A drama in Quarantine

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Author of the text/moderator: Zuzana Uličianská (SK) / Head of the PR Department, Theatre Institute Bratislava
Jelena Kovacic (HR) / Editor, Monovid- 19
Maria Kroupnik (RU) / Curator of the Educational Programme, The Lubimovka Young Russian Playwrights Festival
Lucia Mihálová (SK) / Member of Jury, The Dráma competition
Sam Pritchard (UK) / Associate Director, The Royal Court Theatre
Jakub Škorpil (CZ) / Theatre Critic, World and Theatre magazine

Anti-pandemic regulations did not favour collective on-stage creation. Did the limitation of theatrical activities improve the position of playwrights, the majority of whom write in isolation, or did it make their already fragile situation even more precarious? What themes has Covid-19 introduced to dramatic theatre? Are the texts written in this period more introverted, or, on the contrary, more radical? Have the initiatives launched to alleviate the symptoms of covid in the sphere of new writing been successful? Taking the Living Newspaper project (Royal Court Theatre, London), the L’ubimovka Festival of Young Playwrights (Moscow), the Monovid-19, series of staged monologues (Croatia) and the Dráma competition for Slovak and Czech plays as examples, in this episode, we discuss the sustainability of drama as a literary and theatrical genre.

Links to projects, organisations and initiatives mentioned in the discussion and in this episode:
Lubimovka Young Russian Playwrights Festival
Polina Korotych, I am at home
The Royal Court Theatre

#06_A Drama in Quarantine

Zuzana Uličianská

The guests for April’s episode of the Green Thursdays series included cultural manager, pedagogue, translator and playwright Maria Kroupnik, who is also the curator of the Playwright Plus educational program, part of the Ljubimovka Festival of Young Playwrights in Moscow; Croatian dramaturg and playwright Jelena Kovačić, and Lucie Mihálová, dramaturg at the Ján Palárik Theater in Trnava and a member of the jury for Dráma, a competition for dramatic texts organised by the Slovak Theatre Institute. British director Sam Pritchard, Deputy Director for International Relations at London’s Royal Court Theatre (RTC), which specialises in new writing, also joined the conversation. Jakub Škorpil, theatre critic and editor of Svět a divadlo (World and Theatre) magazine, rounded out the group.

The discussion aimed to showcase the strategies theatres and festivals are developing to overcome the effects of quarantine and to present some successful initiatives in the field of European new writing. Topics and processes introduced to the theatre due to Covid-19 were also discussed. The anti-pandemic measures did not favour collective creation or on-stage improvisation, but how have they improved or compromised the position of artists who do most of their writing alone? Are the texts being written now more sensitive, or, on the contrary, more radical?

Sam Pritchard began the discussion with a presentation of the recently completed project RCT Living Newspaper. It was inspired by the Federal Theatre Project, an American government initiative dating from the Great Depression of the 1930s, which allowed artists of various professions to get back to work. The Federal Theatre Project gave rise to various innovations in American theatre; it supported Arthur Miller, for example, who was a young playwright at the time. One of the initiative’s most important projects was a touring performance called Living Newspaper. Travelling to communities large and small across the United States, the performance always featured content that responded to the latest news. 

From the beginning of the pandemic, the Royal Court Theatre felt a need to employ the collaborators – ranging from playwrights to technicians – with whom they could not work due to the anti-pandemic measures. The theatre’s artistic team sought a format that could revive the above-mentioned American project for the twenty-first century.  They planned to publish a weekly “living newspaper” in the form of a 19-minute video.  In the end, seven online editions were created, featuring contributions by over 60 writers and over 200 freelance artists. 

In designing RCT Living Newspaper, they experimented with genres, borrowing headings for short performances from the traditional sections of newspapers. Episodes began with the Front Page, a collectively devised musical number that offered a rapid response to issues appearing in the media at the time and was the only part of the project to be live-streamed.

Individual short performances were not only filmed in the RCT’s empty auditorium, but also backstage, or in the technical areas of the theatre. Some of the more “accomplished” texts were recorded in Upstairs, the theatre’s studio space. Each week also featured a new theatrical “cartoon,” which was always highly visual and often quite cheeky too. A section called Long Talk addressed issues impacting various minority communities. Artists and writers not only responded to current events, but also to longstanding problems, such as climate change. 

“Back when we were perhaps slightly more optimistic about the timeline for when we might all be able to return to the theatre, this project was designed as a way of welcoming the audience back into our building,” Sam told us. “For the first few editions, the audiences could come and spend time in the building, but I think the thing that we’ve discovered is that the reach of the project has allowed us to engage with many different types of audiences at the same time, whether that’s audiences who have been coming to the Royal Court for years, who are close to the theatre, who are supporters of the theatre, or audiences internationally, who don’t get the opportunity to see our work.”

