Caro Meets Music Interview Theatre Interview

Julia Samuels and James Cast: Touchy

By | Published on Friday 14 May 2021

You may remember that we recently urged you to check out ‘Touchy’ from 20 Stories High, a collection of five theatrical films being released on a weekly basis. Well, the first one is out and we are really looking forward to seeing the remaining four instalments.

I was so intrigued by the project, I decided to find out more about its themes, the process of creating it, and who was involved in making the work.

I spoke to two members of the creative team: Julia Samuels, writer and co-director on ‘Ella & Ste’s Story’, and James Cast, co-creator and performer of ‘Max’s Story’.

CM: Can you start by explaining the structure of ‘Touchy’? It’s in five parts, I think? Do they all stand alone or are they interconnected?
JS: A mash-up of theatre and music video, ‘Touchy’ is presented as a series of five online films. Each has a unique story and form.

They cross drama, poetry, original music, beats, animation and visuals. ‘Ella & Ste’s Story’ – released on 27 May and performed by Pari Richards and Izzy Campbell – for example, is essentially a dialogue-based story, whilst ‘Jemell’s Story’ – co-written and performed by Mal Lidgett and available online now – intercuts drama with music performance.

The five films feature six characters navigating the tactile highs and lows of early adulthood. They are linked by the theme of touch – each story exploring this from a different experience and perspective.

The stories and characters don’t interconnect beyond this but the artists do crossover between the pieces.

CM: James – What is ‘Max’s Story’ about?
JC: ‘Max’s story’ – which is the final film to be released, on 10 Jun – is about a young trans guy who is trying to navigate the different ways of greeting people and in which situations to use them.

Since transitioning, Max has found that men greet other men in a completely different way than women greet other women, and so he has had to ‘re-learn’ all of these different ways of greeting other people.

I think the main theme of this story is how different genders have different experiences when it comes to touch – especially greeting others. This can be a hard thing to come to terms with when you are transitioning.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the other stories in terms of themes?
JS: ‘Jemell’s Story’ – the premiere of which launched the series on Thursday 13 May – blends hip-hop and storytelling to share the story of a young black lad living with undiagnosed autism.

‘Jazz’s Story’ – on 20 May – is a tender and uplifting R’n’B love story exploring public displays of affection in a same sex relationship. The aforementioned ‘Ella And Ste’s Story’ investigates consent, with a story that explores the conflicting understandings of an intimate moment many moons ago.

And ‘Sophie’s Story’ – on 3 Jun – explores how a young woman renegotiates her relationship with her Grandad Kojo during lockdown.

CM: What was the inspiration for ‘Touchy’?
JS: We were commissioned by Wellcome Collection to make a piece of theatre inspired by touch. This was in connection with the world’s largest study of touch, developed by academics in the Department Of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University Of London and the University Of Greenwich, in partnership with BBC Radio 4.

The study – and our commission – kicked off not long before the pandemic hit, which felt most ironic, to research and make a show about touch when touch was pretty much forbidden. But because of the circumstances, touch was even more important to think about – and social distancing actually became part of some of the stories.

Such as ‘Sophie’s Story’, a poem written and performed by Anita Welsh, which is about a young Ghanaian woman and the effect of COVID on her relationship with her grandfather, and in ‘Max’s Story’, he shares that he “quite likes the 2m rule” because he’s “just not a touchy feely kind of guy”.

CM: So did the project end up being digital because of the pandemic? Would this have been a live show if things had been normal?
JS: Absolutely. The show was intended to be staged at Unity Theatre, Liverpool – our partner on the project – before a short tour. For us, there is nothing like being in a space together – full of energy.

CM: What was it like, working on it during lockdown conditions? What challenges did you have to overcome?
JC: It was a very unique experience. Everything I recorded was done in my bedroom at home, so I had a lot of distractions. I’d be in the middle of a great take and then my neighbour’s dog would start barking and ruin the entire thing! I wouldn’t change it though, I loved my little bedroom studio.

JS: We had to find new ways of working and acquire new skills. This was ultimately rewarding as we learned so much – for example, our artist Faye Donna Francis – writer and performer of ‘Jazz’s Story’ – has come away knowing how to make a record! However, we also had to find new strengths and, especially, ways to look after all of our mental health and wellbeing.

20 Stories High is usually a place for us to physically be together in person – to spark off each other, to support and inspire each other – an ‘in real life’ connection in lives often so full of screentime. Being apart, connected only via computer screens, could not replace that. So, we’ve scheduled wellbeing sessions, good breaks, check-ins, Thursday lunch socials, and activities like yoga and mindfulness sessions as part of the process.

