Meet Isolation Ensemble: The Initiative Helping Theatres Impacted By COVID-19 In Charity Performance

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This time last year, the idea of a cast of twenty-six actors rehearsing on Zoom would have been laughable, but now it has become daily life for the Isolation Ensemble.

In the spirit of the 2.6 Challenge, an initiative to help save charities in the UK, an ensemble of twenty-six actors have banded together to create a short production of twenty-six scenes to raise funds for regional theatres in need across the country.

The piece launched at 6pm on Monday 6th July on YouTube, and is raising money for the Birmingham Hippodrome, Manchester Royal Exchange, Coventry Belgrade and Wiltshire Creative (Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury Arts Centre and Salisbury International Arts Festival).

Isolation Ensemble’s director, Abbie Riddell, said: “I was wanting to fill a void that lockdown had created and creativity never grinds to a complete halt, so when the 2.6 Challenge came about, and I saw that there were a lot of charities having money raised for them, I thought that was really beautiful.”

The piece was a collaboration between the cast and director, and anything written or said by a cast member in rehearsal, or in their spare time, was performed by a different member of the cast.

Riddell said that she put out a tweet and was overwhelmed by the response, with almost one hundred actors applying to be one of the final twenty-six.

She went on to explain that the piece was a social commentary on how people are feeling during the pandemic, adding: “It’s OK to talk about love, especially during this time as everything is falling apart, because love is fundamentally something that we experience at some point in our lives.”

Isolation Ensemble Logo / Photo Credit: Isabel Adomakoh Young

The four theatres chosen by the ensemble to receive the donations were selected for their educational work with local communities and aspiring creatives.

Riddell said: “It is important to realise that those that give need to receive.

“When we think ‘theatre’, we always think about the West End, but I am aware that it is in small regional theatres where actors truly begin to flourish and start their careers.”

The government announced this week that theatres will be given a temporary VAT cut from 20% to 5%, as Oliver Dowden attempted to reassure theatres across the country struggling to survive the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with the recent unveiling of a £1.57 billion emergency support package for the arts, this ensemble has taken matters into its own hands to help save Britain’s theatres.

Director, Abbie Riddell / Photo Credit: Chloe Hart

After venues such as the Manchester Royal Exchange, Birmingham Hippodrome and Theatre Royal Plymouth have all begun redundancy consultations, and the Nuffield Southampton Theatres went into administration in May, these announcements have come as a welcome relief.

The ensemble is made up of newly-qualified actors, experienced actors and even household names such as Sophie Powles, known for her role as Holly Barton in Emmerdale, Game of Thrones’ Lucy Aarden, and Rianna Ash from the National Theatre’s War Horse.

Powles said: “It sounded really interesting; a group of actors all coming together to try and create something out of the madness, and I thought that it was a brilliant opportunity.

“I have met some people who I know are going to be friends for life.

“Performance has been my life so to have this place to come to and workshop and improvise and role play with people, and be creative for a few hours kept us all sane.”

Rehearsals were held over Zoom, email and phone calls, and (despite the usual technical hitches we have come to know so well in this age of online interaction) both Powles and Riddell spoke about how much fun they had during the creative process.

Sophie Powels / Photo Credit: Jonny Bosworth

The government has announced outdoor theatre productions can now begin from the 11th July, however there is still something to be said for performance ‘in the flesh’.

Powles commented: “There is something amazing about physically seeing people, the energy of being stood beside someone, feeling the energy of someone’s performance, I think that’s something that you will never be able to replace.”

Isolation Ensemble has raised over £400 for regional theatres so far, and Powles explained the value of regional theatres to the British creative landscape: “They are so community-based, and they take theatre and the arts to regional areas and to people who can’t afford to get into London –  it makes it accessible.

“The thought of there being no regional theatres is really sad, that’s why Isolation Ensemble is so important.”

All donation links can be found in the caption of the YouTube video performance.

Words by Mhari Aurora.

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