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Culture Theatre

Review and Interview: Prism, written by Claire Wood

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Prism is a live play performed online by a cast of six actors over Zoom. The play consists of a Zoom session of the ‘Children’s Hearings’ made up of a Convenor and the panel, otherwise known as the audience. The hearing is to decide who gets custody of young Storm who is four years and eight months old; her mother Natalie, her father George, or Tzeporah, Natalie’s PA who was forced to raise Storm. The audience is called upon throughout the performance to decide which of these three potential full-time custodians they would like to hear from in order to be able to make an informed decision about Storm’s future by the end of the performance. The person the audience chooses to hear from presents their memory of a crucial event, after which the other two characters present their own memory of that same event.

The human drama takes place in the space between each individual’s memory. Each character tries desperately to present the version of themselves they see (or wish they saw) and their subjective versions of other people. The convenor is complicated, arrogant and condescending, yet ultimately good-hearted and harshly untrusting; his lack of professionalism provides comic relief throughout the performance. Natalie, George, and Tzeporah are flawed and ultimately acting in their own self-interest. The audience’s responsibility is to make a difficult choice with serious consequences.

The actors clearly had to face a considerable challenge. They had to bridge the divide between performing a theatre piece, which requires exaggerated movements and expressions, and performing to a camera ten inches from their face. Conceptually ‘Prism’ is ingenious, it forces the audience into an active role which makes them invested, attentive and never allows the comfort of trusting any of the characters. I was lucky enough to interview Claire Wood, the playwright of ‘Prism’, about this creative decision and the entire process of writing this play.

Question: “Could you name some of the differences between the final play script which will be performed tomorrow, and your first draft or conception of the play when you started the writing process?
Answer: “The most significant difference is the first draft contained Storm! She was 14, all sorts of bolshy and was, understandably, a bit miffed that she’d had so little attention from her blood parents. I had a cracking backstory for her involving credit card theft, absconding from Natalya’s villa in Hollywood Hills to make it back to London for her team’s football match, and a final dramatic showdown. But following a read through, it was really clear that the audience cared a lot less about the fate of a fourteen-year-old than a five-year-old – so I shrank her age down again, relocated all the scenes in more recent history (so George became an oil dealer rather than a stockbroker) and off we went!”

Question: “In that same vein, are there any glaring similarities? Any theme or even line which you’ve protected or has stayed central to the play throughout the writing process?
Answer: “The characters of the genetic parents and the PA are pretty similar, though many of their lines were entirely rewritten to accommodate the leap across time zones and experiences. It’ll be interesting to see whether people are more or less sympathetic to the parents given the briefer absence from their child’s life. Thematically, I’m interested in two things. The nature of parenthood – as I don’t think you need a genetic relationship to provide all that valuable love, support and sense of being a safety blanket to a child; and our sense of self and how that influences the stories we not only tell other people but more importantly, tell ourselves.”

Question: “Ashley Smith-Hammond, Creative Industries Officer at Creative Scotland said: “prism demonstrates an emerging potential for theatre delivered via an interactive medium. It will tell an intimate family story in a new way, directly involving audiences in the outcome.” That involvement of audiences in the outcome is fascinating; is an active, not passive audience especially important to you and your conception of theatre, and if so why?
Answer: “Brilliant question. I think it’s really hard (maybe impossible) to beat watching theatre live. But when the pandemic forced theatre online, I was struck by the possibility of combining the interaction we take for granted when we’re on Zoom or Teams with storytelling. Our last show, roulette, demonstrated our audience’s enthusiasm for being involved with the play. We had audience members writing their own commentary on the action, congratulating or commiserating characters as the story unfolded. With prism, I wanted to build on this and hand over more responsibility for the twists and turns of the story to the audience. We can’t interact with Netflix but we can with live theatre. So what does that mean in a digital space? Come along to prism and see for yourself!”

Question: “People being unreliable narrators of their own story is an interesting and compelling twist on the dramatic and theatrical genre, one which we haven’t seen on stage enough; why was turning the tables on the audience the appropriate way to tell this story?
Answer: “I would love to say that turning the tables on the audience was a deliberate construct to force them to confront the vagaries and inconsistencies of their own moral code. In truth, I was looking for a story with an easy role for the audience and this is where I ended up. But if anyone else asks, I might steal your idea!”

Prism by Production Lines runs from 2 to 5 February 2022 at 8pm

Image courtesy of Production Lines theatre, photo by Jon Davey.