Kiz Crosbie, Mortal Fools CEO/Artistic Director and Rachel Horton, Marketing and Audience Development lead, talk with the North East Culture Partnership about the impact of COVID-19 on their organisation and how they have adapted to the new landscape.
Mortal Fools exists to facilitate positive connections between people – something never more needed than in these fractious and challenging times we are living in.
We’re a multi-award-winning theatre, drama and creative learning charity based in Prudhoe, Northumberland working across the North of England.
We started out as a small youth theatre group, running one-off week-long projects from a village hall in 2012. Today, we are known for creating compelling, dynamic and high-quality theatre.
Our work is collaborative and contemporary. We’re passionate about the arts and the power of the arts to change and enrich lives, to share and show our potential as human beings and to transform society.
Putting the brakes on
Prior to the UK lockdown, Mortal Fools were busy with programmes of activities with children and young people, artists and businesses.
We were redeveloping a show called Hugging Dogs with a cast of young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), due to go on tour in June/July; working with young people in Alnwick on their Arts Awards, and were just mere days away from going on a Northern tour with Relentless, our newest theatre show from our trailblazing Ensemble Young Company, exploring the pressure-filled and demand fuelled world young people are living in.
We were running weekly Youth Theatre groups, applying for new project funding and gearing up for professional development training with adults, teachers and businesses including Cragside Primary School, Sunderland Culture, National Trust and Muckle LLP. It was an extremely busy time!
In line with government advice, we took the decision to halt all face-to-face activities from Friday 20th March. It was especially hard on our young people, who lost their school routines and had exams they’d been working towards for months cancelled overnight. It was also extremely tough on our team of 25 associate freelance practitioners that looked likely to lose crucial income streams.
From survival to reinvention
We wanted to move the company from the inevitable ‘survival mode’ – characterised by panic, lots of what-ifs and lack of clear thinking – into ‘reinvention mode’ as quickly as possible. As a creative organisation, it was important to give our core team, associate team, partners, board what they needed to be able to get their brains back in gear and focus on what we could control, rather than drown in what we could not.
Our core Mortal Fools team and board engaged in initial COBR style meetings focusing on Continuity Planning considering both immediate impact of COVID-19 and the potential impact on and risks to long-term plans. This led us to devise a series of promises to our staff, our participants, our audiences and our collaborators.
As a team, we went through all our planned activities, in turn, asking the question: does this have the potential to be reinvented for this new world order?
We also looked at what projects could be brought forward as we had had digital project ambitions pre-COVID and what new opportunities may exist across this new landscape; the ideas came thick and fast. We quickly involved our wider associate team – so there were 20 creative heads all considering what a company reinvention might look like.
This definitive decision-making process and the prioritisation of developing and rolling out a clear people-focused communication plan ensured we could continue operating, that we understood the operational realities both internally and externally, that we could continue to remain connected to our audiences, Youth Theatre group and project beneficiaries and increase the level of advocacy across our network.
Reflecting on Mortal Fools responsibility to the people they work with Kiz Crosbie CEO and Artistic Director said: “We believe that those people with relationships with young people – personal and professional – have a responsibility to maintain and build those relationships and support them during this period; to enhance their lives now and their lives in the future. For us, that meant finding new ways to co-create and connect with children and young people digitally. We felt a similar responsibility to our whole Mortal Fools network.”
We realised our immediate purpose was to reimagine what “staying connected” could look like as Mortal Fools and supporting others in our network through that process.
The challenges we faced included loss of income and immediate funding opportunities; working with businesses; project partners and funders with suddenly vastly different priorities and budgets; communicating with organisations with furloughed teams; the strain on our team and resources to adapt during this crisis; feeling a sense of grief over the projects and performances cancelled; our associate team feeling adrift in their practice due to loss of work elsewhere and our young people losing their routine and the safe space of our in-person groups and project activities.
We continue to face challenges daily. We’re operating within societal flux and a project network of many of moving parts.
We try to separate what we can and cannot control during our weekly planning sessions – focusing on being a strong, resilient, innovative, entrepreneurial creative organisation that is people-focused and people-powered. We also ensure to take time to really celebrate our successes; the organisational ones, the team ones and the individual ones.
