COCO - an innovative response to a challenging situation.
With the world changing rapidly around us all, we’re facing unexpected challenges and doing our best to find our feet in this new and unpredictable ‘normal’.
At Replay, our challenge has been justifying our existence as a theatre company during a prolonged period of restricted physical distancing across our communities. Venues and arts organisations, both at home and across the world, are struggling to keep the lights on as they come to terms with the ongoing limitations that have hindered their ability to operate at their typical purposeful capacity. Of course, this dilemma isn’t faced by the Arts sector alone, but when achieving ‘bums on seats’ is inherent to the survival of an entire industry and the huge workforce dependent on it, the impact of Covid-19 is colossal.
There is, however, one little ray of light cutting through the gloomy landscape. The very fact that our industry is brimming with passionate, dedicated and resolute creative thinkers has unsurprisingly resulted in an abundance of innovative responses to a challenging situation, presenting some inspiring new ways of working. In Northern Ireland alone, we’ve seen freelancers and organisations embracing online performances, hosting virtual creative gatherings and making the very most of the forty-seven minutes of good weather we get every summer to take shows outdoors. These are just some examples of the brilliant creative assets that live and work in Northern Ireland, that continue to strive to deliver meaningful arts engagement during immense personal difficulty and these are assets that we need to protect.
In Replay’s little corner of the creative world, the team and I spent some of our lockdown time watching, learning and trying to better understand the ever-changing picture that was stretching out in front of us. For us, it was important to not only consider how Covid-19 has impacted our way of working, but to also consider how it has impacted the lives of the young people we exist to serve, our audiences. As I’m responsible for our inclusive sensory shows, I was particularly keen to develop a project during lockdown that was meaningful, appropriate, and of comparable high-quality to our typical programming. We had already developed our Summer Sensory Adventures project, which provides families with guidance and resources to create their very own versions of four of our sensory shows at home, but I was mindful that adapting our pre-existing shows for online engagement as our only provision wouldn’t quite stimulate the significant positive impact our inclusion programme (UP!) exists to achieve. Accessibility is key, and not everyone finds online creative engagement truly accessible for a variety of reasons individual to them.
In my mind, our only true option to continue to do what we do best, in the most valuable, effective way, was to make a show. Not just any show, but a show that tours to the homes of young people with complex needs, who are among the most at-risk and may still be shielding for months to come, but who also face the greatest barriers in terms of genuine access to suitable creative experiences.
Rather brilliantly, in yet another example of the wonderful positives that can shine through the darkness, Tinderbox Theatre Company had featured a short story, written by Mary McGurk, as part of their pioneering and vital ‘Solo Art’ project. Side note: Massive respect to Patrick, Jen and the Tinderbox board for their ongoing incredible work to support and celebrate local freelancers.
Mary, a local creative and regular Replay sensory performer, had been developing this children’s story to help satisfy her creative needs during these difficult months, and I felt it could be a prime candidate for further development towards becoming a Replay sensory production. Conveniently, Mary got in touch to sound out the potential of doing just that very thing. The ball immediately started rolling and a few weeks of intense planning, negotiation with our brilliant funders, fast-track creative development and (yawn) risk assessments, resulted in Replay’s brand-new, physically distant show, COCO.
COCO, a beautifully heart-warming story about a koala who lives in a eucalyptus forest, is written and performed by Mary McGurk, with stunning technical design by Darren Robinson and a beautiful costume designed by Diana Ennis. It’s a travelling, immersive sensory theatre experience contained entirely within the back of a van. Now, when I say that it’s in a van, I don’t mean the set packs into a van and gets rebuilt at the next location, I mean the set is the van. Mary and Darren arrive at a house, set up a small covered space for the family to view the show in comfort, swing open the van doors and the show is ready to go. In recent years at Replay we’ve challenged ourselves to be brave and bold with the theatre we create, from Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World, set in a dystopian world and performed in an old disused warehouse, to TRIBE, a ‘first of its kind’ rainforest adventure created for young autistic and/or neurodivergent audiences. With that in mind, creating installation theatre that travels at motorway speeds was certainly a challenge we were more than happy to tackle head on!
Making and touring live theatre in any circumstance demands constant problem solving and versatile thinking. Add a global pandemic into the mix and theatre-making presents interesting problems that surface at various points from the beginning of the project to the last day of tour.
