In our latest interview, Mirren Wilson speaks to Robbie Gordon, Jack Nurse and theatremaker Chris Thorpe about Positive Stories for Negative Times — a national project which seeks to open up discussion and create new communities amongst the 8-25 demographic.

Over the past few months, it certainly hasn’t been a comfort to hear people say, “I feel bad for the young people.” It can be tough to see a bright future with a job, family and home when even your elders are feeling pity for your circumstances caused by the pandemic and previous recessions. In addition to this, it would be a complete understatement to say that the theatre world took a blow in 2020. Seasoned professionals found themselves in financial turmoil, the majority of theatres still remain dark, and the government launched a campaign to advise creatives to retrain, rather that offer support to the arts. How lovely.

So, what happens if you’re not only a young person whose future is already uncertain due to the pandemic, but you’re a young person with a passion for theatre; an industry on the verge of breaking point?

Fear not! In association with the Traverse Theatre, Glasgow-based company Wonder Fools have waved a magic theatrical wand and launched a national project, creating work and opportunity for groups of young people aged between 8 and 25. Positive Stories for Negative Times offers up 5 newly commissioned plays, from the UK’s top playwrights allowing groups to come together (either online or in real life) to create work and open up creative discussions.

Robbie Gordon and Jack Nurse (co-founders of Wonder Fools and the creators of Positive Stories for Negative Times) instantly realised the impact the pandemic was going to have on young artists and knew they needed to do something about it. “Young people are going to have the burden of this moment moving forwards – economically, socially, spiritually – and it is therefore crucial to continue to find ways of offering opportunities that are positive, creative and fulfilling.”

But where did the idea for this project come from? “We were chatting about the groups of young people we work with regularly and what effect the restrictions would have on these groups and we became worried about the implications, not only for young people’s creativity, but also the impact on mental health if these sources of regular connection and camaraderie were to disappear. We wanted to provide a way of groups continuing to meet but also try to figure out how best to use online platforms as a means of being creative and continuing to connect during these disconnected times.”

Groups can sign up to the project and receive the material entirely for free. They will receive a play of their choice, plus a supporting activity pack and then be able to share their work online as part of an interactive map, so they can connect with other young creatives all over the world. After launching in September 2020, the project has already had a huge response: “We’re absolutely delighted to share that at this point, there are 160+ sign-ups and counting. We’ve got people from all across the UK and beyond taking part in the project with companies as close as Glasgow and London and as far away as Quebec and Alicante.”

One of the key grabs with this project is its fantastic range of texts. Bad Bored Women of the Rooms, by Sabrina Mahfouz is a party play that offers cocktail recipes and a history lesson in iconic female criminals; Hold Out Your Hand, by Chris Thorpe, demands discussion inviting the players to release their own voice and experiences; Is This A Fairytale, by Bea Webster is a fantasy with a  twist that gives the princess a modern voice; The Pack, by Stef Smith is a rhythmic and poetic dive into the loneliness that being trapped in your home brings; and Ozymandias, from the creators themselves (Gordon and Nurse) tells an epic tale of adventure, oppression and injustice.

Chris Thorpe’s aim with Hold Out Your Hand was to create a framework for young performers to share their own stories and experiences, allowing their voices to be truly heard. He told me that “I thought about putting words in someone’s mouth, and how the things you think they want to say, is not the same as being heard. I don’t want to assume that young people are all having the same experiences as each other.” His text is provocative, acting as a meeting, or conversation, between writer and performer.

At this particular moment, why does Thorpe think it’s important to create work for young people? His initial response made me smile: “I don’t think there’s ever a time when it’s not important to do that.” Upon further discussion, he said that “I think it’s just really important to communicate with people at that stage of their lives, because whether we’re going through a pandemic or not, they’re going through a huge amount of change. It helps you remember that we’re all connected by it. I think there’s a real mutual benefit in keeping those lines of communication open at those different stages of life, because it reminds everyone, that we’re all constantly in a state of change and uncertainty. And we can make that a good thing, we can make that useful. I think doing work for and with younger people is just a vital part of keeping human beings communicating across the different stages of life.”

As a lover of some inspirational quotes, and out of personal curiosity, I wondered what advice this team of creatives had for the younger generation of theatre makers.Chris replied, saying that “As long as you can see the point, and ultimately a purpose in what you’re doing, then that’s the fence post you’re aiming for.” 

Positive Stories for Negatives Times aims to offer an accessible solution to reduce isolation, but also to allow young people to express themselves through a positive and creative outlet. Young groups have until March 2021 to sign up for the project, but I can assure you, Wonder Fools have many more wondrous plans for the future as well. I’ll leave you with a quote from its creators: “A career as a creative is a marathon not a sprint – in the same way that life is. Our ethos when performing is ‘Have fun and tell the story’, we hope that this project is a chance to do that and if young creatives continue to have fun, stay positive and keep telling stories then we are going to be more than fine.”

To learn more about Positive Stories for Negative Times, visit the Wonder Fools website.

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