Cassie Vallance, co-creator and performer of Park Bench Theatre’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic, has spent the last four months hanging out with me and my kids. She’s complimented their pyjamas, made them scream with delight, led them in song, comforted them when they cried, taught my youngest how to hold scissors and mocked my dance moves (jealousy is a terrible thing). My new kitchen – which she saw before anyone else – is adorned with countless toilet roll-based creations that she painstakingly guided us through. But we’ve never met. ‘Cassie from Story Craft Theatre’ came into our lives when the company she co-runs took their classes online during lockdown. It’s safe to say we are all excited about seeing her in real life, and she doesn’t disappoint.
I struggle to hear the first three minutes of Teddy Bears’ Picnic because my two year old is repeating “Cassie doing funny face!”. Five minutes in my four year old conspiratorially whispers “Cassie can JUGGLE!”. A sketch about how ludicrous we all look social distancing in the street has us in stitches. The show’s beginning is punchy, physical and fun for everyone. We’re at the front and I wonder as it progresses whether those at the back (and social distancing and a corner ‘stage’ means they are very far back) are suffering from lack of visuals; the set is a blanket on the ground adorned with small cuddly toys and a tea set. Of course there is Cassie to see, and you can’t miss her, racing around the perimeter of the space with a blue cup on her head shouting “nee nah nee nah”. But the ‘bigness’ you expect from outdoor theatre is missing.
As usual, it’s COVID-19’s fault. At the time of writing socially distanced shows can take place outside, but neither audience nor performer are allowed to sing or shout. For a children’s play based on a song, it’s a tall order.
Director Matt Aston has chosen to provide Cassie and the performers of this season’s other monologues with headset microphones; the audience wears headphones (bring your own or buy them for £1 when booking) to hear the sound effects and dialogue. I can envisage this being a moving experience for an adult audience. Expecting three year olds to keep headphones on for 30 minutes seems optimistic. Hearing OK at the front, I chicken out of letting my four year old know they exist. I’m sure in a parallel universe someone is enjoying my 500-word review of how great he was at turning the receiver’s volume up to max and getting it stuck on the wrong channel.
For me the headphones create unnecessary social distance. The background clatter of skateboards and dogs barking would have been a small price to pay for the ability to hear other audience members laughing and share sound waves with them via big speakers.
Still, everything changes, says the play, all the time. We are all hastily adapting and Park Bench’s response to the COVID-19 restrictions, during what Aston notes is a horrendous time for the theatre industry, is moving, gutsy and very funny. I hope they keep responding just as much as I hope they don’t have to.
Teddy Bears’ Picnic runs from 19th August – 5th September at the Friends Garden in Rowntree Park, York – tickets and further information available here.