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“You just made me cry, bruv!”

written by Phil Yarrow.

“You just made me cry, bruv!” said the young man, his tongue firmly in his cheek. His classmates chuckle at his cod reaction to my sad poem. I chuckle too. Actually, I let out a big belly laugh, which wasn’t strictly in character. There was I, broadcasting from my spare room, wearing a boiler suit purloined from my Dad, and laughing my head off. A typical Monday morning aboard The Starship Fly high.

I guess you could say I’m an accidental specialist in Theatre for Young Audiences. I didn’t go to drama school but was, instead, lucky enough to fall in with some brilliant people who taught me everything I know. TYA and TIE gets a lot of flak from certain quarters (‘Legs Akimbo’ anyone?), it’s seen as the poor country cousin of “real theatre”, the realm of those starting out and of those who never made it…but that’s a debate for another time.

One of my earliest mentors, the brilliant Keith Robinson at Twisting Yarn, showed me how vital it was to give young people access to live performance. “We should try and take as much of the theatre, into the school as we can!” It became a passion of mine as a performer, and took on new meaning once I had children of my own.

Covid 19 has brought some pretty hideous things along with it, personal and professional. Among the cries for financial aid for struggling artists, and unsubtle hints from the Minister for Sport that we should all find “real” jobs, I fear something has gone a little unnoticed. With our theatres closed, and touring

I’d been lucky enough to work with Fly High Stories, before lockdown. I was already bowled over with their working commitment to performers who are parents, so I was delighted when Jemma and Rachel asked me to get involved in ‘Together Apart’.

The project sounded ambitious, timely and vital. An immersive show accessible to children in school, and those isolating at home. Not a Zoom call, or a webinar, or a pre-recorded performance; an actual piece of live theatre beamed into your classroom or home. The mission statement was pretty clear: Our children are missing out and we’re going to do something about it. What really impressed me was the speed at which the company moved to build an interactive website to allow the project to happen safely and smoothly (doff of the Space Helmet to Chris Silvester).

Our story is pretty simple, but so poignant. An astronaut, circling the earth with only his cheeky computer for company, makes contact with a class or two on earth. We explore feelings of loneliness, separation, and hope. I receive letters, poems (“You made me cry, bruv”) and support. The audience become a sounding board, a confidante, and (spoiler) help our astronaut to come home.

As a performer, it’s like nothing I’ve done before. The script often feels like a long-form improvisation piece. Rachel has given me great discussion points and lovely set pieces to hit, but I’m also allowed great freedom to react to audience comments and suggestions. With Jemma literally running the show as my sarcastic Super Computer, I don’t have to worry about ‘the tech’ and can just do my job. It’s incredibly humbling to be able to perform at a time like this. I feel incredibly lucky.

I need to acknowledge the class teachers and TA's too. The thing that frustrates me most is that I can’t manage the room in a traditional way, so audience management usually falls to a teacher. I need to be careful not to wind a class up too much, as it’s very tricky to calm them down from deepest space. I’m so reliant on the good grace of the staff to help me facilitate the sessions. Teachers everywhere, we salute you!

The thing that gets me every time is the joy I get to share with the audience. From the first second where they see themselves onscreen and go bananas, to the final salute, each session is a new adventure…and I’ve really missed that. That said, I would consider adding a ‘mute’ function to all future audiences! No more bleeping phones, rustling sweets or (heaven forefend) coughing!!!


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