The measures taken to contain the coronavirus epidemic have affected almost everyone, but in very uneven ways. Whilst it’s true that anyone can catch the disease, not everyone faces the same risk of that becoming a reality. Health and care staff, key workers, and others who are keeping the rest of us safe, warm and fed, are much more exposed, as are people who have no choice but to work or have no home to take refuge in. Even among those who are able to stay at home, what that means can vary enormously: a cramped bedsit or shared flat offers very different amenities from a house with a garden. Among the many groups for whom confinement brings new and particular challenges are teenagers.
The transition from child to adult is marked by huge physical, emotional and intellectual change, to which social media now brings new intensities and traps. In adolescence, art – music, books, drama, dance, graphics, drawing etc. – often takes on special importance because it is a territory of discovery and exploration, an adventure playground of feeling, ideas, sexuality, image and identity. Many of us remember our teenage years through the prism of a youth drama group or the worlds we found in books, music and video games. But that creative life, such a natural space in which to test the connections and boundaries between ourselves and others, the personal and the group, flourishes when we meet and work together,
The school closures that often began the effort to contain COVID-19 must have been felt as a brutal interruption by many young people. Some were due to leave their school this summer and are left wondering if they’ll ever see friends and teachers again. Others have been working for years towards exams that are now cancelled. New friendships, new arguments, new passions have been, if not suspended, then pushed online, with all the possibilities for misunderstandings that smartphones bring. Just at the moment when young people are seeking social distance from parents and families, they find themselves pushed back into the space of childhood.
Company Three, which describes itself as a ‘company of 75 young people aged 11-19 in Islington, North London’ has a record of making innovative productions about the experience of being a teenager for adult audiences. Rooted in long-term collaboration between professional and non-professional artists, it is a good example of cultural democracy in practice. But how do you sustain that work, that ideal of enabling young people to participate in the cultural life of the community, when every company member is stuck at home, connected only by wires and radio waves? Company Three’s answer is the Coronavirus Time Capsule, ‘A week-by-week response to the pandemic, through the eyes of teenagers everywhere.’
On one level, the idea is simple enough: get a generation that’s generally tech-savvy and hyperconnected to document creatively their experience of living through the crisis and its effect on their lives. What is remarkable is the speed with which Company 3 have created resources to enable young people to do that and the depth of thought that underpins the material. The guidance ranges from how to use Zoom and editing tutorials to safeguarding and advice about working online. There’s a 20 page ‘blueprint‘, developed in partnership with the publisher Nick Hern Books, that gives a step-by-step guide to making a time capsule:
The Coronavirus Time Capsule is a cumulative project. Each week individual young people respond to a Topic (things like Home Life, or Education, or Boredom) and make a fifteen-second video. These are then collated and edited together by a group leader (you or a colleague). The same process happens every week, with the new videos added on to the original ones, so that the Time Capsule gets longer and develops as the shutdown continues and evolves.
Each group will make their own Time Capsule. We’re inviting everyone to publish their group’s Time Capsule every Friday. If you can’t do one every week, that’s fine, you could do one every fortnight, or just whenever you can. You can choose to publish your Time Capsule internally (e.g. in a closed Instagram account or privately on YouTube) or externally online. We think people should listen to teenagers, so the more public videos, the better – but it’s up to you and it may depend on the group you are working with.The Coronavirus Time Capsule, Company Three and Nick Hern Books
And perhaps best of all, this is a gift from Company Three to young people’s theatre groups everywhere. The resources are all online, and freely available to download. They can be adapted according to the situation or the people involved. There’s no obligation to publish the work or even tell Company Three that it’s been made; they just say they’d be grateful for a credit. Some socially engaged art seems more concerned with the reputation of the artists than the people they purport to help. Here is the other end of the spectrum: artists who are absolutely dedicated to the voice of young people and do everything they can to make their work truly empowering.
Community art has always had the capacity to give people more agency in situations they may be forced to endure, but that is not always understood or intended. In the Coronavirus Time Capsule, Company Three has given young people a resource with which to make sense of an experience that is changing their lives. As of today, about 200 groups are already making time capsules – which is a good sign that the company have judged this offer right. It will surely help them in the weeks, months and years to come.