Monday, 18 May 2020

Rusty Frog Youth Theatre Zooms Ahead

They were only weeks away from staging their newest theatre production. Rusty Frog Youth Theatre had worked hard to get their play ready when, unfortunately, Taoiseach, Leo Varadka announced closure of all public institutions due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, including West Cork Arts Centre, the home of RFYT. The past two months have been a difficult situation for so many cultural institutions worldwide. For Rusty Frog Youth Theatre it put a sudden halt to their recent work. However, instead of shutting things down entirely, the Rusty Frogs decided to transfer their weekly meetings to Zoom sessions. Theatre via video conference - this idea took me some time to get used to, as I have always imagined theatre as something that needs space for bodily experiences. I was intrigued to find out how this could possibly work. 
Rusty Frogs at West Cork Arts Centre
In order to transfer the drama meetings to an online format, facilitator Maxine Acton was supported by Rhona Dunnett, Research and Development Officer and the team at Youth Theatre Ireland, who were very familiar with RFYT, having been in regular contact with the Arts Centre based Youth Theatre, “Like a lot of people in the country, COVID-19 has really accelerated our ability to work on digital platforms and work with video conference apps like zoom!”, she says, “Youth Theatre Ireland is always active on social media but the focus is always on communications, on sharing and promoting the work that we’re doing. Moving to a situation where we are creating all our work online and hosting digital events is a new thing for us!” 

This challenging situation presented itself with both opportunity and drawbacks, as Maxine Acton describes: “We were going to stage a radio play (as though being recorded in front of a live audience)  and we thought we could easily move this to the online setting but as only half our members were able to take part in the sessions this was not possible.” Additionally, issues of internet connectivity had to be overcome. However, the group soon found ways to adapt to the circumstances. “It seemed to me that the members joining in wanted to see other young people from outside their family and do something fun so I tried to adapt some games for Zoom. Charades worked reasonably well and required some acting skills but our biggest success in terms of fun has been a version of Articulate.” In addition to these games, the group engaged themselves in creative writing tasks or short story readings for a small audience of friends and family members. One workshop focused on their now postponed stage play, called “40 questions in 4 minutes”. Here, the participants were assigned the task of creating a sock puppet of their character in our radio play. With a slight shift of focus and the support of their facilitators, the Rusty Frogs have found ways to successfully cope with the technical and social challenges that present themselves along the way, so they might stay connected.
Online Sock Puppet Taks
Youth Theatre Ireland acted fast to find ways to support the creative activities of the 56 affiliated theatres across the nation, including skibbereen based RFYT. Also using Zoom, they created a platform for facilitators to meet, share their ideas and get new inspiration. Every Tuesday at 12noon, #youththeatretuesdays, 30 to 50 youth theatre leaders come together this way, learning from each other's experiences. Additionally, youth theatres can book “YT Clinics” with Youth Theatre Ireland's staff to work through issues that arise from this new way of working. “We hope that youth theatres like Rusty Frog in Skibbereen still feel like part of a national community and know they have a support network behind them as they try to adapt to digital work. It's been great having Maxine involved!”, says Rhona Dunnett.

For RFYT and all the other youth theatres across Ireland, the already mentioned challenges of bad internet connection or the fact that simply not everyone has the technological prerequisites to join in on the sessions, clearly limits the possibilities of online theatre. However the transfer to Zoom provides the participants of RFYT with a chance of gaining new theatrical experiences. As Rhona Dunnett points out, “They’re learning about new ways to tell stories and build characters and learning lots of new technical skills. Some young people are thriving as their technical know-how is becoming essential to keeping youth theatre activities going!”

The online sessions also provide a social distraction from everyday life in lockdown and offer an essential platform to creatively express and connect with peers. Rhona Dunnett points out: “The young people who are engaging in youth theatre workshops and projects are voicing their own isolation experiences. Through the arts, they are making sense of their own lives right now or distracting themselves from their own reality.” 

Still, as interesting and instructive as the Zoom sessions are, everyone is looking forward to the time when the threat of the pandemic is finally over and social contact is possible once again. Maxine Acton explains the challenges not only as a facilitator but as a performance artist, “I find it nearly impossible to imagine the next 6-12 months without live theatre. For me, the essence of both going to live theatre and performing in live theatre is the sharing of an experience, breathing the same air and feeling the energy in the space. Theatre online is a different form and a very different experience. Ultimately it becomes like a film with the audience at a distance and it can be done well but it is not the same and missing the most important ingredient, the shared energy. I miss going to the theatre very much and I really miss the artists I was working with.” 

It appears that this new format is more of a means to keep things going until theatre can take place in real life again. Zoom sessions will never really replace traditional theatre, since social contact is one of major aspects. “We all miss the shared space and dynamics and energy of live performance, not forgetting the cuppa tae (and biscuits brought each week by one of our members Padraig) and chats that were a weekly part of RFYT, adapting is difficult, but the members are definitely persistent and are finding new ways to bridge the void,” says Grainne O Brien, Art Project Assistant at WCAC who supports Maxine each week at the sessions. Perfectly explained by Emer, RFYT member 3 years, why they miss coming together, “The ability to move around. As someone who, generally, is more cautious and withdrawn, youth theatre was often the place where I got to burn most of my energy, where I was expected to, instead of having to sit still. Now that youth theatre has joined the menagerie of activities that includes sitting down constantly, I find myself missing the ability to jump and stomp and walk fast and swing my arms.” 

Despite the challenges Rusty Frog Youth Theatre is keeping a positive attitude. They are working to stay connected and creative together, and looking forward to continuing where they left off, as soon as the situation allows. In the end, participants and facilitators alike will have learned a lot throughout this unusual time and we as an audience can all look forward to new theatre productions which will definitely benefit from the experiences RFYT has made until then!


Check out their social media for news https://www.facebook.com/rustyfrogyouththeatre/
@rustyfrogyouththeatre


#youththeatreireland 
#artscouncilireland
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