Arranging the investment to make the project happen was a different process than normal, requiring unusual conversations with funders to source support or reallocate money from previously agreed programming into this curveball project that hadn’t even appeared on any communication up to now. It’s at this point when you realise the value that funders place in your work. If it wasn’t for the support, trust and encouragement from our funders, our tour of COCO simply wouldn’t have moved past my hastily worded email to Brian with the subject line: ‘You’re going to have to trust me on this one…’
Developing the story alongside Mary was a joy. Having a strong backbone of the original 5-minute script, Zoom after Zoom mixed with safely distanced meetings transformed the story into a vibrant, sensory audio experience. We had decided to pre-record COCO, meaning Mary’s performance became non-verbal, as a method to combat the negative experience of physical distance between performer and audience. Usually, our sensory shows are underpinned by up-close, intimate engagement, which is an approach that simply had to be adjusted for this project to keep everyone safe. Using strategically positioned speakers, however, meant we could bring the story right to the ears of the audience, bridging any physical gap and reinforcing the young person as the focus of the experience. As many of you who are familiar with my work will know, music and sound design are often a fundamental part of the theatre experiences I create, and pre-recording the story also meant we could enhance the immersive environment of COCO through the addition of a forest-inspired soundscape intertwined with the dialogue, while being complementary of the narrative.
The decision for Mary’s performance to be non-verbal also helped accommodate our solution to the challenge of safe social distancing. Facial expression is often such an important contributor to building a communicative link between performer and audience member, particularly when considering that complex disabilities can often inhibit the ability to engage in verbal conversation, so I was keen to avoid equipping Mary with a face mask. Asking the audience member and their family to use masks or shields would be detrimental to their comfort and experience, so that was also something I wanted to avoid. Our only practical solution was to separate Mary from the audience by a transparent plastic screen, creating a simple and safe divide between two distinct spaces and making the need for PPE unnecessary throughout the experience. Working this way enabled the team to manage the spaces independently, keeping the audience environment clinical, stripped and cleaned between households and Mary’s performance space entirely her own, with a dramatically reduced risk of spreading infection. Considering the specific circumstances of the young people our team were visiting across three intensive weeks of touring, it was imperative we took the necessary steps to ensure COCO is as safe an experience as it is an entertaining one.
One useful note of learning from this experience, throughout the development process and moving into rehearsals, is that it can be easy to neglect the artistic side of things while being understandably distracted by the reality of creating pandemic-friendly theatre (ah jeez, what a horrible term… I promise I won’t use that again). It’s quite easy to unintentionally sacrifice the quality of the overall experience when your creative process is heavily influenced by the social distancing elephant in the room. Every creative choice we made during rehearsals was a result of both consideration for the current environment we’re working in, but also justifying that choice by its artistic merit. It was about developing new creative strategies that satisfy the demands of safe Covid-19 practice and coupling them with pre-existing strategies that are tested, proven and still deliverable in this new environment. Essentially, I felt that leaning towards carefully considered adjustments to what we ‘normally’ do, rather than a scattergun approach of new and untested ideas, was the best method to ensure COCO stands on its own as a proper Replay show, regardless of the wider context within which it’s being delivered. Working this way meant we could place some shiny new cherries on the dependable cake and make COCO a production that we would be proud to deliver at any time, even if we return to operating under our old ‘normal’ circumstances.
Of course, sending any new show out into the world is a nervy experience full of uncertainty. Seeing a team head off for their first day of a new tour is akin to waving your child off at the bus on their first day of school in the hand-me-down blazer you’ve promised they’ll eventually grow into and doesn’t smell like feet. As Mary and Darren headed to meet their first family, we didn’t truly know how the next few weeks would play out. Thankfully, apart from a protracted battle with some farcical August weather, COCO proved to be a true success and the feedback we’ve received from families (we’ll share some of that soon) has been tremendously positive. We’re very appreciative of all the families that hosted us. Hearing how our audience members have benefitted from the experience has been heart-warming and motivating. As with everything we do, the learning from COCO will prove invaluable as we look toward future projects.
It’s important to us that our shows have legacy. COCO has finished touring now (for now), but we work hard to ensure that the impact of the experience lasts longer than the short time our audience spend with the team. By producing a simple resource pack for families to use during the show and keep for themselves, we developed a productive response to the challenge of avoiding any shared objects or props. These packs contained some of the sensory items Mary uses during the show and a link to the pre-recorded story, so the families that receive the show can create their very own COCO experience in their homes at any time, extending the longevity of the activity and celebrating the individuality of each experience.
COCO has been a story of positivity, yet another example of how the Arts has the power to rise above adversity and keep proving its value and contribution to society time and time again. We’re delighted to have been given the freedom and trust to develop this new way of delivering high-quality theatre experiences and we’re excited to see our colleagues across the sector developing their own unique ways of continuing meaningful engagement with our communities. We’re especially proud that our work with audiences most at-risk and among the most affected by the current situation is helping pave the way for future creative approaches.
I hope that when society looks back on the last 6 months, we recognise how dependent we are on creativity, in its many forms, within our day-to-day lives. If we lose the Arts, we lose the very thing that helps see us through times of great uncertainty, social isolation and tremendous threat to our mental wellbeing. We simply can’t let that happen.
Inclusion Lead Artist (COCO Director and Composer)
Replay Theatre Company
Photography by Neil Harrison.
COCO wouldn't be possible without support from Arts Council of Northern Ireland, BBC Children in Need, Halifax Foundation, Belfast City Council and Paul Hamlyn Foundation.