Update from Mortal Fools: How to run a youth theatre company during lockdown

Mortal Fools - Boy listens to When The World Is Loud audio theatre experience. Photo by Richard Kenworthy

In April, we heard from Kiz Crosbie, Founder and Artistic Director/CEO of Mortal Fools, a theatre, drama and creative learning company based in Northumberland and working across the North of England.

Kiz told us how her company had adapted in-person projects and training to be delivered online during lockdown. She also had valuable advice for business owners who have found themselves managing not only their company during the coronavirus crisis, but the emotions of their staff too.

Read the article here:
Tide blog | How to run a business in lockdown: Kiz and Mortal Fools)

Post-lockdown, we caught up with Kiz to find out how what’s been happening and how the company are preparing for a winter of restrictions and challenges.

Engaging young people in digital arts projects

Mortal Fools have been incredibly productive since lockdown in March. They’re a busy company anyway and as soon as Kiz and her team figured how to reconfigure projects with young people, they got cracking, to the delight of their many participants (and their families). Here’s what Mortal Fools have been doing:

When The World Is Loud

Mortal Fools: When The World Is Loud

This 70-minute (or more, if you like) ‘audio theatre experience’ is designed to support mental health of both adults and children. Enticingly, the experience promises to ‘drown out the noise of the modern world’.

It’s free to access online – for anyone, from anywhere, anytime. All you need is headphones and a phone.

The experience was co-created in just five weeks, via Zoom, by 30 young people and 10 professional artists.

Mortal Fools' 'watch party' to launch When The World Is Loud. Photo by Richard Kenworthy
Mortal Fools’ ‘watch party’ to launch When The World Is Loud

“Our usual recording studios were closed as a Covid measure but that didn’t thwart our plans. Instead, we created pop-up studios – soundproofed pods in an office, with only two people working at a time, on separate days, and with scrupulous cleaning.”

The resulting audio forms a guided reflection, with uplifting storytelling, original music and soundscape.

So far, it’s been streamed in five countries. Interested to try it? Find out how here: Mortal Fools | When The World Is Loud

It’s free, donations are invited (Mortal Fools is a charity).

Listening to When The World Is Loud. Photo by Richard Kenworthy
Listening to When The World Is Loud. Photo by Richard Kenworthy 

Coronavirus Time Capsule

Mortal Fools’ older children took part in this global project by Company Three.

Teenagers from 215 theatre companies in 18 countries contributed 1735 videos. The outcome, a week-by-week response to the pandemic, through the eyes of teenagers, is a valuable documentation of young people’s experience this year.

The ‘best bits’ video is available at www.coronavirustimecapsule.com (Everyone should watch this – if only for the send-up of the Prime Minister!)

Still from the 'Coronavirus Time Capsule' video
Still from Coronavirus Time Capsule

Melva

Melva was originally a professional theatre production to help schoolchildren cope with anxiety.

From the original Melva production
Scene from the original Melva production.
Photo by Jason Thompson

In October, Mortal Fools are set to launch a new online game/platform, featuring a new story for Melva, the central character from the original play written by Danielle Burn. Actors used Mortal Fools’ temporary studio to record the audio.

The online game  was co-created with Newcastle-based Vida Creative, a creative digital agency, and it’s a first for both companies. Also new to Mortal Fools was how to market and manage these digital assets – without the knowledge in-house, Kiz brought in an audience development consultant.

The Melva online game was funded by Public Health Northumberland and will be available at a subsidised cost to schools this autumn and for individuals and families in January 2021.

The next step – if Mortal Fools get the grant they’ve applied for from the Arts Council – is to create an interactive film version of the original Melva stage play.

“The grant would be life-changing for us. As we create more digital assets, they’ll become a new income stream, broaden our reach nationwide, and strengthen our company for the long-term.”

Allowing time to evaluate and recharge

The Mortal Fools team decided to pause activities for young people in September. This is because children went back to school – but also to allow staff to take a break and regroup.

The team is checking that the projects they plan to offer from October are appropriate for new ways of participating in group work. The aim is to make sure all participants who want to take part, can take part – but as always, it’s safely-first.

