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Nine Lessons and Carols: How the Almeida turned life in 2020 into a piece of theatre

What play do you stage when your actors aren’t allowed to go within two metres of one another? The Almeida Theatre has found an innovative way of getting around this conundrum: it’s asked a group of creatives to come up with a completely new one.

Nine Lessons and Carols, opening for its first preview today, has been devised in rehearsals by director Rebecca Frecknall and playwright Chris Bush, together with a cast of six. Giving the building over to the artists and seeing what they come up with is something of a bold move after the agonising impact of the pandemic, but no one could say the show isn’t relevant. It will focus on the themes of isolation, connection and the power of social contact, making it the first piece of new live theatre to focus on how this year has felt to live through.  

It was, says Frecknall, “completely borne out of the situation.” While the Almeida team – where Frecknall is an associate – waited to find out if the theatre industry would get a bailout, they started to talk about what socially distanced work they could make for its intimate auditorium.  

<img src="https://static.standard.co.uk/2020/12/02/14/Nine%20Lessons%20and%20Carols%20rehearsals.%20Rebecca%20Frecknall.%20Photo%20-%20Helen%20Murray%20%283%29.jpg?width=3551&auto=webp&quality=75" alt="<p>Director Rebecca Frecknall in rehearsals

“The thing we kept coming up against was that creating a work within the social distancing rules, the actors having to be spaced out on stage, felt like it could potentially be a barrier. I was trying to find plays to do, and I couldn’t find anything that I was finding inspiring. It was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” she says. “So we came up with the idea of, what if we made something that was actually responding to the moment in content and form, so the spacing could be part of the world of it?”

Another benefit to the idea was that it would make the production as Covid-resilient as possible – if a cast member needs to self-isolate, the modular nature of the piece means that it can keep going and adapt. The cast is rehearsing under Covid-secure conditions, and the Almeida’s auditorium has had a number of seats removed for when audiences return.

Consisting of “scenes, monologues and songs, all in some way responding to themes of the moment”, Frecknall hopes that making the restrictions part of the piece’s form will prevent it from feeling compromised as a work. “I think it’s been a really great creative challenge for everyone, at a point when everyone was feeling creatively dry because no one had been working.  Everybody’s really picked it up and run with it.”

Cast member Maimuna Memon is also working as the production’s composer, and says making the show has been ”such a whirlwind.” She had already returned to the stage earlier this year as Mary Magdalene in the Regents Park Open Air Theatre’s concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and was working on writing her own musical during lockdown. But the pause was also an important time of reflection for her.  

“I got Covid quite early on and I was quite ill for three weeks. In that time, I really didn’t realise how run down I was. I think as freelancers, we’re always pushing for the next thing, constantly trying to do better and get the next job. And I think I felt burnt out, for sure,” she says. ”To have that time, after I felt better, was actually quite liberating in a way, because it gave me the opportunity to think about a lot of things as a creative and an actor, and put new boundaries in for myself and the industry that I was going back into.”

She recognises the show as a rare opportunity. “I think theatres are so reluctant to do new work, because it’s such a risk financially. For the Almeida to be doing something completely new, having no idea what it might be – that’s really exciting,” she says.

Another benefit to the idea was that it would make the production as Covid-resilient as possible – if a cast member needs to self-isolate, the modular nature of the piece means that it can keep going and adapt. The cast is rehearsing under Covid-secure conditions, and the Almeida’s auditorium has had a number of seats removed for when audiences return.

Consisting of “scenes, monologues and songs, all in some way responding to themes of the moment”, Frecknall hopes that making the restrictions part of the piece’s form will prevent it from feeling compromised as a work. “I think it’s been a really great creative challenge for everyone, at a point when everyone was feeling creatively dry because no one had been working.  Everybody’s really picked it up and run with it.”

Cast member Maimuna Memon is also working as the production’s composer, and says making the show has been ”such a whirlwind.” She had already returned to the stage earlier this year as Mary Magdalene in the Regents Park Open Air Theatre’s concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and was working on writing her own musical during lockdown. But the pause was also an important time of reflection for her.  

“I got Covid quite early on and I was quite ill for three weeks. In that time, I really didn’t realise how run down I was. I think as freelancers, we’re always pushing for the next thing, constantly trying to do better and get the next job. And I think I felt burnt out, for sure,” she says. ”To have that time, after I felt better, was actually quite liberating in a way, because it gave me the opportunity to think about a lot of things as a creative and an actor, and put new boundaries in for myself and the industry that I was going back into.”

She recognises the show as a rare opportunity. “I think theatres are so reluctant to do new work, because it’s such a risk financially. For the Almeida to be doing something completely new, having no idea what it might be – that’s really exciting,” she says.

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