Throughout the pandemic, theatre companies have had to find increasingly innovative ways to tell stories and reach communities. In our latest interview, Eleanor Dewar speaks to Encounter’s director Jen Malarkey about making a show that audiences can watch out of their sitting room windows.
As the pandemic drags on, with further restrictions being added and recalled daily, and more tiers being added than to a wedding cake, it is more apparent than ever that life as it was is still as unreachable as ever. Though there has been some positive developments in the arts, from lifesaving new emergency funding to the announcements of more shows beginning to open under strict social distancing rules, it is clear that we have a long way to go before audiences can safely fill up an audience again. However, with a new lockdown, the future is far from certain. But good news, it appears that some theatre creators such as Jen Malarkey, have decided to bring the theatre to us.
Like almost everyone on earth, the creative team behind The Kids Are Alright, found the recent global pandemic to become quite a spanner in the works. “It was commissioned last spring, and we produced it successfully so the next step was to tour,” Malarkey explains, “everything was in place.” Enter COVID 19. “Suddenly, it’s oh this isn’t happening, but we were produced by Fuel who were very supportive of their artists.”
Despite her infectiously cheerful tone, Malarkey does not shy away from the devastating affect that this pandemic has had on the livelihood of so many of those who rely on the arts to put food on the table. “I’m a freelancer, the actors are freelancers, I provide people with work [and so] the pressure is there.” Thankfully, Malarkey had an idea, “I wanted to work, otherwise I would have gone mad, so I came up with an idea — we work with headphones and technical audiences.” So instead of people coming to the theatre, the theatre is coming to them with The Kids Are Alright — a show which tours various housing estates in London and Newcastle with audience members watching from the comfort of their own home.
“I love looking out of the window and nosing at the drama,” Malarkey tells me as we discuss the reasoning behind the setting of shared gardens in council estates. “By staging this couple and their grief in a domestic space, people could look out of their window [and] see it kicking off.” Of course, there is the safety as well as the artistic reasons behind such a unique setting: “If an audience can watch inside their flat, they feel safe in a Covid sense.”
The Kids are Alright is not the first thing I would think of to stage during a pandemic — a raw story about a couple losing their child is tragic enough even despite a time of mass grief and mourning. “Everyone is grieving, but it’s an alternative reality,” Malarkey explains. “The arts [are] how I make sense of the world. I get told your work is not very British and I think they mean its emotional and that it moves to darker places.” The loss of a child is a complicated thing to tackle in any form of art, but Malarkey is honest and there is humour that is dotted about in the play. “How can you find humour in a child’s loss? What choice do we have? Otherwise we’re lost. Finding humour in something is hope and our way of getting out of it.”
I ask her if maybe the world needed cheering up more in a time like this. “If we only sign up for a nice thing, we don’t take risks. People thought the council estate was a risk, [and] where does that assumption come from? I find it so patronising. People lose children every day, it is an everyday story. There is no difference to what we do and an episode of EastEnders. Surely there is room for all of it. It speaks to the truth of being a complex human — it can’t all be redemption, that’s not how the world works. To be human you have to look at both sides, the dark side and the light side. There is great hope in that. You have more compassion for people if you know their complexities.”
Even if we have not lost a child, we can empathise with the ever-growing claustrophobia of being trapped in your own home with your loved ones. Something that The Kids Are Alright captures perfectly is the sense that “Some of us would have struggled to get of the house, with employment and we are also facing an unstable moment in the arts,” as Malarkey states, whilst also explaining to me a heart-warming decision to thank those who invited them in “a moment of thanking them for letting us work and putting dinner on the table for our kids. This exchange between audience and artist feels more weighted post pandemic. Thanks to them, we’ve been able to survive a bit longer.”
With the UK coming to the end of a second lockdown, and while the public struggle with an idea of Covid Christmas, the arts battle on to survive. With such uncertainty, it’s refreshing to see a beam of positivity. “Anything, can be saved, everything can be turned around and there can be hope,” Malarkey states. “It’s not the only pandemic and not the last one. There could be a tsunami and we’d be making art on boats. Humans evolve and hopefully theatre will do too.” With theatre makers like Malarkey paving the way and finding new ways of bringing the arts back to life despite what is being thrown at us, the fight for the arts is far from over.
Encounter and Fuel are screening a filmed version of The Kids Are Alright from the 27th November to the 2nd December. Tickets can be found on the Fuel website.