Lockdown preview: Isolation Ensemble

In response to the 2.6 Challenge set up in April to help save UK charities, emerging theatre director and arts facilitator Abbie Riddell decided to rise to the challenge of creating a new piece of online theatre with a cast of twenty-six actors, many recent graduates.

Isolation Ensemble – launching 6 July – is a compilation of twenty-six different short scenes which have been devised by the company using a timely combination of verbatim extracts and new writing created solely during lockdown via online video platforms.

Lucy Aarden
Lucy Aarden

I asked cast member Lucy Aarden (Game of Thrones) to tell me a bit more about the project.

1. What’s new and different about the Isolation Ensemble and why should people tune in to watch?

LA; Isolation Ensemble primarily uses verbatim extracts for its script and has therefore become a unique time capsule filled with real emotion explored through words spoken during this time by people, including ourselves, up and down the country.

Without focussing explicitly on the pandemic itself, Isolation Ensemble looks at what happens when the theatres close, festivals get cancelled and cinemas are left empty; focusing on the honest, wise and sometimes silly words heard by those “we love, have loved and want to love”.

The cast includes some really cracking actors and you might just hear a few people talk about the implications of lying on their Tinder bios too. 

Regional theatres in crisis: Birmingham Hippodrome, Belgrade (Coventry), Salisbury Playhouse, Royal Exchange (Manchester)
Regional theatres in crisis: Birmingham Hippodrome, Belgrade (Coventry), Salisbury Playhouse, Royal Exchange (Manchester)

We hope our audiences will also be invested in the cause of our piece as it aims to raise urgent funds for four regional arts organisation: The Birmingham Hippodrome, Belgrade Theatre, Royal Exchange Theatre and Wiltshire Creative (Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury Arts Centre and Salisbury International Arts Festival); all of these theatres that have a special meaning to our cast members and we hope our audiences too. 

2. This is a verbatim piece about theatre lockdown. Where have the ideas and words come from?

LA: Each week the 26 of us would work in small groups to respond to stimuli provided by director and facilitator Abbie Riddell. She would playfully provoke us into sharing stories of things that had happened to us and those around us as well as memories and improvised snippets.

We opened up about our relationships, loneliness and while sometimes the words were silly, other times they were wise and full of hope.

Isolation Ensemble’s meetings became a safe space where we could open up to each other about the things that were impacting our lives and relationships, not just to other people, but also ourselves.

Everything we have included relates to the common theme of navigating through the varying stages of love, singledom and relationships. 

3. You’re using a Twitter hashtag #IsolationEnsemble as well as YouTube streaming. How can audiences get involved in what they are seeing and experiencing?

LA: Audiences can search for the performance on social media platforms by using the hashtag #IsolationEnsemble. Abbie Riddell and our ensemble members will be sharing the link at 6pm on Monday for the YouTube performance.

If audience members are enjoying the show, they’ll be able to chat along in the YouTube comments box as well as share their thoughts on social media with the same hashtag #IsolationEnsemble.

For those who would like to donate to the vital community theatres we have chosen, the money will be raised through JustGiving and paid directly to The Birmingham Hippodrome, Royal Exchange Theatre, Wiltshire Creative and Belgrade Theatre.

Cast members of Isolation Ensemble

4. How is the project going to develop beyond this week?

Isolation Ensemble has managed to unite actors from across the UK without the constraints of travel and we found immense gratitude for the energy we got from working with a diverse mix of inspiring performers, even over video chat.

We’re all keen to continue to devise in this stimulating creative theatre-space, albeit a virtual one, regardless of the circumstances. Of course we long for audience interaction, eye contact, and the rush of endorphins you get from working together in a rehearsal room or performance space, and hopefully we can get to this one day in the future, but in the meantime we’ve found immense gratitude in having a place to meet online and keep active creatively.

5. How has this period of closure and lockdown affected you personally?

On the first day of lockdown four of my acting contracts were cancelled. It was heart-breaking at first but the time has allowed me space to reflect on what I might need to adapt from my previous set up. I’ve spent a lot more time with my dog!

Fellow ensemble member Rita Estevanovich mentioned how she has had more time with her son and been able to spend time in nature, albeit peppered with more anxiety and too much sugar. These things are incredibly important and I think the stillness has allowed us to talk more honestly to ourselves about what we might have ignored before. 

6. How do you think theatre will adapt to this period of pause and uncertainty?

A great relief for many of our nation wide group members including West Midlands based Rianna Ash is that perhaps there will be less need for things to be ‘London based’.

Popular plays and musicals are likely to be the ones that open first as they represent a large portion of the income for theatre companies. I just hope we can somehow hang on to the incredible fringe theatres and smaller venues that nurture some of the UK’s most exciting emerging talent.

Theatre is one of the most ancient arts forms and has survived some of history’s greatest challenges, so I keep faith that the demand for live theatre will persist no matter what. I hope the government will recognise the vital role theatre plays in communities up and down the country and do what they can to support us at this crucial time.

Cast members of Isolation Ensemble

Cast members: Lucy Aarden, Fabia Alexander, Rianna Ash, Bobbi Blaza, Jack Boal, Aoife Boyle, Jessica Clark, Edward Crook, Emily Drewett, Rory Dulku, Rita Estevanovich, Reece Evans, Sebastian Fairley, Matt Fitzgerald, Gabriela Gibbs, Alexandra Kambanella, Emma Lo, Sophie Mensah, Ruth Mestel, Becky Mills, Rachel Minghella, Luke Palmer, Sophie Powles, Joseph Scatley, Katie Toon and Isabel Adomakoh Young.

Isolation Ensemble will be launched on YouTube on Monday 6th July 2020 at 6pm, while more information about the project can be found on Twitter using #IsolationEnsemble.

Images of some of the cast collated from announcements on Abbie Riddell’s Twitter.