Long time readers of The Wee Review will likely recognise Claire Wood as one of our regular contributors to the Theatre section. Having previously directed Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group’s production of The Lark in 2019, Claire’s new theatre company Production Lines were set to perform their first production at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Unfortunately, these plans had to be put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Fortunately, Claire used that time productively to produce a new play – shrapnel – set to be performed online at the end of November.
She sat down with me recently via Zoom to discuss her new production, as well as lockdown, mental health, and the challenges of writing and producing an online theatre piece.
First of all, how was your lockdown experience?
Really privileged. You look at all of these terrible stories about people’s mental health during this time, and it’s obviously taken such a kicking – whatever age you are – and a lot of people are suffering a lot. All these experiences that people are having are so difficult, and you think ‘what’s to become of us all?’ It’s odd, and it’s horrible watching it all play out while feeling like things are kind of okay, for me. It feels privileged. So I keep buying t-shirts and trying to pay for tickets for things at the theatre, in the hopes that some of the money gets back to the people that really need it.
What can you tell us about where the idea for shrapnel came from?
Well, what I can tell you is it’s very much inspired by the time that we find ourselves in. Production Lines were meant to be doing our first, full-length production as a theatre company in the Fringe. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and when it came to August I found that I missed the Fringe much more than I expected to. So I thought ‘well, if I can’t see anything, then maybe I can make some productive use of the time and write something’.
I concluded that it was safest to write something that can exist in an online space, which got me thinking about what subject matter might be most appropriate if we’re sharing it in a virtual space. There were two considerations: One was that lots of people are spending a huge amount of time online at the moment, having been forced to find their way around Zoom and Skype. I thought there was something interesting in the idea that more of our contact is being made virtual. It seemed to me that if we were producing it online, then it made sense – as the play is set in Scotland during the pandemic – to take what people have been forced, in a lot of cases, to get used to from a communication point of view, and make that the structure.
Also I considered what story is appropriate to tell through this medium. The point of a video platform is to put you in touch with people that you can’t be in touch with, in more normal ways at the moment, for all these reasons that we’re very familiar with. So how would it be, if we were to look at the uses and the limitations of keeping people in touch with each other? And is it the case that actually we feel better connected to each other than ever [or] does it ultimately make us feel more or less lonely as a consequence?
So what was your inspiration for the writing of shrapnel itself?
One of the things I’ve learned about over lockdown is loneliness, and all the different forms that it can take. I think there’s a sort of cliché of a little old person living on their own – somewhere, maybe quite remote, not really able to go out – finding life very difficult and not having much social contact. But I think that this time has encouraged people to realise that loneliness is something that affects people of all different ages. You can be perfectly socially connected and still feel really lonely. You can be living in the middle of a busy house full of teenagers in the beating heart of lockdown, and [be] really lonely. So I thought it was interesting to look at the different forms that loneliness can take across different age groups, how people’s experiences have been different during this time, and the sort of the consequences that it can have. The odd or apparently irrational things that it might encourage or provoke you to do as a consequence.
Your work focuses on several different aspects of lockdown life. Do you find yourself identifying with any of the main characters more than the others?
Part of the inspiration of the play’s story was my dad. He has asthma, and lives in Nottingham, so is totally paranoid about catching the coronavirus. He’s being exceptionally careful and decided at the start of the pandemic that he should update his will as well, because he hadn’t been anywhere near it for about 40 years. Because he was avoiding people, he ended up trying to find a neighbour that would witness his signing of the will for him and check that he wasn’t being put under pressure.
He ended up meeting a neighbour in the street at a socially safe distance, and signing the will on a car bonnet. I thought: what odd hoops we’re jumping through at this time to try and be safe and responsible. So one of the storylines in the play is about an older lady who is choosing not to leave the house. She needs to get her will countersigned so ends up getting in touch with the guy that lives opposite her, who she’s never had a conversation with in her life, because he’s the nearest person that she can imagine being able to countersign for her. So part of the part of the play is motivated by my dad’s specific experience and the ludicrousness of countersigning your will on a car bonnet.
What do you hope the audience will take away from your production?
I was interested in the fact that loneliness affects all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. I wanted to look at the fact that you can be young, you can live with siblings and parents, yet still feel really terrible about how your life has panned out. As well as the fact that experiences, and people’s reactions to the pandemic, are all really different and equally valid. I think this tolerance is extra important during this time.
