It is a sunny picnic weather in Leeds, UK, where acclaimed theatre director Alex Chisholm is locked in like the rest of the world. She has visited this sense of desolation before — while directing North Country four years ago. As the Bradford theatre company Freedom Studios, of which she is Co-Artistic Director, streams North Country on YouTube, Chisholm makes time for an email interview.
The plague that’s in North Country is more virulent than the COVID-19 but it has brought a greater immediacy to the play than when it was performed in 2016. The experience of the characters, who are blamed because they look different, is one many people are going through now. Reality is always changing and we look at plays through the prism of our current reality so their meaning changes too. There were lines which seemed fantastical in 2016 that are now a reality.
The Other Side
The later sections of the play — one year, 10 years, 40 years in the future — resonate strongly with me. The play reflects how, under pressure, humans will retreat to the strongest form of identity they know. They will defend themselves against the ‘other’. But, it also shows that we always have choices. That even when those choices aren’t easy or clear, we can try
to choose a way that brings us together not drives us apart.
North Country was made entirely by and with mobile phones, in a burnt out building, in Bradford, without power or wifi. Much of the play is direct address to the audience, where it felt like these characters are sharing their story with the audience through video recording on their mobile phones. I am interested in the possibilities of making live performance for digital mobile devices. At the time, Freedom Studios had a Technologist-in-Residence, Imran Ali, and this enabled us to experiment with live digital performance.
Places as characters
All of Freedom Studios productions use the connection between play, location and audience. The building gave us a number of locations in which to situate the play. The intended effect is not film-like realism, but reimagined theatricality for digital space. Location becomes a character in the play.
I’ve been working on creating live performance for mobiles since 2016. Just as lockdown happened, we were doing a test broadcast via a new app we’ve developed with Carbon: Imagineering (Imran Ali’s company). The app would allow easy, low-cost live performance by and for mobile devices. I don’t think this will replace live theatre completely but it could be part of the answer to performance in a time of social distancing. I’m interested in what is the new form of performance that emerges from that. Not theatre or film but a hybrid that uses the intimate space of your mobile as its stage.