Behind The Scenes At BTR Online

Jul 02 2020

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Behind The Scenes chez Holly Stoppit / Joe Rosser Photography

On 20th June, Beyond The Ridiculous performed our first ever online Fooling (solo improvisation) performance on Zoom. We were supported by The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol to explore how our work might translate to a digital platform. It was a massive experiment for an ensemble of solo improvisers who usually perform live on stage. This blog charts the process of developing and performing the show and includes a newly commissioned poem from poet in residence, Bee Golding.

The Players

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: screen shot of BTR looking sexy, non?

The fools ensemble consisted of Beyond The Ridiculous core members; Naomi Smyth, Dominique Fester, Chez Dunford, Aisha Ali and Ed Rapley, with special guest fool Robbie Foulston beaming in from Edinburgh. I hosted the show and facilitated the training sessions.

The Training

The company came together for weekly exploratory training sessions on Zoom for the month leading up to the show. Building on what we'd already discovered during the Fools Play sessions, we focussed our training on:

Ensemble Play– we explored how we can connect and play as an ensemble on Zoom. We discovered simple is best. The intimacy of Zoom gave us an opportunity to be a lot more subtle in our performance than we usually are in the theatre. 

Assembling Your Inner Cast– each fool explored their current cast of internal characters (aka 'masks') and discovered the optimum placement of the masks in space. This enabled them to enter into free improvised play, whilst having their own safety mechanisms in place. More about this style of training here.

Site Specific Theatre– we began considering the frame offered in a Zoom window as a performance site and explored how different sites evoke different qualities of performance.

Sound and Lights – each performer explored a range of sound and lighting options. In our live theatre shows, the fools would usually support each other with sound, music and lighting, so it felt very different for them to have to be the director and technician as well the performer if their own piece. 

Audience Interaction– Our style of improvisation is usually very interactive. In the theatre, the fools enter the stage and tune into their own heartbeat and the audience’s breath, before discovering and playing with an impulse. Every choice we make on stage is made in relation to the audience's reception of our material. 

We'd chosen to do the show in the Zoom Webinar format, rather than the Meetings format – which meant we couldn't see the audience while we played. So we spent part of our training brainstorming different ways of inviting the audience to participate during the show.

The Performance

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly in the nerve centre / Joe Rosser Photography

Here's me in the nerve centre. I had the Zoom controls on one screen, my music library on another and the audience view on a third. I'd created audience polls to find out about people's experiences of Lockdown and I asked them to elaborate on their answers in the chat box. In an attempt to bring the audience's flavours into the stock of our co-created soup, I took some of their stories from the chat box and improvised with them during the introduction to the show.

Each performer then improvised for 10 minutes, with the fools ensemble providing the transitions between pieces. Collectively, we explored themes of separation, isolation, anxiety, parenting, creativity, connection, boredom, monotony, heritage, gratitude, imperfection, order, farting in online yoga classes, evolution, choice, North and South, joy and hope, work-life boundaries, distractions, health, solstice, a need for a coming out ritual (but not to hetro-normative pop music!), tension and release, catastrophizing and acceptance, fear and uncertainty, kindness and compassion.

For the first time ever, we worked with a lightning-fingered, live captioner, who helped us to reach d/Deaf audiences, who hadn't previously had the chance to access our work. Our wonderful captioner was Orla at MyClearText.

We were also supported on the night by independent producer, Sascha Mach, who came in as our Zoom technician, helping the audience with their tech queries and helping to keep the show running as smoothly as possible.

At the end of the show, we offered the audience a chance to come up onto the screen and share some of their experiences of watching the show. I asked them which stories they resonated with and which of their lockdown stories we hadn't played. Although we'd seen some of their stories in the chat box, this was the first time the performers had seen their audience's faces during the night.

What We Learned

Our poet in residence, Bee Golding took all the audience's words from the chat box during the show and created the following poem (video and text versions below).

