By Tess Farley, Associate Artist
23 April 2021
On 16th March 2020, I was en-route to Joker Anna, a Mind the Gap forum theatre production and workshop exploring pregnancy and parenthood in people with Learning Disabilities, for an audience of trainee social workers at Huddersfield University. That morning, as I arrived at Manchester Victoria, I received a phone call. We needed to postpone the show due to COVID-19.
That was the first show postponed for me personally: it foretold the challenging times that were to come, but none of us could have guessed how long our entire worlds as we knew them would grind to a halt for, or the myriad challenges we’d face in our industry. The adaptability, drive and commitment to ensuring theatre still reached audiences and people who may not typically be able to access the arts from arts organisations and freelancers has been commendable.
I’m proud to be Associate Artist at Mind the Gap and looked on with admiration as the company shifted rapidly, ensuring Academy students were still able to access provision digitally, developing Creative Doodle Book and adapting work to be engaged with digitally.
As the pandemic continued and it seemed we were in for the long haul, many of us began to think creatively about how theatre can still reach audiences. For those of us specialising in Theatre of The Oppressed, about how Theatre can still be used to create meaningful dialogues. Theatre as a rehearsal for action.
That’s the Purpose of Anna. Part of a series of work, Daughters of Fortune, exploring pregnancy and parenthood in people with Learning Disabilities, and grounded in five year’s research, the play was written and produced to tour to a range of non-theatre venues. Pre-pandemic, Anna toured country-wide, everywhere from universities to local authorities, to explore with professional and trainee midwives, social workers and others, as well as with audiences with Learning Disabilities, how we can overcome the complex barriers many parents with Learning Disabilities face.
How would we make sure this important work still reached audiences and acted as a vehicle for important dialogues and positive change to take place, in the midst of a pandemic that wasn’t showing any signs of defeat?
We would need to adapt. To find new and exciting means of engaging with audiences.
In August 2020 I received a call from Joyce, Mind the Gap’s Resident Director, explaining that Mind the Gap would like to turn the Anna anti-model into a film and digital Forum Theatre workshop. Joyce’s initial vision excited me. I’d been thinking deeply about film and theatre, having just made and produced a film in lockdown which was grounded in theatre practice. This wasn’t to be theatre filmed, from two or three static camera angles; this was to be theatre brought alive through film – there’s a difference.
As the Joker/Facilitator and on-tour director for Anna, could I direct this film/theatre hybrid? At the point I was asked, I had no idea quite how we’d make it happen, but I believed we could and would. I jumped at the chance.
Fast forward to January 2021 and we have an incredible team on board. Designer, Caitlin Mawhinney has brought Anna’s world to life in three dimensions in our studio theatre, but geared for that world being experienced by our audience through the lens of a camera. Film Maker Brett Chapman and I have been working to plan how we bring this story to life through film: storyboards have been completed. Deborah Dickinson, Senior Producer, is working hard to ensure shooting can take place, to ensure it’s a COVID-safe environment for all. Production Manager Ben Pugh has made our vision a technical reality. Charli Ward, Anna’s creator and Academy Director has been overseeing the work, supporting myself and the cast. Stage Manger Luke James is on board, taking on a dual SM/Script Supervising role to ensure everything runs like clockwork. Myself and our brilliant cast, Zara, Daniel and Alan, supported by the wonderful Leah, have re-blocked and adapted the play for film, socially distanced, but set in a non-Covid world (mind blown!)…and then…we’re postponed again!
Fast forward once more to March 2021 and we’re rehearsing again. There’s a palpable sense of willing this shoot to go ahead. Shoot Day 1 arrives: PCR and lateral flow testing is complete. We’re ready to Roll! Standby….action.
Four days later, after a stellar effort from the entire team (including our Designer re-training to do the Clapperboard), we wrap Anna.
For many of us, this has been the first time we’ve worked in a room with other people, doing our jobs in a shared space, for a very long time.
There have been countless challenges to overcome, not least shooting and blocking socially distanced. Perhaps the most bizarre overcoming-Covid-challenge moment was a spontaneous idea to ask the cast to use a stick (a bamboo cane measuring exactly 2 metres, which we re-purposed for socially distanced blocking) to poke Brett with, all in the name of art (sorry Brett). We were shooting Point of View takes, meaning the camera had to ‘become’ the eyes of a character, so I asked the cast to poke Brett with the stick on the corresponding shoulder when they felt their character would look in another direction… thankfully Brett rolled with the idea in good faith, despite the wackiness of it all.
In spite of the challenges we faced, both inside and outside of the Studio, this production has been a joy to make: from the entire cast and crew bellowing “Egg! Egg! Egg!” together in unison during warm – ups (don’t even ask), to the warm and focused environment every person in the team helped create for us to work in, to Caitlin’s tiny model of our clapperboard for the 100 slate moment. I’ve felt privileged to creatively lead such an incredible team, and beyond proud of the work we’ve created in the face of challenges we’d never before encountered. Above all, I’m delighted that this first venture back into creating work together in shared spaces has been such a joy, from start to finish. We have every single amazing person who helped make Anna online happen to thank for that.
As I write, we are nearing completion of the edit for the film, and plans are being made to launch the work online, with a digital workshop with students at Royal Holloway. We can’t wait to share it with you, and to celebrate Mind the Gap’s important work with Daughters of Fortune still being able to reach audiences, spark important conversations, and hopefully impact the lives of parents with Learning Disabilities for the better.
Keep an eye for more details from us about Anna Online coming soon!