It would be a dramatic understatement to say that Covid-19 has been disruptive for the United Kingdom’s creative industry – but live drama is exactly what’s in short supply at the moment. Theatre workers specifically have seen job stability disintegrate: many will suffer from the ending of the furlough scheme this month before theatres have actually fully reopened. And that’s if they do reopen, as 70 per cent of theatres are facing permanent closure.
Oxford student theatre is of course not exempt from the government restrictions, which necessitate a distanced cast and crew at all times during the production process, and no audiences for indoor performance. Were we in ordinary times, the shows scheduled for this term could be put on in a matter of two weeks.
There had been some outdoor productions planned, but as a result of more recent restrictions, most if not all of these have unfortunately been cancelled. Indoor performances are in the works, though, and will be filmed with the intention of online distribution. These include, among others, original student comedies such as Wadham student Alison Hall’s V-Card, and Full-Grown, by Queens’ Bella Cooper-Brown, recorded at the Burton Taylor Studio and the Keble O’Reilly respectively. My own play, The Future Lasts a Long Time, is set to be recorded at the Burton Taylor Studio – I think.
From a practical point of view, my crew and I are ultimately not sure how the final performance is going to look. Here’s what we know: the actors will perform two metres apart from one another, for example, and we certainly won’t have an audience. But there does remain a significant amount unknown to us. The Burton Taylor haven’t been able to confirm yet when we will be able to record—and Covid might yet render even this use of an indoor space impossible.
With so many unknowns, contingency plans are a must, a fact I’m sure the other productions are also facing up to. The BT might close their doors, which would send us outside. An outdoor recording would mean wet weather insurance, and of course a new venue. But one focus of this play as I had originally conceived it was to explore how literal theatre space can analogise the inner emotional life of a character— so how best to translate that to somewhere outside?
The answer is that we don’t know yet. A marquee, a cloister…an open field? The Mound? Somewhere none of us have thought of? (Suggestions are welcome.) This increasingly familiar sense of uncertainty definitely makes our task a more challenging one. But it also unfolds a web of new possibilities.
For background: the plot revolves around Evie Brightly, a microbiologist working on a cure for Insomnia, a pandemic preventing victims from falling asleep. When her husband succeeds in opening a portal to another dimension, and subsequently shows symptoms of the fatal disease, she resolves to go through it. She risks losing her final days with him for the chance of finding a cure in the unknown.
As always, necessity mothers invention, and constraints are strangely freeing. These necessary constraints are stranger than normal, it’s true, but the fundamentals are the same: you must work with what you have. The student comedies need to try to not be funny ‘in spite of’ Covid restrictions, but, somehow, because of them. And as for Future, though I had initially bemoaned the current state of things as an environment which would shackle creativity, it might yet prove a blessing.
Writing it this summer, one focus was the theatricality of it all: the play was designed to work both halves of the stage simultaneously, with each half representing one of the two dimensions. I wanted to work on a philosophy of total engagement of the viewer, by playing on their emotions, intellect, and sense of presence, of ‘being in the theatre’, all at once.
One thing we know is that it won’t quite be live anymore. And we won’t have the ‘presence’ of the audience to play on: there are no sets of eyes for a character to almost meet as they speak. The audience is funnelled into a single point of view. Those eyes concentrate into the single eye of the camera.
A major thread running through the play is time, and our flawed perception of it. In moments of intense emotion it can seem to dilate like a pupil. Being in love can seem to halt it, as when Athene lengthens the night for Odysseus and Penelope’s long-awaited reunion; but grieving the absence of the person you love can stretch it miserably.
The streamed performance, as opposed to the one experienced in the theatre, is live, yet not; it’s there in front of you, yet not. I hope to mix certain qualities intrinsic to theatre – accidents of speech, errors in movement, the rush of hoping not to get it wrong – with the magic of post-production, where, for instance, we can adapt sound to screen, and dictate which ear you hear it through. We can pluck subtitles from bookshelves on stage; we can darken clouds, and give booming qualities to voices.
The depth of theatre is resolved into the flatness of a screen, which at times looks like a page to be read; the characters become moving words, writing themselves in front of you. Just as the portal in the play is literally a mirror which the characters walk through, when the monitor (a word which comes from the Latin ‘to warn’) is turned off, the screen too becomes a Black Mirror. In some strange sense, you are watching yourself watching the play.
The actors are physically separate from one another, but by being so might intimate more strongly the possibility of closeness. The outside space might well evoke the inside, doing a better job of it than the inside might have done for itself. ‘Liveness’ in the theatre involves introducing accident, which goes hand in hand with creativity – but by producing in a time like this, I think more than enough things will happen by accident to compensate.
The Future Lasts A Long Time is expected to premiere at the BT Studio in mid-November.