Next year sees Highly Sprung celebrating 21 years of exciting projects and high-quality workshop delivery in schools and the community. As we look back at the projects we have worked on, the performances we have created and the challenges we have faced over the past 21 years it is difficult to think of a more challenging year than 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we, like many arts organisations, lost festival performances, school bookings, tours both nationally and internationally, community fundraising events and our general way of working. Although we did manage to move some aspects of our work online, it wasn’t the same. Life for Highly Sprung altered unimaginably.
Highly Sprung has developed practice focused on the physical, with contact work being the foundation of all we do from 4 years through to 94 years (yes, we did work with someone in their 90’s last year!). The way in which bodies move as one through the space, as stories unfold, is something that excites us as a team. However, the COVID restrictions implemented from March 2020 made this type of work something that has not only been difficult but that has, in some circumstances, become illegal!
As September approached and restrictions slowly began to lift, we at Highly Sprung were desperate to get back in the studio, theatre and classroom, to work with the young people who are so key to our ambitions and purpose. Funded by Heart of England, we ventured back into the studio as part of the Sprungsters Summer Comeback and created work with young people for the first time in nearly 6 months. Exploring experiences of lockdown, we looked back to historical lockdowns and even created a piece about Eyam, a village ravaged by an invisible threat, a plague in the middle ages!
So how did a company, synonymous with close contact work, create a physical theatre piece with a group of young people desperate to make contact both physically and psychologically?…the answer: slowly and carefully.
We knew from the outset that the young people we were working with would not respond well to dots on the floor or with allocated boxes marked out for them. The nature of our work is to connect emotionally and physically with the subject we are exploring, as well as with each other as an ensemble. Our solution, as with most things at Highly Sprung, was to play and explore distance through game. As a group we learnt how to move around the space safely, we learnt what 2 metres felt and looked like and explored the possibility of space. Instead of partner work with another human our partner was the floor and what initially seemed to be a hurdle became an almost open book to create something ‘new.’
As the week developed and confidence grew, we found ourselves having to re-establish distance as old habits returned within the young people and distance began to reduce; our answer? 3 metre ladders! Yes, that’s right! As with a lot of our work we pushed the power of possibility and devised a performance about being in lockdown with ladders. Performers were lifted, moved and, for those who struggled with staying away from each other, kept a constant 3 metre distance.
It should be noted that our young people, although VERY special to us, are not immune to the difficulties that Covid and the lockdown have brought.
At the start of the week students cautiously entered the room, their faces masked (some with two masks on). We carefully went about giving the young participants the confidence to once again be around other people and not rely on screens for their communication.
So how has our first venture into the rehearsal room helped us think about working in schools and community settings in the future?
The impact of our first post-lockdown project on the way we create work has been really interesting. We have been forced to reimagine what it is to be physical and create in a new way. Movement is now distanced with none of the contact work we are so well known for. The tasks we are now setting encourage young people to have a much greater focus on their own personal creativity; there is no hiding in groups or pairs anymore. Gesture work and storytelling take a greater focus as does the more theoretical side of understanding and reading performance. Characterisation and how to build a character for performance are prominent in our work and following Sarah’s work with the BA Theatre and Professional Practice course at Coventry University, a spotlight in how to devise work with a strong social message is taking centre stage.
It is still early days and demand for our workshops is only just starting to build momentum but one of the surprising outcomes of this new approach is the emergence of the less confident members of classes and groups.
For years, we have strived to get the less confident young people more involved in the process – those young people who find themselves hiding behind others, clinging to the back wall in the hope that they aren’t seen. Now, due to the nature of social distancing, gaps have opened up and shone a light on those who previously may have been overshadowed. Their opinions have been asked for, without a prompt from one of the Highly Sprung team, and their ideas listened to.
During performances/sharings, those who had previously relied on others to hide them or show them the choreography are now allowed to shine. Because they’ve played a bigger part of the material’s creation, they now have a better understand of what the group are performing. The pressure on them because of their visibility has increased, but each and every one of the young people we have worked with, since the easing of restrictions, has risen to it. The young people’s resilience raises and with it, their confidence.
When evaluating our Summer Comeback workshops, we discovered that at the start of the project nearly half of the young people we worked with had felt unsafe about being around others and felt isolated and disconnected from others due to lockdown, with 40% of them feeling like they had lost confidence.
After the Summer Comeback with Highly Sprung, those same questions gave us some incredible results. 85% of the students felt more confident about their future. All bar one student felt better connected to others (the one student already felt very connected) and, most importantly, every single participant felt better prepared for the return to school and life after lockdown.
For the past 21 years those of us at Highly Sprung have been trying to understand what it is about the way in which we work that enables young people to feel better about themselves. Is it the physical nature? The way in which we tackle difficult topics and themes?
In truth, it doesn’t matter; what does matter is that we have seen and experienced first-hand that working this way, even during a pandemic, helps our young people. It gives them confidence, strength and resilience to cope in a difficult world. Highly Sprung believe in this way of working wholeheartedly and will do everything in its power to ensure that this type of work continues in our community and in our schools.