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Unprecedented times: Headlong's digital response to the Covid-19 crisis

Headlong's outgoing artistic director Jeremy Herrin
Headlong's outgoing artistic director Jeremy Herrin

With the UK in lockdown, digital theatre projects are booming, one of the most ambitious being Headlong’s 12-play series in collaboration with Century Films for BBC Arts. Fergus Morgan talks to the creatives behind the series about technical challenges and adapting to a new way of working


Jeremy Herrin, outgoing artistic director of Headlong, pulled two shows in two days because of coronavirus. In a meeting at London’s National Theatre on March 16, he voted to cancel all performances of his production of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of The Visit with immediate effect. A day later, he did the same with Headlong’s touring production of Faustus, halfway through its run at the Bristol Old Vic.

“We were holding out for a specific government directive for insurance reasons, which didn’t come until a few days later, but eventually we just thought enough was enough,” says Herrin. “It was disappointing not to finish the runs of those two shows, both my personal show and the Headlong one, but I suppose this whole situation is encouraging us to see the bigger picture. There is nothing more important than public health.”

The Visit was scheduled to play in rep until mid-May, and Faustus still had to visit Leeds and Newcastle after finishing its run in Bristol. Suddenly, it had all come to a shuddering halt, and Herrin and Headlong were faced with a question: what do we do now? It was a question they had already begun to answer.

’This whole situation is encouraging us to see the bigger picture – there is nothing more important than public health’ – Headlong’s outgoing artistic director Jeremy Herrin

“The pandemic was obviously coming, so we were already thinking about a creative response to it, about a way of processing it,” he says. “We all felt very frightened and confused and manipulated and anxious. When those things kick in, art – and theatre in particular – has to step in and process all the contradictions in the world. It felt like we needed to respond to what was happening.”

Headlong is in a better position to adapt than most theatres and theatre companies. Firstly, it has experience producing digital projects – in 2017, together with the Guardian, Headlong co-created Brexit Shorts, a series of mini-films about a divided country. Secondly, its stellar reputation – the result of hit shows such as Chimerica and This House – means it can attract high-profile talent (as Herrin puts it, Headlong has “an amazing address book”). And finally, it has the money to make something.

“In my time here, we have really upped the fundraising game, so we do have a very healthy financial picture,” Herrin says. “And because we don’t have a building to run and seats to sell, we aren’t reliant on box-office income. We rely on our Arts Council subsidy, but we are less dependent on selling tickets. So it felt beholden on us to share some of that around with actors, writers and directors who were worried about how they were going to put food on the table.”

Creating Unprecedented
Herrin and his team at Headlong were determined to do something, and they had a title, too – Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre From a State of Isolation. They just had to decide what it would look like. Deprived of access to offices, rehearsal rooms, stages and sophisticated recording equipment, they decided to explore a medium everyone is becoming increasingly familiar with.

“We were doing a board meeting that had moved online on to Zoom,” says Herrin. “And afterwards I just said: ‘That’s the form – video conferencing. Let’s commission a whole load of plays set in a video-conference setting because there’s so much subtext and so much dialogue.’ We approached a few writers. Usually you get about 50% take up on things like this, but almost everybody wanted to do it.”

Herrin ended up commissioning 14 writers, and Headlong teamed up with Century Films to co-produce a series of ‘digital plays’ to be recorded live and broadcast later. The two companies were then joined by BBC Arts, which will air the plays in May as part of its Culture in Quarantine initiative. “We ended up with a very big project on our hands,” says Herrin.

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Headlong's new digital project, Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre From a State of Isolation
Headlong's new digital project, Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre From a State of Isolation

Writer, actor and director Nathaniel Martello-White was one of the people in Herrin’s address book. He starred in Herrin’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things in London and New York and was already under commission from Headlong to adapt his award-winning short film Cla’am for the stage. He has been spending lockdown at his new flat in Crystal Palace, having recently finished filming Lucy Prebble’s new Sky comedy-drama I Hate Suzie with Billie Piper.

