Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s huge pride after Pinocchio disappointment

After the massive disappointment came even greater pride.

Pinocchio - photo by Manuel Harlan

Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s production of Pinocchio was forced from the stage from Christmas Eve as Sussex moved from tier two into tier four.

But the weeks since then have at least offered a chance to reflect on a massive achievement – for all it was cut tragically short.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

“It’s certainly going to go down in history,” says Dale Rooks, “though maybe not for the right reasons!”

Dale directed the show, bringing the youngsters together – amid strict Covid precautions – across several months of rehearsals.

“At the end of the day, I was very very proud of their achievement. I think for a few months we were able to channel our thoughts and our energies into something really positive. And for the young people involved, just being able to work together creatively felt like the biggest reward. It was a focus away from the troubled world. It was a kind of distraction from all the unsettling things that are happening… and just hearing laughter in the rehearsal room and having the licence to have fun, within all the restrictions, and to smile when there was such a sombre world outside felt really important, maybe even more important than the show.”

There was a huge focus on keeping everyone safe and well: “We only had three young people off during the whole period and that was not because they had Covid, but because they were isolating. We were very robust in our policy, thank goodness.”

As for the show’s closure: “The situation was beginning to worsen so it didn’t come as a great shock that we went from tier two to four, but I felt really sad that the cast that performed on the press night never came back. We had two separate casts and the alternate cast were programmed for the two days prior to Boxing Day, so the press night cast never had the chance to return. But I think it was the resilience of all of them that shone through. All the way through the process our motto was that we would keep going until we were told that we couldn’t, and that’s what we did. There was a glimmer of hope that we might be able to do the whole run, but we managed to find a resilience. And we did stream both casts out to a wider audience. For them, that was quite something. For the first time they were able to see themselves.”

Dale had worked with two separate casts with the youth theatre for The Witches some years ago: “We did it in the Minerva, and I guess the big difference then was that I could rehearse one cast and have the other cast in the room watching. The challenge this time was that the two casts had to be completely separate.

“I was sad when it stopped, genuinely sad for the young people and at the same time for the stage management teams who were free-lancers. They were so pleased to have the work – and it was cut short. Of course I was disappointed, but it just feels like it was all such a major achievement by everybody given all the circumstances. I was very tired by the end of it, and I think that that was not just the physical work but also all the emotional stuff that was hanging around it.

“I would like to revisit the show one day. I would like to do it again. I could have done something very different with a bigger cast and without all the restrictions.”

As for what happens now, it is far too early to talk in terms of other productions: “But we have got lots of activities happening. Lots of youth theatre members have signed up for various workshops online. I don’t anticipate that we will get back to in-person workshops for quite some time. It is good to have the option to roll the programme out digitally, but when young people have been on Zoom all day with their schoolwork, it is not quite so inviting to be on Zoom all evening. But we will do what we can.”