2021

Am I doing an end of year round-up this year? Idk. I wasn’t going to, because as I’ve said before, last time I did one 2020 happened. However, the stage seems to be set for 2022 to be a mess regardless of what I do, so might as well, eh?

Before I do, a quick thought about the assertion I’ve seen made on social media that we shouldn’t be sharing good news or success stories at the moment because it’s been such a difficult time for a lot of people. My thought is this: I disagree 100%. Yes, it’s a bad time for a lot of people – but it’s always a bad time for someone. Any time you share good news, someone who reads your posts will be ill, have had a recent bereavement, have received an unfortunate diagnosis, have lost work, or just be having a lousy day. They might even be in the middle of a run of horrible events. I know that feeling well – I had one from 2000-2005, involving getting sick for a couple of years, having a major depressive episode with adventures in psychosis, losing both parents and my dog, getting stalked, and getting messed up in a car crash. Throughout those years I watched friends and acquaintances graduate, do healthy young people things, get exciting jobs, move in with partners, marry, have kids, travel, all sorts of fun and fulfilling things that were not available to me. Does it suck? Yes. But people’s lives have different paces, and this is how mine has been of late.

I spent the first few months of 2021 creating an opera – or rather, taking a selection of opera’s greatest hits, re-texting them and weaving them into Oscar Wilde’s short story The Remarkable Rocket. When it became clear that ESO’s 2021 offering was going to have to be online, and was going to have to be something more malleable in response to illness and changing circumstances than any existing opera could be, it made sense to create something bespoke and I’d been wanting to do something with that story for a while.

What ensued was perhaps the maddest project I’ve ever embarked on and something I can’t imagine doing under any other circumstances. Yes, I’ve wanted to write a libretto for a long time, but I never anticipated it being something I’d do 1) in just a couple of months, 2) to fit a selection of existing melodies ranging from the 18th century to the 20th, or 3) knowing I’d have to direct the result over Zoom and then edit together the performances of singers who weren’t in shared space at any point in the process.

The end result was completely bonkers, but in a completely different way to my 2020 online opera, The Den. The singers involved in The Den got direction from me over Zoom while filming themselves on their phones, then uploaded the footage to Drive. It was a time-consuming process that I just wasn’t going to be able to facilitate with a large cast, particularly not while also editing together the audio for three choruses. For the sake of keeping things as uniform as possible, we chose to film using Zoom itself. The results of this vary from one person’s internet connection to the next, and there are some moments where backgrounds cut out/devour faces or people freeze mid-chorus, but those are things we had to accept as testaments to the time and conditions within which we were working. As much as I’d have loved Rocket to have had high production values, the important thing was to make it happen at all. Considering what a wretched time students were having in general, I wasn’t willing to let them down by giving up on a fun project just because it was challenging. We made something daft and joyful and very, very rough around the edges – but we made it at a time when opportunities to make anything were at their fewest, and I’m more proud of its joyfulness than tormented by its roughness. 

As meatspace life began to resume I picked up a project I’d conceived back at the beginning of Lockdown 1 in 2020, a vehicle for Marion Geoffray called Danger DuVall: Space/Time Adventurer. Danger began as one of those late-night messenger chats about all the work we’d lost and what we could do to replace it, so we’d come up with this idea for an online show that could translate into a live experience later. The aim was to create chaotic sci-fi romps with an interactive educational element, experienced through a combination of Zoom performance and the contents of a trainee adventurers’ pack delivered to audience members’ doors – something Marion had already been piloting in her own practice.

Early in that first lockdown, we kept finding our applications rejected because the experience would involve additional screen time for children, or because we could not, as two freelancers with no infrastructure or resources, solve the problem of digital poverty to make the piece universally accessible. But we persevered, keeping an eye out for the right opportunity, and eventually it came in the form of a YTAS micro-grant with additional support from Imaginate, which allowed us to create a small pilot project in collaboration with filmmaker Lucas Kao in which we could try out the format.