“I had to think about whether I wanted to do it for a second,” he says of signing up to Headlong’s Unprecedented. “There were other projects, other targets that were pressing. But then I thought that if I could just hit pause on all that and create something in the now, something in the spirit of what is going on, something reflective of this very unusual time, then that would be valuable and cathartic.”

Following the brief
Martello-White is one of the 14 writers involved in Unprecedented, part of a list that includes April De Angelis, John Donnelly, James Graham, Macmillan and Prasanna Puwanarajah. Their brief was simple: the plays had to be 10-minutes long, the actors could only use the locations they were in and the objects they had at their disposal, and it all had to be made through Zoom. They had to “rigorously observe the rules of isolation”, as Herrin puts it.

“It was all about embracing the restrictions,” says Martello-White. “And thematically, we were asked to use what we were thinking and feeling about the pandemic personally. ‘Start from you.’ That’s what Jeremy told me to do. ‘Start from you.’”

The short piece that Martello-White came up with is tricky to explain. It is called Central Hill, after the area of Crystal Palace in which he lives, and is a kind of meta-apocalyptic-thriller, a 10-minute horror film within a horror film. Julian Barratt plays a director desperately trying to keep his shooting schedule on track while the world collapses around him. It’s the result, Martello-White says, of his current interest in “elevated horror” and the work of film directors Jordan Peele and Bong Joon-ho.

Directors Ned Bennett and Blanche McIntyre are also contributing to the project. Photos: Helen Murray/ Dominic Parkes
Directors Ned Bennett and Blanche McIntyre are also contributing to the project. Photos: Helen Murray/ Dominic Parkes

“When the stockpiling started, and you would go to a supermarket and every shelf was empty, it was a bit like a zombie movie and it felt like we were quite close to some disastrous situation,” he says. “So I was quite inspired by that as well, but I also wanted to write something funny, because I don’t think anybody wants to watch anything depressing right now.”

Usually, Martello-White would catch a train into central London and work at the Southbank Centre, where he has a membership. He likes to sit at the same table every day, look out on to the Thames and write for several hours. The lockdown means this is no longer possible, and his challenge was to replicate it as best he could at home.

’When the stockpiling started it was a bit like a Zombie movie – I was inspired by that’ – Writer, actor and director Nathaniel Martello-White

“Fortunately, I’m quite good at focusing on one thing at a time and getting something done,” he says. “I just worked at the kitchen table in my flat where [I have] a good view of the city, zoned out and wrote it in one go in four or five hours. It felt like I needed to do it like that, like when you’re cycling and you feel the need to blitz a hill in one go, otherwise it will be too much for you.”

Martello-White says that he hopes Central Hill “provides some excitement” when it airs, but he is wary of aggrandising art and artists at a time like this. That, in fact, is one of the central themes of his piece.

“I feel that art is important, but of course what nurses and doctors and people on the front line are doing is way more significant,” he says. “I wanted to make a comment on that difference. I wanted to point out that there is another narrative that’s a bit more important than what artists are doing at the moment.”

Martello-White is not just writing Central Hill, he’s also directing it over Zoom as one of 11 directors attached to the 14 digital plays. Ned Bennett, Deborah Bruce and Blanche McIntyre are also involved.

Herrin himself is directing two, as is Brian Hill, the BAFTA-winning managing director of Century Films, who is spending the lockdown at home with his wife in Blackheath.

“Usually I would be at our office in east London all day, or away somewhere on location, so I’m actually enjoying being at home with my wife,” he says.

“We go to separate rooms to work during the day, then meet up in the kitchen at lunchtime. When I get a bit stir-crazy, I go for a run or cycle ride in Greenwich Park. Coronavirus is a catastrophe for the world, but on a personal level I’m quite enjoying it. It feels wrong to say it but it’s true. I’m getting so much done. The snacking is an issue, though.”

