Olivia Jones introduces her play, ‘Alone at the Edge of the Universe’, for Durham Drama Festival 2021, explaining more about the writing process, classical influence, and her wonderful team.

Do you ever think about the end of the world? Hypothetically, how might it happen? And how do you fit into the narrative? Would you survive? More importantly, would you want to?

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who knows me that I wrote and submitted the first draft of “Alone at the Edge of the Universe” in the three days before the deadline. I’d wanted to write something for DDF – not expecting to have it produced, merely to receive feedback – but none of the ideas I’d attempted to flesh out so far had interested me enough to pursue them to a full script.

Director and writer, Olivia Jones

Then, I started to think about the disaster of a year we’d had – this was, after all, back in November – and I had the idea for a disaster film-esque setting. The aftermath of an apocalypse, with an unlikely survivor. The questions above occurred to me as I frantically built upon this idea, just typing out my many thoughts late into the night and hoping that they were at least semi-coherent. Quoting the wise words of James Acaster, “I started making it, had a breakdown… bon appétit.”

Then came the difficult task of turning my semi-coherent existential ramblings into a fully coherent script. There were two elements that I knew I wanted to run consistently throughout the play. The first was the theme of being remembered. As a Classics student, I’ve studied the marks on the world left behind by ancient figures who want their memories to live on forever even when their physical bodies have perished. This sentiment isn’t unique to the Classical world either. We can see it in Stonehenge, the pyramids, cave paintings, and the diaries of Anne Frank and Samuel Pepys. The second element was humour: the concept of the end of the world is depressing enough; watching over half an hour of one person chatting on about it with no comedic relief would be torturous. 2020 was bad enough, thanks. Sam, my apocalypse survivor, became this character to whom I think we can all relate: a pretty average young person with an interest in history and a tendency to cover up any negative emotion with dry, sarcastic humour.

When casting the role, I was looking for three things: firstly, the deep emotional range required for a one-person show that deals with some pretty dark themes; secondly, a dry wit to combat said dark themes; and, thirdly, the actor’s own voice. I wanted whoever ended up playing Sam to give the character their personal interpretation, besides what I’d sketched out. I wanted them to make Sam their own. Auditions were just as much an opportunity to explore how different people interpreted what I’d written as they were a place to find my cast. Despite having to recast the role late in the show’s development, I found my Sam in Imogen Marchant. She has brought an enthusiastic and insightful discussion about the text to each rehearsal and lent her voice to every bit of the show, from its humorous highs to its dark and challenging lows. Making three of us in the rehearsal Zoom (get it? like “rehearsal room” but it’s over Zoom) is my assistant director Evie Press, who I think sometimes understands my play better than I do. The final member of our small but mighty team is our producer Dani Frankal, who has helped immensely with all the challenges that come with adapting a stage play into something that can be put together remotely.

When I first had the idea for this show, I haphazardly noted down what I wanted to include an old sketchbook that I use for all my crazy ideas. There are many things from that mess that I’ve kept in the final version of the script, but there are also bits of nonsense like the ice cream melted and big red button and just the word loneliness on its own without context. Evidently, my writing is very much a “trust the process” deal. It’s hard to believe that these few pages have transformed into a forty-minute virtual play of which I’m rather proud. It’s the power of theatre, I guess. Not even a pandemic can stop us from creating. 

I will leave you with a song recommendation – specifically the song that inspired the show’s title: “Dream Sweet in Sea Major” by Miracle Musical. It’s a seven-minute-long masterpiece, and I think it’s got something for everyone. Speaking from experience, it makes an excellent soundtrack to an existential crisis.

‘Alone at the Edge of the Universe’ premieres at 7 pm on 6th February 2021, and is available to stream on the Durham Student Theatre Youtube channel. The production is sponsored by Castle Theatre Company.