by Sophia Hatfield
At Stute Theatre, we've built our practice over many years, creating and touring live theatre for library and community spaces. Our inaugural show 'Just Soph' brought live theatre to almost 4000 children in schools and libraries and, whilst we have steadily built our work making inventive theatre for people of all ages, touring work for families and younger audiences has always been one of our core aims.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, we were due to remount our award-winning show for young adults 'Common Lore', and we were putting plans in place for 'I Am No Bird', our largest touring show to date. But, as with all of our friends and colleagues, the rug was pulled from under us, and our work immediately had to adapt. As the impact of Covid-19 became clearer and our library venues were forced to cancel one by one, we took steps to shift our work online and engage audiences in any way we could whilst still - somehow - generating enough income to pay our freelance teams fairly.
After a live stream, a series of online theatre resources and several Telephone Theatre productions resulting in over 300 live performances down the phone, we wanted to create something live for our youngest audiences.
'Fables at the Kitchen Table' is a one-woman show that brings some of Aesop's best-loved tales to life for younger audiences. With an underlying message of hope and kindness crafted by director Sarah Richardson and a set constructed from familiar kitchen items, beautifully elevated by our designer Rachel Shore, this show aims to offer children a world of creative inspiration in their own homes.
This show was created with Arts Council Funding in January and February 2021, when uncertainty about live performances was still high and when, to be honest, I was a frazzled, anxious mess after the first chunk of pandemic-proof working. To mitigate against the risk of cancellations and uncertainty, we ended up creating two versions of the show: A live in-person show for library and community venues and a live Zoom Webinar show, performed from a home studio for family and school groups.
The Zoom version of the show, whilst I was mildly worried about how it would go down, ended up being a really positive experience. Over 10,000 children watched a Zoom show online as part of our Spring digital tour (in partnership with 4 North West library and rural touring services). And fortunately, my lovely partner and very tolerant neighbours were willing to endure a few months of hearing a song about an industrious ant who learns to share every morning. However, keen to get out of the house and see our audiences in person again, we tentatively began booking a live venue tour for summer 2021.
I'm very relieved to say that after 28 live performances across the UK in libraries, community centres and arts venues, we've now completed our Summer 2021 tour without a hitch or ping. We've collaborated with wonderful libraries, community groups and even a housing association to bring live work to communities in some of the most deprived areas of the country. I am delighted, exhausted, and ready for a rest!
But, performing to young audiences again after such a long break has been an important learning opportunity, and I wanted to take some time to reflect on what I've absorbed on tour in this strange new landscape.
1. Things have been very difficult
Firstly, to state the obvious, the past two years have been unimaginably hard for children. When I first embarked on this tour, I'd managed to forget that our youngest audiences had not been in the world for all that long.
A 5-year-old in 2021 has spent almost a third of their life living in a global pandemic. Many of the usual creative early years' activities they should have had access to have just not been available. Storytime, free play, nursery facilities, crafting sessions - they've all been on hold.
Many of the audiences in front of me had never, ever seen any live art before. Many children had barely met any other people outside of their own homes before and, therefore, were understandably not sure what to make of this strange lady singing to them. This required patience, clarity and a gentle approach to ensure our young audiences felt safe, comfortable and able to express themselves freely.
2. Things really have been very difficult
Secondly, to state the equally obvious, the past two years have been unimaginably hard for the adults in family units. As well as anxious, nervous children, we've welcomed lots of tired, frazzled grownups, equally anxious and unsure about how to enjoy a theatre performance again.
We've been performing in venues that also function as food banks, job centres, holiday clubs and safe spaces for vulnerable families. Again, navigating multiple needs through this has required a lot of extra thought and patience.
I'm not going to lie. It's been really hard to smile and carry on when a teacher has loudly taken a phone call in the middle of a show (because they've genuinely forgotten the unspoken rule about mobile phones in live shows). Or when adults have refused to wear masks or socially distance in performances because they see most of the other audience members every day anyway.
But, we've worked hard to create Covid-safe performances that still feel relaxed, welcoming and fun. Part of that has meant me relinquishing full control and accepting that everyone is dealing with this 'new normal' in their own way whilst maintaining my own boundaries as a performer to keep myself and other people safe.
3. Prepare to feel completely unprepared
The amount of planning and preparation for each live performance has literally doubled. Maybe even tripled. Risk assessments have become more complex, booking conversations have taken months and months.
I've had to set aside time to think carefully about family bubble seating, pre-booked tickets, distancing, airflow, and audience behaviour before each and every show. I've had to leave extra time for lateral flow tests every single morning, lug heavy sets around while wearing a mask (whilst refusing all offers of help in favour of social distancing). And I've put numerous contingency plans in place.
Having said that, I've also learned to expect the unexpected.
Children's theatre is always gloriously unpredictable, but all of the reasons behind this have increased to a new level. Mid-show meltdowns, latecomers, chatty audiences, frightened audiences, audiences who are too shy to respond, tight turnarounds between shows, technical issues... Everything I would have expected pre-lockdown with this kind of show for young children has been amplified that little bit more.
We also noticed across the board that whilst most of our shows were fully booked, audience attendance was only at around 50% in many venues. I can only put this down to the constant uncertainty we have all been learning to deal with. Booking a show feels much easier than getting out of the house to actually see it - especially with small children in tow.
The only workable solution I've found has been kindness and empathy for our staff, families and our youngest audiences as they learn to navigate new situations.
4. Make time to be tired
One thing that really surprised me as soon as live performances restarted was the utter level of exhaustion I felt after a day of shows. I'm an experienced performer and have toured numerous shows as a solo artist, often doing my own driving, get in, and get out with no support.
I have a (not entirely positive) reputation for being a relentless work machine. Despite this, I was absolutely wiped out by the end of a week of performances; more so than I have ever been before.
This was a new level of tiredness. The kind of tiredness that requires quality rest and sleep rather than a quick Berocca and a big bowl of salad.
My normal working style just wouldn't cut it and, after such a long period away from live audiences, the 'to and fro' of real human interaction felt utterly draining. I had to factor invaluable time for vocal, mental and physical rest between shows.
It's fair to say it's been a wonderful but equally tough few months. I've been living with a persistent level of anxiety, and I'm sure this is the same for every theatre maker or producer in the country right now.
Despite our careful planning and attention to every detail, I was constantly aware that everything could still collapse at a moment's notice. And despite our extensive steps to make performances as safe as possible, I was still plagued with doubts about whether performing live work was the really right thing to be doing.
We have continued - throughout this tour - with the knowledge that quality creative experiences are vital for young children in their early development. Despite all of the challenges, pitfalls and worries, I feel incredibly proud that, alongside some incredible venue staff and volunteers, we have brought a fun, creative experience to families at such a difficult time.
At the end of a hard day touring, I would always take a moment to look at our audience feedback.
The most common words people wrote were 'Thank you' and 'Please can we have some more?'.
Sophia Hatfield is a North West based freelance theatre maker and performer who runs Stute Theatre CIC. Sophia will soon be performing in Tutti Frutti's touring production of 'The Princess and the Pea'. You can find out more about Stute Theatre and Sophia's work at http://www.stutetheatre.co.uk or on social media @SophiaHatfield @StuteTheatre.
Stute Theatre CIC - Winner 'Breakthrough Performance of the Year' NRTF Rural Touring Awards
All images courtesy of Luke Smith Photography.