A writer, director and a musician are in a room with a group of actors exploring a new play…
Sounds like the start of a bad joke. A completely foreign concept given the year we’ve all endured.
Actors get together on Zoom to read a bonkers play to an audience who you desperately hope will keep their video turned off throughout…
Sounds like theatre in 2020.
Towards the end of last year, I was lucky enough to experience both of the above as I interrogated my play Evelyn in what turned out to be an incredibly productive, and utterly brilliant Research and Development experience.
I wrote the first draft of Evelyn all the way back in 2016 after the initial pitch made it to the shortlist of the Old Vic 12 that year. The play is a fictional story based on what happened to Maxine Carr when she was released from prison. Carr was placed on a lifelong anonymity order (Mary Bell order) which led to violence towards, and even displacement of, many women across the country for supposedly being ‘Maxine’. The play is about mob-justice and questions when justice is really served. The play has been attached to Wildcard since November 2019, with the Mercury Theatre coming on board in early summer 2020.
The first part of Evelyn’s R&D was our involvement in ‘Mercury Reads’; a series of public Zoom readings of plays the theatre have a vested interest in by writers hailing from East Anglia (hands up emoji). Evelyn was to receive its first public outing as a work-in-progress script on a public Zoom read… anxiety inducing for any playwright… but totally worth it.
Anyone who saw the Zoom reading will agree with me when I say that the cast (the incredible Rula Lenska, Nicholas Bailey, Katie Elizabeth-Payne and Deborah Oyelade) did an OUTSTANDING job. The play is complex, intense, ambitious and straight up weird in parts. My initial worry was that some of the play demands entire scenes to be realised through video/audio design and that this would be impossible to convey over Zoom. For example, in this particular draft there was an entire Punch and Judy puppet show strand (which was excellently realised through background ‘voice’ actors/Wildcarders Emily Stott, Paul Hilliar and James Meteyard) which was not to be played by the cast. How do you do this creatively in a Zoom reading? Well, we managed to find a stock picture of a Punch and Judy show, used it as a virtual background on Zoom whilst the voices played over the top to convey these scenes – something of an exciting 2020 theatrical Zoom-based masterstroke.
A notable observation of Zoom Theatre is that backstage drama, and the metaphor of a swan serenely swimming along a river whilst frantically kicking underwater, is very much ALIVE. Receiving a text from one of the actors informing you that they have been ‘kicked’ from the meeting and are unable to get back in, just two pages before they enter a scene is nothing short of exhilarating. It was like being backstage of a show all over again! Someone was about to miss their cue! Oh how I’d missed it! Thankfully our actor made it back in time for their entrance and the scene carried on with the rest of the company, and audience, none the wiser. Another fun observation is that intervals on Zoom exist, and are all the more entertaining when company and/or audience members accidentally unmute themselves, leaving the entire ‘theatre’ privy to their conversation.
Apart from this fun stuff, Mercury Reads was incredibly helpful as it gave Alex Helfrecht (our wonderful director) and I a clear understanding on what parts of the play needed to be worked on in our week long R&D the following week (the whole thing). We received audience feedback, as well as notes from our producing partners; all of which gave us a very clear indication of what direction we needed to head in.
From a company perspective, there is a huge amount of responsibility when launching in-person activity during these times. Members of the cast were vulnerable, or had family members who were so, and this highlighted that taking every precaution was fundamentally necessary. From testing, to restricting travel via public transport, it is worth noting that we pulled out all the stops to ensure the safety of the company as best we possibly could; but the overriding feeling of everyone involved, when we finally arrived, was that: my gosh it was worth it. At times it was almost like we had never been away from the industry as we knew it, until, of course, you clocked that you were all wearing face shields (although it must be said that social distancing is a great way to ‘balance the space’).
The cast were supremely generous in their time, energy, enthusiasm and creativity and I personally feel the play has improved immensely for it. Objectives and intentions were thrashed out, scenes were improvised where we wanted to try something new: to be so collaborative and in the moment was incredibly refreshing and much needed. For me as the writer, the days were long with the play being intrinsically analysed down to the last detail in the room, followed by, at times, extensive re-writes in the evenings. But all in all the week reminded me why it is simply not an option to retrain in cyber. I cannot wait to be back in the room creating work for full production at the earliest opportunity.
To summarise, together these two methods of working were equally beneficial when side by side in exploring Evelyn further during this pandemic. Zoom was a great place to introduce the play to an audience; a great place to receive feedback; the technological risks and limitations are inherently more theatrical than we would have ever cared to realise; but nothing quite beats actors creating the magic of theatre in front of your very (non-virtual) eyes.
I now know this play, which I have worked on for over four years, so much better than I did before. I have every confidence that it will be worth the wait when we finally get the chance to share it with you.
Founding member of Wildcard