March Madness

Abbey Drama were mid-rehearsal when the first lockdown was announced. The news headlines were reporting a new SARS-like virus that reportedly came from the livestock meat markets of Wuhan .

In mid-March 2020, our group along with the rest of the UK , were legally obliged to commit to lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the virus. “Hands, face, space” became the mantra as we rubbed our hands raw with alcohol gels and donned smile-hiding face masks to attend to the only permitted activity of buying essentials. We stopped hugging, and helping strangers out, and even shaking hands was disallowed. It became an alien world, like something from the movies. Except that it wasn’t, it was our lives, our community, and our Drama Group.

Of course, we all took it all in our stride, thinking that worst case scenario, the production dates might be pushed back a tad.  Personally, I plunged myself into this altered reality with more than a pinch of disbelief at what was happening, little knowing that 16 months on, I would still be unable to meet up with friends in the rehearsal space, or any other space for that matter.

Embracing The New

As it became crystal clear that everything was going to be anything but clear for the foreseeable, a collective from Abbey Drama decided to reconvene on a Monday evening to oxymoronically “meet remotely” via Zoom or Skype (other video conferencing software is available). In addition to the popular productions that the group are so well known for, the Ab Drams have always enjoyed regular play-readings as a group and of course, this lends itself well to video conferencing. In a heartbeat, we were off, and we started with David Muncaster’s Community Spirit.

“You’re Still on Mute!”

Everyone was new to video call meetings back then and much hilarity ensued as we tried to log on, puzzled over strange camera angles, and failed to take ourselves off mute again, and again, and again. But we soon left the technical hitches in the ditches and what joy to see those familiar faces and hear the tones of those voices we knew so well. Not every Ab Dram member has joined in, but everyone is welcome and in fact, we have embraced fellow thespians from other drama groups who now make up a vibrant part of our happy throng. “Monday evening play reading” sounds clichéd, perhaps Alan Bennet would like to produce a script bearing the title.

The Zoom Womb

Since that first Zoom play-reading in March 2020 we have read upwards of 30 scripts including The Constant Wife (W Somerset Maugham), The Cherry Orchard (Anton Chekhov), Steel Magnolias (Robert Harling) and The Vicar of Dibley (Richard Curtis, Paul Mayhew-Archer) naming a few to illustrate that the plays are wide and varied. We also read a script that one of our members had written.

But more than getting to know the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of plays that are out there we got to connect with others. During the unsettling and ever-extending days of social restriction, we created a virtual space that was warm, welcoming, nurturing and nourishing. A Zoom womb if you like.

It has been a difficult time for many, but Ab Dram has continued to see and connect with its members albeit through the portals of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and computer screens. We have laughed, shared, checked up on one another and managed to maintain some sense of normality in these unprecedented times.

We have shared our thoughts on the plays we read and how they relate to today. We have giggled at and embraced dodgy accents and mispronunciations. There is no judgement in our group, the laughter is shared. This is a safe space to try out early attempts at an accent or dialect and sometimes the outcomes are truly hilarious but there is no malice and absolutely no pressure on anyone to attempt any accent. You read as you want to read. Or you can choose to tune in as a silent member and enjoy the experience of what is a rough approximation of an unedited Radio 4 drama. We have debated the merits (and otherwise) of various plays and pondered the potential of putting them on as a group in the future. We have also shared in passing what is happening in our own individual lockdown lives and smiled at the on-screen faces of those we haven’t seen in person for over a year. It has been so much more than a regular play reading group.

Future Freedoms.

I wonder if our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson will allow us into the rehearsal space and welcome our lovely audiences back into the less-than-socially-distanced seating area of our theatre any time soon?

I hope so.

Oh, but I shall so miss our Zoom play readings when they come to an end.

Perhaps it is the languid, lazy part of me that enjoys barely having to move two feet to plug in, recline in my own chair with my current drink of choice, slippers on and script to hand. There really is something quite comforting about engaging with the Ab Drams whilst faintly hearing my family in the next room watching TV and then having the dog wander up occasionally for a quick tummy tickle. Social convention falls by the wayside during unprecedented times and whilst I have not logged in wearing hair curlers yet, I am very relaxed about what I’m wearing and there has been at least one incident of members wearing pyjamas. You see, despite being remote, our play-readings are homely, warm, and intimate.

Perhaps Zoom will continue to be part of the organisation in one form or another.

That said, I can’t wait to see everyone in the flesh again, to move in the space and see great writing in action.

So finally, whilst reflecting on our Zoom play-readings with great affection, as we approach the end of the third and hopefully last lockdown, I am looking forward in great anticipation that maybe, just maybe, we will be back strutting the SURC’s boards very soon.

Symantha Simcox   July 2021