When two RCS graduates decided to spread joy and positivity during the dark days of lockdown, they didn’t expect to see their new theatre concept take off around the world.
Contemporary Performance Practice alumni Robbie Gordon (above, left) and Jack Nurse – the duo behind Wonder Fools theatre company – wanted to combat the lack of physical spaces for young people to participate in creative activities due to the pandemic.
In association with the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Wonder Fools commissioned some of the UK’s most exciting voices to write new plays for young people including Sabrina Mahfouz, Stef Smith, Chris Thorpe and Bea Webster (a fellow RCS graduate).
The result? Positive Stories for Negative Times, an uplifting, global participatory project that’s reached more than 3,000 people from the UK to Canada.
The plays are written specifically for the times we are living in and are free to participating groups between the ages of 8 and 25 until July 2021.
WHAT INSPIRED POSITIVE STORIES FOR NEGATIVE TIMES?
JACK NURSE: During the first lockdown, groups and networks that young people have in their lives to stay connected, be creative and have fun were disappearing and unable to operate. We were on Zoom, on our sofas, and there was nothing more exciting than chewing the fat.
We were bashing our heads together to see what we could do as a company to fill the gap in a small way and came up with a project that would commission four of the most exciting playwrights in the country (and ourselves!) to write plays in direct response to the pandemic.
With Wonder Fools, participatory work is just as important as what we do on the stage. We knew we wanted to create a project that could work for different age groups and also so schools, colleges, emerging companies and community groups could get involved too.
ROBBIE GORDON: The project formed quite quickly and, all of a sudden, it was out there. We aimed to get 75 groups signed up but we have around 200 groups and more than 3,000 people aged from eight to 25 from all over the world working on it, and the sign-ups are still rolling in.
See where the companies are based on PSFNT interactive map
Bad Bored Women of the Room, Sabrina Mahfouz: A storytelling adventure through the centuries of women and girls who have spent a lot of time stuck in a room
Hold Out Your Hand, Chris Thorpe: A dynamic text asking questions about place, where we are now and the moment we are living through.
Is this a Fairytale?, Bea Webster (RCS BA Performance in British Sign Language and English graduate): A new play that rips apart the traditional fairy-tale canon and turns it on its head in a surprising, inventive and unconventional way.
The Pack, Stef Smith: A playful and poetic exploration about getting lost in the loneliness of your living room and trying to find your way home
Ozymandias, Jack Nurse and Robbie Gordon: A contemporary story inspired by Percy Shelley’s 19th-century poem of the same name exploring power, oppression and injustice through the eyes of young people.
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE WRITERS?
ROBBIE: We picked some of our favourite writers and contacted them — and we never thought they’d all say yes! We didn’t have that tried-and-tested model so it was a big leap of faith for them. But it came at a time when people were creating work and they didn’t know if it was going to make it to a stage. With PSFNT, it meant that whatever they wrote was guaranteed to have at least ten productions all over the country. Jack and I also wrote a play and it feels surreal to know that there are so many people out there doing a play by us. Usually, we have to be there, cast it, and take it all the way through, so it’s a nice, new and interesting way of working. The playwrights are all amazing and it’s great to have Bea Webster involved, as a fellow RCS graduate.
HOW DOES THE PROCESS WORK?
JACK: Groups can choose from the five scripts and the plays are designed to be performed live in the space, through blended learning or digitally. We also wrote a handbook to support group leaders, from the experienced youth theatre director to someone who has never directed a play before.
Some groups are doing rehearsed readings on Zoom, some are making films or filming on their phones, and others are doing audio dramas. A dance company has taken one of the scripts and will have a narration on top of original choreography. We have schools where different departments are all working on the play — the music department is scoring the show with the drama department directing — it’s a multidisciplinary approach, which is really cool.
Groups will film the final performance which they can share with the other groups on the PSFNT website and see all the brilliant work that’s taking place all over the world, whether it’s in Falkirk or Quebec.
Participants have been saying it’s great to have a focus and outlet for creativity during this time. Young people have missed out on learning and life experiences during the pandemic so we’re pleased that we can do our small bit.
WHEN DID YOU FORM WONDER FOOLS AND WHAT’S THE ETHOS?
ROBBIE: We were in second year of the Contemporary Performance Practice degree at RCS and our mission statement at that time, and which is still true today, was to make theatre for people who didn’t traditionally go to the theatre.
We were uninterested in performing solely for our peers and wanted to find ways of working with communities and telling their stories. I suppose what we were talking about at the time was co-creation, which is a buzzword at the moment. Wonder Fools is all about people and communities. Whenever we make anything, whether it’s a play for a theatre, community group or a school, we go on a creative process with them to arrive at the work. It has always been about that for us.
JACK: There was a common ground and shared interest about what we wanted to make. We graduated and set up Wonder Fools the same year. It was nowhere near as professional as it is now, a charitable organisation with a board of trustees. Wonder Fools wouldn’t exist without the RCS.
WHAT ARE YOUR HIGHLIGHTS OF RCS?
ROBBIE: The collaboration across disciplines — we’d get together on Mondays with people from different courses to make something new and interesting. There’s something magical about that and it’s where we met loads of our collaborations and close friends who we still work with now, like lighting designer Benny Goodman and set and costume designer Alisa Kalyanova.
We had all these resources to make stuff and didn’t have anyone trying to quash our ambition. If we wanted to make something big or exciting, we could just go out and do it. We were complete saddos and would go in on a Saturday to focus on Wonder Fools. We wanted to get the company up and running and the institution gave us the perfect platform and resources to do it. RCS brought us together. If we’d never met each other, who knows where we’d be!
Another highlight was working with young people through short courses, Transitions and Fair Access at the end of second year — that was a massive step-change in my career as it gave me the opportunity to apply my learning in a professional context. It was a lovely time with such great people and I think back so fondly on my time at RCS.
JACK: I loved it — there is so much creativity in the building. The participatory element of our course is a core part of what we do in Wonder Fools.
Bridge Week was a highlight. We had space and time to write a draft of a play, 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War that we made with people in Prestonpans, Robbie’s hometown. It’s the story of four local miners who travelled to Spain to become part of the Scottish ranks of the Spanish Civil War’s legendary International Brigade. We spent more than two years getting to know local people and hearing their stories and we debuted the show in the town hall for a week before it went to the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. We were trying to make a show that demonstrated the local and national importance of the story. That’s why we make theatre with people, there are no better stories than real ones.
ROBBIE, TELL US ABOUT YOUR WORK WITH THE JUNIOR CONSERVATOIRE YOUNG THEATRE COMPANY?
I started working with the RCS Young Theatre Company in my third year, so it has been six years now, which is incredible. It has been a real rock for me. The young people are brilliant, they’re so talented and it has been amazing to see them grow over the years then go off to do amazing things.
Watch the RCS Young Theatre Company present a scene from Bad Bored Women of the Room by Sabrina Mahfouz
Interested in studying on the BA (Hons) Contemporary Performance Practice degree? Take a look at what’s in store on this four-year programme.
JOIN THE BOARD OF POSITIVE STORIES!
Positive Stories Youth Board is looking for young people who love making theatre to join its very first Youth Board, who will become the driving force behind the project.
The Youth Board will comprise of those aged between 14 and 25, who have a passion for theatre and would like to make an impact on the way the project is run and contribute to future work and programmes.
The deadline for applications is Sunday, April 18. Find out more and apply.
Main image © Mihaela Bodlovic