Positive Stories For Negative Times: Pandemic theatre project enters second season

When Robbie Gordon and Jack Nurse of Wonder Fools set up their lockdown theatre project commissioning new scripts for young people, they hoped to involve 50 theatre groups around Scotland. In the end, they attracted nearly 300, from Stockholm to Quebec, and they are now launching their second season. Joyce McMillan reports
Jack Nurse and Robbie Gordon of Wonder FoolsJack Nurse and Robbie Gordon of Wonder Fools
Jack Nurse and Robbie Gordon of Wonder Fools

If there is one theatre company in Scotland that barely seems to have paused for breath during the last 19 months, it’s the young Glasgow-based group Wonder Fools. Founded in 2014 by writer, director and performer Robbie Gordon, and writer and director Jack Nurse, the company were already making a substantial impact on the Scottish theatre scene before the pandemic struck, with shows including their hugely successful touring production 549: Scots Of The Spanish Civil War, based on stories from Gordon’s home town of Prestonpans, and the bold The Coolidge Effect, which deals directly with the pervasive influence of internet porn.

The company also worked extensively with non-professional actors – in community groups, in schools, with students – in an effort to bridge the gap between professional theatre and those who still often assume it is not for them; and when the pandemic broke out, they were determined not to let those groups be forgotten.

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“Jack and I both grew up in places where there wasn’t much access to theatre,” says Gordon, “and we’ve always tried to work on filling that gap. When the pandemic broke out, we heard all the debate about the terrible impact of Covid on professional theatre makers, and of course we were part of that. But we were also aware of all those other groups for whom theatre is often something of lifeline, a place of escape and community and friendship in difficult lives. So we immediately started to talk to them, and ask what they needed; and our lockdown projects emerged in response to those conversations.”

Right from the start of lockdown, Wonder Fools continued to develop their very close relationship with Ayr Gaiety theatre, and its community work; a link which resulted in the company’s powerful online show Meet Jan Black, featuring Maureen Beattie and a team of actors from local Ayrshire amateur companies, and performed in April 2021 from the Gaiety stage.

When it came to young people, though, the demand identified by Wonder Fools was clear and specific. In the pandemic or out of it, young theatre groups felt there was a shortage of high-quality contemporary material to work with, in the form of plays, or interactive dramatic texts of other kinds; and Gordon and Nurse, with their producer Steph Connell, therefore wrote down a wish list of writers they would like to commission, approached the Traverse Theatre to join them in commissioning the work and shaping the project, and began to contact the writers they had identified, receiving an overwhelmingly positive response.

The result was the first season of the Wonder Fools and Traverse Theatre project Positive Stories For Negative Times, which began back in 2020, and ran until earlier this year. The writers involved were Sabrina Mahfouz, Stef Smith, Chris Thorpe, Bea Webster, and Gordon and Nurse themselves, working together; the plays often touched on lockdown themes of isolation and mental stress, but ranged from a contemporary take on Shelley’s Ozymandias, by Gordon and Nurse, to Sabrina Mahfouz’s Bad Bored Women Of The Rooms, about the neglected figure of the gangster woman in history.

The plays were published by Bloomsbury Publishing, and made available online, and young theatre groups everywhere were invited to sign up for the project. Wonder Fools thought that they might attract 50 groups from around Scotland, but the combination of their own networks, and those of the Traverse Theatre, finally attracted 282 youth groups and a total of 2,700 young people, mainly from Scotland, but also from across the UK and Ireland, and from international locations ranging from Stockholm to Quebec. The aim was for each group to choose a text and work on it, in any form they chose, from straight performance to improvisations inspired by the plays; and then to record something of their work, and post it on a shared website which would act as a community notice-board, featuring opportunities to experience the work of other groups, and to respond to it in discussion.

“We were just delighted with the range and the scale of the response,” says Gordon. “People created films, theatre performances, live Zoom performances, even site-specific shows in outdoor locations. Some of the texts – like Chris Thorpe’s Hold Out Your Hand, or Stef Smith’s The Pack – just offered so much space for young people to be creative with their own interpretations of the work. You can see a selection of those films on our website, and we were so delighted with what had been created that we started work on a second season as soon as we could.”

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The second season of Positive Stories For Negative Times, launched last month, features an even wider range of plays, by Bryony Kimmings, Douglas Maxwell, Hannah Lavery, Debris Stevenson, The Pappy Show, Wonder Fools themselves, and young Traverse writer Ellen Bannerman. This time around, Wonder Fools formed a Youth Board of young participants in the project to help dramaturg the plays; and they also played a part in selecting Ellen Bannerman, from among the Traverse young writers’ group.

“It’s just been an incredibly rich process,” says Gordon. “Obviously we hope that some of the wonderful young people involved will become professional theatre-makers in future; but it’s also about confidence and community and imagination and empathy, and all the other skills for life that young people can develop through creating theatre. Are all the stories positive? Not exactly. But the involvement and enthusiasm of the young people who’ve been attracted to this is a huge positive story in itself; and we hope it will continue, through the return of live theatre, and beyond.”

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More details of Season Two of Positive Stories For Negative Times at https://positivestories.scot, and https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/positive-stories-for-negative-times-2. Playtexts in book form at https://www.bloomsbury.com, with a second volume published next week.

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