Century Films produces both drama and documentary for film and television, focusing mainly on social issues and regularly breaking the boundaries of genre – the company essentially invented the ‘musical documentary’ format in the early 2000s with films including Feltham Sings, Songbirds and Pornography: The Musical. Working on Unprecedented then, says Hill, was “meat and drink”.

He continues: “At the start, it was pretty unclear what everybody’s role would be. Then I had a chat with Jeremy and we decided that I could direct a couple of plays myself, and also have overall responsibility for liaising with other directors whose first medium is theatre and who might not be too familiar with the conventions of filmmaking.”

James Graham and April De Angelis have been commissioned to write plays for the project. Photo: Helen Murray
James Graham and April De Angelis have been commissioned to write plays for the project. Photo: Helen Murray

Tech troubles
Some things were straightforward. With the play, the director and the cast finalised for each individual work – casting, like everything else, was done using video-conferencing – rehearsals could take place “like normal, apart from the fact that no one is in the same room”. Other things, though, were not.

“The actors have to take responsibility for everything themselves, from the costume to the make-up to the set design,” Hill says. “Then we had to give them a list of what they needed to do to film it. They have to put an ident on like a clapperboard at the start of each take. They have to say: ‘Cut’ at the end of a take. We had to introduce the principles of a film shoot into these theatre productions.”

’The actors have to take responsibility for everything themselves, from the costume to the make-up to the set design’ – Managing director of Century Films Brian Hill

Hill even called on his regular director of photography, José Caldeira, and asked him to dip in and out of the project’s 14 virtual rehearsal rooms, advising directors and actors on how to compose each play, shot by shot. “He would tell them to move tables over to a window,” says Hill. “Or to put baking paper over a light to soften it a bit. Things like that.”

Technical trouble was never far away, though. One problem became obvious immediately: the quality of Zoom’s conference calls is nowhere near high enough to broadcast, so how could actors capture their own performances while simultaneously interacting with each other in a conference call?

“We talked about delivering webcams and microphones to people, but because there are 57 different actors, that was just impossible budget-wise,” Hill says. “In the end, we figured out that most people have MacBooks and could record themselves on QuickTime, which is not dependent on a Wi-Fi signal and is higher quality, and can run alongside Zoom as well.”

Then, there were unexpected obstacles, such as actors and their intermittent internet connections. “One of the plays, April De Angelis’ House Party, has nine actors and it’s a comedy so it relies on timing,” says Hill. “If the gags are going to land, they have to be delivered at exactly the right time, and if there’s one faulty Wi-Fi connection it’s just not going to work. But somehow it will. You just think: ‘What are you doing?’,” he laughs. “ ‘You’re a famous actor and you haven’t even got good Wi-Fi.’ ”

Embracing the limitations

Embracing the limitations
For Martello-White (above), hunkered down in his Crystal Palace flat, the limitations of rehearsing and filming over Zoom are an essential part of the project and its potential. They force everyone to work together and communicate, he says, and that has actually made the production process more enjoyable.

“I just did a camera rehearsal with the cast yesterday,” he says. “They were showing me around their houses, telling me what locations they thought would work best, playing around with the lighting and the camera. All the glamour has been stripped away and it feels like a very collaborative, almost socialist way to work, and I think the spirit of that is very powerful. We’ve all become DIY filmmakers.

“It’s not going to be some big-budget movie, or a big-budget TV show. But I hope that the spirit and camaraderie involved in making the work is going to be quite inspiring. Seeing actors you usually see on TV and Netflix in their own homes, being their own cinematographers – I think there is something humbling about that. I hope it will make people feel more connected to the pieces.”

Hill (below) – at home in Blackheath, preparing to upload hundreds of different QuickTime takes to Century Films’ post-production team of editors, who will stitch them all together to create the finished product – hopes that Unprecedented will be “an important contribution to the debate about coronavirus in this country”.