So what I hope the audience would take from it, I suppose, is a little bit of hope. If they’re feeling lonely, whatever their circumstances, they acknowledge and recognise that that’s fine and it’s a really common experience. That it’s okay to feel like that, and if we talk about it a little bit more, that’s incredibly helpful.
What were the challenges of writing a show to be performed online?
So there’s a practical, technical side of things which has proven really interesting, and I hope we’re managing to handle it. Because we’re not in a theatre space, I didn’t want to make it look like a play. Instead, the script is written as a series of conversations that happen over Zoom and the story unfolds through the sequence of conversations that take place over a couple of days.
There’s a really strange practical thing about rehearsals that in some ways has made rehearsals really easy. Because you’re only seeing a head on the shoulders of a person, it’s made rehearsing a lot faster because there isn’t as much blocking to learn. Normally, we’d spend some considerable time trying to work out where people stand, how they interact with each other, and body language, which is suddenly reduced to a tiny gesture. So that’s been quite a strange thing to try and work out, asking ourselves: ‘is it interesting enough?’
Another thing that we’ve been tussling with is how much detail an audience can take in. Normally you would get a tonne of detail in an hour and a half film and not even think about it. Do we then have to assume that, because people are watching something that’s a bit less visually interesting, that we need to go a bit easier on the detail?
You’ve previously said you felt it was more important for the show to be performed live rather than pre-recorded, what made you make that decision?
I think one of the things that I have most missed about theatre during this time is that sense of being sat in a theatre, with other people who are all experiencing exactly the same thing at the same time. When I’ve watched theatre and it’s pre-recorded, as with the National Theatre productions for example, it’s wonderful and you get a much better view. But equally, that sort of sense of unpredictability is missing from it.
What I think is magical about theatre is the fact that the performance is different each night. The actors feed from the audience, and might interpret the lines differently each night, and they’ll feel them differently each night. For me, that’s something that I love so much about theatre as you can’t be sure what’s going to happen next entirely.
I like the thought that the audience sees it as it’s done, and then it’s done like a firework. It happens that one time and it’s perfect. And the memory of it almost is more beautiful than being able to watch it over and over again.
You had to put your planned Fringe show on hold, do you still hope to bring it to the stage in 2021?
Yes, my fingers and toes are crossed. I’ve had really good, helpful feedback from various people through Page 2 Stage. They were kind enough to pick one of my scenes from the script that was intended for the fringe this year, so I’ve had a few eyes cast over the script with helpful feedback. I’ve rewritten the script quite significantly, and I think it’s better for it, and I’m consequently really bursting to just get on and try it. I have this idea in my head of how it would work – that will only be able to be demonstrated to be correct or not by actually doing it – and so I just really want to get on and perform it.
Do you plan to bring more shows online in the future?
I do, yes. Particularly if we are trapped at home for another little while. If shrapnel works, then this feels like a really safe and manageable way of using the internet to make theatre. I’d like to try something a bit more adventurous, I just need to work out what that is.
People are doing really interesting interactive stuff online. I think the internet gives you such opportunity for interactivity in a way that is less practical if you’re in a proscenium arch theatre. So I’m really interested in being a little more adventurous in what the internet makes possible from a theatre point of view, as opposed to things that are practical when you’re all sitting squashed in a room together.
What do you think the main challenges are facing the theatre industry going forward?
I suppose financial viability. I think it would be really interesting to see how audiences react to theatre when things relax a little bit and we can go back. [There’s also] the logistics of getting buildings running again. I’ve received various online questionnaires from various theatres in Scotland, encouraging you to think about how comfortable you feel buying drinks at the bar.
It’s hard to see that funding for arts organisations is going to be terribly expensive moving forward. The government has managed to conjure up some money for Capital Theatres and the King’s Theatre’s restoration, which is so valuable and brilliant, and giving other bits and pieces of money to other arts organisations. But it’s hard to see that this money is going to sustain these buildings and all of these people’s jobs forever.
If audiences are pensive about going back, and given that theatres have different audience profiles, then I think it’s going to be hard when people have less money. As the economy gets really crunched, which it’s going to be due to Brexit at the start of next year, it feels like it’s going to be a grim year. I think it’s more important than ever that the arts are there as escapism, as a way to share ideas, and to give people little bits of hope: a sense that [though] things might be pretty terrible right now, they will get back to being as they were. But I think lots of people, who are brilliant at their jobs, are going to really struggle financially, because there’s tragically going to be less work around. So I think it’s going to be hard.
shrapnel runs from 19th – 22nd November at 8pm. While tickets are free, they need to be pre-booked through Eventbrite.