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GUEST BLOG: Together/Apart – Creating Children’s Work during Covid

Writer: Rachel Barnett-Jones

Jemma Gross & Rachel Barnett-Jones

Fly High Stories was founded by old friends, director Jemma Gross and writer Rachel Barnett-Jones, to create work for family audiences with an emphasis on growth mindset and confidence building. Both mothers, we were inspired by a desire to create accessible stories on stage, screen and radio which their children would be captivated by. We are committed to making work which can be enjoyed and understood by young audiences everywhere.

When the Pandemic struck we moved all our work into the online and digital spheres … and we’re having a blast! 

Early in 2020, in the first days of the lockdown, we came up with the idea of making a creative performance and workshop which could be delivered to primary-aged school children who were either in school or isolating at home. We wanted to create a project which would bring children together with their classmates even if they weren’t in the same physical space, and give them an opportunity to talk about some of the big feelings (especially around boredom and isolation) which they may have been experiencing during the pandemic. Most specifically, we wanted to create a space in which storytelling and problem-solving could exist in an online setting so that nobody felt like they were being left behind.

The character of lonesome Captain Phil, aboard the rather quirky Star Ship Fly High, was our way of reaching out to audiences – asking for their help to get him home to his family again. 

We initially conceived this idea as a three-part school workshop – using drama and KS1 literacy skills as a gateway into talking about mental health and big feelings. 

Funding from Tesco, the John Thaw Foundation, John Lyon Charity and the National Lottery Community Fund and support from Arts Depot meant that we ran the three workshops in five primary schools to Year 2 and 3 children. 

Our web designer created an incredible online portal so the children really felt like they were dialling into a

spaceship. We treated the website as though it was our stage set … read about that here. All the interactive activities were visually themed so when, for example, the children were asked to write a letter to Captain Phil, the portal automatically sent them themed-headed paper from the Star Ship!

The story was relatively straightforward – an astronaut stuck in space is lonely and wants to return home to his family. The children must help by reminding him of what he is missing on earth, helping him to choose appropriate persuasive language to get his boss to agree to him coming home, and then mending the space manual by putting the right words in the gaps. Each performance/workshop included interactive games, learning the salute, and chatting with Captain Phil – played by the always excellent at improv and exceedingly brilliant at working with young audiences, Polka favourite, Phil Yarrow.

Feedback from schools was excellent: 

The children were captivated. They loved dialing in and several were convinced that they were talking to a real astronaut who was really in space!” Year 3 Teacher, St Johns Primary School.  

As the Pandemic progressed, we identified another audience we thought might benefit from the aims of TogetherApart. 

A number of our friends work on the front line of the NHS and also have children of similar ages to our own. We saw how anxious and troubled some of these children were becoming, especially seeing their parents going to the overwhelmed hospitals they worked in every day. These children were obviously more aware than others of the dangers of the virus.

We decided to reimagine our three-part performance workshop into a one-hour interactive online show, to be delivered over Zoom, for family audiences affected by having one or more parent working on the NHS front line. We wanted the show to be an opportunity for grown-ups and children to connect, have a fun silly time, solve problems together, and maybe talk about their big feelings. This new iteration of the project was supported by Watford Palace Theatre and Harrow Arts Centre, with extra funding from a local estate agent, Gibbs Gilespie, and law firm, Hopkins Hillier.

Although we kept the premise for the story the same, we realised that the focus on literacy skills wasn’t going to be as useful for this demographic. We also realised that for a family audience the protagonist of the story needed to be more relatable and so we added the character of Pip, Captain Phil’s little boy, so that both adults and children had a touchstone to the story and to being able to recognise and reflect on their big feelings. 

We cast the writer’s son, Toby Barnett-Jones, in the role of Pip and had great fun recording his messages to his Dad – the positive, upbeat message from the garden asking the audience to go and chat with his Dad up in space, the distraught message as he hides underneath his bed desperate for his Dad to come home, and then the happy lad when his Dad has returned (with the help of the audience). Being able to chart Pip’s emotional journey through the story would act as a reflection of the children’s own journey through the darkest days of the pandemic, allowing them to unlock their own feelings about how it felt to have a parent in peril. 

We also introduced the role of the Super Computer to the story – the Super Computer was the reason that Captain Phil was stuck in space – it turned out that the Computer, being Super, had a lot of big sad feelings and because they hadn’t talked about them to anyone the engines wouldn’t fire and so they were stuck floating in Space – this formed the central message of our play: It’s important to talk about your big feelings. 

Once again, as with the school shows, we used our specially-designed portal so the audience really felt like they were dialing into a spaceship, complete with a glitchy Super Computer. And there was a personalised portal with a post-show game where audience members could dress up and customise Captain Phil!

Audience feedback was really very encouraging: 

 Wow, what a fantastic show by Fly High Stories. From the moment we got our tickets, our imaginations were transported to the spaceship up high. My cheeks still hurt from laughing! And yet, I also came away with a real sense of understanding of the deeper themes conveyed throughout. And more importantly, so did my son. An exceptionally clever production, and unlike any theatre show we have experienced before. We absolutely loved it and will look forward to returning as cadets again in the future.

Sarah, Mum to Edward (7)

We, as creatives, have fallen in love with the characters of Captain Phil, Junior Captain Pip, and Super Computer –  so much so that we are now working on a pilot episode of a web series (being made with Arts Council England support) – with the added characters of Pip’s little sister, ‘Junior Junior Assistant Captain Pippy’ and ‘Pup the Space Dog’. These webisodes will feature a Space related topic as well as a Big Feeling for the Star Ship Fly High crew to learn about, and also jokes and a craft section. 

We hope to release the pilot webisode in early 2022 and will then be fundraising to make more of these as a resource for schools and families.

These are strange times, we’re constantly reimagining our creative practice, and have a raft of exciting projects on our development slate. And that means we’re always on the lookout for new partners, funders, investors and collaborators. If you’re interested in the work that Fly High Stories does check out our website at www.flyhighstories.co.uk 

And you’re welcome to support us here: https://www.buymeacoffee.com/flyhighstories 

The Reviews Hub

The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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