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Getting perspective

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 11 / Day 4


It is very difficult to write about a thing when you’re in the middle of that thing. Especially any kind of creative writing. At the beginning of lockdown, there were numerous discussions in the arts world about whether or not we should be making work about lockdown while still in lockdown. Whether anyone would even want to read, listen to or watch anything that reminded them of what might be one of the worst, most traumatic moments in their lives. If anything good can be made or any thoughtful reflection can be done when the artist is still in the moment they’re trying to make work about.

But what if you set off to write about something, not thinking that particular thing would be playing out in the immediate future, and then it does?

Back in January, a friend and collaborator of mine and I half-jokingly conceived an immersive project that would take place on a cruise ship. We were going to call it ‘Murder Mystery Apocalypse Cruise Ship Now’. It would be set on a cruise ship and the passengers/spectators would wear masks with little fake moustaches (like you would wear at a bad murder mystery dinner party) and an immersive murder mystery would play out around them, but within the context of an apocalypse. With the cruise ship being the last haven for surviving humans on earth.

Photo: Cruise Ship

Doomed cruise ships, masks, fear. This is something we talked about in January, before most of the virus malarkey kicked off. This is obviously a very bad show to make, ever. Or a genius one. Only time will tell, right? Last year I stumbled across a terrifying New York Times article about private security firms and how they capitalise on climate crisis, particularly the Pinkerton Agency, which has been around for over 150 years.

I read it and thought to myself, this is awful. I also thought to myself, this is incredibly dramatic – maybe it could be a play or something. Shortly thereafter, I got into a small residency of sorts at the Royal Academy of Music in London where writers were paired with composers; the writers learned how to write libretto for opera and the composers learned how to collaborate with librettists. I thought I’d pitch an idea about the Pinkertons and disaster; an opera about some kind of insurmountable calamity of epic proportions throwing the Western world into complete chaos and private security firms stepping in.

What an idea, right?

My composer thought my slightly loony idea for an opera about a historical private security firm that involved climate change, the history of capitalism in America, time travel and the Civil War sounded great (bless him), so we moved forward with it. We wrote a duet for a showcase at RAM and then embarked on developing it into a full opera. We brought a director on board and together, the three of us applied to a new opera festival in London, where we will somehow be showcasing a scratch version of it this autumn.

At the time, way, way back in 2019, I assumed the catastrophe that was upon us was climate change. It still is, of course, but how was I to know that the more immediately far reaching catastrophe would be a global pandemic that would bring the entire planet to a grinding halt? So here I am, writing an opera about an international crisis, during an international crisis. Because I read an article prophesying doom and thought it was ‘interesting’. (I don’t know if I find doom and catastrophe quite so interesting anymore.)

And since we’re talking about private firms making money from catastrophe: at one point during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, there was a story circulating about Trump deploying not only the US Army, but also unidentified, armed officers in riot gear in Washington, D.C.

I now have a couple dramaturgical problems on my hands.

1. How do I write about a thing when I’m in the thing? How do I get enough perspective to make something that isn’t bad and self-indulgent?

2. What if a piece of work is meant to be set now, but ‘now’ is very, very different from, say, last year? If you write about something happening in a contemporary setting, you can’t be vague any more. You can’t just say ‘now’, and then not have the characters wearing masks, standing six feet apart from each other. Because then it’s immediately a period piece.

At first, we thought we should just go for it. 2020. Coronavirus. Characters in lockdown. But who wants to see opera singers in masks? Would they even be able to sing clearly? And who wants to be presented with a moment of trauma, in that moment of trauma? Then we realised that if 2019 is now the setting of a period drama, we might as well embrace it. After all, we were already setting part of the opera in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. We might as well treat it all like history, distant or recent.

And maybe in making a performance about what was happening last year, we’ll learn more about what’s going on right now. And get some perspective.


Sarah Sigal is a freelance writer, dramaturg, director and researcher working in physical theatre, devised work, site-specific and interactive theatre and new writing. As well as working in performance spaces, she also creates, facilitates and curates work for unusual spaces and events and is interested in the possibilities for theatre-making. Originally from Chicago and based in London, she has a BA from Gettysburg College and an MA and PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London. She has taught at a number of British universities as a freelance lecturer and her book Writing in Collaborative Theatre-making was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. She was the Live Performance Programmer at JW3 from 2016-2019 and has just completed a LABA Fellowship at the 14th St Y (NYC). She is a member of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board. She is currently working on adapting her play Agent of Influence into a novel and writing the libretto for a new opera called The Agency with composer Matthew Olyver, which will premiere as a scratch at the Têt à Têt Festival in September. Website: Twitter: @SigalSarah


Headshot photography is courtesy of the author.

Cruise Ship by Robert Wallace (Flickr), used under the Creative Commons Licence.


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