Mortal Fools' Youth Theatre member Eliza shares her story...
Hi, I’m Eliza and I joined Mortal Fools in 2018, when I was 14 years old. My first show was a whole-company outdoor production called ‘Out There’, which explored the experiences of being a young person in rural Northumberland. I then went on to join the older Ensemble group and helped to devise and perform the show ‘Stocking Fillers’. And then in the new year of 2019, I helped to create the touring original show ‘i Weigh’ alongside seven other young people - followed by a term of skills building and an improvised summer show.
When I was in year 11, I wanted to challenge myself to do another touring original Ensemble show in 2020. I wanted to do this because it would mean I had to be organised for exams so that I could successfully participate in the show. At the time, I made a deal with my parents which outlined that if I was going to be in the show, I had to prove I was able to balance my mock exams with rehearsals and the production schedule. I did it, I managed my time, and we were just days from the first show when we were catapulted into COVID lockdown. All my hard work, at first, felt wasted.
The show, ‘Relentless’, was about issues that didn’t seem relevant anymore due to the pandemic. We had spent months making a show that explored the themes of stress, pressure, workloads, growing up and education – and for a while, there was nothing. And in the weeks that followed, there were discussions of cancelled exams, changes in the teaching at school and new sources of stress and uncertainty emerged. Although ‘Relentless’ didn’t quite finish the way I thought it would, my time with Mortal Fools helped me manage that uncertainty and provided a way to explore issues that were important themes in my future, whether I’d realised it at the time or not. You can watch a summary of the Relentless project HERE.
I’m 18 now and can confidently say that I think I will always reap the benefits of being part of Mortal Fools.
When you’re about to perform there’s a feeling you get from being on stage. I don’t call it ‘stage fright’, but I think a less articulate version of it is the rush of panic you get from thinking:
We live in a culture that shames. It conditions us to shame one another and ourselves. Whether it’s shaming our appearance, our accolades, our education, our status, whether we’re married, unmarried, have kids, don’t have kids, have a job, don’t have a job - the voice in your head and voices elsewhere will often be telling you in some way that the version of success you want is not what you deserve because of ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’ reasons.
The environment Mortal Fools’ Youth Theatre provides means you are forced to reject that voice, find your voice, take the direction, and say the line.
And when you are in a group of other nervous young people and you’re devising content that’s personal and sensitive or relatable and hilarious, you must embrace the vulnerability of it. You have to communicate to each other questions like:
Does this work? Will this work? We don't know, so let's give it a go anyway.
And that “giving it a go” will often be reinforced by Mortal Fools’ practitioner Helen Ferguson, telling you to make it “strong but wrong.”
If I were to summarise the major lessons I learned at Mortal Fools, it would be that it taught me kindness and the importance of failure. Being in an environment that treats you with kindness and compassion makes you less afraid for the inevitability of mistakes. It also means that you’re resilient when trying new things again and again and again.
My first major production at Mortal Fools was ‘i Weigh’. The production meant so much to me. I was a very anxious fifteen-year-old and it gave me a forum to have conversations that I wouldn’t usually have about confidence, social media, body image, politics - and the best part was that I was getting to know the other young people in the group through this dialogue. I loved having the forum the devising process gave me and having the opportunity to write.
‘She’ was a monologue / spoken word piece I wrote for ‘i Weigh’. Rachael, our writer and co-director, asked if I could write something about how I felt about confidence and girlhood, so I did. I wrote it in my bedroom, and I wrote it as if no one was ever going read it. I was really nervous to share this piece of writing to anyone; I vividly remember the car journey to rehearsals in Riding Mill. I remember being really quite scared to show it to the group, because I felt small and didn't think I had a lot to offer. This self-talk narrative actually made the earlier part of my time at Mortal Fools difficult. I couldn’t quite cultivate the self-assurance to go into the rehearsal room whole-heartedly, so sometimes I wouldn’t turn up at all.
‘She’ was a really important piece of writing for me because it was how I actually felt about myself - it was probably the most authentic piece of writing I solely contributed to the production. You can watch ‘She’ HERE.
From there I learned to write fearlessly. The positive feedback I was given made me feel so valued and so lucky to be part of a company that would champion me, especially when I was my true self. And that leads me to the second part of this lesson: you make the experiences you have. It’s only when you bring your whole-hearted, authentic self into a room that you can fully embrace the collective of people and invest in the experience you’ll have there as an individual and together.
I can’t really discuss my Mortal Fools experience without mentioning COVID-19; yep, that old thing. The production “Relentless” was meant to be performed but was cancelled. In a time when cancellations, lockdown and loneliness appeared, Mortal Fools grew wings across 2020. Rather than respond with disorder, we were moved online to Zoom calls and had a project contingency plan. You can see a video summary of our work across 2020 HERE.
One of the new productions we work on was an audio theatre experience (like a podcast!) called When The World Is Loud; all young people from across Mortal Fools' Youth Theatre contributed.
I remember meeting up with my old Ensemble castmates when the restrictions lifted in August 2020, so that we could listen to When The World Is Loud outdoors, and I remember feeling so moved at how much had changed over the first few months of the pandemic. A lot of my castmates went to uni, some took a year out, some moved up into sixth form, some went into Year 11. My point is: life went on, but it looked completely different from how we thought it would be. And I think the structure we had from Mortal Fools' Youth Theatre sessions, and the bravery the company had to continue with a new project, gave us a sense of resilience that carried us through the rest of the year.
There was never a moment in my time at Mortal Fools where the practitioners bowed their heads and gave in, even in the context of an international pandemic. Even when the company has been faced with the adverse, they have given young people other creative options and other directions to grow in - and I’m sure they will continue to do that.
I would go as far to say my experience across Mortal Fools was my coming of age. If I could try and mark where my transition into adulthood began, it would be from the point of when I joined the company and onwards, because the opportunities, independence and trust I was given when I opened myself up to it has utterly increased the awareness I have of myself and the world around me.
When I think of Mortal Fools' Youth Theatre, I’m not thinking of jazz hands, spotlights and drama. I think of the buzzy rehearsal rooms, the connections, and friendships I made with the people there, and the passion I discovered for writing. And on a wider note, Mortal Fools helped me feel meaningfully connected to others and take up space in my own life. I think that’s something we all covet.