GRAFFITI Theatre Company swiftly adapted to the challenges posed for theatre by the pandemic.
They moved their material online and created content such as animated film and a podcast to ensure that the company’s young audiences in Cork and beyond were entertained, provoked, and might even acquire nuggets of wisdom in these difficult times.
In an innovative move, recently the company commissioned 12 writers, including Roddy Doyle, Louise O’Neill and Cecelia Ahern, to write 300 words, each telling a Christmas story. The writers are part of Fighting Words, which promotes creativity and resilience in children.
For the project, the eminent writers ended their tales on a cliff-hanger with schoolchildren completing the stories. Actors recorded the stories which can be accessed on YouTube. The stories can also be downloaded as a book, co-authored by Cork pupils and award-winning writers.
Graffiti’s Activate Youth Theatre’s production, Migrations, was produced virtually during the first lockdown. Instead of a live theatre production, the young artists, under the guidance of Activate’s director, Julie O’Leary, devised a short animated film. It was created by Cork animator, Jane Lee. The young people also made a podcast.
Niall Cleary, artistic director of Graffiti, said: “We had never worked that way before. The young people were really quick to adapt to the new technology and the facilitators. There was a lot more work involved than normally and we had to bring in new facilitators with the skills needed.
“Switching from live drama to using technology to showcase work is a big change.
"But they all went with it. It was really important to represent the work they had been doing (before Covid-19).”
Niall is determined that Graffiti stays connected with young people, using different genres.
“Although we’ve been forced to close the door of our theatre, we’ve been keeping busy, reimagining new ways to continue working with children and young people, and keeping the spirit of creativity alive. A big part of that has been the development of our new website and our considerable online offerings. For us, it’s a way of reaching out, holding a connection. It’s a splash of colour and a flag of hope.”
As a leading arts organisation in Cork founded by Emelie FitzGibbon in 1984, Graffiti has seen many well known artists come through its workshops and stage, including Enda Walsh, Siobhan McSweeney, Shane Casey and Eileen Walsh.
A writer that Graffiti regularly works with, Jody O’Neill, wrote a web series three weeks into lockdown which was directed by Niall.
“It’s the first web series we ever created. It wasn’t part of our plan. It was us trying to keep producing work. It was shown on a weekly basis over eight weeks on a YouTube channel and through our social media.”
The story centres around a Leaving Cert student who discovers she’s pregnant during lockdown.
“It wasn’t presented in a traumatic way. There is a light touch to it.”
Niall says that the company had a production plan for the Cork Midsummer Festival which had to be postponed.
“We produced the work to honour the contracts we’d made with the artists involved. But we didn’t get to show the work in early October as we entered lockdown again.
"We have put it on the shelf until it’s safe to pick up again.”
On a positive note, Niall says that Graffiti was able to generate “quite a lot of employment for the creative team we had engaged for that project.”
The theatre were also recently involved in a gorgeous project with GLOW, where children from ten schools around Cork made their own panto displays in model boxes. They went on display in City Hall over the festive period.
Graffiti has also come up with a workshop created in response to Covid-19. With an educational psychologist on board, it looks at how children unpick the experience of the pandemic and how they talk about it. Called The Voyage, the idea is that there are islands that people can visit.
Niall said: “There’s an island in the past where life was before lockdown. There’s the island we’ve living in now with restrictions in place and there’s an island we’re going to get to in the future when we’re not dealing with restrictions. We ask what have we learned on the islands, what have we missed?
“It’s about having the conversation from a really playful place.
"Children can talk about what makes them happy and what makes them sad. We are running these workshops now and will do throughout Covid.
"Even though it deals with Covid, it’s really about wellbeing and minding yourself as well as being able to express yourself.
“We have facilitators that zoom into the classroom. The teacher is a co-facilitator, “ Niall added.
“They also talk about missing their grandparents and having to keep a distance from people. But also, the children we’re working with seem so resilient as well. There isn’t any hopelessness. There’s a positivity that we can get through this.
“Covid is often referred to by the children as a little annoying figure. They see it as a little creature that will eventually go away.”
While Graffiti clearly has every angle covered, Niall says “you can’t replace the live interaction of theatre. But you’ve got to keep trying.
“We want children and young people to know that we’re going to be there for them as restrictions lift. They can come back to the space (in Blackpool) and we can visit them.”
As for 2021: “We’re altering our programme for that because we don’t know exactly when we can have live experiences again.
“Plan A is to be able to deliver the work at a distance. Plan B is being there in person. It’s easier to change from plan A to plan B than to cancel a live event,” said Niall
Whatever happens, the show will go on — in some form.
For more see www.graffiti.ie