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Drama group Play It By Ear performing Christmas miracle during coronavirus pandemic

Theatre group links online with schools and churches to produce bespoke filmed nativity plays in pandemic


Acting up: Chris Neillands and Ross Jonas

Acting up: Chris Neillands and Ross Jonas

Acting up: Chris Neillands and Ross Jonas

A Christian drama company has been performing a Christmas miracle for those missing out on the annual nativity experience.

Chris Neillands (31) from Belfast and Cork native Ross Jonas (32) run Play It By Ear.

Usually touring Ireland and Britain for performances and workshops, they had to adapt due to the pandemic.

With social distancing still restricting the larger gatherings needed for nativity plays, the group is now encouraging schools, churches and community groups to film their own parts, which the team expertly assembles.

The group has been inundated by requests and expects to deliver 140 videos by Christmas Day.

Chris said it had been a heartwarming experience to see the joyous responses from families and the often hilarious performances from children.

"It's been so busy, we're even going to move to a 24-hour service in the next few days," he explained.

"We were on furlough and around August we started trying to think of ways to help churches and schools celebrate Christmas in these unusual times."

Inspiration struck him while driving to work.

"The idea was that we act out around 70% of the story ourselves, acting as the angel narrators," he said.

"Then we sent out scripts and shot lists to parents. They can film the children and send back the clips and we edit it all together.

"It means every church, school or organisation gets their own bespoke nativity."

Depending on how many extra innkeepers, sheep or cows each production has to offer, the team receives anything from 15 to 70 clips for each play.

"We thought we might do it for around 13 people, but now we're looking at about 140 by the time Christmas comes around."

With a background as actors and writers, Chris and Ross had a steep learning curve to become film producers.

"2020 has definitely made us learn some new skills. So far people seem to be really pleased with the videos, and we've surprised ourselves," Chris added.

"We'll not be winning Oscars anytime soon but we're really pleased with how it turned out.

"At this time of year it's been really nice to hear families saying they've made contact with people.

"The kids are really enjoying it and parents are telling us it really warms their heart. After such a difficult time, having something that brings a bit of joy and happiness to people's lives is really encouraging."

Chris said the magic has been in the unique spin every child puts into their performance.

"We have a King Herod part which is quite short, so it usually gets handed to a toddler. But watching a toddler trying to be scary is really one of the best things to cheer you up," he said.

"Others have been really creative. One child had a toy camel right up close to the camera while they stood far away to get the right effect.

"So they've really embraced it, fashioned some amazing costumes, and it's been a real burst of creativity.

"Also, when you go to a nativity at school or in a church, it's the little things that go wrong that really make a nativity memorable."

With primary schools separating classrooms into bubbles, the videos also give children who haven't been able to interact for months the chance to share the screen.

Asked about the intense workload, he said: "You have good days and bad days. If you have all the right shots sent to you with the correct labels it's fairly simple.

"But inevitably you get people who are a little scared of technology, so you might get the same files 18 times.

"People have been very patient, though, and we're muddling through. That's very much how it's been for everyone this year - we're muddling through and trying to do our best."

As the local creative sector has found it a real struggle this year, Chris said it was vital to preserve the livelihoods of those in the artistic community.

As part of a project with the Methodist Church, Chris and Ross are technically employees and have been able to receive support through the furlough scheme.

"If we didn't have that from March we would probably be making this our last big hurrah," he explained. "Now we hope our work will return next year.

"But it doesn't seem fair that so many in the creative sector aren't being considered viable. They make up so much of our lives.

"I know the Government has difficult choices to make, but we're definitely worried and concerned about other people who aren't getting the same help. That's what we're hoping and praying for."

For further information, visit www.playitbyeardrama.com.

Belfast Telegraph