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Socially distanced, still smiling: a play for our times

If someone were to write a book of ‘Lessons from Lockdown’ – and I am sure they will! – then surely one of the most important is how much we should value the arts. How many of us were comforted during the worst times by reading, music or visual art or by being able to watch a fantastic piece of theatre online?

Of course, streaming a play is only a partial experience and we are still missing that feeling of sitting in a theatre to be collectively transported into someone else’s world. But another thing we have learned is that creative people are very good at finding creative ways around problems.

Enter – stage left – the socially distanced drama. Maybe you watched Staged, the BBC TV drama in which actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen tried to rehearse for a play via a series of Zoom calls, or ITV’s Isolation Stories in which actors filmed short pieces in their own homes, sometimes with their own family members in cameo roles?

Radio plays, of course, lend themselves beautifully to times like this. Listeners can be transported to any situation or setting and we can forget all about having to be socially distanced. The players themselves will adhere to safety rules, but the final product doesn’t need to be affected.

This week OCA creative writing tutor Liz Newman found out that the first radio drama she ever had broadcast is being revived. Somebody Else’s Smile, under Liz’s writing name of Elizabeth Kay, was produced by Cherry Cookson in 1978, and had the wonderful Patricia Hayes in the cast. A sequel was broadcast the following year, with the same actors. The plot revolves around the residents of a geriatric home, and the efforts of the staff to give a good impression to potential philanthropists while simultaneously attempting to rehearse the residents for an in-house production of The Wizard of Oz.

Liz said: ‘The play was set in the geriatric unit of a mental hospital, and listening to it again I was amazed at how contemporary it sounded. The same issues are still there – lack of funding, families abandoning  difficult relatives, mental illness being confused with learning difficulties. In some ways getting the first thing you ever wrote accepted sounds like a dream come true, and in some ways it was, but it makes you think that writing is easy, when it isn’t. In any field of the arts, getting a success means you have to up your game to stay there. I think it was C.S.Lewis who said, in The Horse and his Boy “…if you do one good deed your reward is usually to do another harder and better one.”’ 

Fairlight Players are behind the latest production, and they’re encouraging listeners to donate to help them keep going while local theatres are ‘dark’. The plays are recorded under strict social distancing rules and ‘stitched together’ in an editing studio, which can’t be easy! You can listen to it here.

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Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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