One of the knock-on effects of the current pandemic is that theatres have had to rise to the challenge of being ever more inventive in terms of form and content. Three short plays which have caught my eye certainly do that and play with the boundaries imposed by the new technology. If you’re feeling a bit experimental you might like to give them a go.
Back in March, The Gate Theatre in London asked nine different pairs of performers to write letters to each other – some pairs already knew each other, and some didn’t. They were given guidance as to what to write in the text and then these were sent out to their partners in a box with instructions, some rudimentary props and bits of costume. The pair then meet up online to open their letters and instantly develop a short show out of these elements. The trajectory of the next thirty minutes, simply called Letters, is totally in the hands of the two performers.
On the evening I attended, the duo were Nadia Albina and Tim Crouch; I thought the pairing would be an interesting combination to watch, and so it proved. Having introduced themselves they disappeared off camera for a few moments and reappeared in “costume” – Nadia in a jauntily angled hat and Tim in a snazzy gold wig and each read out the first part of the letters they had received. These were dated in May so were full of lockdown details which I’m sure we all remember and are trembling on the brink of going back to.
A chalkboard was then deployed to sketch each other – I’d definitely have found that daunting. The main element was that each had chosen a poem for the other to read out and by one of those spookily chance occurrences it transpired they had both chosen the same poet though not poem. The readings were suffused with a wistful melancholy and there was a sense of emotion that came across even down the unforgiving lens of a camera. The show concluded with a joyful finale utilising a range of props from the supplied box. Just for a brief moment it was party time.
There was no narrative, no characters and emotions were allowed to develop naturally out of the prompts the Gate had evidently given in their guidelines. Nadia and Tim ‘s dynamic was the paramount factor and what emerged was not so much a play as the act of play itself – in the sense of an activity aiming at enjoyment. It felt like we were being made privy to a private moment between two people who had not seen each other for a while and were revelling in the moment of reconnecting. A nice metaphor for the way many of us currently feel, I would venture.*
For my second choice I can’t really write a review as such; this is simply because I was one of the participants and modesty forbids…. Palm Reading is a new piece by theatre maker Daniel Bye (Going Viral, The Price of Everything) in which you volunteer as one half of a duologue. The other person can be invited by yourself or, if you want to be really random the project will assign you a partner to work with. There is a script to download but the idea is that you resist the temptation to read prior to “performance” so that it reveals itself as you go. All you have to do ahead of time is flip a coin and assign yourselves as A) and B) and each find a piece of music which you will be instructed to play at a specified point.
I thought as both of us run online play reading sessions I would invite my fellow thesp, Andy, to participate and I know he likes a bit of a dramatic challenge. At a prearranged time we opened a Zoom meeting and went straight into the script without any preamble. Of course the whole thrust of the project is that you don’t know what is coming and have to act and react in the moment ; therefore, it would seem to be only fair that none of the content is revealed here. Suffice to say that our readings of the characters we were playing changed tack several times in the course of the ten minute piece particularly when reacting to what the other had just said. Bye’s writing is open enough to accommodate this approach and provide multi levels of meaning. From our own perspective the way the performance is structured meant that reactions tended to be rather more spontaneous and genuine although, helpfully, if you did need to think through what you were doing and saying it didn’t cause problems if you paused for thought. As we didn’t record our “performance” this was a true theatre one off and because of its nature not one that could even be repeated with another partner. So pretty unique then.
Also unique is the third piece which goes under the collective title of Here We Are. In this you are afforded an exclusive view of a short play delivered over the internet. And when I say exclusive, I mean totally exclusive for it consists of one actor and one audience member – you. You first find yourself in a waiting area where you can exchange text messages with fellow participants, the other seven people who are waiting alongside you to be randomly allocated to one of the eight short plays on offer. This is an interesting experience as you swop snippets of information about where you are from, what your experience of Covid 19 has been and your hopes for the future. Then you are transferred into your one to one experience. I saw a piece called Pandemic Fight written by Carmelita Tropicana and performed by Zuleyma Guevara. Rather than the pandemic the project is choosing to focus on #BlackLivesMatter and this particular play focused on a biracial woman who has fallen out with her ex (white) and has realised just how deep the gulf between them was.
The play is structured like a confessional with you playing the part of the confessor. Unlike many online plays the performer can both see and hear you which is slightly weird but helps to develop a sense of intimacy between actor and “audience”. Besides, it’s so convincingly done that the notion of there being any “acting” simply doesn’t exist; it’s more like you have accidentally gatecrashed someone else’s Zoom call. Any interaction is acknowledged but I was content enough to listen to Guevara’s honeyed voice explaining a situation which was way outside my sphere of knowledge. It may have only taken less than ten minutes but I learned quite a lot. Tickets are free but because of the nature of the project not plentiful; a timed slot must be requested three days before each set of performances which take place on Thursdays. And it is US time, so 11.00pm is the earliest available – fortunately this theatre event isn’t subject to the curfew!
The review for Letters first appeared on the LTR website
Letters needs to be booked via Gate Theatre’s website (recordings of past shows are also available until October 31). Click here
Palm Reading can be accessed and scheduled at time which suits you. Click here
Here We Are also needs to be booked. Click here
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