There are now guidelines from the National Youth Agency about how to run activities for children and young people. In educational settings, the Government has devolved responsibility to local councils, and even individual headteachers of schools. But there’s no specialist guidance from organisations in the arts sector (at the time of writing).

Mortal Fools don’t yet know if or when they’ll be able to do live performances – and certainly with Northumberland currently in local lockdown, nothing can take place anytime soon.

But the company want to react quickly when rules relax, so they’ve designed a performance project using a blended approach of in-person and digital delivery for autumn to spring 2021. The project is flexible so the team can respond to changes in social distancing without compromising the process or outcome.

Reconfiguring adult training for digital delivery

Mortal Fools CONNECT

In July, Kiz and the team launched Mortal Fools’ new programme of training for adults, CONNECT.

“We held a ‘digital launch’, for guests from  20 companies to experience a taster of the new courses. The launch also showcased the work of some of our talented young performers.

“By emphasising how income from training goes directly to fund projects with young people, the attendees see how their company benefits not just from the training but it supports their corporate social responsibility objectives.”

Since April, Kiz and her freelancers have trained more than 200 people from 18 companies. In September, she delivered three days of socially-distanced in-person training for Liberdade, a theatre company in Newcastle upon Tyne. Kiz says the course, with 13 of their staff was mutually beneficial:

“The course focused on developing leadership practice, which is vitally important in these times of profound change and challenge for organisations and their people.

“It was a big learning curve delivering our practical, interactive and energetic training in a Covid-safe way – but we’ve built our confidence and skills through this work as much as the participants have built theirs.”

Rob Huggins, CEO of Liberdade said:

“Mortal Fools delivered an inspirational training to the Liberdade team. It was excellent – and I don’t say that easily. I’m looking forward to putting what we have begun to learn into practice.”

Mortal Fools are keen to help people adapt for new ways of working – but not all businesses are ready:

“Companies are holding off making big commitments to spend on training. I think they’re waiting until the next financial year. Our CONNECT courses are ready as soon as people are ready to spend.”

Sponsoring a freelancer in the national task force

As well as providing work for 25 freelancers during lockdown, Mortal Fools are sponsoring a freelancer to be part of the national freelancer task force.

This initiative started when Fuel Theatre asked other organisations for help to strengthen the influence of freelancers in the arts sector. The task force now has over 130 sponsors. The group lobbies the Government and arts sector, calling for financial help, like an extension to the Self Employed Income Support Scheme, and a shift in power to recognize that large organisations rely heavily on freelancers.

Geographic diversity was important for the task force so Mortal Fools were pleased to put forward their sponsored freelancer Sian Armstrong, a writer, actor and dramaturg, as a strong advocate for the North East.


Three things business owners can do now

Regardless of what sector your business operates in, Kiz has this advice:

1) Get comfortable living with uncertainty

Don’t try to look too far ahead – making detailed plans for 2021 could be a waste of time.

“Think through different scenarios so you can respond when things change. We can help ourselves and our colleagues by getting comfortable with uncertainty.”

2) Ask for help

Applying for a grant? Ask for a big one. Reach out to your network and ask for help. If people offer help, take it.

“We’ve had grant applications collectively worth over £100,000 rejected. Our success rate is about 50% – and we’re fine with that. In one application, we thought we were optimistic asking for £19,300 – but we got £20,000!”

3) Invest in your people

Mortal Fools team in a video meeting
Mortal Fools team in a video meeting

Because for many companies, your people are your company.

“Treading water is a strategy but it won’t move your company forward. The world will move on regardless – so you need to move on with it. Work out where you need to update your policies and broaden knowledge to support this inevitable change.”

Mortal Fools are investing in diversity and inclusion training for staff and the board with Charity So White which tackle institutional racism in the charity sector, and Curious Arts, a Newcastle-based arts organization which develops events to explore and celebrate Queer culture.

Find out more about Mortal Fools

Have your say

How has your business adapted to work during the continuing coronavirus crisis? We’re keen to hear from you – get in touch with us on LinkedInFacebook or Twitter.

Photos by Richard Kenworthy, Jason Thompson and @MortalFoolsUK

Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer

Tide Team

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