Anything that we become so dependent on also opens up new vulnerabilities.
We are always fascinated to see how theatre makers push the boundaries of what a show can be, so when we saw the premise for Stay Safe, we really wanted to know more. It may be, to the best of our knowledge, the first play told over WhatsApp. The audience become members of a “parents” group chat for the evening, where an innocent question about a class teacher leads to unsettling revelations. At just one pound to take part, it seems an absolute bargain as well. With such a unique concept, we just couldn’t resist approaching the show’s writer, Jack McNamara, to find out more.
Stay Safe is being “performed” over WhatsApp, can you explain how that is going to work in reality? Will we be sitting watching our phones, waiting for the next ping to signify new message for an hour?
The audience members join a WhatsApp group and will watch as a group chat unfolds in real time on their phone. They become witness to an exchange that begins with all the usual tropes of WhatsApp (emojis, typos LOLs) but develops into something far more unsettling. The show lasts around 20 -30 mins max, so your neck shouldn’t hurt too much by the end of it.
And does this mean there are no “actors” involved in the traditional sense?
Yes, there are characters that speak together, share files etc, but these are not spoken/triggered by actors but by a very clever mysterious man named Joe who manages the whole experience remotely.
The storyline revolves around an “unsettling revelation” about a school teacher, without giving too much away, is there going to be a Halloween feel to things?
Yes, it begins with a seemingly innocent question about someone who was spotted in the school and then escalates into something more sinister, with tension mounting amongst the chatting parents. And while there will be a few of the recognisable horror motifs in there (strange houses, anonymous videos) the real horror that is revealed is something a bit closer to home for all us phone addicts.
What attracted you to using WhatsApp as opposed to any of the other message sharing platforms available?
I am fascinated by how these various platforms encourage and enable different ways of talking and self-presenting. What is striking about WhatsApp is that it tends to combine both the personal touch of email/text with the more outward statement making of social media. This felt like an interesting tension to explore in dialogue form as it is so different to how we communicate face to face. It’s this private public that fascinates me, and something I explored earlier in our postcard project Love From Cleethorpes.
Use of WhatsApp has apparently soared since lockdown, and the fact that we find ourselves more and more used to relying on these platforms makes it ripe for exploration. Anything that we become so dependent on also opens up new vulnerabilities, and so I suppose it was only natural that my first foray into this medium found itself on the horror spectrum.
People have said that WhatsApp is already becoming a platform of the past with newer slicker mechanisms replacing it. That’s good with me, as it means we can work with WhatsApp here in a way that feels almost over-familiar. With new platforms that come in I think they need to be given time to really embed themselves in the culture before we start opening them up. I like the idea that our use of WhatsApp is already a little retro!
Will the audience be getting involved, will they be replying in any way to messages?
No, they will be observers. There is huge potential with this form of course to incorporate the audience. But this didn’t happen to be the story for that.
Has Covid-19 and lockdown been the reason you’ve tried these alternative formats to put on a show, or has this been something you’ve planned before this year?
We’ve always been interested in other forms. We had an epic podcast series PlacePrints planned long before Covid-19 came along, but once we released it, it looked like a response to the pandemic. But this situation, for all the toll it’s taken on us all, has definitely summoned many creative demons. Our postcard project was a direct result of me thinking about rural audiences being cut off from live theatre at this time and what we could do to reach them away from screens. And this project came about from me looking at WhatsApp exchanges over this time and sensing a new loneliness and urgency in the need to commune and connect.
Are you concerned that the drama and tension that would normally be present in a theatre space is going to be lost with the audience all sitting alone at home?
We are working with a completely different type of tension. It is in no way trying to replicate a live theatre tension. It works with the solitude of the audience member, the miniature form of the exchange, the strange detachment of receiving information through your phone. With any theatrical environment, you have to work smartly with the elements available to you, and try and turn them to your advantage.
So you’ve done postcards and WhatsApp; any other such unique ideas you’re currently working on?
Yes, lots. As mentioned, this time has expanded our horizons vastly. First off the bat is an alternative Christmas project that will be announced very soon. But every platform is ripe for exploring at the moment. In addition to slick digital stuff I find myself increasingly drawn to the clunkier more analogue forms. I’m yearning for a more tactile time, and to work with methods of communication that are almost extinct. Perhaps we should do a telegram play next but sent as an actual telegram.
Our thanks to Jack for his time to tell us about Stay Safe. The play is part of the Signal Fires, a nationwide project inspired by one of the original forms of theatre – storytelling around a fire.
Stay Safe is performing from Thursday 29 October – Saturday 31 October, with start times of 8pm, 9pm, 10pm plus midnight on Saturday. Tickets are just one pound.