Peter Hussey

Today I had two meetings online, one group rehearsal, one monologue rehearsal, and one recorded interview. I travelled to five different locations while sitting in my dining room, logging off one and preparing the material for the next before pressing the call button. My back is stiff and my neck a bit sore.

I am dying to get out into the garden where Spring bursts through the dead winter wood and shouts “Yellow! Yellow! Yellow!” in explosions of daffodils, crocuses, dandelions, gorse, broom and buttercup. It is the colour of crazy, of having been dormant for months, and like Easter, now pushes forcefully up towards the sun. You never know what Yellow will do next.  It is not passionate, like Red, but desperate.

Red comes in June. When Yellow has done the work of being seen. Of finding the others.

In this time of Quarantine my work has never been busier. In our theatre we have one hundred and ten teenagers, all climbing the walls of their home, or mourning the loss of their friends. They crave contact. They realise just how much they need to be in a herd or flock, dozing or laughing, sitting close and chatting, throwing looks and pens and words at each other, jumping up and showing off, displaying, applauding, ignoring, touching. They desperately miss theatre, the most social of art-forms.

In our desire to keep them occupied and connected we planned a Quarantine Festival, where everyone could make a solo performance and stream it live on their social media for each other. The Quarantine Festival sounded good. It sounded exciting. But ultimately it didn’t work. Hardly anyone took part. We asked them what went wrong, why didn’t they take part. And their answers made us realise that young people need each other physically and not virtually. We also found that they need to be in control of what they show. For most of them their confidence is low – they are only forming their public identities now, they have not yet found out the versions that fit them best. And so what they post on social media has been thought through – they can look at it before they post it, edit it, filter it, assess it, and then delete it if they are not happy that it says exactly the thing they want it to say. They are totally in control of it. When we ask them to make a live performance, even if it is 30 seconds long, they will not take that risk. They would not be in control of what is seen. Only the very confident ones would take this chance, and improvise a performance, or sing a song, knowing that anyone could be watching. Knowing that there is no way to see how people are responding.

So why are they happy to take these same risks in a room or a studio when they are physically gathered together for a workshop or a rehearsal? They tell us that the physical group setting is very, very different. Of course it is. The physical group is where you can grow your confidence. You can take a chance and do something over which you have little control, and you can see the rest of the group nodding, listening, laughing, admiring, approving, appreciating. You can get compliments and support during and after it. You can see how everyone else is in the same situation – if you are brave and take a risk in a drama workshop you can see how the rest of the group admires you.

Online you can see no one. You perform in a vacuum. The only thing that comes back to you from the camera is your own insecurity, magnified. There is no one else in the room to encourage you. And nobody is willing to take that risk.

Today’s rehearsals were set up just to bring them together to chat. It’s a poor substitute for being really there. But it’s better than nothing. We pretend to go through lines and character and situations, but we all know that we are just eager to be together. Most of the rehearsal is taken up with jokes, questions, throwaway comments, quick games and check-ins. They say how much they miss each other. They say how much they now love, and miss, the physical space of the workshop. And they learn the most fundamental lesson about the theatre – that is profoundly social, and it is the space where we learn how to be with each other.

Even the adults in my online meetings know this. They may have forgotten what Spring is doing outside, how every blooming thing is up and awake and looking for company. But in small ways they too are advertising themselves. Some people at these online meetings show themselves surrounded by books and learning. Others place the camera near their colourful walls, and home decorations. Others position it against a window overlooking trees or a garden. More show their bedrooms, or kitchens, organised, busy. Each one is saying something – I am learned, I am quirky, I am spiritual, I am industrious. I am in control. Some try to give nothing away and choose a blank wall, or an attic.

In all my online groups everyone is telling us that they are alive. Like the yellow flowers we sing out to each other saying “Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.”  

I am awake.

Is anyone there?

And our best action, as theatre makers, is to reply.

Yes. I see you.

In your crazy yellow wide-awakeness. In the silence of the Quarantine winter.

We see you.

Peter Hussey

Artistic Director at Crooked House Theatre Company