When asked what did they learn
Four per cent said nothing new
You are sure and we admire
The steadfastness of you

I found dust and cobwebs in my home
Though my living room is a really great place
I learned how to apply silicone sealant
Built my skills in the building trade

Pasta-making, challah-baking
Salad-eating chewing-gum
Rusks and cottage pie, giant Yorkshire puds
And I like curry, yum

Knitting patterns, tie-dye fabric
I learnt to sew a dress
I can now make dungarees
And bras are totes pointless

I can make magic with my tricks
At all hours dance with energy
Art in perpetual motion
No distraction or fatigue

Book-writing, doodle-sketching
Plant pot holders, cardboard masks
My spoon-making has improved so much -
We’ll need those at the last

My husband learned Portuguese
I told nonsense by Spike Milligan
With free rein I’ll choose the male character roles
Got into playing with makeup again

Played piano, grime, bad gypsy jazz
Learned “you’ve got a friend in me”
Synchronised singing and can you imagine
The Eye of the Tiger on ukulele(!)

Sarah, Jane, Ted and Bob
Are the daddy-long-legs in my flat
We love badgers & new kittens
The joy of cute pet rats

I can be one with nature
Watch the red kites soar
I’ve seen more birds in my garden
Than I’ve ever seen before

At the allotment my boyfriend found
Voles nibble carrots from beneath
I got to know the local deers and
How starved my spider plants have been

I learnt that without golfers
A golf course is a wonderful place
I’ve worked too hard, felt on my own
Not had enough of my own space

I made an origami fox and saw
A blue tit family bring up their brood
I’ve found that I like growing plants
The soil is good for my mood

I learnt to speak to birds
And then I spoke to trees
I’ve learnt Important, humbling things
About white supremacy

I learned that I love being alone
How to heal my period pain
How to ride the ups and downs
Learnt to love myself again

(Someone said ‘learnt’ Is the incorrect spelling
But I would just like to attest
That outside the US ‘learnt’ is OK to use
So let’s give that issue a rest)

Now I can live with having long hair
Mastered the headstand finally
I can massage my temples and massage my feet
I’ve learnt now what triggers me

You can do without the outside world
For a month before losing your mind
I’ve understood some of the mysteries
Of relating to space and time

I learnt that I can cope with grief
My introspective tendencies
I’ve learnt how I relate to you
And how you relate to me

My cyber hug game is pretty strong
And I have learnt again
That I have around me such good friends
And I am enough as I am

This is all stock for our bubbling soup
In stories we’re deliciously drenched
Fools assemble, fools disperse
Let the play commence.

To read Bee's collection of poems about the players, click here.

Audience reception for Voices of Lockdown Live and Unleashed

This feedback comes from the online feedback survey we sent out after the show:

“[I enjoyed] the personal stories, the emotional content and the humour running through it”

“Helped me feel connected in my experience and missing my friends”

“It was more playful then I expected it could be via zoom!”

“It was great to experience a live show - something I have really missed”

“I liked it all but especially the links where Fools were called to assemble and disperse and when they simultaneously flowed through on screen with their movements...quite magical.”

“[I enjoyed] seeing the different spaces. Performers playing within their spaces, changing the frame there was a lot of freedom in that. I was touched by the emotions: grief, boredom, irritation, humour and defiance, when work-life and all life has creeped in the living space meant for restoration and rest.”

"The show documented and gathered the emotional state in my body around covid. We all feel the emotions but hold them off to the side so the we are able to move forward. The presentations were honest, direct and poetic."

What Happens Next?

This project was an amazing opportunity to learn how to play online. We connected with new audience members all over the world, including people who are d/Deaf, as well as reconnecting with our loyal Bristol audience. The show took place at the beginning of the UK easing of lockdown and our pieces reflected the full spectrum of the players' feelings about life in the time of coronavirus. It was a pleasure to invite an audience into our private worlds and hear afterwards how much they resonated with our stories.

We're in the process of reflecting on what we learned during this project; we have our own felt experience, a film of the show and some audience feedback to help us get a sense of how it landed. If you were in the audience and you'd like to tell us about your experience, we'd love to hear it, please fill out this form

The film will be edited down and released into the public in due course. 

We'll be back in the autumn with a second experimental improvised performance. Watch this space for details.

You can find more about Beyond The Ridiculous here or follow them on facebook here

If you'd like to read about my other lockdown projects, look no further:

Fools Play Sessions

Creative Consultancy

Clown Workouts

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