Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Jack McNamara: Love Down The Line

By | Published on Friday 5 February 2021

During this pandemic year, I’ve been really impressed by how companies like Nottingham’s New Perspectives Theatre Company have been finding great new ways to reach audiences in lockdown.

When I heard about their latest project, ‘Love Down The Line’, which sees short plays being delivered by phone, I was more intrigued than ever.

To find out more about this project, to catch up with what the company have been up to in the last few months, and to find out what the future might hold, I spoke to Jack McNamara, Artistic Director.

CM: Can you start by explaining how ‘Love Down The Line’ works, from a technical point of view? How is it delivered and how do people access it?
JM: You book a place on either the Saturday or Sunday of Valentine’s weekend – for yourself or someone you love – and at that specific time you’ll get a phone call from an actor who will perform a short love-themed play directly into your ear.

It won’t be a straightforward love message, but a short, immersive narrative that explores an aspect of love in all its complexity. After all, Valentine’s Day can conjure up mixed feelings in a lot of people. So we are playing with that too. But the experience will exist just for the listener in that one moment. What could be more romantic?

CM: How many plays are there and who has written them?
JM: We have four short plays of about five minutes each being split between two actors, so it will be a bit of a lucky dip as to who receives which show. They have been written by myself and Sophia Hatfield, who is also one of the show’s performers. Ollie Smith, the second performer, is also a theatre maker, so now the three of us are pretty much in devising mode.

CM: What themes do the plays explore? What are they about?
JM: We’re riffing on love, but hopefully not in an expected way. We are looking at how mixed, funny and complex this feeling can be, and are having fun with the innate strangeness of trying to pin it to a single day of the year.

This has been such a tough year for people that it doesn’t feel quite right to get too rose-tinted. But we also wanted them to be funny – no one needs a dreary message on Valentine’s Day, no matter what their circumstances are.

I’m reluctant to ruin the surprise by sharing the plots, but you may find yourself on a live radio broadcast, or you may find yourself the recipient of someone else’s love-o gram.

CM: What made you decide to work on this format?
JM: New Perspectives have been making a lot of recent theatre work on cards, both our postcard drama ‘Love From Cleethorpes’ and a Christmas card project, in which experimental theatre makers reimagined the Christmas card, for the time of lockdown.

So when it came to thinking about Valentine’s Day I just felt a bit carded out! Instead I thought about what would feel very ‘special’ for someone to receive at this time and decided that maybe, with all the digital stuff going on, that a good old fashioned phone call might be just the thing.

Then I found out about the work that Sophia Hatfield had been doing, performing theatre down the phone to people last year, and I thought she’d be the ideal person for us to pair up with on this.

CM: What challenges does this medium have? What makes it work?
JM: The challenge is always in finding a style, both in writing and performance, that absolutely suits this medium, and could almost not be performed in any other way.

Another was that we wanted to create four pieces that could be experienced by anyone, whatever their age, gender, orientation or identity. This will be experienced by young people, people who are single as well as in relationships, older people, people in rural communities. So there was a challenge to us to find universal stories and humour that didn’t feel too tailored to one group but also didn’t feel vague.

What works is the immediacy and intimacy of the experience. It’s highly unusual to receive a love performance just to you directly into your phone. Although I suppose in a way every time we receive a cold call from a marketing agency we are dealing with a scripted performance of sorts.

CM: We spoke to you back in June about ‘PlacePrints’, but only briefly touched on the other work you’ve been producing during lockdown. Can you tell us a bit more about New Perspectives’ output in the last year? I am particularly intrigued by the aforementioned ‘Love From Cleethorpes’!
JM: ‘Love From Cleethorpes’ is a drama in six parts delivered to people’s homes via weekly postcards. It was our response to the momentary loss of rural touring and wanting to reach people, particularly those who might be isolated in rural communities, in a way that felt special, personal and tactile.

But the project took off and is now on its third run – or ‘tour’ – having landed in over 2000 homes in 26 different countries. We have a brand new postcard drama coming out this spring, so do keep an eye out for that.

And as much as we love our analogue forms, we have also been pushing various digital media to see what theatrical potential they have.

We did a play on Zoom with Soho Theatre called ‘The Boss Of It All’, which is currently nominated for an Offie for Best Live Stream – and is available to see now on Soho On Demand. And we also created a horror play told entirely on WhatsApp called ‘Stay Safe’, which had three different outings with a new one coming out this May.

What’s great about all these forms, digital or old school, is that they really force you into a limited and thereby freeing mode of communication. They make you rethink how to communicate and relate to people in a theatrical way, and that is very refreshing for the artform.

CM: It’s been interesting to watch how theatre companies have responded to the restrictions of the pandemic. Do you think the trend of online and other delivery of theatre and culture will outlive the COVID crisis? Will companies continue to produce that sort of work alongside live work?
JM: They definitely should outlive the crisis, as they enable us to reach people who may not, for many reasons, be able or willing to go to the theatre for a long time to come.

It’s been a huge jolt for theatre to finally force themselves to be as accessible as possible. So even when things return to ‘normal’, if we do not keep up these approaches, theatre will continue to neglect the people it has under served for a long time.

CM: I certainly feel as though it’s still going to be a while until we can look forward to seeing theatre in person – do you have more plans for alternative productions in the next few months?
JM: Definitely. We have a new WhatsApp play coming out, that might end up being available on another platform like Signal given the mass exodus from WhatsApp at the moment. But we also have a production coming out on Radio 3, an epic audiobook we are releasing about Northampton, a walk-in installation. All kinds. There are so many forms to play with, new and old, and it feels like we haven’t even started yet.

CM: Obviously the pandemic has had a massive impact on the arts and entertainment industries. How has it affected New Perspectives? Do you think you will still be feeling its impact after we have gone back to ‘normal’?
JM: We have not had large overheads to deal with at this time and I truly feel for those who have. But it’s certainly not been plain sailing. We have had to cancel all of our tours and have no sense of when these will return, nor what kind of landscape we will find ourselves in when we do return.

As we get back to so-called normal, we might be ready to tour again, but will audiences and/or venues be ready for us is the big question. I also fear that, as live theatre creaks back into motion, that there could be a real cautiousness in how venues programme, as our work is usually not for the cautious.

I think it’s been a very radical time for theatre, forcing it to really look at itself and work out how to exist when one of its principle features of liveness isn’t allowed. It’s opened up a lot of new platforms and pointed out the frailty of existing commercial models.

I just hope these learnings are taken on, long term, and lead a more adventurous, fairer industry in the future. But time will tell.

CM: Talking of the future, what hopes do you have for the company in the years ahead?
JM: I want us to really dig into the forms we are working with and expand and deepen them. I don’t want them to be a short-term reaction to the time we find ourselves in now.

I believe that things tend to get better the more you work on them, so having developed our first forays into forms like cards and social media, I want us to dig deeper to make them as rich and fulfilling as anything you might find on stage.

I want us to emerge from this time, sharper, more compassionate, and more adventurous than we ever were before it.

‘Love Down The Line’ takes place on 13+14 February. Book here.