Once again, this is a bonkers project that exists because some passionate and imaginative people threw their whole hearts into it. It’s extremely interactive, to the point where it has to be semi-scripted rather than fully scripted to allow for Choose Your Own Adventure elements where the audience’s choices can radically alter the way things play out. It’s got a retrofuturistic aesthetic and an obsolete talking supercomputer. Ever tried to make one of those using only the remnants of other projects and your own limited crafting skills? Genuinely, my biggest worry going into the first show was that children raised by Alexa were going to look at SARKI (System for Accessing Research, Knowledge and Information) and scoff. But they didn’t – they seemed captivated by SARKI’s flashing LEDs and “interactive” menu system, and if they tried to tell it to self-destruct, well, that was very much in the spirit of experiment modelled in the show. To see the way our young audiences bought in completely to Danger’s world, her situation, the urgency of her need, was glorious. We have further plans for our intrepid Adventurer, perhaps in 2022, as the pilot wholly convinced us that there’s an appetite and even a need for what the show is doing and its intense feeling of liveness.

That energy was essential as I went into my next project, directing Hannah Lavery’s The Unseen Child for Hopscotch. A delayed project from the spring of 2020, Unseen had had a digital development week. We’d spent months batting ideas for potential hybrid versions back and forth, but ever-shifting regulations made it near-impossible to predict what could be done in terms of retaining a live element. So in July we created a digital version, shot in Hopscotch’s rehearsal space.

I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to working through my thoughts on what makes digital theatre an art form in its own right, distinct from film and distinct from an archive recording of a piece of live theatre. I don’t think there’s a neat answer, no clearly-codified set of criteria you can consult to distinguish between film and digital theatre – my own belief/personal guideline is that digital theatre lives in relationship to live theatre. Nice and vague, right? Let me expand.

When I make theatre, I prefer to make either immersive work or work that will happily show how it works. The fourth wall is not my jam – either the audience gets invited in or we come outside and meet them there. So the question of who the audience is, where they are and how to issue that invitation or meet them where they are was foremost in my mind. Are they the camera? Are they on the other side of the camera? Is there a way to make being on the other side of the camera feel like it isn’t a passive experience? Of course there is – I’m hardly the first to have explored this territory. But it’s really easy to slip into forgetting about the audience and just capturing pretty pictures, so I had to keep checking in with my own thoughts and influences.

I also believe that when a piece of theatre is intended to exist both digitally and live, the versions should speak to each other. That meant not doing anything on camera that would be completely impossible to achieve in live (and low-tech, minimal set-up) performance. I don’t intend that Unseen’s eventual live form will be a faithful replica of what’s on screen – considering how it was shot, that would be damn near impossible anyway – but there should be resemblance and similarity of feeling. Sisters, not twins, essentially.

There was also a challenge to be faced in terms of my process. I like my rehearsal rooms to prioritise discovery and experiment, and in my limited experience of making work on camera, it’s tricky to balance an experimental room with a carefully-planned storyboard and shooting schedule. I have to hand it to Hopscotch here – they put no pressure on the team, but encouraged me to lead with process and let the outcome be what it may. And they’ve put other work my way since we wrapped Unseen, so I can confirm that those weren’t just empty words.

While I was in Glasgow working with Hopscotch, my husband was at home working on our next show (the first we’ve created together), Meet Your Doom. Another delayed 2020 project, this time for Hidden Door, MYD is a one-to-one(ish) spoken word show in which I use a deck of specially-created tarot cards to predict the outlandish and over-the-top demise of each audience member. I’d asked Mark to come on board to design the deck using his skills as a montage artist, and I love what he came up with. The images are gorgeous and I appreciate the way he wove tarot imagery and pop culture together to create something I could use as prompts for the stories.

Of course, figuring out how to pitch a show predicting people’s deaths during a pandemic was always going to be tricky (in my defence, we were not yet in a pandemic when I started work on it). There was much to consider in terms of how we shaped the invitation to audiences, how to make the tone of the experience clear at a glance and allow people to make an informed choice whether or not to participate. I spent a lot of time figuring out exactly how to phrase the text on our A-board and how to costume myself, and I created a little hand-out card with links to good resources on dealing with  bereavement and/or your own mortality, because I know that sometimes the after-effects of a fun show can be surprising. We delivered MYD as a roving show, wandering the festival and parking ourselves here and there to allow interested people to come to us. I thought that was important – whereas with other walkabout/in-character work that I’ve done there was an expectation that performers would initiate interactions, for Meet Your Doom I wanted there to be no pressure to participate or go along. An enthusiastic approach was what we wanted. It’s an odd feeling, trying to make people feel invited and safe at the same time as playing a harbinger of doom, but the interactions we had were a lot of fun and it appeared to work for people, so I think the balance we struck was a good one.

