National Theatre and Cast in Doncaster's Public Acts – how stories get us through the pandemic

The new series is a collaboration between the two venues

Stories To Get Us Through group photo
Stories To Get Us Through group photo
© Rasha Kotaiche

"We should do something about people's stories", said Lynn, "everyone's got a story haven't they?" Lynn, a 73-year-old self-professed rebel, is one of the members of our Public Acts community and is never afraid to speak her mind.

We were meeting as part of an intergenerational group of citizen artists made up of members of Doncaster community organisations that include B.Friend, Conversation Club, Edlington Community Organisation, LGBTQ Youth, Cast Youth Theatre and darts. There are teenagers and octogenarians. There are members who have lived all their lives in South Yorkshire and members who travelled from faraway places like The Gambia and South Sudan.

When the group formed during the first 2020 lockdown, most of them had not met each other in real life. They had been attending workshops for six months as part of the Public Acts programme, a collaboration between the National Theatre and Cast in Doncaster, with support from Right Up Our Street, to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community. We were about to invite everybody to join a 100-person strong company featuring professional and non-professional actors, dancers, musicians and local artists, to perform in a musical adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Cast, which has now been postponed to 2022. As many other community-focused organisations did, we adapted quickly to find new ways to maintain connections; creating online, posting resources to homes and making weekly phone calls.

What better way to keep learning from each other, and to find a sense of community while apart, than by telling a story from the heart? In October 2020 as Doncaster was placed into Tier 3, we began to develop stories remotely, on Zoom, over the phone, and through postal packs with creative writing activities. They would be stories to get us through the short days and long months of winter.

Our company shared stories of moments they couldn't wait to get back to – dancing, parties and Butlins in Skegness. They told stories of resilience that come from surviving challenging experiences. It is a catalogue of lived experiences linked by themes of kindness and self-discovery. Participant Sam said, "I was sceptical at first as I didn't have a single story in mind that would instil inspiration or start a conversation. But then it occurred to me that there is something I can say, I can talk proudly and push the negative voices down. In sharing stories, we are sharing lives and it is that which gets us through, it's that you should hold on for. You can learn so much from listening to a person's story."

The result is a time capsule of the moment this community convened around a digital campfire in lockdown to tell their stories to each other and the world. We can't wait to get together again but in the meantime it's good to know that we'll always have a record of these Stories To Get Us Through.

Public Acts is the National Theatre's nationwide initiative to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community, built on sustained partnerships with theatres and community organisations across the UK. Listen to Stories To Get Us Through in partnership with Cast in Doncaster.

– James Blakey – associate director, National Theatre Public Acts