BADAPPLE Theatre Company’s Theatre On Your Doorstep van is parked up, the hand brake applied by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Instead of travelling to Yorkshire’s smallest and hardest-to-reach village halls this spring, the Green Hammerton company is switching to Theatre On Your Desktop.
“At a time when arts projects of all kinds are on hold, we’re keeping spirits up by making freely available podcasts of one of our best-loved productions, Back To The Land Girls,” says artistic director Kate Bramley, who founded the grassroots touring company 21 years ago with the mission to “offer the best of new theatre in the most unexpected of places”.
“Now you can access relaxed readings of our popular World War Two comedy in a series of free ten-minute podcasts, starring Frances Tither and Sarah Raine.”
Explaining the rationale behind the Desktop initiative, Kate says: “For the past 21 years, we’ve been touring original productions to rural communities that do not normally get the chance to host shows locally.
“But the creative team decided the best way to keep the plays coming during lockdown was to bring them direct to people’s desktops and hopefully spread a little virtual cheer.”
Back To The Land Girls is an apt choice for Badapple’s debut virtual venture, given the parallels with the strictures of 2020 life in Covid-19 lockdown limbo. “This historic play of ours is surprisingly resonant at this time as our Land Girls are facing life-changing times head on, but are resilient and manage to triumph,” says Kate.
“The most resonant aspect of looking at the Land Girls play again is their uncertainty and trepidation about what’s going to happen, and then a decent amount of grit and determination as they turn their hands to learning new skills in a hurry.
“It seems that a lot of us are having to do that, albeit from the confines of our own homes, rather relocating to the country.”
Kate’s story follows the adventures of Buff and Biddy, two young women who volunteer for the Women’s Land Army in Yorkshire, played by Frances Tither, BBC docu-drama award winner for 2018’s Emmeline: Portrait Of A Militant, and Sarah Raine, whose credits include Wild Rumpus Theatre’s Colour The Clouds.
“Expect a humorous look at Buff and Biddy’s experiences as they are bonded by hard physical work, back ache and plenty of banter,” says Kate, whose script is complemented by original songs and music by Sony award-winning singer-songwriter Jez Lowe.
The podcast episodes were recorded during April by Kate, Frances and Sarah via Zoom from their homes. “The quality reflects that, but there is a relaxed feel to the readings that our listeners have commented they are enjoying,” says Kate.
“Hopefully, as the series develops, we’ll be able to upgrade the recording process, as well as continuing to employ a number of freelance performers who are currently out of work.”
Looking ahead, Kate says: “We’re hoping to expand the series to include more shows from the Badapple back catalogue – we have more than 20 years of plays to choose from – and we’re already looking at the possibility of delivering The Thankful Village, as it’s very resonant for rural communities and also those who are missing family they can’t be with.”
What else? “Probably The Carlton Colliers, for the football feel-good factor, and also Eddie And The Gold Tops, our ultimate rural touring Sixties’ music show,” says Kate. “Anything upbeat and fun, so we can spread good cheer around our isolated audiences.”
There is the possibility of new material too. “Subject to funding, we hope to commission some new short plays for the podcast series,” reveals Kate.
She has been “surprisingly busy” in lockdown with a combination of home-schooling and various creative projects on the back burner. “We’re still preparing for our next live tour of Elephant Rock, which we’re delighted has received Arts Council support,” she says.
Until Covid-19’s pandemic strictures intervened, dates were in the diary for Badapple to tour Kate’s latest play to 30 venues from April 16 to May 31. The Elephant Rock tour has been rearranged for September and October, pending Coronavirus governmental policy updates.
“But many of our partners are now re-considering moving it again to Spring 2021,” says Kate. “It’s a case of wait and see, but the creative team are still working and the designs look wonderful, so that’s some good news for us.
“We’ve had a full read-through of the new play – done virtually – and a lot of good discussions about the ins and outs of the staging, so it’s moving along well.”
Theatre journalist and esteemed reviewer Lyn Gardner wrote an opinion piece in The Stage on May 4 speculating on whether rural touring shows could be the first to be released from the lockdown prohibitions.
Kate, however, strikes a cautionary tone: “Unfortunately, I think Lyn has overlooked the [often older] age of the hall organisers and their community audiences and the latent fear factor, which I believe will make them unlikely to want to socialise in groups at all,” she says.
“I think she’s right about the flexibility of the seats, i.e. seats can be spaced apart to give social distance, and arts events that are ultra-local must be safer. But audiences would still have to move to and from the venue safely and, of course, the performers would have to be safe.
“It’s just as complex for a small hall as for an arena when you start to break down the variables. Venues would still have to operate at 30 per cent of capacity for people to move around within them safely and certainly, for us, it doesn’t seem economically viable on that basis.”
Seven weeks in lockdown, how has village life been for Kate in Green Hammerton? “It’s very quiet in our village at the moment, though our premises are shared with the Post Office, village shop and village Coffee Shack, so we’re able to see villagers cautiously passing by to run their household errands and grab a socially distanced beverage or two,” she says.
“It’s pleasant to see other people passing, even if we can’t interact! A number of community groups have sprung up to support older households as well, and it’s great to see people looking beyond their own four walls to help others.”
Days spent in lockdown limbo afford time for learning, discovering and appreciating anew. “I have learned that my allotment works better when I’m not working full time! And I realise how lucky I am to live and work in a rural area,” says Kate.
“It has been a very different experience for my family than it has been for many others, and one has to hope that the societal will is now present to give greater equality to families who are struggling for either economic or geographical reasons.”
For more details of how to download Back To The Land Girls via Podbean, go to badappetheatre.com.