportunity we have been given and the unforeseeable lessons we are learning.

 

Written by Melissa Daly