Acting, directing and teaching during the pandemic

September 23, 2020

Morall as Rosa Parks in Chickenshed’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ © Chickenshed Theatre

Shakira Dyer interviews Chickenshed’s Higher Education Programme Manager, Jojo Morall

During the Covid-19 pandemic most theatres worldwide had to close their doors. Some have been forced to shut down permanently while others are looking for funding to survive. Angela from Exposure has written an article on the effects of lockdown on the theatre industry in general. Check it out.

Chickenshed, an inclusive theatre and charity based in Southgate, North London, also had to close on 23rd March 2020. Some of its members would be more vulnerable if exposed to the virus. However, like some other theatres, Chickenshed continued putting out virtual work through their project #VirtualChickenshed.

Recently I reviewed their virtual performance of ‘Blowing in the Wind’. Soon afterwards, the play won an Online Office Award. Its message against racism and all forms of prejudice, across the world and throughout time, really spoke to me, especially during the Black Lives Matter protests.

I interviewed the lead actor, Jojo Morall, who performed as activist Rosa Parks in the play. Jojo also leads workshops in Chickenshed, helps to run their education programmes for BTEC and degree Drama students. Jojo directs shows as well!

I thought she was the perfect person to ask about life in performing arts during the COVID crisis. So without further ado, take it away, Jojo Morall!

Shakira: How did you start out as an actor, from a young child to now, and what does it take to become professional?

Jojo: I have always been a member of Chickenshed; from the Children’s Theatre to Youth Theatre. I then chose to study on their Foundation Degree. Through that time, my love of Performing Arts grew – especially my love of teaching Inclusive Performing Arts – so I completed my PG Cert for Higher Education and continue now to develop my skills as a teacher of Inclusive Education. 

To be a professional you need to be true to who you are; to learn what your skills and passions are, and then to follow them. 

Shakira: What have you done at Chickenshed and do you also work elsewhere?

Jojo: I started as a mentor to young people who needed support through education and progressed through the company to now be the Head of Education Programmes and Projects.

I also manage the Outreach programmes for some of our touring productions. I get to direct in Christmas and spring shows as well as being part of training programmes. What I love most about working at Chickenshed is that no day is the same as the one before. I get to do so many new things and meet so many new people… it is always exciting. 

Shakira: In 2017, you played Rosa Parks in Chickenshed’s production of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – how did you rehearse, and what do you think the relevance of this play is for today?

Jojo: Rehearsing for the part was such an exciting journey for me as an actor. I spent a lot of time watching different documentaries to make sure I understood as much as I could about this brilliant woman. I attended rehearsals for all the different pieces, so that I and the directors of those pieces could find ways in which she could connect.

‘Blowing in the Wind’ is, in my opinion, even more relevant now than when it was performed. The world is changing and people are standing up for what they believe in. Just like all those great people of the past. 

Jojo Morral as Rosa Parks [middle] in Chickenshed’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, first shown in 2017 © Chickenshed Theatre

Shakira: What was it like running online Performing Arts degrees and BTECs? Were there any technical restraints or difficulties?

Jojo: Remote working for Chickenshed’s education programme was incredibly difficult. Written language, to some, can be the biggest barrier. Creativity is very difficult to tap into whilst on your own – while being asked to create as a group. Our students, like always, rose to the challenge, and we found ways to make the course material as accessible as possible. In the end, many students developed a different skill, of editing.

Shakira: When you’re leading workshops, what skills do you need? How do you ensure the workshops are accessible for everyone?

Jojo: Leading workshops is a skill which all our members and students develop. The number one thing to try and aim for is a comfortable and safe environment. Once you achieve this, it is easier for material to be created and skills to be developed. 

Shakira: How are chances provided for people with disabilities in Chickenshed’s education programmes?

Jojo: In our programmes anyone can achieve because we don’t choose only one way to teach, and we encourage students to find ways in which they can learn. Everyone learns differently, which is what makes people so exciting. Everyone is different and brilliant! As a teacher, it is our job to bring out that brilliance. 

Shakira: How have you balanced all of your roles at Chickenshed, and what was it like schedule-wise during lockdown?

Jojo: Personally, I have found lockdown very challenging. With a very young daughter, I have loved the time I have got to spend with her, but having to balance that with work and self care has been difficult. However, I am very lucky to work for an organisation that understands that and supported me through it. 

Shakira: What advice would you give to other inclusive performance spaces – especially right now, during lockdown?

Jojo: My advice would be not to focus on what you cannot do during Covid but to try and find the possibilities of what you can do things that you may not have done if we weren’t in the situation we are in now. 

Shakira: What do you need to do in order to ensure Chickenshed Theatre is safe to visit and perform in – eventually?

Jojo: We are starting our Young Company sessions and Education programmes in September. We are following government guidelines to make sure everyone is safe. We need support via our Keep Chickenshed Safe funding campaign.

Lockdown has been challenging for many creative professionals, especially as some may be shielding. Having taken part in a few collaborative Zoom chats myself, I know it can be tricky. Yet, as Jojo mentions, new possibilities can be created. I’m inspired by how much Jojo has achieved as an actor, director and inclusive teacher, even during these times.

Lockdown and the real dangers posed by Covid-19 are by no means over. It could be a while until it is fully safe for theatres to open.

Find out more about Chickenshed and read Jojo’s profile.

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