By BRUCE DENNILL
Independent theatre production company VR Theatrical put out a call shortly after lockdown started for new scripts that could be filmed as short online plays. This Short Playwriting Contest is a positive, forward-looking way of finding new work to stage in the future, as well as a platform for the development of new playwrights and directors.
Zoom Room is one of the entries to that contest, written by actress, singer, writer and director Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and tapping into the conventions of lockdown life to present a relatable, funny and gently poignant interaction between a group of six friends, each confined to the Zoom windows on their laptops rather than wherever they would have met before the pandemic.
There is a slightly distracted meeting host (Talia Kodesh); a meticulous rule follower (Vicky Friedman), who sanitises her grapes individually; a cynical potty-mouth (Shelley Meskin), who has little time for what she considers the petty gripes of her friends; a gentle Earth Mother type (Caryn Katz) who tries to take the edge of the harsher barbs flying around; a friend whose drinking at 11am is cause for concern in every one else (Lorri Strauss); and an exhausted mother who is hiding in the bathroom and whispering so her kids don’t find her (Sharon Spiegel-Wagner). Moms will instantly relate to one or more of these personalities, though other family members can easily connect too, particularly as the groundwork for the plot is set with the Zoom-related observational humour – losing sound, disappearing from view – that will soon replace air travel- or office-related gags in comedy sets.
One thing these six disparate personalities have in common is a desire to do something outside of their now unavoidable routines, so when the meeting host – a smoker who is desperately struggling under the lockdown cigarette prohibition – explains that she needs all of their help to get illegal contraband from A to B, there is buy-in across the board (though some are more apprehensive than others). A goal! An adventure! Something that isn’t laundry or home-schooling or just…a chore! And a way to connect during a time when impersonal computer apps have replaced being in the same room.
The writing cleverly joins the dots within the constraints of the format. Is that format theatre or film? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter – that’s more of a philosophical question in the circumstances. It’s recorded, not live – a bit of film. It’s intimate and direct – a touch of theatre. The restrictions of Zoom mean that character development is almost all via what the actors say, their expressions and what little movement is possible in a box taking up a sixth of a laptop screen. The slight pacing lags as someone adds a new comment or processes what has been said elsewhere will be familiar to chat app users and add an aspect of realism rather than being distracting. And it is the work of the collective – Zoom Room is very much an ensemble dramedy – that will make viewers grin, nod, sigh, commiserate and shake their heads as they watch.
Theatre cannot be what it was for the moment. Zoom-based performance is now an established way of delivering art to homebound audiences. VR Theatrical’s initiative and this well-realised work add useful impetus to what will hopefully develop further into a means of supporting the creation of new projects that can help sustain artists now (in terms of both their souls and their finances) and grow a repertoire for future stagings.