Culture during lockdown
Culture is a principle way we connect with one another, we share cultural experiences, take part in them together, create them together. Togetherness is undoubtedly what is going to see us through the current situation.
We recognised you can’t just stick cultural experiences online and expect young people to come. We needed to create access to something that is relevant to their lives and that will enhance their lives, now and in the future. Some of the new initiatives we’ve implemented are:
Mortal Fools’ Digital Ambassadors – we have put young people front and centre of our social media and digital content generation, supporting their skills development and enabling their young people to reach out to other young people during this challenging time.
From “addressing the Nation” once a week, to plotting and devising content, to publishing reviews of online shows and activities, sharing Spotify playlists and participating in Young People’s Panel Discussions, exploring how this situation is affecting them – we are giving young people a voice and a purpose.
Mortal Fools Ensemble Young Company Member, Ben Grainger (18) shared his Mortal Fools experience so far: “Working with Mortal Fools during lockdown has reiterated just how strongly Mortal Fools value the young people that they work with – we have been offered so many opportunities despite the challenging times we’re in. They have helped me stay creative and engaged at a time when I really needed it.”
The Coronavirus Time Capsule Project – a week-by-week creative filmed response to the pandemic, through the eyes of young people, supported by Mortal Fools practitioners. The project was created by Company Three, based in London, and it unites young people’s groups from all over the world as a way of recording teenagers’ experiences during the global coronavirus pandemic and shutdown. Mortal Fools has been a key partner in the project development and has two groups participating.
We implemented projects over a number of weeks using a detailed activity plan with clear timelines, roles and responsibilities – it was a real team effort.
The response from audiences and our wider network has been incredibly positive; we’ve had great uptake with people signing up to participate in our projects and programmes, we’ve had an influx of engagement and new audiences on our social media channels and partners, press and others reach out to compliment us on our project work.
We’ve also had a lot of positive feedback regarding our implemented communication strategy and social media– from the very beginning we made the internal decision that we did not want to be an organisation projecting outwards and instead we wanted to listen and then to put messaging and content out that added value to our network and beyond.
Everyone matters – including our freelancers
Like most of the UK, we moved into home working from Monday 23rd March. The core team re-grouped and talked about how we could stay connected to one another, best support one another and create work together.
Supporting Mortal Fools Associate Team – Whilst many organisations were cutting freelancers loose and cancelling work, Mortal Fools honoured all freelance contracts irrespective of project cancellation.
In addition, we have created new strands of work with paid opportunities for freelancers and have given emotional support, professional development training and funding application advice at a time when our freelancers needed it most.
Matthew Tuckey – Freelance Sound Designer; part of Mortal Fools Associate Team added: “Mortal Fools’ promises to audiences, participants and associate practitioners have been public, honest and timely… their support has gone above and beyond their obligation… on par with national industry bodies.”
Through weekly digital team meetings and digital social spaces, to our daily WhatsApp check-in, where each morning we share our tasks for the day and a voice message to the others saying how we’re doing and what we’ve been up to, our wider team feels more connected than ever before.
Time of Opportunity
We’ve turned this period into a time of reflection and opportunity; we’ve worked up project strands that we may not have without the current situation and focused on extending our reach to participants in ways we hadn’t considered before. For example:
- We’re currently working on an online platform linked to our MELVA theatre-based package for primary school children and their families across the UK. It will contain creative activities, extracts from the theatre show, interviews with key company members and serve as a free-to-access creative resource for families to support children’s mental health both now and after lockdown.
- We’re working on digitising I Weigh, our 2019 production inspired by the Instagram movement of the same name. We want to rework the production, film it alongside practitioner-led workshops so that it can be accessed by young people across the world.
- We’re reaching out and digitally networking with organisations, funders, local authorities and networks that we weren’t talking to before, introducing ourselves and claiming our space in the North East business community as a company managing to navigate the current climate whilst continuing to do good. And the opportunities are unfolding.
To find out more about Mortal Fools, visit the YouTube channel.
Mortal Fools website: www.mortalfools.org.uk
Rachel Horton is also known as The Culture Vulture, you can find them on Facebook here.