Roustabout Theatre’s founders reflect on a challenging but creative year

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What does a theatre company do when they can’t perform in theatres? And how can they still share their work with families who are unable to leave their homes?

Bristol-based Roustabout was formed in 2019. The three core members – Toby Hulse, Shaelee Rooke and Robin Hemmings – are committed to producing theatre that places young imaginations at the centre of the creative process, celebrating play and active involvement. They created the company after ten years of making shows together for families, young audiences, and in educational settings. Here they share their thoughts on a most peculiar year, and what the future holds:

Our first production as a company was Luna, a joyous exploration of the science, history and stories of the Moon, timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 2019. We developed the show in close partnership with five primary and secondary schools, who had significant input on the shape and content of the play, and then toured Luna for eight months to schools, libraries, festivals and theatres.

Our second play, This Island’s Mine, a sequel to The Tempest, explores colonialism, migration, and land rights, and was again developed with students in local schools.  The show was scheduled for production this autumn, but with lockdown suddenly everything changed.

We had to accept that, for an unspecified period of time, it was no longer going to be possible to work in the places that lie at the heart of what we do – schools, drama groups, rehearsal rooms, and theatres were no longer accessible. We were going to have go online – a world that we knew very little about.

Like many other companies and theatres, our first response was to release for streaming a recording of Luna made at the Vault Festival in London. We were delighted that so many people watched Luna at home, and it was lovely to know that our show was finding an audience across the world. This international reach is the extraordinary advantage of online work. However, we knew, deep down, that it wasn’t theatre in the true sense of the word. It wasn’t performed live, and crucially we weren’t in the same room as the audience – so much of what we do onstage is in response to the children and families that we are performing for.

We were fortunate to receive funding from the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund and decided to use this to explore how live, immediate, and interactive it is possible to be whilst still working online and in separate places.  However, we had absolutely no idea what this might look like. We compared it to being in the early days of film or TV – there’s this exciting new medium that no one quite knows what to do with.

Our first experiment was (It’s Not All) Zoom and Gloom, a new family play written specifically to be rehearsed, performed and watched live on Zoom.  We deliberately messed around with the technology, and celebrated the extraordinary and playful creativity demonstrated online in the early days of lockdown – you will remember all those hilarious videos and photographs that ordinary people were posting.  But most importantly Zoom and Gloom was performed live.  We felt that it had to be live to be theatre.  The buzz of a live performance, even when presented online, was palpable, even though some of our audience couldn’t quite get their heads around what we were actually doing!

“If you’re not playing when you’re making theatre, then you’re doing something wrong!”

We also wanted to mirror some of work that we would normally do in schools, but for children being taught at home during lockdown, so we published on our website Home Delivery, short original scripts for families to perform at home.  These are for two or three actors, and are presented in an accessible layout, with ideas for staging.  As well as giving young people the discipline of a script to work from, each play introduces key ideas about theatre, from asides, to multi-roling, to the use of objects as puppets.  These scripts have had 1140 downloads to date – so there’s obviously a lot of home theatre making going on!  We have also been posting fortnightly videos demonstrating drama games that can be played at home, as Rehearsal Madness, because, if you’re not playing when you’re making theatre, then you’re doing something wrong!

The Great Big Story Mix Up Logo

Our next project has been to create The Great Big Story Mix Up,an online improvised show for children, with genuine live interaction between performers and audience.  Using a ridiculous number of gadgets and gizmos, and what seems like miles of cables, we can both see and hear our online audience as we perform, chat with them, and use their suggestions and ideas to make up brand new fairy tales.  The audience become the creators of the show, as it is happening, live.  As well as this, children are invited to send in drawings beforehand, that we then use as animated scenery during each performance.  Imagine seeing your pictures brought to life, with actors inside them, creating a story.  It’s unlike anything else that is being tried at the moment.  A one off, unique, live, performance requiring the active participation of the audience – and it’s 100% theatrical!+

L-R Shaelee Rooke, Robin Hemmings and Toby Hulse in rehearsals for The Great Big Story Mix Up

We are also exploiting what we have learned about performing online to support in-person theatre projects as theatres and schools gradually open up.  We have just begun developing Suitcase Stories – a programme of storytelling performances specifically designed to be performed in-person to individual bubbles in schools, and are creating online versions of each show, to make sure that the show can always ‘go on’.  We have started with the Hindu tale of The Ramayana, the story that is celebrated in November at Diwali, and will be moving on to tell the stories of A Christmas Carol, the Bristol Blitz, and Macbeth.

The hardest thing throughout these seven months has been remaining creative rather than reactive – it’s so easy to feel like you’re running from one crisis to another, with guidelines and regulations changing as fast as you respond to them.  But being able to turn problems into challenges, and challenges into creative ideas is what has kept us going.  That, and the sheer joy of learning how to perform for family audiences again – it really is such a privilege to share stories and laughter with people of all ages.

Details of all Roustabout’s work are available at www.roustabouttheatre.co.uk

This blog was written by Toby Hulse (playwright, director and core member of Roustabout).

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The Family Stage
The Family Stage is a blog following the lives of two musical mad mums who are attempting to sustain their theatregoing habit after adopting two little girls. Born out of Mummy’s indecision over whether to become a theatre blogger or mummy blogger, it attempts to straddle the boundary between the two worlds. But with family life revolving around extracurricular activities of the performing arts variety, and weekends filled with family theatre, Mummy finds that her musings remain distinctly stagey. When the munchkins are in bed, Mummy and Mrs Mummy take it in turns to go to grown-up shows, ensuring that they have something to talk about besides children.
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The Family Stage on FacebookThe Family Stage on RssThe Family Stage on Twitter
The Family Stage
The Family Stage is a blog following the lives of two musical mad mums who are attempting to sustain their theatregoing habit after adopting two little girls. Born out of Mummy’s indecision over whether to become a theatre blogger or mummy blogger, it attempts to straddle the boundary between the two worlds. But with family life revolving around extracurricular activities of the performing arts variety, and weekends filled with family theatre, Mummy finds that her musings remain distinctly stagey. When the munchkins are in bed, Mummy and Mrs Mummy take it in turns to go to grown-up shows, ensuring that they have something to talk about besides children.

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