In this time of crisis, London’s Almeida Theatre has prioritised its young companies. Dani Parr, its director of participation, tells Anna James about setting up the digital Shifting Tides festival against the background of Covid-19
In a normal July, Dani Parr, director of participation at the Almeida Theatre, would be busy juggling a series of shows and events created by the venue’s youth programmes. The Almeida’s two Young Company groups (one with 21 participants aged between 14 and 18 and the other with 22 participants aged 18 to 25) would have shows running, and the free festival curated by its Young Producers group would have just finished.
Of course, nothing is normal at the moment. But through some combination of foresight, planning, top-level support, and a little bit of luck, Parr is now overseeing Shifting Tides, a new, free, digital festival created for and with young people that explores the intersection between art and the climate crisis.
“We don’t do issue-led work,” Parr says. “But we’re good at creating work that pulls apart something and examines it from all sides. I hope this reflects that broader remit at the Almeida. I hold our young people’s work to the same standards and I want it to have the same quality of intellectual rigour that can lead to activism.”
Sensing something was going to happen a day before lockdown, Parr’s team gathered and spent three hours “doing a big artistic brainstorm” about what they would do if they couldn’t continue meeting with the young theatremakers. “[We] made some sort of a plan, although I don’t think we realised how quickly it was going to happen.”
That foresight meant the Young Company sessions continued via Zoom, without pause, and ultimately produced this festival, which will run from July 16 to 18 on the Almeida’s digital platforms.
The festival is built around the premiere of As Waters Rise, written by Ben Weatherill and performed by members of the 14 to 18-year-old Young Company as an audio drama. Weatherill, who wrote Jellyfish, which was staged at the Bush before transferring to the National Theatre, answered a call-out in October from the Almeida for artists to work with the young companies. “Ben pitched a broad idea about a near-future world in which waters have risen and London has flooded,” Parr says. “He and Alex Brown, a director who is part of my team, worked with the young people up until Christmas to workshop ideas and Ben started to pull it together from January.”
Then, of course, came the pandemic. Parr spoke with both of the young companies about how they wanted to proceed. While the older group decided to postpone until they could perform live, the 14 to 18-year-olds wanted to try and keep going. And so Weatherill adapted the play into three interlinked audio dramas – “It was a tall order and he did a brilliant job very, quickly.” Podcast kit was then bought and sent to the young theatremakers, who recorded at home with the guidance of sound designer Martha Littlehailes.
Although Parr and everyone involved have embraced this new format, one concern was that it would not give the young people that point of recognition and excitement – and so the festival was born. “We wanted to give them the chance to feel part of an event. Because the only trouble with an audio drama is you don’t get that moment of applause,” Parr says. “The young people have worked so hard, and we liked the idea of there being a collective moment where people could come and listen to it.”
The rest of the festival grew from serendipity rooted in the Almeida’s existing commitment to climate change action. One of the other headliners is the world premiere of Ella Road’s short film Something Will Disappear, commissioned by the Almeida alongside the development of As Waters Rise after discussions with the theatre’s Youth Board. It stars professional actors including Paterson Joseph and Anjana Vasan alongside members of the Young Company.
‘It felt important that the festival was as accessible and inclusive as possible’
Another thread is a new programme set up during lockdown. Young Activists brings together 30 young people, 10 each across visual art, poetry and playwriting threads, who have been looking at the relationship between art and activism and mentored respectively by artist Katherina Radeva, poet Selina Nwulu and playwright Evan Placey.
“There’s so much brilliant protest art,” Parr says. “There are so many amazing activists, many who are artists as well, working in a cross-platform way and we wanted to look at that. The Young Company wanted to have wider discussions about climate change. We wanted to acknowledge that one piece of artistic response is not going to cover all the various nuances or thoughts about climate change.”
As part of this, the creative work being showcased during Shifting Tides is being flanked by two live panel discussions. The first is a more direct look at the climate crisis and features speakers including Noga Levy-Rapoport, the lead youth organiser for UK climate strikes. The second will explore how art and the climate crisis interact. Speakers include Farah Ahmed, who is the events and network coordinator for Julie’s Bicycle, a charity working within arts and sustainability. “We spent months discussing the panels and researching. We were looking for people who had made a real impact in those areas, and a really great, diverse group of young voices,” Parr says.
All of the artists and speakers have been paid the Almeida’s usual non-lockdown rates. “What’s been absolutely brilliant,” Parr says, “is that obviously we had some budget to make a show and we’ve repurposed that budget. The management team recognised this work was important and it needed to carry on and allowed me to spend the money I was always going to spend, and in some cases more.”
The Almeida has also paid all the freelance workers it had committed to work with. “I feel hand on heart we’ve done well on that,” Parr says. “We all know what it’s like to have organisations be flaky or not pay on time or try to get away with stuff, and I can’t be doing with that.”
The festival itself will be entirely free. “It felt important that it was as accessible and inclusive as possible,” Parr says. “We want to reach loads of people and have the broadest section of young people engaged.” She also hopes the broader programme will bring a new audience to the Almeida – those involved in climate change activism, as well as those who come to it through the visual arts or poetry content. “My hope is that if you do good work it shows the Almeida in a light that hopefully makes people want to support it in a more general way,’ Parr says. “What we really hope, more than anything, is obviously that people will come back to the Almeida when it’s open.”
For Parr, this festival, and theatre more broadly, is about giving them a voice. “It’s the duty of theatres to give young people a forum and a space to be able to help them work out what their place in the world is and to create work that gets that message out to a wider group,” she says. “I want to give an opportunity to create thoughtful, engaged young artists who can make their own work that speaks to what they care about.”
Shifting Tides runs from July 16-18. For more information go to: almeida.co.uk/shifting-tide