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The Joy of Performing Live and Exciting Joy Again

The Artistic Director of Told by an Idiot Paul Hunter talks about the company’s experience of bringing live theatre to his much loved and missed audiences at the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, where the company will be performing their ‘lockdown antidote’ show Get Happy on Saturday 12 September.

When we made the decision some nine weeks into lockdown to re-imagine our show Get Happy for the outdoors, it felt quite radical to be planning to put on a show. No theatre was happening anywhere, I deliberately don’t include film of theatre, for me that is bad theatre and not very good film. Call me old fashioned but for me live theatre is when one group of people do something in front of another group of people in the same space.

When we approached Bradley Hemmings (Artistic Director Greenwich + Docklands International Festival) and Toni Racklin (Head of Theatre at the Barbican) both organisations were immediately interested. If we were going to adapt any show of ours for outdoors, Get Happy was the obvious choice. It is an anarchic sketch show for all the family and pre-lockdown we had been considering taking it to some outdoor festivals. I knew I wanted to bring some new performers into the show to widen the Get Happy family, so I invited Sophie Mercell who had previously collaborated with us on Let Me Play The Lion Too at the Barbican and the tour of Leo All You Need Is LSD. She was joined by Sara Alexander and Jerone Marsh-Reid from The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and original cast member and regular Idiot Stephen Harper.

There were bumps in the road, the City of London Council wouldn’t give the Barbican a license for outdoor performance, and other venues struggled to resource outdoor shows, GDIF remained confident however that the festival would go ahead and we were determined to be part of it.

Eventually we nailed the dates and locations with the festival: 29th August at a basketball court in Woolwich; 30th August underneath a flyover in Thamesmead; and 12th September in Eltham.

The indoor version of the show ran at 60 mins, but it felt like outdoors we were looking at 35/40 min, so I set to work on editing the piece, and also integrating social distancing and sanitising into the fabric of the show. My hunch was by doing this we could reassure the audience and at the same time make them laugh at the essential but ludicrous nature of how we are having to live at the moment.

At Told By An Idiot we take our comedy very seriously – as contradictory as it may sound! It feels very important to us that we can bring some joy to audiences through live theatre and get them laughing together in these unsettling times.

Eventually we went into rehearsal on the 17th of August at Deptford Lounge. After we had gone through the health and safety checks and finally got into the rehearsal room that first morning, it felt strange that we couldn’t greet old friends in the way we would have like to; the way we would have done in the past. It was, however, quite soon that it all felt satisfyingly normal (but different) again. We had an indoor and outdoor space (a basketball court on the top of the building), and one afternoon we invited a few people young and old to a run-through. It felt so satisfying to hear their laughter on a roof top in Deptford, and so encouraging to us as we moved towards our opening performances on another basketball court in Woolwich.


As I write this, I am reflecting on our first shows in Woolwich and Thamesmead. We received some extraordinary responses from audiences, many of whom had never been inside a theatre. People applauding from the balconies of their flats that overlooked the court in Woolwich Common Estate, audience members joining in throughout especially in the ‘Can Can’ finale, and some kids with the best laughs ever. It has been a real journey to get a live show on in a year like this, it hasn’t always been easy and we’ve had to show real tenacity and positivity. ‘Staying Live’ is an important mantra for Told by an Idiot at the moment, and it feels very important that we continue to give audiences high quality, genuinely theatrical live experiences at a time when most theatres remain closed. To bring some kind of joy or relief at the moment to communities feels necessary.

I will now leave the final words to an audience member who saw the show in Thamesmead, an area where Stanley Kubrick filmed the iconic A Clockwork Orange; I hope we bought some of our own Idiot anarchy to the streets of South London: ‘Brilliant show - thank you - sooo good to laugh out loud again’

Get Happy is a highly visual and delightfully random sketch show for young children to share with their friends and families, and a perfect antidote to lockdown. The final two performances will be on 12 September, 1pm and 4pm as part of On Your Doorstep programme at Eltham Well Hall Pleasance, Eltham, Well Hall Road, London SE9 6SN

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