Maria Kroupnik described her experience at the Ljubimovka Festival of Young Playwrights in Moscow. Because the submission deadline for last year’s festival was in April, texts responding directly to the pandemic have yet to be presented; this will probably only happen this year. Still, the organisers had to deal with anti-pandemic restrictions that affected both them and their audience.

The transition of the festival to an online space increased the number of spectators. As Kroupnik emphasised, however, the pursuit of new spectators was less fundamental than the hunt for new topics and new writers. Although she recalled some projects prepared especially for Zoom presentation by Russian artists and playwrights, she noted that Russian theatre, in general, was not prepared for a quick shift to the online space.

She went on to detail several international projects in which playwrights associated with the festival had taken part. One of these was a collaboration with London’s Theatre East N Bull and director Barış Celiloğlu, which addressed the serious issue of violence against women. “Domestic violence is a worldwide problem,” she explained, “and that’s why it was such an important project for us to take part in. Among the stories from Russia, we had the story of a kidnapped child and the suffering of his mother, and a story about an abused nun, whose life and health were endangered by the actions of her cloister’s leadership.  We also had some neighbourly disputes, not physical but psychological ones – this too constitutes violence.”

Speaking from Zagreb, Jelena Kovačić discussed the emergence of a contemporary monologue project titled Monovid-19. Initiating the project herself, Kovačić invited a colleague, playwright Ivor Martinić, editor of the Drame.hr portal, which hosts both staged and yet-to-be-produced texts by Croatian playwrights, to collaborate. Kovačić is also the vice-president of the professional organisation SPID (Association of Playwrights and Screenwriters). Working through this organisation, she and Martinić approached 19 writers, ranging from some very well known playwrights to others just emerging. They tasked them with writing about current events: this paradoxical situation that simultaneously separates and unites everyone and the new conditions of existence, which have tested both personal relationships and the socio-political system in which we live. 

The resulting texts were gradually published on the Drame.hr website. The Croatian Centre of the International Theatre Institute and Kazalište magazine, which published all the plays, eventually joined the project as partners.  As Kovačić explained, “For us, the question of isolation had great dramatic potential, it was something new, unknown, that brought out the best and the worst in us.  At the same time, we were also interested in the monologue as a form, because it implies a person who is trying to communicate something.  A monologue always implies some kind of partner and the need to share our experiences with someone else was very intense.” 

Participating authors were asked to choose from four different points of view. They could create a completely new character, especially for this project, or they could select a character from one of their own plays. They could also select a character from a classic play, or write from the point of view of a real person. They had 10 days to complete the text and no one knew what the others were writing. The project resulted in a collection of widely diverse stories and characters: nurses, older, lonely people, abused women, victims of domestic violence, religious fanatics, King Richard III and even the characters of Europe and Melania Trump.

Originally, they had wanted to wait until the end of lockdown to stage the monologues, but ultimately accepted an offer from the Zagreb Youth Theatre, where the premiere of the full series got underway in early July 2020. Directed by Anica Tomić, seven monologues were performed in a single evening. Performances took place literally all over the theatre with a “guide” character leading the audience from one space to the next, whether it was a real stage or an improvised space, all while adhering to a strict time schedule. 

According to Kovačić, the spectators found something triumphant in the project, proof that the theatre can be productive even during a pandemic, can talk about it and not be afraid of it.  

Dramaturg Lucia Mihálová spoke about her experience with the texts submitted to the Bratislava Theatre Institute’s annual Dráma competition, which is open to both Czech and Slovak writers. 

Not only was Mihálová surprised by the volume of submissions – twice the number sent in the previous year; she was also struck by the concentration with which the texts were written. This year’s plays were more “introverted,” with writers focusing on intimate relationships rather than big political issues. To a large extent, this very personal approach did away with the schematisation, formulaic structures and thesis-related issues that had plagued many ambitious plays in the past. “For me, it was interesting to discover that this year’s authors are less tendentious and more universal,” Mihálová said. They talk about problems linked to current journalistic trends or news items covered by the media. Understandably, there were also texts dealing with the motif of the coronavirus, related to the topic of conspiracy theories for example. The motif of an empty theatre appeared in several texts and in various contexts.” 

Psychological issues were a leitmotif in this year’s submissions and testify to the impact the pandemic has had on their authors.  Frequent topics included death, dying, suicide and even the afterlife, as well as ghosts and other spiritual matters. Demons and devils appeared among the characters, as the writers asked themselves fundamental existential questions and addressed matters of conscience and preparedness for their own deaths.

Jakub Škorpil expressed appreciation for the diversity of all the activities described. In the Czech Republic, most theatres tried to stay in touch with their audiences, preparing podcasts or live streams, but they seldom directly reacted to the situation in which we all found ourselves. Prague-based Na Fidlovačce Theatre’s Decameron 2020 was an exception. The theatre asked authors to write short plays for them and the resulting videos captured a variety of initial responses to the shock of the pandemic in the form of simple comedies, poetic plays and wild phantasmagoria. 

