Initially conceived as an intimate piece of gig theatre, it was after only a week of development that the creators of Touchy found themselves faced with the choice to either abandon the project entirely, or to reconsider practically every aspect of it. 20 Stories High had originally been commissioned by Wellcome Collection to create a piece of theatre inspired by the concept of touch, exploring how the young artists they work with relate to ideas of physical and emotional connection. But the onset of the pandemic, with its ever changing guidelines on lockdowns and social distancing, meant that relationship was constantly being altered, and the idea of staging the piece in a setting that could emphasis a feeling of closeness became outright impossible.
With support from the Unity Theatre and an expansive team of creative and technical collaborators, Touchy evolved from a single gig into a series of five short films that blend music, poetry, animation and other multimedia elements to delve into what had now become a much more nuanced idea of human contact. Although they weren’t able to collaborate in the same physical space, the team were able to build a remote community of mutual support, and create work that was unrestricted by physical boundaries.
The first instalment, Jemell’s story, follows writer and performer Mal Lidgett telling the tale of a young autistic boy who learns to channel his anxious energy into creativity when an empathetic music teacher gives him access to a drum machine. The film alternates clips of Lidgett as storyteller, standing isolated in the urban hinterlands of empty docks and skate parks, and Lidgett as musician, inhabiting the confidence of the creatively invigorated Jemell as he raps and performs in a vapourwave music video.
The second film also uses a music video to explore connection and distance. In Jazz’s Story, singer and songwriter Faye Donna Francis expresses the uneasy longing of a young woman who struggles with the dangers of being visibly queer in a public space. She wants to reach out to her partner; to hold hands or kiss in public, and feel the security of their emotional connection through physical touch. Performed live, an audience might share that feeling of closeness and vulnerability, but the filmed version wisely chooses to emphasise the other side of the equation by using drone shots and wide angles to let the viewer feel Jazz’s sense of isolation.
All of the films deal with characters facing challenges, but the third instalment, Ella and Ste’s Story takes an unflinching look at a depressingly common form of emotional trauma. Written by Julia Samuels and performers Izzy Campbell and Pari Richards, with direction by Samuels and Amy Golding, the story is a single plot with alternating narrators. The two characters are a pair of young adults who dated as teenagers and who are both now recounting the night they lost their virginities to one another. As their stories progress, the differences in their recollections become clearer and we learn that what transpired between them was not as consensual as they had convinced themselves it was at the time.
Again, physical distance is used to convey a sense of emotional disconnect, and the two characters are framed very differently as they tell their stories. Ella lies alone in her bed, shot from above as we hear her internal monologue. Meanwhile, Ste’s half of the story is spoked aloud to an unseen companion over drinks in a pub garden, his more a desperate plea for absolution, trying to justify actions he knows were wrong. The language of film is well-used to create stark contrast in the two deliveries, and the final moment of the film, where the two suddenly occupy the same space once again, would be impossible to stage so effectively.
But even with the stories that seem made for an intimate setting, the Touchy team are able to find ways to add new elements for the screen. Sophie’s Story, written and performed by Anita Welsh, is about an NHS key worker who’s been unable to visit her grandfather in Africa, but reconnects with him through letter-writing. There’s a cosy, bedtime-story quality to Welsh’s delivery and the themes of familial love and safety. The film embraces this tone with a Jackanory-like aesthetic, with Welsh sitting in an armchair and reading from an oversized picture book as artwork by Amber Akaunu bring her words to life.
The same goes for the final film, Max’s story from performer James Cast, which plays like a sort of animated public information film. Cast voices Max, a young trans man who talks us through the ins and outs of in-person greetings after lockdown. He tells us about the different ways young men greet each other, from daps and high fives to awkward hugs, and how to navigate the protocols of touch depending on your own style and sense of ladishness. It’s a wry bit of humour with playful artwork from Kay Dale.
Touchy’s tag line is ‘five short films, five unique stories, five reasons to watch’. For me, it was reason enough to appreciate the resilience of these young artists in adapting their creative process to the obstacles of the past year — not just by finding ways to work around lockdown but by taking in the challenges presented by lockdown and turning them into strengths, cultivating work that reflects their realities. As we go forwards we should hope that organisations like 20 Stories High will keep supporting emerging artists and allowing them to innovate and create art that speaks to their own situations.
Touchy ran online via Unity Theatre Liverpool, and remains available to stream on 20 Stories High’s Youtube channel. More info here.