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GUEST BLOG: Trestle Theatre Company: Behind the Mask

Writer: Helen Barnett

Helen Barnett – Creative Director

The year 2021 feels simultaneously like the perfect and most absurd time for a theatre company to be celebrating a big birthday; on the one hand, the last 18 months have been a whirlwind of a rollercoaster ride for every arts organisation that I have spoken to and on the other, it has provoked a need for strategic planning, change and transformation and the inevitable review and evaluation of the work that goes with this.

Having taken on the role as Creative Director of Trestle Theatre Company in 2019, I inherited its astounding legacy just prior to the impact of the pandemic and celebrating its 40th Birthday has given gave me the opportunity to not only connect with the company’s history but to use that work to inform its next steps.

Trestle is a mask and physical theatre company that has been making innovative physical theatre since its inception in 1981. Through our internationally renowned mask and physical theatre practice, we aim to open up opportunities for everyone to engage with the arts, unleash their creativity, and increase confidence and general wellbeing through participation. We have been situated at our home, Trestle Arts Base, in St Albans since 2002. Today we run it as a hub for our work and other community arts programmes. We also make and export our masks to companies and educational institutions around the world and deliver high-quality training and workshops to theatre-makers, teachers, and schoolchildren.

This year, Trestle celebrates its 40th Birthday and we were adamant not to let the pandemic dampen our spirits. In May, we opened our Behind the Mask | Celebrating 40 years of Trestle Theatre Company Exhibition at St Albans and Museum Gallery. The exhibition charts the history of Trestle and invites the public to discover the extraordinary theatre and education work that we have created over the past four decades. Thanks to lessons learnt and shared about digital content over the last 18 months we have been delighted to bring the exhibition online this Autumn as part of our commitment to broaden the scope and accessibility of the work we do. It will be available online through our website until the end of the year.

Trestle have achieved so much in its forty years. Being fairly new to the Company myself, I have been astounded at the breadth and scope of the work and I feel that this exhibition really celebrates that. As Creative Director, I find it inspiring to see this history presented together and I hope that those accessing the exhibition do too. We are an education company at heart and wanted to create an exhibition to share our learning across the forty years and to inspire the next generation of theatre-makers. We feel that it is incredibly important to highlight the positive effect that engaging in the arts can have and to celebrate the different ways that companies create work together. It is not just about the shows we have made but also the participatory and education work and partnerships we have built.

The news around the arts in the last year has often been difficult to read and, at times, has felt as though the whole industry has closed down. We feel that it is important that we celebrate the work that did continue, the work that grew and evolved. For us at Trestle, the development of our new digital offer and ability to work in the digital sphere has meant that we were able to continue to be accessible and inclusive and to reach people who might otherwise have felt very isolated. We have been able to deliver projects and workshops online with schools as far-flung as Singapore as well as working closely with schools in Hertfordshire in a hybrid online and in-person way. As Part of our Behind The Mask Exhibition we were able to bring 4 schools together to create a film presenting short mask performances culminating in an online event to share the work.

If we have learnt anything from looking back over our 40 years it’s that embracing change and exploring new possibilities for working leads to resilience and a stronger creative process. As we move forward from this landmark year we continue to explore the benefits of working with mask, play and physical theatre practice but are excited to explore different means of delivering our work and working with new audiences. As a medium, our masks lend themselves to exploring emotion, identity and empathy, things that we can all benefit from developing and we remain committed to sharing this with as many people as possible. For one, I am excited to see what we’ll be celebrating in the next 40 years and beyond.

Behind the Mask | Celebrating 40 years of Trestle Theatre Company is online until the 31st December.

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