A major competition for new dramatic texts has not been held in the Czech Republic for several years; appeals to authors are limited to initiatives from individual theatres or magazines. Last year, Svět a Divadlo (World and Theatre) asked playwrights from around the world to write short texts on the topic of revolution or evolution.  Excellent texts by Frederik Brattberg, Małgorzata Sikorská Miszczuk and Michał Walczak arrived at the editorial office. Some of these texts are accessible online via the magazine’s anthology of English-language texts. 

The question arose as to whether a cult play might be lurking in a drawer somewhere, similar to Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, for instance, which responded to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Škorpil expects many covid dramas, as everyone will try to deal with this thorny subject in their own way. He feels it’s still too early for complex plays about the pandemic, however, and urges us to expect the unexpected.  According to him, the best play will be one we can’t even imagine right now: “It’s interesting that last week, when I was doing an interview with Mark Ravenhill for our magazine, we touched on the same topics we’re talking about here.  I asked him if he would write about covid and he said never – he refuses this topic.  That maybe in 10 years, someone will come up with some really new experience or new perspective.  But what is the situation now?  We sat at home and felt lonely.  We all experienced it, so what new things can we see in it?”

Pritchard largely agreed with this assessment.  For him, it’s important where the playwright themselves wants to go; it’s not necessary to make any special requests of them.  When authors are given a specific topic, they inevitably respond with “disobedience.” The UK, for example, has been waiting for someone to write a play about Brexit, but one has yet to emerge, as least as far as we know. Jelena Kovačić, however, doesn’t think that there is a single answer to this question, noting that she has seen many very good plays that emerged as immediate reactions and expressed the uncertainty in which people are currently living. 

Questions of genre in plays responding to Covid-19 are also worth considering. Will the pandemic provoke a wave of documentary plays, for example? In the United Kingdom, a television series called This Sceptred Isle, about the British government’s response to the first wave is in production, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to be played by Kenneth Branagh.  Will theatre-makers take a similar approach to the topic?  Maria Kroupnik isn’t sure, but she observes a tendency towards “non-dramatic” approaches: “As part of the Ljubimovka festival, there is also a “fringe” programme, in which a special jury selects plays that don’t look like classic theatrical texts. The question is whether it is possible to stage texts that are presented as “plays” but also question the borders of the theatre, of the playwright, of drama. One such play, I Am at Home, by Polina Korotych consists of a set of screenshots from Instagram. Views from Korotych’s apartment window are accompanied by short texts. There was a story behind each image, so it really was a drama. It is one of the approaches that young playwrights are using to respond to the pandemic in Russia.”

The discussion also focused on whether the current crisis will have a longer-term impact on theatre and if theatres will retain the non-traditional forms of communication they developed during the pandemic period. Jakub Škorpil noted that the artistic director of the Dramatic ensemble at Prague’s National Theatre has already announced that site-specific plays or performances that work with the audience in a non-traditional way will continue to be a regular part of the repertoire. According to Lucie Mihalová, the change will also affect smaller regional theatres: “It is important that we in the theatre also take into account that our audience will no longer be the same one that came to us before the pandemic and that we must be prepared for the beginning of a new phase. It’s extremely difficult to predict what that audience will look like, but we should at least mentally prepare for its arrival.”

The discussion concluded with a reflection on how to designate dramas written in the post-pandemic period. Should this be “back-to-normal drama” or “post-covid drama”? Kovačić reminded us that we are still in the postmodern age, in which the principle of “anything goes” is more applicable than strict rules and authorities. According to Škorpil, it is still too early to start labelling the present, even if we are already beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel in some countries. Kroupnik brought this academic discussion back to reality: “I don’t know what to call this time. Take the situation in Russia, where so many absurd things are happening alongside covid. We are always talking about absurdity in terms of the politics, in terms of the war in Ukraine, in terms of the Navalny story…the level of terror and absurdity that is happening with the repressions. So covid is just one of the many other factors we are dealing with.”

Pritchard returned to the question of whether this period can also be seen as positive and enriching for playwrights, reminding us that some plays were simply “lost” during the break in production: “The crisis has disrupted career opportunities, especially for freelance artists and emerging writers. And that will really define the next period. Not all artists have had the luxury to sit back and use the expanse of time to work at home. Here in the UK in particular, we have been thinking of those playwrights whose work has been postponed, disrupted, whose first play could not be performed, for whom the economic situation caused by covid has made it impossible to stick with an already difficult-to-sustain career. If we somehow get out of this, maybe this issue of whether we can help these voices will become the most pressing question.” 

This discussion of quarantine drama suggests that whether we are talking about an in-between-time or a transition period, we do not really know what we are waiting for. Are we facing a turbulent twenties, a decade of amazing opportunities, or a well-trodden path to collapse? Will the era awaiting us be one of renaissance or convalescence? According to forecasters, the period we are entering could lead to increased instability, greater risk of conflict, disruptions to the supply chain and more intensive migration… In this context, it is reasonable to assume that there will be no shortage of dramatic subject matter.