On Wednesday 18 March 2020, Curious Monkey's opening night of their brand new show, Here, was 24 hours away. They were about to embark on a two week run at Northern Stage followed by a regional tour. Then... nothing, as the country was thrown in to imminent lockdown.
"It was absolutely devastating having worked on something for two years, getting through rehearsals, having the script, having all the marketing in place, having the tour booked. And a curtain raiser that the group had made, that’s even more gutting in a way that they had worked really hard on their performance. Actors were all ready, we were in the theatre. It was like there was this ominous thing that was creeping through the walls of our room. Then it was getting to the point of thinking “actually, are we going to get to the end, are we going to open?”. Then it was “the tour might not happen but maybe we might still get the Northern Stage shows” then “oh maybe the Northern Stage shows might not happen, ok we need to get to a dress rehearsal, we need to film it” then it was “oh my God, are we even going to get to a dress rehearsal?” Describes Amy Golding, Artistic Director of Curious Monkey.
"We stopped it on the Wednesday night, we were due to open on the Thursday night. We didn’t get our dress rehearsal in, so we never, ever ran it. We got to the end of getting the lighting cues in the desk and in the script. It was just mad. Being in Northern Stage for the very last thing we did. We recorded this podcast, turned on the ghost light, drank the bar dry, and then we all went home and that was it, they shut the doors! The set is still in there, it’s still sat in a dark theatre.
"The timing was crazy. I was running around town thinking "I’ve got to get loads of stuff for a toddler, I’m going to be stuck in a house with a toddler for God-knows who long" so I was going in to bookshops and buying colouring books and all this stuff!"
Amy Golding started Curious Monkey eight years ago alongside current Executive Director Jenny Dewar. It has become an international award-winning theatre company that creates outstanding theatre inspired by people they work with and their community, not only locally but around the world.
"We [Amy and Jenny] met on a plane on our way to South Africa, we’d been both working in the North East but never met each other in the region. We were on a delegation to South Africa and met each other at that point. South Africa was quite a big thing for us as an organisation. We used to go out every year and run projects out there and run artist development programmes. One of the first shows we made, Mamela, was made with young women that we’d met from all over the eastern cape of South Africa. We brought that back and toured it over here. A recent project, Two Newcastles was connecting artists from this Newcastle and artists from Newcastle, South Africa. We made a piece that was on at Alphabetti and then worked on over there as well.
"The ethos behind the work is making theatre and performance with communities and that process is very embedded. It takes quite a long time for us to make a show because we spent a long time meeting people, getting to know them, working with them very closely, and more recently; those groups who we’ve made shows with have ended up doing continued work with. So, for instance, Troupe, who are a group of young people with care experience, started off as a group of young people that we met to help us make a show about leaving care. So we made the show Leaving and then that group existed and wanted to have ownership, wanted to continue, wanted to change their name (they became Troupe), they wanted to make their own work, which they do now.
"The same with Here, the show we were making this year, we’ve been making it for two years. We met lots of people who were seeking sanctuary here from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds."
It's an approach very different from the usual practice of developing a piece of theatre, and it's evident that Curious Monkey and the people they work with benefit from having an open creative approach.
"There’s a lovely natural evolution to it, because it starts off as a project that we invite people in to and then it evolves in to a project that snowballs and has it’s own legs because of the individuals that are then in it. So, now, for instance, for the Arriving project there are all sorts of things we’ve been doing that I never thought we’d be doing; like running yoga retreats with a woman, who’s part of that group, who’s a qualified yoga teacher and she wanted to run a project to make people happy and relaxed, which is exactly what we all needed after lockdown, it was the most amazing few days. Now there’s members of that group who have ideas about theatre they want to make; so potentially our next show beyond Here will be two one person shows: one from a woman from Angola who’s really interested in writing, who’s an actress; and a young man from Syria who wants to write about his own story.
Actually, we met at Gosforth, because the very first workshop we did was part of refugee week in Gosforth Civic Theatre. We did a kind of open call and we had no idea who was going to turn up. Three people turned up, there was two Syrian guys, Hamza and Waseem who are brothers and a woman from Crimea, Victoria. Victoria is the woman who ran the yoga retreat and Hamsa’s the guy who’s writing his one man show. So, it all started at Gosforth!"
As well as being Artistic Director of her own theatre company, Amy also is one of the board members of Liberdade Community Development Trust, the charity which opened and runs Gosforth Civic Theatre. Being on the board of Liberdade way before they took on the building, how has Amy's relationship with the organisation developed and how does she see the venue?
"Me and Rob [Huggins, CEO of Liberdade] did the same course at University a couple of years apart and I met him as I was arriving in Newcastle. We then worked together for an organisation called ‘ID’, Interactive Development, years ago which was all about working with people with learning disabilities. We were both looking for board members, so he’s on the board of Curious Monkey and I’m on the board of what was Liberdade, and now is all encompassing of Liberdade and Gosforth Civic Theatre.
"It’s been great to be on that journey. To see the development of the organisation from something that was a really exciting project and a company of people doing amazing activity, to this space which is the only accessible space that is run by people with and without disabilities, together, for everybody. I don’t know any other venue like that, that I’ve been to in the country, and that’s really, really exciting. So it’s really trailblazing in that way.
