Sacha Dhawan to star as a standup in Nikesh Shukla's lockdown drama

Yash Gill’s Power Half Hour, directed by Milli Bhatia, is among a new batch of Virtual Collaborators films released this week

With comedy clubs closed by the coronavirus lockdown, many standups have been experimenting with streaming their performances online. Here’s another: Yash Gill, who emerges in tux and bow tie, ready to deliver an upbeat, gag-packed set from his flat. But this time the laughter quickly curdles. Gill, played by Doctor Who’s Sacha Dhawan, is among the characters in the latest series of Virtual Collaborators dramas, made by actors, writers and directors who have teamed up in isolation.

Dhawan says that Yash Gill’s Power Half Hour, which will premiere at 8pm on YouTube on Monday, has allowed him “to take myself out of my comfort zone”. Focusing on a creative project provided an opportunity to find balance and clarity at a difficult time. “Being in lockdown has brought such an array of different emotions to the surface,” says the actor. “It’s taken its toll on my mental health, because I’m forced to ‘sit’ in feelings, which I’ve got so used to avoiding.”

The film’s writer, Nikesh Shukla, hopes it will enable “a long overdue conversation about mental health among South Asian men”. The novelist, who edited the acclaimed essay collection The Good Immigrant, said that it had been a new method of collaboration for him. “I’m an author. It’s a solitary endeavour. And often your relationship with your readers is one you don’t always get to engage in. Once the book is done, it’s done.” Shukla, Dhawan and the film’s director, Milli Bhatia, discussed issues of mental health and grief over WhatsApp, sharing standup sets as part of their research. Bhatia, whose theatre work includes seven methods of killing kylie jenner, said it had been an exciting creative challenge. “As we’re all in separate spaces, we’re working in an entirely new way, and have been reflecting on how we embrace this new way rather than thinking about it as a compromise.”

Theatre-makers “are feeling grief for our industry”, says Bhatia. It is important, she thinks, “that we give ourselves permission to feel like it’s difficult to be creative at the moment. Both the piece and our way of working have been about making space for that.”

The Virtual Collaborators project was launched in April by the award-winning writer, actor and musician Danusia Samal. It was designed as a series of rapid-response short films about how our lives have been changed by the lockdown. Among the 10 new dramas, released this week, are Ms Evans, by Ajjaz Awad, in which a secondary-school teacher attempts to hold a lesson on Zoom, and Danaja Wass’s In the Mourning, about a woman unable to attend her mother’s funeral because of the pandemic.

Most of the films were shot indoors, such as Chris Edis’s script Self Disassembly, which stars Tom Crowhurst as a man struggling to put together his flat-pack furniture while processing some difficult news from the office. IMperfect, written and performed by Leah and Mhairi Gayer, was made on location; its plot follows twins who meet in a woodland where their mother is buried.

There have been many initiatives to create original online drama since venues closed in mid-March, some spearheaded and funded by major theatre companies and others masterminded by individuals. Samal is now looking towards the future for her artist-led project. Virtual Collaborators has been “a lifeline” for many of the people involved, she said. “For some it’s been a much-needed chance to practise their craft and feel connected to their community; for others, it’s an opportunity to try something totally new.” She is seeking web designers and producers, and is keen to find a way to make the project sustainable and jointly run by members of the creative community. “What’s been so heartening about it,” she said, “is that we are supporting each other rather than competing.”


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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