BWW Review: WORK_FROM_HOME, New Diorama Theatre online
On a Friday evening, after a long day of online meetings, I found myself on yet another Zoom call - but this time, for fun, with no idea what was going to happen, and no idea who I was talking to.
work_from_home is New Diorama Theatre's online theatrical experience. This production is a digital adaptation of Nathan Ellis's work.txt, which should have been performed at the 'missing' 2020 Incoming Festival, and which was nominated for an Innovation Award at VAULT Festival 2020.
Just 55 minutes long (if only all meetings could be so succinct), it's a timely tale of our lives since lockdown started. With millions of people now glued to screens at their kitchen tables, with the constant threat of interruption from children or pets, the shape of the working day is ever-changing, and the definition of productivity is ambiguous.
Now that jobs are classed as 'essential' or 'non-essential', even the hardest workers are questioning whether what they dedicate their daily hours to really is that important, after all. This pandemic has put a lot of things into perspective, and work_from_home reflects this by pointing out the absurdity of it all.
The plot is fairly simple. A city wakes to another day in lockdown; but when one man's average meeting goes viral for the strangest of reasons, we are invited to explore what happens when the unexpected occurs, and when things simply stop working as normal.
The instant they join the call, the audience becomes the actors. The script is drip-fed through a chat function, which is somewhat of a sarcastic overlord, handpicking participants to unmute their mics and speak a line or two, and occasionally asking for volunteers for the meatier chunks of storytelling.
It sounds intimidating, but those who may be nervous about performing have nothing to fear. You may get the chance for a bigger role, or you may mostly observe others in the limelight. While other digital theatre experiences I've had during lockdown feel somewhat passive, this is completely immersive - or, at least, as immersive as things can be outside of the auditorium.
work_from_home has the feel of a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' story, even though the plot has already been decided for us. It's a full-on interactive exploration of the surreality of our situation and shrewdly picks apart our new daily habits - pointing out that what we see as normal is actually pretty absurd.
There's no formal cast to review, but I was impressed with everyone's willingness to get involved, the effort put into performing on the spot, and how unembarrassed I was to be throwing myself into it, quite unexpectedly, from behind the safety of a screen. It's very easy to get swept up into the story, and the novelty of it maintains curiosity. With an ever-changing cast of strangers, while the plot remains the same, there will be a different performance every night.
The music - a sort of digital soundscape - adds atmosphere to what could have been a very one-dimensional call. In fact, the aural element (sound and music design by Tom Foskett-Barnes) seems to weave the story together extremely well and makes the experience all the more mesmeric.
We're asked to voice feelings and sentiments as characters that we may well be experiencing ourselves, which begs the question of how much we are really acting at all. The team behind work_from_home breach the boundaries of screens and offer real humanness to the slightly isolating experience of working from home and social distancing.
It's a faceless production, but behind the pixels, there are many hands and minds that have built this little online world. Alongside Nathan Ellis and Tom Foskett-Barnes, Emily Davis (Creative Producer), Harry Halliday (Technical Stage Manager), Sam Ward and Ben Kulvichit (Dramaturgy), and Charlotte Fraser and Grace Venning (Additional Dramaturgy) have created something that could only have been created now, at this very moment. It's incredibly clever.
The production itself is slick and very impressive. Scripts are updated almost instantly, personalised for the volunteers who put themselves forward for roles. The story is complex and cleverly pieced together, and the small touches (without giving the experience away) are clearly carefully thought out to make the most of the online platform available.
Amidst the wit, humour and fun, there is an eerie undertone to the production - not least because of the faceless director in the chat window. It's impressive yet unnerving how quickly our information is incorporated into the scripts, and how willing the audience is to blindly go along with any instruction sent to us by an almost anonymous leader.
It's entirely safe, of course - but it's perhaps a clever metaphor for how we have found ourselves often unquestioningly following guidelines offered to us over the last few months, and indeed long before lockdown began.
In a time of ailing culture, it's a joy to have the chance to be actively involved in such a unique production for an evening - to be part of the creative process, and to participate in something meaningful in these monotonous months of staying inside.
It's this kind of creativity we need to hold on to, not only as means of surviving this lockdown, but for the future of culture in our country. The team behind work_from_home has proved that storytelling and theatre can survive - and even thrive - in even the strangest conditions, and in an online world.
This is the most fun you'll have working from home during lockdown - just don't tell your manager.
Photo Credit: New Diorama Theatre