"It’s been a lot of learning for me, I’ve never sat on a board that’s taken over a building before and all that kind of stuff; there’s been a lot of learning for everybody and how you expand that knowledge to the running of the venue. To be part of the opening celebration and be one of the first people to perform on the stage was really amazing. And now, from what’s happened during lockdown and coming out of lockdown; it’s basically been the first venue that’s doing anything and it’s been really impressive to see the really planned, considered, safe reopening of the building and being able to put our activity in there has been great."
Curious Monkey were actually the first group to come back in to the Theatre after lockdown restrictions were eased. Troupe met in the space a handful of times over the summer, breathing life back in to a dormant venue after three months.
"For us it’s not the easiest to get to for all of our groups, City Centre is more accessible in terms of travel, but at the moment this is the place we want to be working in even if it means bringing some of our participants further because we know that all the stuff is in place, we know that the space is big enough to have a socially distant workshop with a number of people. We’ve been working closely with Joseph around the risk assessments and all of that, and it’s working really well. I did the first workshop with Arriving [in September] because troupe have been doing it for a while, it’s just a really nice space to be in."
Given the groups, community and members of their company they work with were left, like rest of us, isolated, how did Amy go about approaching lockdown after the shock of having to stop after being geared up to perform?
"During lockdown, we were very quick to do things online, so I think for us, it was the immediacy of going “these people need to keep connected with each other, but also with us”. Because both of those two groups have people who live on their own and they’ve made a kind of family within the group themselves, so one of the first things was kind of going "we’ve just got to get wifi access to anyone who doesn’t have it, we’ve got to get devices to anyone who doesn’t have them, and we’ve got to teach people how to use Zoom". It was a total experiment of going “what physical activity exercises can we do? What storytelling activities can we do?” So the first month or so was literally just winging it, experimentation with somethings totally falling flat on their faces and others kind of working.
"One of the big things we do is eat together. We always provide food, and part of that is about us believing that the best conversations you have with people are over food and also some of the people we’re working with might not have eaten that day or are struggling financially or care leavers who aren’t great at cooking or whatever. So we’ve always kind of had eating together as part of our sessions or part of our theatre trips, when we go to the theatre once a month with both our groups. So we tried to replicate that during lockdown; so we provided parcels that we made up, that had various activities but also had recipes and ingredients. Troupe have had make your own pizza nights where they’ve all chosen their toppings and made pizzas together and watched a film together online. So all of that social stuff that comes with the drama and theatre activity that we’re doing is so important that trying to replicate that in different ways has been really important."
And after that adaptation and challenge, the next event is already on the horizon... with Care About Care? coming to virtual spaces and even Gosforth Civic Theatre at the end of October.
"Care About Care? is about platforming the creative work of young people who have care experience through poetry, film, theatre, a 360 film, and a virtual gallery. It takes place in National Care Leavers Week which is a time to celebrate the contributions of care leavers across the world.
"Last year was a day event and it was in person, and people watched all of this brilliant creative work together, then there was some open space discussions in the afternoon and food, together.
"This year it’s turned in to a festival. It’s basically a four day online festival! There’s contributors from all over the country, which is great. We’ve got four days of events which have a series of workshops, all of which are on Zoom. There’s things which people can participate in, everything from photography workshops to poetry workshops to academic talks from social sciences and applied theatre perspectives for students and academics. Then in the evenings there’s things to watch, which is all of the performances and work that people have created, with Q&As afterwards.
"We’re going to be in the theatre, if we can, we’ll have various laptops and intros to each event. There are two things we are hoping to do in person which involve Troupe coming in, one of which is: they’ve made a film over the summer - we used the space at Gosforth for rehearsals - so as it’s being streamed to the world we want them to be able to watch it on the big screen in the Theatre as a celebration of their work.
"On the Friday, everybody who’s participated in or watched events throughout the week comes together for a big open space conversation, which is about being inspired by what you’ve seen. Those conversations are very forward-looking and everyone goes away with a pledge with what they’re actually going to do, whether that be changing the way you speak to a young person to ‘I’m going to change this practice in my organisation’ or ‘I’m going to campaign of this thing’ or whatever it is."
Here was due to play at Gosforth Civic Theatre in June this year before lockdown hit, the first time a Curious Monkey theatre production has played the Theatre since the opening weekend. There is willing to 'get the show on the road' but there are many challenges still to overcome. So what does the future hold for a theatre company in a post-COVID world?
"What we’re planning at the moment is doing a feasibility study for potentially a mobile theatre space. In terms of what the future holds for a touring theatre company when we don’t know how theatres are going to be etc. We’re finding it very difficult to programme anything or get any assurance from venues, when they’re thinking about how they can do it in a socially distant way and how theatre can work, and all the financial models and things like that. But with ‘Here’ we were thinking we really, really wanted it to be in the community we made it, and it ended up being a show in Theatres - and it works in theatres and that will happen at some point - but I think also there is a version of it that sits in the middle of the community in Byker which is where it’s set so we’re thinking about that at the moment because it kind of feels easier to be able to plan something like that which might be partly outside, socially distant in the heart of the community.
"We can all complain that we can’t be together and all of that, and that is just the circumstances in which we live, but there’s also massive positives about this. Suddenly the world is smaller, the fact someone can join us from Bosnia in one of our workshops which we could have always done that, but we never thought to because we were never in a situation where we had to. The fact now with Care About Care? we’ve got contributors from literally many cities from all over the country; last year we did have one person from London, one from Scotland and a group of people from Derby, so we did have people from everywhere, but this year it’s much more spread out and loads more organisations that are connecting with it."
Find out more about Curious Monkey and the work they do, here.