This year has been insane, as we all know. It’s been a nightmare for some, revitalising for others. I fall firmly in the latter category, thankfully. Despite lockdown leading to the postponement of a couple of projects, it’s given me many opportunities too, including making ‘A Brief History of Struggle’ co-written with Calle Fuhr, co-directed by Katie Posner and Charlotte Bennett. It was my first lockdown project and helped set creative wheels spinning.
First came a call from Katie. She described the project to me and asked if I’d want to be involved. I immediately said yes because, while it was still in its early stages, it felt radically different to the digital projects that were being released and announced during the early days of lockdown. After she’d hung up, however, I started to question what I might’ve gotten myself into as I’m so used to writing alone – even when it comes to the more collaborative mediums of television and film. I don’t speak to people while I’m in the middle of writing, but with this I’d have to not only do that but also co-write the entire thing. I’m quite good at not worrying and covid helped with the idea of adapting to the unexpected, so I locked Anxiety in a box and felt ready to dive into this exciting prospect.
Next came Zoom. I met Charlotte and Calle for the first time, and the four of us discussed the brief. Essentially: write a 30-minute piece in English and German, set where you’re from (London for me, Dortmund for Calle), no rules except whatever governments impose in terms of being outdoors. Simple, right? Well, Anxiety bit its way out of the box and bounced onto my shoulder. What had I got myself into?! Charlotte and Katie hopped off the Zoom, Calle and I continued the conversation, and I brushed Anxiety off my shoulder soon after. It felt like a natural pairing. We’d never met and our writing styles are quite different, yet we were on the EXACT same page about what we did and didn’t want to do. Our ideas echoed each other’s and Calle wrote just as quickly as I do, a huge bonus since the deadlines were tight!
We landed on our idea. This came a couple of drafts into writing. We decided to explore significant years in history, but not centre those moments – instead focusing on how various events change the shape of small conversations amongst people. On my part, I think my interest in doing that came from being in isolation and not overhearing those random conversations that you often do. I make notes on my phone, writing down things I hear: the mum who told her daughter about her brother’s accident as the lights dimmed in the Lyttelton; the woman in the cinema who told her husband that she didn’t know Nick and Isabelle’s relationship was that serious, so was it any surprise they’d broken up again; the person who said ‘you were emotional today. You let your emotions control you,’ seemingly apropos of nothing. I craved hearing these conversations, so decided to write them. Calle and I then gave feedback to one another, wrote some chorus elements together, and got notes from Katie and Charlotte – who presented the WhatsApp format to us, based on what we’d written. It felt like six episodes, so why not present them as such? This was exciting and made it feel more distinct, making up for the fact that none of this was done in person.
Our piece required lots of actors. I knew very early on that we’d have Guildhall third-year students on board, which was nice, as they didn’t get to have their usual showcases this summer. However, it did cause Anxiety to pick itself off the ground, crawl up my body until it was on my shoulders again, and let out a stentorian shout into my ear. Why? Drama schools are very white (we won’t go into that right now…) and I pretty much always write Black characters. I had to try and write for anyone, not knowing who would play what part. That said, I knew they must have at least ONE Black student, so wrote a monologue that is part 5 of 6. It was inspired by feelings I was having, after listening to a podcast called ‘Somebody’ and reading about Ahmaud Arbery’s death. I basically rambled on a page, but this project felt like the perfect opportunity to experiment without feeling pressure about being perfect. That was something that came up in our very first chat with Katie and Charlotte, and the reminder allowed Anxiety to have a heart attack and die a very slow death… Then ‘A Brief History of Struggle’ was born. We rehearsed on Zoom, filmed the UK scenes in the first week of June, everyone in their own part of the country with equipment being shipped around. It was a great team effort and a lovely way to connect in those first few months, but it also feels like a lifetime ago, so I’m not entirely sure how I want people to feel or respond.
I’m re-watching Mad Men at the moment, so am inspired to attempt a Draper-lite sales pitch: If you’re interested in exploring theatre in a new way from the comfort of your own home – six mini-conversations delivered through daily WhatsApp – get a ticket! If you miss overhearing conversations between random strangers, your ears perking up at things you’re unsure should ever be said in public – get a ticket! If you want to think about moments in history and how they might have affected lives, in large ways, smalls ways, and all the in between – get a ticket!