'It felt like shutdown took my future': 50 creatives launch online dramas

From the anxiety of remote workers to the strain of isolated couples, a series of virtual collaborations masterminded by Danusia Samal looks at how our lives have changed

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A collection of more than 50 actors, writers and directors have come together in isolation for a series of rapid-response short films about how our lives have been changed by the Covid-19 lockdown.

The Virtual Collaborators project, launched on Monday, has been masterminded by Danusia Samal, an award-winning writer, actor and musician. Samal was inspired to create the series when the Guardian invited her to contribute an idea to an article proposing an “action plan for theatre” after venues were closed by coronavirus. “That was the first time I thought practically about how to stay creative and connected in isolation,” said Samal. “Once I’d written it down, I had to see if it worked.”

In the article, and on social media, Samal invited creatives to get in touch if they were interested in collaborating. She then devised a questionnaire for them to complete and, based on their answers, matched up trios of actors, writers and directors. “It was quite confusing and involved a very complicated spreadsheet. The idea was to introduce people to each other digitally, and have a mix of experience levels, disciplines and styles. Some people set up their own partnerships as well. It was all fairly fluid. People want to make stuff.”

The pieces have sprung from creative discussions on Skype and apps such as Houseparty and many of them reflect on our new dependence on digital communication, whether it be colleagues holding meetings on Zoom or couples separated by quarantine struggling to stay connected through the lockdown.

When You Host Your First Zoom is written by Stefanie Reynolds and directed by Leon Lopez. In the film, Esther Uwejeyah plays a team leader whose fuzzy jargon fails to unite her employees. It’s an initially comic piece that gradually emphasises how remote working has left many frayed, frustrated and unsure of their rights. Digital Detox by James McDermott, also directed by Lopez, stars Kane Surry and Elliot Hadley as partners whose relationship is put under strain when one of them is forced to remain in Italy with an ex he is visiting.

Samal has written two pieces herself and one of them, Bangers, is striking in its intimate depiction of touch at this time of social distancing. The piece, she said, explores “the residue that misogynistic music leaves on us and our attitude to sex, gender and relationships”. It is directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, with music by Theo Ogundipe.

More than a dozen videos are planned, to be released over the next fortnight, and Samal will be spotlighting the different artists involved on her Twitter and Instagram accounts. The videos will be featured on the Guardian and shared on YouTube and the Virtual Collaborators website. Among the individuals involved with the project are Nikesh Shukla, Anjli Mohindra, Sacha Dhawan, Joseph Adelakun, Milli Bhatia and Júlia Levai.

Samal’s previous plays include Out of Sorts, staged at London’s Theatre503 in 2019, and Busking It, which she performed herself at the Edinburgh fringe and HighTide festivals and was based on her 10 years as a London Underground busker. Her upcoming acting credits include a role in The Great, a Hulu TV series that stars Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great. “As an actor, shutdown initially felt like it had taken away my future,” Samal said. “We don’t know what’s coming so looking ahead felt pointless. But I’m beginning to adapt. I write a lot (it’s escapism), and start projects like this.”

Since venues were forced to close in mid-March, a huge number of digital theatre projects have been announced. The National Theatre of Scotland, Home in Manchester, HighTide and Headlong were among the first companies to commission major online programmes of work exploring life in lockdown. For Graeae’s Crips without Constraints, deaf and disabled writers were commissioned to create monologues written in isolation that either focus on the current crisis or something completely different.

“It’s amazing to see what people are making online, how creative they’ve become,” said Samal. “It’s going to be hard to rebuild theatre, it won’t be the same, but I think artists will work hard to adapt and support each other. The funny flipside of this is that suddenly we’re all unemployed and worried so the judgment about being ‘successful’ has eased. Artists are being much nicer to each other.” As for the forthcoming Virtual Collaborators dramas , she said: “I’m as excited as anyone to see what is made each week.”


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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