This article is part of the Dramaturgs’ Network’s Invisible Diaries series, and has been reposted with permission.
What times are we living in? I am asking this not as a metaphysical but as a practical question.
According to the UK lockdown, this is week 4, day 1 of our social power break, and quarantine. Whereas, this counts only as week 2, day 1 on the Invisible Diaries’ time scale of the Dramaturgs’ Network. When I am writing this, it is Easter Monday, but you will be reading it at the earliest on Tuesday after. According to the calendar on our kitchen wall (with a ridiculous name printed on its front: ‘family planner’), where we used to put down everybody’s activities in order to coordinate the family, it is a Bank Holiday.
Do we still count weekdays and ‘holy’ days when “the time is out of joint”?
Diary, calendar – these objects seem to have lost their prominence in our lives. At best, they are empty now. At worse – they are useless… They are now limp tools from time immemorial – used to be filled in with meetings, appointments, deadlines, and time off – when our lives had had a different rhythm; in those distant days when people used to ‘keep time’. How do we keep time now?
I feel these days are marked deep in my body, in my tissues, in my cells. This lived and felt experience is binding me together with everyone else in the world with whom I am enduring and sharing these times of social trauma. It unites me with people I have never met, yet it makes us unintended accomplices and will mark us apart from the people living before and coming after us.
In a 2007 lecture, Tim Etchells used a powerful metaphor for dramaturgy: ‘doing time’. Thinking along with these premises, what is the dramaturgy of these – to use the swiftly spreading epithet – ‘challenging times’? (The usual British understatement for what otherwise feels more like an apocalypse.)
BC (Before COVID) in the society where I was living (that is London, UK), the days had some sterile, uniform feeling – at least, this is how they looked on the pages of my diary: equidistant oblongs, distinguished by the progress of numbers only. Some days were marked a bit different (deadlines or holidays), and some were special for me (treats or birthdays of loved ones).
Since COVID (SC?!), this way of keeping time makes no sense – our sense of time has changed completely. Now it feels like from linear progress we have shifted into some sort of circular time: Groundhog day on an epic scale.
For those working in the frenzy of the frontline (where did this war-time vocabulary seep back in from?), I imagine, the moments are like slow motion, they are augmented and gain some fluid gravity when minutes or perhaps even seconds are so precious when saving someone’s life. I imagine from the inside this feeling might be like when after diving without equipment one is trying to come up for air from under the deep pool of water, becoming self-conscious of every moment needed to reach the fresh air in time. Whereas the speed and frenzy and noise of the outside world only reaches the diver distantly, in the form of some sort of inarticulate sound.
For those waiting for the news about relatives who are infected or seriously ill, time is one long stretch of agonizing wait – rubber-time…
For the rest of us in lockdown it is the third type of time: it is slow and hazy, akin to the disoriented and numb feeling of being jetlagged. Everything takes longer and requires more energy to accomplish. And there is a strange feeling of loss of memory. Did it really take a whole morning to write a few emails? Have we already been in lockdown for four weeks?
There is this fog in my brain that makes it hard to remember the days BC. It is not only the past that seems so distant, it seems to me that I have lost the future too. Not metaphorically speaking or in an existential way but in a more practical sense: I am unable to put my head around the future because of the high proportion of unknown factors. Planning is impossible and futile in this unpredictable, swiftly changing and volatile timeline we seem to live in now.
What I am left with is now. The silent now of being here, sitting in the calm of the eye of the storm. I breathe in, I breathe out – this is the only certainty I try to hold onto. Focusing on something we theatre-makers (BC) have been so proud to have a special relationship with and address: the here and now.
According to the late Stephen Jeffreys, the most powerful dramatic structure has the form of closed time and closed space, that is, plays that are “set in one location and unfold in real-time.” In his posthumously published book, Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write, he calls these “pressure cooker-plays”: “because time is ticking by, you are stuck in one place, and can’t escape it”. These are “hot plays”, emotionally charged, notes Jeffreys, “full of decisions made under pressure. They tend to be emotional plays, in which characters are hemmed in or are trying to break out, and the physical constraints of time and place enhance that effect.”
I feel this is our reality now, although I am only learning the dramaturgy of this new time.
 As a playful gesture coming from my desire to reconnect with discourse offered by these eminent thinkers, I decided to choose for each title of my journal entries the title of an essay on dramaturgy I found inspiring. I hope their authors won’t mind me recalling their work this way. Today’s title is borrowed from an essay by Tim Etchells.
This blog entry appeared on the Blog of the Dramaturgs’ Network on April 14th, 2020, as part of the Invisible Diaries series, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.