“There’s such a variety of subjects in the plays, everything from a pregnant woman in lockdown with an abusive partner, to a house party that takes place over a video call,” he says. “It’s a real mixed bag, and I hope it provides some solace, some comfort, some laughs, and something to think about for the people watching. I hope it gives them something to talk about, rather than watching re-runs of Mrs Brown’s Boys.”

And Herrin, who is now working from his home in south-east London every day, alongside his wife and teenage children, agrees with both of them. “I think we are doing what we set out to do,” he says. “Which is to get into a subject and explore it with as much sensitivity and integrity as we possibly can.

“There’s also a punk spirit, a kind of make-do-and-mend mentality, almost a war-time spirit about everything we are doing at the moment. We make no apology for the project’s limitations, and I’m sure the audience is going to be very forgiving because everyone is experiencing the same limitations. The question is: how ingenious and creative can we be within those limitations?”

This will, in all likelihood, be Herrin’s final project at the helm of Headlong. He will still be involved with the company – he is, fingers crossed, directing a Headlong-National Theatre co-production of a new Jack Thorne work in January 2021 (see interview, p29) – but Joe Hill-Gibbins will step into his artistic director shoes later this year, and Herrin is already anticipating a leaving-bash-turned-end-of-lockdown celebration.

“I’m looking forward to having a really big, fun, massive party with the hundreds of people involved in this project once we get out of lockdown,” he says. “I think we will have a really big night where we shake hands and stand closer than two metres apart to each other. That’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

Director Ola Ince: 'Zoom made us get intimate quickly'

Director Ola Ince: 'Zoom made us get intimate quickly'

Before the pandemic I was working on some amazing productions. Poet in da Corner was on tour, Chloe Lamford and I were preparing for our final design presentation for Is God Is at London’s Royal Court, and Romeo and Juliet, starring Alfred Enoch and Rebekah Murrell, was in rehearsal ahead of opening at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Initially the prospect of staging Romeo and Juliet filled me with dread and excitement. How was I going to tell the world’s most famous story and make it feel new and urgent? How was I going to make sure that the 600 people standing in the pit would stay engaged while enduring temperamental British weather? And how would I convince the incredible cast to dive into my unconventional take on the play?

Despite my nerves, we enjoyed two glorious weeks of rehearsals. But on March 13 I found out that I’d been in contact with Covid-19. The cast and I went into isolation. We had planned to work from home, but three days later the Globe officially closed, so we had to down tools. The same happened with Poet in da Corner and Is God Is.

We were gutted. We had all fallen in love with each other, our political production and the magical Elizabethan stage. More than that, we were left so uncertain about the future of the production. We formulated a new rehearsal plan via Zoom, so we’d be ready once the lockdown was over. Little did I know that a few days later I would receive a phone call from Headlong and Century Films asking me to direct Viral, a short digital play by James Graham, as part of Unprecedent – again via Zoom.

Navigating rehearsals via Zoom, Wi-Fi permitting, is actually super efficient and fun

Viral, a four-hander starring Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Laurie Kynaston, Archie Madekwe and Stuart Thompson, is about four teenagers who are no longer able to take their A levels and enjoy their final moments at college.

As the project unfolds, it is becoming apparent that I’m directing a short film as opposed to a play, which is new terrain for me. Navigating rehearsals via Zoom, Wi-Fi permitting, is actually super efficient and fun, especially once I got to grips with the screen sharing function. What’s really unexpected about this process is that we were forced to become intimate so quickly, as we’re literally inside each other’s homes.

Even though Covid-19 has been a traumatic experience, it has given me the opportunity to slow down and really consider what’s important to me as an artist. Art is life-changing and at our lowest moments we look to it for guidance, inspiration, education, support and escapism.

I hope that Unprecedented, along with other projects, will help us understand the importance of art and artists. I pray that when this period is over, we continue to support and cherish art, remembering how it helped us through this extremely difficult time.

Photo: Colin Ince

Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre From a State of Isolation will be broadcast as part of BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine series in May. Further details: headlong.co.uk

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