The show must go on: V-Card

Culture Life

Image Description: the publicity poster for V-Card (a pink background, with ‘V-Card’ written in white and filled with peach, banana, and water drop emojis). 

It’s Michaelmas Term 2019, and preparations are underway for V-Card, a comedy I’ve written about sexuality and the virginity myth, which I’m hoping to put on at the Burton Taylor Studio next term. I’ve put together a fantastic crew, auditions have just wrapped and I can’t wait to start working with the actors we’ve cast. I’m about to organise a read through when I read the email that I never wanted to receive – the studio manager telling me that, regrettably, they won’t be able to offer us a slot. I take a little time to cry, I text the cast to let them know that the play won’t be going ahead this time but that we’d love to see them audition next term, and I get on with my life.

all the while thousands are coming down with a mysterious new virus on the other side of the world.

It’s Hilary Term 2020, and I won’t let last term’s disappointment get me down. I immediately start preparing to put on V-Card in Trinity, knowing that there’s no way we won’t get a slot this time. We’ve got a (mostly) new cast, a (mostly) new crew, and the script is now bigger and better than it was before – we won’t let anything get in our way. Unsurprisingly, we get the slot at the BT and I’m on top of the world. The read-through is a success, things are looking good, and all the while thousands are coming down with a mysterious new virus on the other side of the world.

It’s Trinity Term 2020 and I’m attending virtual tutes from my childhood bedroom, unable to return to Oxford for what was supposed to be the best term of my degree. It’s the first term in what feels like forever that hasn’t seen my involvement with an Oxford play in some capacity – and it feels weird, especially after burning out from working on five consecutive shows in Hilary. I tell myself that this might be the term where I finally get some work done and possibly repair the relationships with my tutors that have been frayed by the number of shows I’ve taken part in, but of course, this never happens. Only the thought of returning to Oxford in the autumn is pushing me through this nightmarish term – and the thought that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to finally get V-Card on stage.

I had a backup plan: a radio play.

It’s Michaelmas Term 2020 and I’m directing the third incarnation of the V-Card cast, some of whom I’ve never actually met in the flesh – this is the new normal. Our original plan to perform the show in-person to an empty BT studio and film scenes individually before stitching them together and making the show available to watch online fell apart with the imposition of Tier 2 restrictions – and, later, national lockdown – so we were once again unable to get V-Card on stage. Since the start of term, thankfully, I’d had the sinking feeling that we would once again be facing a national lockdown before long and that our plans would be ruined for the third time; rather than delaying the show yet again and painfully drawing out the whole process even further, I had a backup plan: a radio play.

It’s not the most fashionable kind of show, I know. Very Radio 4, I always thought, and hard to pull off – but it can work. Jazz Hands Productions’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a success last term, as were virtual productions of Richard II and The Last Five Years, so the hurdle of a virtual play didn’t feel all that daunting to me eventually. V-Card isn’t the sort of show that relies largely on physical comedy, unlike my last two writing ventures – Malcolm the Miserable and the Oxford Revue showcase – so with some minor tweaks, it could be adapted for this format pretty smoothly.

I can substitute the kissing and heavy petting in the script with the actors kissing their hands furiously and looking rather silly while doing so.

There are some unexpected perks to putting on a radio play, it turns out. For one thing, the production team aren’t spending nearly as much money as we planned originally, though this did mean we, unfortunately, couldn’t bring our design team’s wonderful ideas to life. But from a directorial point of view, realistically, how was I going to direct a play about sex with everyone staying two metres apart at all times? It would feel odd, stilted, even – and I’m still not sure how that would have looked in the finished product. Conducting the rehearsals from the comfort of my bedroom has been quite nice, admittedly. There’s none of the hassles of writing up those abominable risk assessments, rehearsing in the cold and rain while colleges are closed to non-members, and there’s no danger of a last-minute cancellation of the show if one of the cast has to self-isolate. Of course, now that social distancing is no longer a concern, as the actors will all be recording their lines remotely, I can substitute the kissing and heavy petting in the script with the actors kissing their hands furiously and looking rather silly while doing so. There’s plenty of fun to be had with corny sound effects too – but I won’t give any of that away.

There’s a parallel universe where I managed to put on V-Card at the BT in February before it felt like the world was ending. In spite of the troubles I’ve experienced during the production process, the tears, stress-induced breakdowns and manic calls to the producer and assistant director, I am ultimately happy with the stage the show is at now. I won’t pretend that I’m not disappointed about being unable to direct a live show with an actual audience, but this has been a year of disappointments for virtually everyone I know, so I’m no different. However, one thing I’ve noticed this year is people’s resilience and willingness to adapt. We’ve found new ways – mostly digital – to get closer to one another without even seeing each other in the flesh. The same can be said for the performing arts – the pandemic has devastated the theatre industry, but seeing creatives adapt their work for an uncertain and sometimes frightening world has shown us all these new and innovative forms of creating theatre which will undoubtedly prove popular in the coming months, and which have given me some hope for the future of drama.

The play I originally wanted to put on at the BT is not the play that I’m putting on now, not just because the format’s completely different but also because it’s, well, better. I’m almost grateful for the delays, as they have given me the time I needed to fine-tune – and almost completely transform – the original script, to the point where I’m somehow pleased with something I’ve written. It’s so important to try and find the silver linings in everything, especially when things look as gloomy as they do now. Every setback we’ve faced has, I suppose, been a blessing in disguise, and made the outcome all the more satisfying. Is V-Card the most cursed play in the history of Oxford drama? Quite possibly…but I think I’m fine with that.

V-Card will be available to listen to for a week from 21st November. Tickets are available from https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/pendulum-productions

Image Credit: Phillip Olney