Opportunities lost and opportunities found
Te Ora Auaha
At the start of 2020, The Drama Workshop and Hawkes Bay Youth Theatre, a performing arts school for children and young people, was working on several local projects. Rehearsals were underway for three plays with the junior groups and three plays with the seniors. They were working on a Drama New Zealand Drama/Literacy professional development project, with teachers about to start implementing new drama/literacy techniques in their own classrooms. On top of this, ‘Billy Lids’, a creative festival for kids was due to happen on April 24. And then everything started to change.
Juliet Cottrell, Director, explains the implications of COVID-19 for the Drama Workshop, and how they responded: “With all face to face classes coming to a halt, we had to quickly adapt to online classes with students aged 7 to 19. These came with challenges - connectivity, etiquette, attendance, access to printers for printing off scripts usually supplied…” The final three classes of the term ran online and then the team took a break to reassess things. During this break, they thought about their young members, now at home during Level 4, and created a family video competition titled Co-video comp. Two VIP judges - Paolo Rotondo and Deb Mulholland got involved and reviewed some fantastic short films created by whole families.
By the time term two came along they had made the call to cancel the junior productions. The senior classes, however, continued online to ensure contact, engagement and creative continuity. These groups rehearsed via Zoom for 8 weeks. And then, Juliet recounts: “we had many, many requests from parents of junior classes to continue online so once we’d picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off we offered two short courses - Giggle Poetry and Acting Up. The students who attended those were hungry for drama and we were only too pleased to offer something that would keep them engaged.” Also, it was the time of year we usually take some group profile pics of each class group for the theatre programmes. This time, it was up to each student to arrange their own - they were sent a tutorial and the results were outstanding! (see picture)
Meanwhile, the Hawke's Bay Youth Theatre Company class had been commissioned to perform ‘Everyman’ adapted by Carol Ann Duffy at the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival. There seemed to be no choice but to soldier on and rehearse online. This was not ideal, as Juliet explains: “it was frustrating at times and we have lost valuable rehearsal time but we have an incredibly dedicated group of young people who will pull out all stops to get the Mahi done.” The festival asked for the performance to be performed in a different venue - the newly reopened Toi Toi - HB Opera House and Event centre. However, due to council restrictions the Youth Theatre have not yet been able to gain access to the space.
Financially, as a result of cancelled classes, The Drama Workshop lost significant revenue. Fees were cut to 50% for classes that continued online, as many families were already being impacted by loss of jobs/income. Juliet knows that they would not have survived as a business had it not been for the wage subsidy and subsequent top-up by Creative NZ.
As well as many disappointments, The Drama Workshop has experienced some opportunities that would not have arisen if not for COVID-19.
Juliet explains how “one of the senior productions benefitted by having playwright Lachlan Philpott join us via Zoom to talk about his play Bustown and answer any questions the kids had. This has been rescheduled for November and if the borders are open, Lachlan is wanting to attend and has offered to workshop a sequel with our young people. This would not have happened had the lockdown not occurred.”
The Hawkes Bay Youth Theatre has also found itself taking on the creative challenge to redesign the Senior and Youth Theatre shows to allow for social distancing at level two, in case the alert levels change again. They have applied for a Creative NZ continuity grant to employ a designer to help them re-shape both shows.
The Billy Lids festival has been rescheduled to Labour Weekend and, as a result, has been picked up by the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival - another positive from an earlier disappointment.
Juliet was engaged by Drama New Zealand to run several zoom sessions connecting primary teachers across New Zealand to provide resource sharing and support for online Arts learning. She was also commissioned to write three new drama units for the Reaching the Edges project - workshops will be delivered online and in person in the various regional areas of New Zealand. Through this work, she says, “I believe we have engaged with a whole group of teachers that we never would have reached before.”
Juliet says that as a company, they “have learnt that we are capable of pivoting, that there is a network of people out there who are accessible, willing to share, happy to support each other.” She also hopes others will take some lessons from the pandemic: “I sincerely hope that the funding bodies such as Creative NZ continue to fund smaller, regionally focussed arts organisations such as ours. And that the Ministry of education see their workforce are hungry for ways to adapt using the arts, and that they put some funding into upskilling more teachers by providing resources, workshops, PD breaks…”
Comment from Kaitlyn, HaBYT member: “I found rehearsing remotely surprisingly exciting. Not only did it give me something to look forward to during the long days of lockdown, but having the time outside of HaBYT classes to focus on character work, diving deep into the research behind my characters and to just have that extra time to visualise background information, was extremely beneficial to my performance. As a whole company on zoom call, it could be a bit frustrating at times, as the connection and lag wasn’t the best, but I think that just adds to the experience we won’t forget!”