Exploring Theatre Making and Mental Health through ACT NOW!'s Open Road
Drama programmes aren’t just about training the next generation of actors. Offering a wealth of transferrable skills and wellbeing benefits, they can inspire, challenge and connect communities, regardless of experience. ACT NOW!@The Corn Hall is a series of masterclasses that have been using creative skills to build confidence, gain useful work experience and have fun. Project assistant and participant Matt Kirkum talks us through his experience working with fellow young people to create Open Road, a collection of short films responding to the changing world around them.
Isolation, loneliness and disillusionment are all lockdown emotions we can relate to. This is not least the case for young people whose school or university experience is reduced to online learning and employment opportunities remain scarce. While perhaps the first lockdown inspired a host of ‘lockdown activities’, from baking banana bread to Joe Wicks workouts, its third iteration has been a far more challenging affair for young people.
According to a recent survey by Young Minds, 75% of 2,438 respondents aged between 13 and 25 “agreed that they have found the current lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones.” The overwhelming need for both human interaction and modes of self-expression has become palpable.
ACT NOW!@The Corn Hall was launched in November 2020 by project director Emma Bernard with the aim of appealing to a wide variety of young creatives in the Diss and South Norfolk area. The project was set to involve weekly sessions in which creative professionals would lead masterclasses in order to share their expertise. It sought to be a space in which young individuals could express themselves, collaborate with one another and ultimately stage a live theatre performance in March as a culmination of their creative endeavours.
However, in January, the nation was plunged into a third lockdown and the prospects of in-person workshops and a live theatre performance were totally diminished. Masterclasses were now to take place over Zoom as we found ourselves behind our familiar screens once again. This now tiresome virtual setting in which faces are reduced to tiny boxes perhaps does not immediately trigger thoughts of creative productivity. Nonetheless, thanks to the adaptability and ingenuity of professionals such as actor and playwright, Tyrone Huggins, it soon became a hive of creativity that extended far beyond the restrictions of the screen.
Movement director and choreographer Sarita Piotrowski enabled us to turn our bedrooms and living rooms into stages from which we could perform. The awkwardness one might associate with dancing on your own may have attracted a raised eyebrow from our fellow inhabitants but, to ourselves and the people on screen, we were in our own world of creative freedom.
‘…at a time when young people are feeling caged within their homes, emotional release through movement and play not only makes sense, but it is also truly beneficial.’
Actor Jason Watkins was recently quoted in The Times as saying: “Surreal silliness can sometimes make more sense of the world than a rational drama.” Certainly, at a time when young people are feeling caged within their homes, emotional release through movement and play not only makes sense, but it is also truly beneficial. Through these displays of “surreal silliness” a deep trust was built within our group. We felt at ease articulating our thoughts with one another, while peer encouragement stimulated our creative impulses.
During this time, our project had evolved from a live performance into an anthology film as we continued to adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic. Our film Open Road was inspired by Walt Whitman’s 1856 poem Song of the Open Road. Whitman’s poem tells of a freedom derived from leaving “indoor complaints” and setting foot on the open road. The poem was therefore a timely point of departure for the participants. While each of us began devising our own smart-phone-shot film chapters, it did not take long before another overarching theme slowly emerged. As each film idea was virtually shared, it soon became apparent that the film in its entirety would act as a patchwork quilt of young people’s lockdown experiences.
‘The openness to others, to collaborating and to self-expression are values that have epitomised the ACT NOW! project from the very beginning. It has developed our self-confidence and provided communication attributes which are invaluable in the world at large.’
While themes of isolation, mental health, tedium and uncertainty are indeed drawn upon, they are underpinned by a sense of hope and optimism for the future. It is a hope often visually communicated through our unique setting in South Norfolk. The beauty of our local natural surroundings becomes the tranquil retreat through which we, as filmmakers, reflect on and relinquish our lockdown angst.
Open Road was not simply the work of a collaboration between young people, but between young people and creative professionals as well. For it was always from our own ideas that discussions formed. Songwriter, composer and workshop facilitator Aga Serugo-lugo transformed our ideas into musical soundscapes while voice coach Hazel Holder used our own scripts to emphasise the importance of breath. So too did professional actors Sadie Clark, Kit Esuruoso and Lil Woods collaborate not only as masterclass leaders, but as performers and directors too.
ACT NOW! became a forum in which our collective instincts, hitherto laid dormant in the wake of multiple lockdowns, could flourish. The ‘openness’ of Open Road is what is perhaps most pertinent. The openness to others, to collaborating and to self-expression are values that have epitomised the ACT NOW! project from the very beginning. It has developed our self-confidence and provided communication attributes which are invaluable in the world at large. In a time of separation, Open Road stands not only as an insight into a young person’s experience of lockdown, but also as testament to the power of collaboration.
Open Road will premiere online at 7.30pm on Wednesday 31 March, with free tickets bookable here. Find out more about ACT NOW! and becoming involved by clicking here or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. ACT NOW! is supported by Norfolk & Norwich Festival as part of Creative Individuals Norfolk.
Masthead Image © Yoshi Shinagawa-Turner
Copy Image: Reflections © Lucy Bernard, Act Now! © Lucy Bernard