In the second of our series of Notes From The Front Line, I talk to Grace Church of Guttersnipe Theatre about their process of continuing to develop their devised project in lockdown over Zoom. Grace is a Lecoq-trained theatremaker and burlesque performer from Brighton whose work has been seen at venues and festivals including Wilderness Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, CPT, Wardrobe Theatre Bristol and Vault Festival. Read on for tips and tricks, challenges and advice.
So tell us a little bit about what you’ve been up to!
We’ve been doing development work on our new show SHUGA FIXX vs The Illuminati. It’s a satirical black comedy about a teenage girl band who take on the satanic inner circle, featuring original pop bangers, uber-femme-trash costumes and ancient lizards. We had residencies and showcases lined up at The Pleasance and CPT, and also at The Garage Theatre in Norwich, which obviously haven’t happened! But we got funding from ACE immediately before lockdown, so we’ve been trying to do what we can and take it much more slowly.
The three of us were all quarantined in separate locations, and I think we all crashed and hibernated for 2 weeks, then got up and started trying to make stuff again! We are all devising together: I’m kind of movement director but it’s a very collaborative process. As it’s a devised show involving original pop songs we’ve been doing dance rehearsals and devising choreography, as well as getting together scratch material to showcase our work at a scratch night which involves us doing the songs lip-synched, and trying to present a scene (via video editing). We’ve also run workshops with young people online about social media and celebrity culture.
And how are you finding doing all that over Zoom?
It’s taken us so long to get our head around it. Everything takes so much longer! It makes you realise how much you were trying to cram into a month or two before. The time we’ve taken so far has been double the amount we would have had.
In real life, with a creative meeting, you’d be drinking tea, you’d all be brainstorming, you’d have lots of sheets of paper everywhere, whereas because it’s just this screen-to-screen, face-to-face intensity, you can’t think in the same way! I find my creativity really stifled because I’m having to brainstorm on the spot and it feels like a strange amount of pressure to come up with good stuff, whereas in real life you would just work your way through it together.
Still sounds like you’ve been coping with it really well! What’s it like when you get up on on your feet?
The huge challenge is that webcam technology is geared towards facilitating a sat-down, cranial meeting: it doesn’t necessarily induce creativity or make you want to be on your feet. You need to make sure your collaborators come in movement clothes and are ready to work physically.
Another challenge is with rendering video – that when sharing progress with the set designer, we basically couldn’t see what she was showing us very well and we couldn’t feed back very easily – a 20 minute conversation took about 5 hours! You have to have a lot of trust in your collaborators, trust that you’ll get through it together.
So you manage to make and share material in a similar way to how you would if you were together in a room? Yes, kind of – the hard thing is there’s no chemistry, no ritual around presenting something you’ve tried. It’s hard sometimes to find that energy and excitement in the same way. What I have noticed is that we get a lot out of creating videos individually to show to other people – we make little character sketches or dances or lip-syncs to send each other, and that’s where the excitement and energy have come from, more so than the usual exercises when you’re in the room together. So getting more au fais with video editing has been important – and it’s a good task to send people away with.
Any advice you’d share with other makers going into a Zoom-based process?
GC: Brass tacks first: make sure you have a Zoom premium account so you aren’t being cut off every 40 minutes. Also make sure all meetings are locked (there have been some real horror stories around this lately and it’s important to be aware of).
Beyond that, be sure to allow chit-chat. Commit 15 minutes to just chatting because right now people really need to share what they’re doing and where they’re at, before launching into anything too creative.
Be realistic about your agenda for the day – I’ve been doing 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon, with time in the middle for lunch and reflection, which we’ve really needed. And 4 hours on Zoom a day is still a lot.
Find ways to set your team tasks to do individually that flex their creative muscles and uses the technology you have available – can you make videos about your character and how they’d behave in lockdown? Can you make up a fun dance routine to share?
For the individual artists you’re working with, keep finding ways that they can keep in touch with their bodies and with a community. Do they have a class that they’d recommend or a ritual that really helps them at the moment? We’ve found maybe half an hour of reflection at the end of the day where people share survival tips is really helpful.
Oh, and make sure you’re doing fun stuff too. The usual games are hard, but making games out of, say, getting one person to lead a dance at the beginning and getting everyone else to follow them has been a good one we’ve used.