Toby Ealden, artistic director of Zest Theatre and director of What Once Was Ours, is talking to me in a room with a high ceiling and a squiggly chandelier which reminds me of a child’s drawing, which is very suitable. The Half Moon Theatre in Tower Hamlets is a Grade II listed building but bright, colourful and modern on the inside, and Chris Elwell, its artistic director and CEO, gives me a tour.
Chris is also the dramaturg and writing partner on this collaboration with Zest, which would be an important event purely on the merit of its status as a co-production between two of the most prominent young people’s theatre companies in the country. But What Once Was Ours stands out for its premise, too: an immersive piece arising from interviews conducted with over two hundred teenagers in some of the most polarised areas of Britain with regards to the Brexit referendum, it aims to draw attention to the opinions of those who were too young to vote for themselves on the issue, but who will unavoidably have their futures impacted by its result.
The play’s two characters, Katie and Callum (played by Pippa Beckwith and Jaz Hutchins respectively), accurately illustrate the extremes in both circumstance and opinion, which made the lead up to and fall out from the referendum so fraught and charged. Half-siblings, but with radically different backgrounds, heritage and upbringings, What Once Was Ours has them question whether something as simple as understanding can ever be reached.
What Once Was Ours seems perfectly poised (both with its subject matter and as a collaboration between Zest Theatre and Half Moon) to tackle the problem of London-centric vs. often-neglected regional theatre – a conversation that has gained momentum in recent years. Toby tells me that Zest is dedicated to its base in Lincoln, where the main rehearsal period for this show is based, and to helping younger companies and creatives gain strength there, “Almost like a cheerleader.” Half Moon, too, does extensive outreach work in their community; both companies receive ACE funding, in this case helping to tour the show to twenty venues in the UK over the next few months, as a befitting production about the UK’s divided identities should.
During the interview process, the production team observed first-hand the vastly different political leanings of the areas – in Barnsley, for instance, the teenagers were bringing up the influence of Thatcher, as if she was a living part of their lives still, due to its history as a mining town and the experiences of their parents and grandparents. It is these kinds of narratives, Toby tells me, that they want to unearth with What Once Was Ours, to give us a better understanding of how lack of opportunity and investment could lead to feeling like you’ve been forgotten, and to a vote for Brexit. We agree that the fact that many of us were surprised by the result of the referendum points towards a country out of extremes out of touch with each other; to understand that it wasn’t a sudden development, and to empower young audiences to not feel disenfranchised, empathy is needed.
This means, Toby is clear, empathy towards people like Katie, who in the play says some “pretty horrific things”, to the end of humanising the issue. Passing over the places in the country which might seem archaic to others due to their lack of diversity and resulting prejudices doesn’t help us to work out how they formed these opinions, and then how better to unpick them. Toby recounts how saddening it was hearing the press, in the wake of Brexit, talking about some of these places that they had come to know and care about, like Boston, Hartlepool or Barnsley with scorn – which made them want to make the show even more. The young people of Boston had been shocked when some of the racist abuse faced by the interviewees in Tower Hamlets was described, and it turned out the different groups’ views on what actually constituted ‘being British’ were remarkably similar.
What Once Was Ours seems, beyond frustration, sadness or animosity, infused with hope. “Originally,” Toby tells me, “in the wake of the vote, I thought I was going to make a show that was reminding people to be kind. But actually, as we’ve gone through this, we’ve heard the same voice which says that we want our future to be about equality, about tolerance and diversity. So rather than encouraging people to be kind and to think differently, it’s become more about ‘This is what you want, so go and do it.’” He sees this attitude as reflected in the turnout of young voters in the recent general election, and has hope that the political landscape will reflect this in the future.
The last day of research and development for What Once Was Ours, which included a rehearsed reading at the Half Moon to some of the young people who were interviewed, seems to indicate the kind of reaction the companies are hoping the production will elicit. The interview parts, not yet woven into the script, were read out altogether at the end, and though for much of the audience the opinions they were hearing were painful to them, playing them against Katie and Callum’s stories gave them a context in which to better understand them. They were actually encouraged by some of the BME young people to go further in the words they used to portray the racism Callum faced, viewing it as not realistic enough.
So far from how making theatre for young people can be characterised, as easy or somehow inferior to theatre aimed exclusively at adults, Toby sees the age range they perform to as difficult to develop as an audience, but ultimately worth it due to their honesty. Young people, he tells me, won’t mince their words, including being vocal during shows, which might put other theatremakers off. “If you think about the fast-paced nature of the content they’re able to access on their phone, your shows have got to be able to emulate that, somehow, and capture their imagination.” Competing with the always-changing cultural references of young people can be doubly difficult considering that many of those who see Zest’s productions aren’t used to going to the theatre or its customs. Zest challenges the practice of switching off one’s phone, for instance: in the type of immersive work they do, a phone ringing be the least of the actors’ possible distractions, which have in the past included people who have fainted being carried off.
In fact, by not telling audiences to switch off their phones, though not outright encouraging them to leave them on, Toby observes that sometimes audience members are streaming productions to their friends or Snapchatting them, which he feels is something exciting, enabling those who haven’t paid for tickets to in some way experience the theatre, “So there’s a conversation that we’ll never know of that has arisen because of the show.”
I compare making theatre for young people to writing children’s literature, a genre often underestimated in terms of its difficulty, and Toby agrees, noting that press commentary about young people tends to have forgotten what it’s like being a teenager, and the instability of that period. Zest and Half Moon want to understand; they aren’t interested in shutting anyone’s experience out from the process of theatre. “I’m not really bothered about performing our shows to a bunch of artists who are going to tell me that my show’s great.” Toby says. “What’s important is that we try to get as many young people through the door as possible, and the more that haven’t seen any theatre before the better.”
What Once Was Ours opens at the Half Moon on the 5th October, and will tour the UK until the 24th November. For more information and tickets, visit https://zesttheatre.com/whatonce/.