What play do you stage when your actors aren’t allowed to go within two metres of one another? The Almeida Theatre has found an innovative way of getting around this conundrum: it’s asked a group of creatives to come up with a completely new one.
Nine Lessons and Carols, opening for its first preview today, has been devised in rehearsals by director Rebecca Frecknall and playwright Chris Bush, together with a cast of six. Giving the building over to the artists and seeing what they come up with is something of a bold move after the agonising impact of the pandemic, but no one could say the show isn’t relevant. It will focus on the themes of isolation, connection and the power of social contact, making it the first piece of new live theatre to focus on how this year has felt to live through.
It was, says Frecknall, “completely borne out of the situation.” While the Almeida team – where Frecknall is an associate – waited to find out if the theatre industry would get a bailout, they started to talk about what socially distanced work they could make for its intimate auditorium.
“The thing we kept coming up against was that creating a work within the social distancing rules, the actors having to be spaced out on stage, felt like it could potentially be a barrier. I was trying to find plays to do, and I couldn’t find anything that I was finding inspiring. It was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” she says. “So we came up with the idea of, what if we made something that was actually responding to the moment in content and form, so the spacing could be part of the world of it?”
Another benefit to the idea was that it would make the production as Covid-resilient as possible – if a cast member needs to self-isolate, the modular nature of the piece means that it can keep going and adapt. The cast is rehearsing under Covid-secure conditions, and the Almeida’s auditorium has had a number of seats removed for when audiences return.
Consisting of “scenes, monologues and songs, all in some way responding to themes of the moment”, Frecknall hopes that making the restrictions part of the piece’s form will prevent it from feeling compromised as a work. “I think it’s been a really great creative challenge for everyone, at a point when everyone was feeling creatively dry because no one had been working. Everybody’s really picked it up and run with it.”
Cast member Maimuna Memon is also working as the production’s composer, and says making the show has been ”such a whirlwind.” She had already returned to the stage earlier this year as Mary Magdalene in the Regents Park Open Air Theatre’s concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and was working on writing her own musical during lockdown. But the pause was also an important time of reflection for her.
“I got Covid quite early on and I was quite ill for three weeks. In that time, I really didn’t realise how run down I was. I think as freelancers, we’re always pushing for the next thing, constantly trying to do better and get the next job. And I think I felt burnt out, for sure,” she says. ”To have that time, after I felt better, was actually quite liberating in a way, because it gave me the opportunity to think about a lot of things as a creative and an actor, and put new boundaries in for myself and the industry that I was going back into.”
She recognises the show as a rare opportunity. “I think theatres are so reluctant to do new work, because it’s such a risk financially. For the Almeida to be doing something completely new, having no idea what it might be – that’s really exciting,” she says.
Memon is listening to people’s experiences and making music inspired by them, and says “there was just so much material in there, lyrically and musically, to play with.” The themes feel both universal and utterly personal; it's been completely different for everyone, says Frecknall. “Some people had a terrible lockdown, some people had a great lockdown.”
When lockdown hit, Frecknall was in New York, in the middle of previews for her production of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City. She lost another show that she was due to direct over here in the autumn. “I made my peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to be in a rehearsal room again this year – which was strange looking at the top of the year, which I was expecting to hold lots of things that it then didn’t. And now I’m doing a project that I really didn’t expect to come, and it’s very impulsive – literally, four weeks ago we had nothing and now we’re in tech next week.”
For her, it’s a reminder that artists are adaptable, and sometimes all you can do is get stuck in. “There’s something really important about jumping in, and actually giving people jobs and purpose, and responding and reopening the building and getting audiences connected again."
It may sound simple, but by the standards of 2020, it’s almost unbelievable. Memon says: “It’s been really lovely to be emotionally in contact with other people, to share stories with people, and to be reading these words out for the first time – words that no one will have heard before, until December 3 when we open for the first time.” And a few months ago, we would have hardly dared dream of such a thing.
Nine Lessons and Carols: Stories for a long winter runs at the Almeida Theatre from December 3 to January 9; almeida.co.uk