CM: Can you tell us about the other creatives involved in the making of ‘Touchy’?
JS: At the heart of ‘Touchy’ is a group of young artists from Liverpool, many of whom have worked with 20 Stories High through our Youth Theatre or Young Actors’ Company. They have worked in collaboration with other local, Liverpool artists – including Kay Dale, Amber Akaunu and Emily McChrystal.

It was vital to us that the full original creative team was kept on board once the project took a change of direction, when the pandemic struck. That team includes Keith Saha and myself – co-Artistic Directors of 20 Stories High – along with director Amy Goulding from Curious Monkey Theatre, filmmaker and music producer Kofi Owusu of GoPlay Studios, and fantastic designers, producers, and associates among others.

CM: How did you get involved with the project, James?
JS: I’ve been involved with 20 Stories High since 2015. First as part of the Youth Theatre and then moving onto the Young Actors Company. Back in 2019, I was part of a group of young people that came together to explore themes and ideas around ‘Touchy’ as part of its early development.

Then auditions were held for the ‘Touchy’ ensemble, so I decided to go along, not really thinking anything would come of it, as I had never done any professional theatre work before. But I was one of the people they chose! Keith and Julia were really interested in some of the ideas I’d contributed in the workshop about how trans young people interact with touch, and together we came up with ‘Max’s Story’.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the other cast members?
JS: We are so lucky to have worked with this amazing team of talented Scousers! James Cast and Izzy Campbell have been with our Youth Theatre since they were much younger, and it’s amazing to see them in their first professional performing role with the company.

Anita Welsh is a poet and all round creative who has been involved with 20 Stories High since 2008 in every capacity imaginable, from Youth Theatre member to board member, as well as taking part in Launch, our professional development programme. Pari Richards is an actor, poet and soon-to-be-teacher, who also did a couple of shows with 20SH Young Actors in the past.

We met Faye a couple of years ago, a dynamic, amazing singer, actor, writer – this is our first collaboration, and definitely won’t be the last. And Malik Lidgett was brand new to the company – a dazzling music producer and rapper – who has brought his unique touch to the company in this project.

When they are together, they are like a supergroup. It’s been so brilliant to work with this team of artists who have brought such generosity and passion to this ever evolving project.

CM: Can you see the potential for theatrical companies to continue delivering their work via online platforms even once we are past COVID19?
JS: Yes. We all love the shared live experience, that’s why we are drawn to theatre in the first space. But we’ve definitely discovered some benefits of sharing work online in terms of being more accessible.

This trend started way before the pandemic with theatre shows being streamed in cinemas and adapted for TV, but I think the pandemic has challenged more of us to create more online. And I’m sure, even when theatres are open again, and we’re enjoying being back in those communal spaces, people will continue to make work in the digital space too because you can reach such a wide audience.

CM: What plans do you have for a post-pandemic future?
JC: I would love to get involved in some theatre projects post-pandemic! I miss being on stage! In the meantime, I will hopefully be starting university in September to study criminology! Being involved with ‘Touchy’ – and with 20 Stories High in general over the years – has really helped to build my confidence when it comes to doing things like this. It has helped me to see that I’m capable of some really amazing things!

JS: We are developing a brand new show with our Youth Theatre called ‘NU:me’, which will be performed on audiences’ doorsteps across Liverpool in July. And we’re hoping we might begin to make work for theatre and community spaces very soon! Plus audiences can continue to connect with us online – with our BBC commission, available on iPlayer, and ‘Touchy’ continuing online, with all five films available from 10 Jun.

‘Touchy’ is released in five weekly instalments. You can see the first one now, and find more information about the upcoming films, on the 20 Stories High website here.


Photo: Wesley Store

‘Touchy’ is created by: Anita Welsh, James Cast, Mal Lidgett, Izzy Campbell, Pari Richards & Faye Donna Francis (Performers); Julia Samuels (Writer & Co-Director, Ella & Ste’s Story); Keith Saha (Writer/Co-Writer & Director, Sophie’s Story, Max’s Story, Jemell’s Story, Jazz’s Story); Amy Golding (Co-Director, Ella & Ste’s Story); Kofi Owusu from GoPlay Studios (Director of Photography and Editor); Miriam Nabarro (Designer); Joe Hornsby (Lighting Designer); Jonathan Everett (Sound Designer & Engineer); Leanne Jones (Producer); Lucy Graham and Natasha Patel (Assistant Producers); Amber Akaunu & Kay Dale from Comics Youth (Associate Artists); Emily McChrystal (Creative Consultant, Jazz’s story); Fiona Hilton (Production Manager & Stage Manager); Joe Harper (Artwork); Lou Platt (Artist Wellbeing Practitioner).