I have plans to create a digital Meet Your Doom at some point, and to expand the deck. Currently it’s just the Major Arcana, but having tested the format I think there’s room to include the remaining cards. Depending on the whims of the funding gods, that might be a project for 2022, as might the digital experience.

The other thing I was working on while Mark created the MYD deck was a commission from Pitlochry Festival Theatre to write a monologue that would form part of a trio of Ghost Stories. The brief was to draw on Perthshire legends, so my mind immediately went to a story about Alyth, which was my first home, and the sightings of naked ghosts that had troubled the residents in the early 20th century.

My lifelong obsession with ghosts is no secret. I’ve always been fascinated with how we conceptualise them, why we need them, the ways in which it’s possible to believe and not believe all at once. Just as there are said to be no atheists in foxholes, I suspect there are very few sceptics to be found alone in dark woods – certainly my own hard-won scepticism has been known to crumble in such circumstances, shouted down by the horrors of old traumas and a childhood full of seeing things that weren’t there.

The piece I wrote, When Soft Voices Die, is a story of undealt-with grief and the often comical things people do to ward off fear in the dark. It opened under a full moon in the Explorers’ Garden, beautifully performed by Glenna Morrison, and I loved the way the chill of the night air and the constant movement of the breeze, of leaves, of drops of rain and busy wildlife, played into the atmosphere. All of those elements that contribute to the feeling that you’re not alone in the dark, and that you’re actually quite  small and afraid and perhaps there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I love PFT’s expansion into using its outdoor spaces as performance spaces, and I love that when I got to write my first (I hope!) piece for Pitlochry it was site-responsive.

There were other projects, of course – the piece I wrote for Dante 700, the various bits of workshopping and dramaturgy that I did, the storytelling, all the odd things that defy neat categorisation. And I wonder why I’m so tired… Oddly enough, in both 2020 and 2021 my brain has burned out before my body has. I’m not used to that. What normally prompts me to acknowledge burnout is the onset of a particularly stubborn respiratory infection that leaves me weak, stick-walking and mainlining throat sweets throughout months of coughing (pro tip: alternate one Locket, one Soother for maximum relief without chapping your tongue). This is a new experience, and I suspect due in part to not being able to do the things I’d usually do to recharge my brain, like go to art galleries or museums or trawl through books I can’t afford at the NLS. I think I’d weather the need for constant project re-planning and writing endless applications better if my usual recharge points were available – or if I had hope for them becoming available to me again any time soon.

As for 2022, who know what will happen? I have two developments coming up in January that I’m really excited about, working with a combination of long-standing collaborators and new faces. I’m scratching a new piece as part of Snapshots at Manipulate, exploring the scale of space and the impossibility of conceptualising our place in the universe in a complete reworking of Star Cuddie. I’m also revisiting the story of Jenny Geddes to R&D a new storytelling/theatre show, Rabbler. Mark and I are working on a screenplay. I have a book coming out, of which more later. All of these plans are as covid-proof as I can make them, with options to move online if necessary.

As for non-work plans… I don’t think I have any. It seems futile to make them. Fortunately, I find a lot of contentment in spending time at home with my husband. We have lots of excellent books and films, and the world is full of things we haven’t learned about yet. I have plenty to be getting on with in terms of learning how to balance a busy schedule with the effects of nerve damage. I’m setting no goals, no resolutions, nothing except get my work done, enjoy my home life, love the art. The usual. Try not to die, try not to lose my balance. Have a little scream into the void every now and then. And disclaim all and any responsibility for the fate of the world in 2022.  

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, director, dramaturg, spoken word artist and acting coach. https://ko-fi.com/jenbitespeople View all posts by jenbitespeople

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