Jemma Gross is a director and one half of the Co-Artistic Director Team of Fly High Stories (the other being writer Rachel Barnett-Jones), she tells us about making a show for NHS front line workers to show thanks for all their work in the pandemic
Tell us a bit about Together/Apart NHS.
Captain P.I.Lot and the Super Computer are stuck in space. Can you help them get home again? Together/Apart is a free interactive online performance designed particularly for NHS Front Line Workers and their children. Families interact and work with the astronaut and through games and talking help him to manage his big feelings, and then bring him home to his son Pip. Our astronaut is played by the exceptionally brilliant performer Phil Yarrow, our Super Computer has been designed and is performed by Chris Silvester (who is also the clever clogs behind our website and the mission control desk that our audience Cadets move through to book tickets and access the show and pre and post show games). The idea and the script is from Co-Artistic Director Rachel Barnett-Jones who has been writing exquisite works for kids for years and her talented (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree) son Toby Barnett-Jones plays our hero’s son, and I’m super lucky to be directing them all.
How did you come to make this show?
Rachel is an ideas machine. Occasionally I have a good one, but the initial show is definitely her baby. It came out from our late night conversations we were having during lockdown about the worry over our children’s mental health and wanting to offer something to schools that would help grownups discuss these big feelings with kids. That idea sits at the heart of everything we make; navigating big ideas, concepts and emotions with small ones. Back in September 2020 We worked with four schools in Barnet on that first show, we wanted to make it so that it could be enjoyed from anywhere. So children isolating from school wouldn’t miss out. And we knew there was more to happen with it. Fast forward to March 2021 and we realised it could be remade as a gift for NHS workers and their families as a way to support them. Through family and friends we’re aware that families of Front Line workers have been through an exceptionally hard year. This is our way of saying ‘thank you’ – by providing a silly 60 minutes of fun family activity, and none of it would be possible without The support of Watford Palace Theatre, Harrow Arts Centre, and our sponsors Gibbs Gillespie and Hillyier Hopkins
Have there been any surprises in making a show like this? What have you learned?
So many surprises with so much learning, which is why we love doing what we do. Who doesn’t want to learn new things? Some of the things we have learned are; How to make the show feel like theatre even though we are watching through screens? What can we do with the tech to make it fun? How do we create the tech we need? (well Chris did that thankfully). And the best surprise has been the joy in making it, as an entirely new way of working for us as a company, as individuals and discovering a new way of working to reach our audience of kids and their weary grownups.
Would you like to continue to make online work moving forward?
In the last year we have moved entirely online, creating digital work. It has allowed us to survive and thrive as a company, opening up how we are telling stories and reaching a greater audience than before. It will definitely stay a large part of our company’s make-up now.
Fly High Stories is a fairly new company, how did you and Rachel come to work together?
Rachel and I have known each other for years, from a distance. Then a couple of years ago, as a new mum getting back in the game of directing I asked for help on Facebook, Rachel responded and came to work with me as a dramaturge. When I then pitched an idea of a children’s Musical on aerodynamics to Singapore Repertory Theatre and they went for it, Rachel was the first and only writer I wanted to work on it with. We discovered we work well together and the company grew out of that first show. We’ve been fairly inseparable since!
You talk about #WeWorkKind on your website, tell us a bit about that.
As our company grew and the more Rachel and I worked together, we realised we had a chance with our company, in not only creating the work we wanted to make, but we also got to decide HOW we made it and HOW we run our company. We both have battle scars from freelancing for decades. Our industry is wonderful and inspiring and filled with generous individuals but it is also brutal and can be uncaring and particularly hard for freelancers especially if you are a parent, or disabled or are without ‘connections.’ We put kindness at the front of how we work. It is how we communicate with each other and in the first year over lockdown many artists pointed out that we worked so kindly with them and how supported they felt. So we decided it was time to talk more about putting kindness at the heart of your practice and the campaign #WeWorkKind was born. It is a set of 5 guiding principles that we follow that other companies can choose to follow too.
There is something in the air as there is a real movement happening amongst theatre companies and practitioners to re-look at industry working practices with a fairer and kinder approach since Covid.
What is next for Fly High Stories?
We have a few ideas for the next few years that we are in development for. Our work is hopefully going to be taking us into your phones and onto your TV screens! But you will have to watch our website or our social media channels for when that news gets launched.
Our aim is to continue to make work for children and their grownups to enjoy together and to work with as many diverse artists as possible on that journey. We also love to talk to and support other artists and companies, so if you have an idea that you’d like to get some feedback or support on, get in touch!
You have to be the change you want to make.