Emma Bernard is the creative force behind ‘Open Road’, a series of short films about freedom and made under lockdown in South Norfolk. In the run-up screenings next week, Emma explains why it was important to engage young people ‘side-swiped’ by the pandemic
I grew up in a Norfolk village and got involved in the performing arts aged 16, at Norwich City College, before moving to London to find work as an actor. I began directing in my early 30s and soon discovered my passion for collaborating with communities to make shows. I directed integrated casts of professionals and newcomers for companies such as The Royal Opera House and Streetwise Opera. I worked all over the place, but never in Norfolk until I directed 100%Norfolk for the N&N Festival in 2012, bringing 100 Norfolk residents of all ages onto the Theatre Royal stage. In 2018 I moved back to Diss, the town I’d been to school in, with an ambition to make performance work with the community right here.
Early last summer, as we were all still reeling from the first lockdown, I had a conversation with Lee Johnson, Operations Manager of The Corn Hall, which began from his desire to ‘just make something happen’ in Diss. My own children are in their early 20s and I have a teenage niece and nephew, so I knew how young people in the transition between school and the wider world had been side-swiped by the pandemic. I also saw that freelance artists had been similarly cut adrift. I wanted to create a project that could not be cancelled by the next set of restrictions to come along. My first idea was to find a way of these two groups collaborating in an open and meaningful way: a series of masterclasses for young people by a diverse range of professional artists, offering creative skills and direction, and fun, leading to a performance where professional actor/mentors and newcomers could stand on stage, shoulder to shoulder.
The Norfolk & Norwich Festival’s Creative Individuals Scheme came at a perfect moment for me. With Act Now! already in my mind, the funding gave me a chance to fully develop the idea, develop my partnership with The Corn Hall, explore ways of recruiting and raising awareness in the community, design the project and fund some taster workshops. For me, the title ‘Creative Individual’ was an affirmation that this particular idea – to activate a community – was a good one. Being a freelance artist can be isolating, especially during a pandemic, so affirmation is incredibly valuable, as is the financial support the award brings. It feels great to be part of this group of artists, and the ongoing support from our Production and Programme Officer Ailsa McCay has been wonderful. In the application that I helped The Corn Hall to write for funding from Arts Council England, (the major funder of Act Now!) we were able to show that the project idea had already been validated by this support from the N&N festival.
We realised, in early 2021, when the project had already started, that restrictions would prevent a live performance, so we made a speedy decision to shift onto film. We re-jigged our production budget, brought in Reel Connections CIC as our film advisors and created a brief for the young artists. They had to make short films responding to themes of nature, isolation and connection, and to the opening lines of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of the Open Road’:
‘Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose’.
The brief produced a wonderful diversity of responses. Instead of rehearsals we ran one-to-one online sessions where participants collaborated with me, actor/mentors and Reel Connections to develop and realise their ideas. All the films had to be shot by the young people at home, in gardens and on permitted exercise walks. They even had to direct their professional actors to self-tape over Zoom. With support they edited this footage themselves and added sound, and the final product, compiled by Guy and Lewis of Reel Connections is ‘OPEN ROAD’ – films about freedom made during lockdown. The challenges of the circumstances gave rise to a wealth of creative solutions. When you pave over a garden, flowers force their way through the smallest cracks. It was like that.
Open Road will be shown online at Young Norfolk Arts Festival at 6pm on Monday July 12, along with our trailer introducing the project. On Wednesday July 14, OPEN ROAD will be screened in person to a live audience at The Corn Hall at 7.30pm, including an introduction from the young film makers, live on stage, so it’s an exciting week for us.
This project shows what young people can do when they are trusted, supported, and offered permission to take creative ownership. For me it is so important to prove that creativity and the arts don’t belong to cities, they belong to us all, and can happen right here in a rural market town, when experienced artists and young people are valued, and supported to work in genuine partnership.
I’m so delighted that these young people have now formed ‘Act Now! Collective’ – a self-organising group who meet weekly at the Corn Hall to explore new creative ideas and projects, and that they are also forming a Young Film Programmers Group. I very much hope we can secure funding to engage with many more young people and continue to develop the Act Now! masterclass programme at the Corn Hall in the future, and that such work continues to be valued by organisations such as the N&N Festival. Of course, I am delighted that arts groups and audiences will be coming back together again at last. Experience teaches us that engagement in the arts can be both healing and empowering for us all, so I hope projects like Act Now! can help us continue to build connection out of the fragmentation we have lived through in recent times.
ACT NOW! presents Open Road on Monday July 12 at 6pm on Young Norfolk Arts – YouTube, as part of Young Norfolk Arts Festival. On Wednesday July 14, OPEN ROAD will be screened in person to a live audience at The Corn Hall at 7.30pm, including an introduction from the young film makers, live on stage. Visit http://www.emmabernard.co.uk
Featured image of Emma Bernard by Rey Trombetta