Increasingly as the world’s fallen apart, NSDF has turned to online engagement. A key aspect of this is the NSDF Lab, an open-call project that was established last year in order to bring together a diverse range of young theatre makers to make work for this year’s festival. Pieces such as Home and Rum & Coke are a result of this, and I chatted to two members of The Choir’s production team, Mohammed Barber and Nicholas Escobar, to get some insight on the process and whether it’s presented many challenges.
For Nicholas, the key to the whole experience was "adapting to our current circumstances." He says: "Our team met over Zoom every Wednesday, talking through story ideas and doing writing and brainstorming exercises. We would do work throughout the week and then pitch things during that Wednesday meeting." This means that the Lab created a sense of artistic purpose and "creative connection", even if, as Nicholas says, they’ve only ever met "through my computer screen". This led to a shift in Mohammed’s creative practice — instead of spending time "stuck in [his] own head working on [his] own ideas", it involved a collaborative exercise in developing characters and plot-lines, as well as the art more generally. Clearly, there’s great importance attached in the Lab process to stimulating creativity collectively, and giving people the tools to collaborate with others.
Already having the backing of NSDF from the get-go seems to have stimulated these aspects. Mohammed says: "NSDF were quite clear early on [that] the idea could be whatever it wanted to be. That inspired the confidence to be bold, and not feel restricted to a one person show in a black box theatre. And knowing that this is the starting point for the piece rather that its end meant we were able to create an ensemble piece with lots of characters despite Covid-19." It also meant a greater appreciation of accessibility requirements from the off, leading to a greater level of care in the creation and production of the work (for example, the use of live captioning).
This creative freedom led to the decision to create the piece with music, which seems not to have thrown the collaborators. Again, Nicholas says that it was ‘all about adapting to the situation’. Zoom limitations were taken into account: the choir could not all perform together feasibly online, so Nicholas composed a song for guitar especially for the main character to sing near the end of the piece, and another which would be sung "by the bereavement choir in a staged version of the play". These two melodic threads have emerged throughout the piece, creating character subtext through musical moments, whilst giving a suggestion of the show as it would be staged whilst taking into account the Zoom format. As Mohammed says, "music forms the very heart of this piece and its from this that everything else flows", and it’s admirable that this has remained the same despite the limitations of the format.
Overall, the Lab seems to have been a very positive experience. Mohammed was "introduced to wonderful and talented theatre-makers across the UK (and USA)", being able to develop a "completely new idea – an opportunity that is quite rare". For Nicholas the crux of the project was the "collaborative aspect", which was "creatively invigorating". Both would "100% recommend" the process, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve produced.