Curious Monkey in lockdown: Connection, Creation and Change

When lockdown was announced, Curious Monkey’s creative team was in the middle of a technical rehearsal for our latest show, HERE by Lindsay Rodden, a co-production with Northern Stage - two years in the making, inspired by our work with the ‘Arriving’ group, our regular group for people seeking sanctuary in the UK. Once the decision had been made to down tools as the venues were closing and news was reaching the team about cities going into lockdown, there was a flurry of activity: putting members of the team on trains back to their loved ones; unplanning a mountain of arrangements for the following weeks’ premiere; cancelling community trips and workshops; and trying to keep up to date with the developments in the news. Curious Monkey’s AD Amy Golding finished as much of the tech as possible and joined Northern Stage staff in the surreal moment of turning on the theatre’s ghost light before appearing on their first podcast.

We’ve been extremely fortunate through the crisis to have had support and flexibility from our funders that has allowed us to pay all of our freelancers, extend some contracts and continue to pay our core team, which we are really grateful for.

Throughout lockdown, amidst the scramble of un-producing, salvaging and reimagining, we’ve been struck by the opportunities that have emerged, for connection, creation and change.

Our focus has been connecting with the communities we work with, supporting people with basic needs as much as we can. We’ve been able to continue all of our sessions online with our Arriving group and Troupe, our regular group for young people with experience of the care system, having reworked our policies and procedures to get up and running again. Our team worked hard to source laptops, get mobile wifi organised for people to make sure everyone was able to connect. They have invented all sorts of new ways to engage over zoom, from delivering parcels with recipe ingredients to cook together, to creative activities, online dance classes and writing collective poems. We have started to bring groups back together now for much needed human connection, meeting in the park and at the wonderful Gosforth Civic Theatre where we’ve had enough space to meet up safely.

Members of Troupe have been creating a play over the last year with our creative team. This has been adapted for film and will be shared at our Care About Care? event later this year as part of Care Leavers Week. The group have been working with the creative team throughout lockdown over zoom to develop the piece, which is being filmed in person now. The creative team for HERE recorded a reading of the play that was part of Migration Matters Festival online that integrated elements of the original music and AV from the show.

As the dust has slightly settled and we’ve got through the backlog of some of those jobs that live at the bottom of the to-do list, we’ve had a chance to reflect on why and how we do what we do. Something that’s always been part of the way we work at Curious Monkey is the importance of knowing, sticking to and reflecting on our ethos and values to guide our decision making and planning. This has come up again and again over the last few months, in conversations we’ve had about planning for an uncertain future, through training we’ve done and TED talks we’ve watched. It feels more important now than ever before, as we are facing new challenges all the time.

We have all experienced the up weeks and the down weeks, between toddler juggling and zoom fatigue. We’ve made sure to keep connected through our weekly team meetings, building in a new section (“How is your wellbeing?”), making sure we have time for people to chat and connect. (There were also a few weeks of fancy-dress meetings and team dancing to cheer us up, but that fizzled out!)

The collective experience of lockdown, although varying massively from person to person, organisation to organisation, has allowed connections to form where there were perceived barriers before. We’ve been able to link in to networks, conversations and communities that felt unavailable to us or that we weren’t focussing on before. Like welcoming a regular member of our Arriving group who attends virtual workshops from Bosnia alongside her father who is in Gateshead; Supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign and taking time to reflect on how we can learn and engage in a meaningful way as individuals and as an organisation; training in LGBTQ+ awareness with Curious Arts, connecting to the WOW’s Creative Women’s Forum; and experiencing the National Arts Festival of South Africa online.

We have joined other North East companies, large and small, through a regular zoom meeting to share resources and info, and to support one another in navigating our organisations through the crisis. Something about chatting to people in their bedrooms/ living rooms through a zoom rectangle levels out perceived hierarchies and brings us all into the room together. This, coupled with people’s generosity and openness to share their situation, experience and challenges has created a strong support network.

We’ve been doing lots of reflecting as a team, thinking about the possibilities for change. In writing about the capabilities needed for people to collectively create social change, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania talk about “shifting focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future”, about moving beyond reacting to undesirable conditions to “building visions of the future”. Although there are still so many challenges to overcome, this resonates with us as we look forward.

We are now exploring how we can re-imagine a future for our organisation that continues to keep the community at the heart of our work, engages with and adds value to the theatre infrastructure and provides paid work for the freelancers who make our sector thrive. Over the remainder of 2020 we will be doing research and development around a new venture for 2021 exploring the possibilities for reimagining the way we tour and engage local communities in a post-lockdown world. We’ll keep you posted!

By Jenny Dewar, Executive Director of Curious Monkey