COVID forced all of us to change our plans. For me, I had several plays that I had been cast in or had written, intended to be performed live, that were shelved. Despite this, theatre continued, through radio plays and Zoom. While I loved seeing this creativity thrive, there were a few Zoom plays that I thought just didn’t translate to its new platform.
Theatre makers were doing plays as written, simply transcribed into Zoom, which unsurprisingly meant something was lost from it. You can’t just thrust Macbeth into Zoom and expect it to still be relevant. When I wrote MARTHA., I felt that in order for it to be successful and relevant, I would have to acknowledge and even utilise the presence of Zoom, rather than attempt clunkily to manoeuvre around it. I wanted the premise to reflect it’s setting, rather than be glaringly at odds with it. In short, I wanted to write a Zoom play, not a play done over Zoom.
My premise came almost with the platform; two people catching up, using and referencing and bemoaning Zoom. In writing the play, I felt that a more naturalistic style of writing and acting was necessary. With the laptop camera mere inches away, as opposed to the distanced audience of a stage, the shouting and dramatic emphasis that would suit traditional theatre would jar with the audience.
As a result, I aimed for a realism that was more muted than if I were writing a play for the stage, with the emotions coming from gritted jaws rather than bombastic yells. We’ve seen films with this same basic premise – Unfriended and Searching come to mind – but when theatre makers approach video calls, they don’t treat the platform any differently than a stage, and run headfirst into limitations. The aim is to understand what Zoom can and can’t offer a play, and make those initial limitations work to your favour.
A play set on Zoom is always going to be primarily about perspective. Each call member can only be seen from a single lens, a single angle, a single light. There’s a performativity to the perspective they create. Their backgrounds are a choice – they reflect something about themselves: the posters crumbling off the walls, the neatly made bed. It invites comparison.
The gallery view is just that: a gallery, each individual reduced to a frame, an exhibition. Likewise, we can never see what’s out of shot: the irritating noise, the oppressive boyfriend. This creates a constant tension. It fosters self-consciousness. Each member can see their own video. They touch their hair more, admire themselves, pose at flattering angles, and generally fret about their appearance.
There’s something inherently Platonic about it, this sense of artifice. It struck me as immensely appropriate for a story about two actors waiting to be let in for an audition. It was this way in which the format demanded introspection that I think changed the very nature of my writing. Whilst my previous plays, all written for live performance, were political, this play wasn’t.
The political themes of my other plays meant that, though inevitably the authorial voice seeped through, I could always keep a certain distance. Zoom on the other hand was more interrogative, personal, it magnified your own sense of self and made you question it. I couldn’t write about “other people”, but rather a veiled exploration of my own apprehensions, frustrations, isolation. There was a nakedness, an honesty to the experience that I can only ascribe to Zoom.
Image: Chris Montgomery