Having written the odd piece for Noises Off last year amidst the uncertainty of what we now call ‘Lockdown One’, I’m shocked to find that, this time around, I will be very literally in the same chair I was sat in when I last logged onto the festival a year ago. So, how will this year’s online festival feel different to last year’s? Does my experience throughout the pandemic reflect those of theatre-makers? How can virtual festivals work well? To find some answers, I spoke with Matt Owen and Molly Parker from Jigsaw – an autobiographical show exploring Molly’s experience growing up with two non-verbal autistic brothers.
Jigsaw was originally scheduled for last year, but due to the cancellation of the 2019 in-person festival it’s been rolled over. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” says director Matt, “we didn’t intend to make digital theatre”. Molly, playing herself in Jigsaw, also stresses the uncertainty of that time, and the benefit of having a year to “work out how to do this in an online format while staying true to the message we want to bring to the show”. It seems that the time granted since last year’s festival has provided a breather, an opportunity to refresh, re-imagine, and rework. For many production teams, digital theatre is completely new, and as an audience member, I’m eager to see how imaginative digital shows will be now that theatre has been online for so long.
I’m keen to focus on how the virtual nature of the festival is beneficial to shows and audiences alike. Matt tells me, “I’ll be able to sit and watch [Jigsaw] without being on the edge of my seat. There’s something liberating about that, and I can watch all the shows without worrying about ours.” Molly adds that, thanks to NSDF workshops on accessibility, “we’ve been able to caption the whole show and have an audio descriptive link which I’d be more nervous about achieving if it was live. We’ve been able to prep to make sure it’s as accessible as it can be.” What I gathered is that streaming a pre-recorded show enables you to showcase the best version of the show possible; worries such as making mistakes and being inaccessible are completely removed in this context.
And as an audience member I’m able to, as Molly very accurately describes it, “roll out of bed and log onto my laptop”. I’m also a student in Leeds, so the festival being online may well be the reason I’m able to attend as travel time/costs, accommodation, and time away from university work no longer has to be considered. I can do both, and I can watch as much as I like! Matt also points out that there are some big names at this year’s festival who we might not have been able to get to Leicester: “Josh O’Connor…mental.”
I also wanted to know what the process was like in creating a show remotely. Matt informs me that “it’s pretty much all been on Zoom.” The only in-person activity was two days in a studio with Matt and Molly, with the band superimposed in later. Despite it being a “slow process,” Matt reflects, “it meant that we could carefully consider every bit that we put together.” Also, Molly says she feels lucky to have had some “work-in-progress” material prior to NSDF 2020 that she can tap into now.
It seems that both show-makers and consumers are looking towards this year’s festival with a bit more clarity and hope. The time taken between now and NSDF 2020 has opened people’s minds to the possibilities afforded to both digital theatre and virtual festivals. In some ways, this feels like a final push as we consider a possible in-person event next year, so let’s make this year as rewarding and exciting as it can be.