Letters from Cardiff in lockdown: Michelle Perez

Today’s instalment for the Letters from Cardiff in lockdown series comes from Michelle Perez, General Manager of Theatr Iolo. We’re looking for your stories, so please contribute to Letters from Cardiff in lockdown

One of our small team for Theatr Iolo, became ill with symptoms of the virus early on, which meant that we decided earlier than most organisations to all work from home. We set ourselves up and made sure that the office was safe and secure to close up for the foreseeable.

I am Theatr Iolo’s General Manager. Our company produces shows and activities for children, young people and their adults. We regularly have shows in one of Cardiff’s theatre venues and we tour throughout Wales, the UK and internationally.

As things progressed it became clear that we would have to cancel the remaining dates of our show that was on tour (Chwarae – there was about a week of the tour still to go) and would have to postpone the tour we were due to go into rehearsal for in April (Owl at Home). We also had to postpone a project that involved artists visiting Cardiff from India and a future reciprocal trip by ourselves out to India, that we had just been awarded a specific grant for.

In a work sense, as soon as we established that our staff, wider team of freelancers and board were all safe, secure and paid, then we moved onto our partners, collaborators and stakeholders. Then we looked at what we could do to help others – How can we help?

In a home sense, I did much the same as soon as I had established that all family and friends were safe, well and had a plan, I tried to work out what I could do to help. I offered my services as a volunteer to drive prescription deliveries for a local pharmacy and posted my number through the door of all my neighbours and offered assistance, much the same as the rest of the general public, who were not deemed ‘key workers’.

The overwhelming need to help, the need to do ‘something’ was really strong in both my work life and home life. Maybe it was just a need to feel more in control.

With pressures of home working, home schooling, helping my wider self-isolating family and then looking after my youngest child with symptoms of the virus, some days have been challenging to say the least. However, there are also many rewards, re-connecting with my teenage children, sitting down at the table together for meals again, getting to know my neighbours, adding to our family with a new puppy and generally just slowing down and taking time to think, feel, listen and take notice.

All of these personal revelations happened in a work sense too, as a company, we have taken time to stop, think, reassess, trial and evaluate. We were in the process of updating our latest three to five year business plan and the application for the Arts Council of Wales Investment Review when the crisis hit.

Although initially gutted with a feeling that all our hard work would be wasted when this review was postponed, I have come to realise that all that hard work has actually helped us in this crisis and meant that we were able to react quickly, decisively and strategically.

Our values were clear across the organisation and were the bench-mark that we tested every decision against. A strong board/team and ‘our house in order’ going into this crisis meant that we had lots to fall back on. A sound Business Continuity Plan, strategic business plans, flexible budgets, HR policies and procedures, strong financial management and a healthy reserve all helped to secure and ground us pretty quickly.

We are also incredibly lucky to be funded by the ACW and for the crisis to hit when it did within our timeline of activity. We have been very fortunate and we are very aware of this and we really want to make sure that we use this privilege to be able to help others, to help our cultural industry survive in Wales and beyond and that we can continue to help beyond this crisis.

As a small company and being a relatively new team, we have all remained very busy with large to do lists of things that we hadn’t been able to achieve in the times we had been in post, so we have taken this time to catch up.

We want to make sure that we have everything in place in order to react quickly and efficiently as soon as some sort of normality returns. We feel that this will help the industry as a whole too if we are able to provide audiences, schools and venues with shows/activities as soon as they need them. This is monitored on a month to month basis in consultation with our staff, board and stakeholders and depends on the latest government and industry advice or guidelines.

Outside of helping the industry, our main focus was what can we do to help the wider community of Cardiff and Wales? What do we mean to our audiences? Our participants? What do they need from us?

Theatr Iolo exists to create theatre and cultural activities for children, young people and their adults, so what do children, families and teachers need from us at this time? And in the future?

We asked and we listened and decided that what they needed in the first instance was inspiration, resources and ideas to help entertain at home for home schooling or relaxing and/or entertain in schools for children of key workers etc. Also support that could help ease the anxiety and enormity of this pandemic and help children to make sense of it and how it affects them. In response to this we created posts and shared other suitable online resources on our website and social media.

To this end and for entertainment purposes, we also decided to online screen two productions; Llygoden yr Eira and Chwarae. Both shows are in Welsh language and particularly helpful for families with mixed Welsh language skills in the home and because there has been less Welsh language product being shared online.

We continued with our planned online launch of our bi-ennial Platfform New Writing Call-Out but also extended this to children and young people, and will be running a Young People’s Playwright Competition alongside the adult call-out. We are creating some online resources to help young people learn the skills needed to write a new short script to supplement this competition.

As our production of Owl at Home had to be postponed, we decided to film a series of short films based on the production as planned in the R&D phases of the project and use the actor George to create the ‘George at Home’ series. Ironically the show is based on the book Owl at Home and follows the sweet story of an Owl who lives alone and how he copes with his isolation. We decided early on that this production will resonate even more so with a young audience in this current climate and may help them to address their own feelings and experiences. We felt strongly it should continue to go ahead in some way and in whatever presentation format it ends up in. The George at Home series would be an introduction to the final piece and help our audience in the present.

We are currently developing some audio family shows in the form of ‘Bedtime Stories’ or for older children ‘Audio Books for teens’ with some productions that have already been created in our cannon of works or for new productions.

Although these are practical steps to address immediate needs, what we have offered so far still only services some sections of the community and that there is a number of children, families and teachers that aren’t able to access them currently. To this end, we are developing ideas of how to adapt our new, existing and planned shows to take them to the masses and include families who haven’t had access to theatre before for whatever reason. These ideas will be ever-changing and flexible in light of the new changes coming our way and that we do not yet know. However, we aim to use our creativity to address the inequality of our communities, provide work and income for our industry and ultimately are true to our values.

We would love to hear more from families, teachers, anyone, about what they think we could do to help our local community of Cardiff and beyond. So please get in touch at hello@theatriolo.com and/or follow us on social media @theatriolo or call us on 029 20 613782.

To find out more information about Theatr Iolo or any of the above activities to join in with, then check the website theatriolo.com.

Want to write for Letters from Cardiff in lockdown? Find out how here…

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