Imogen Usherwood explains the poetic inspiration behind her DDF play, a heart-breaking but humorous examination of relationships in the digital age, and reflects the impact of COVID-19 and her hopes for the future.
Shortly before I did my A-Levels, our English teacher gave us an unseen poem to discuss in class. She made us take turns reading verses aloud – after the first reading, I remember my main thought was, “I don’t entirely understand it, but I really like it and I love the images in it”. That poem was ‘Meeting Point’ by Louis MacNeice, and it hasn’t left my mind since.
Forty lines long, it describes two lovers in a coffee shop, who are engaged in a moment of such intense focus in each other that time seems to stop. It’s a pretty minimal scene – “two glasses and two chairs”, an absent waiter and music that they can’t hear. MacNeice details so absolutely the intense intimacy that can develop between two people, brought into focus in a public place.
Writer, director and former First Night editor, Imogen Usherwood
I didn’t mean to write a play about this poem – indeed, it didn’t even gain the title Meeting Point until November, with the DDF deadline looming – but once the characters, Matt and Sadie, entered my head and I started writing scenes between them, I realised that I was constructing the same images as MacNeice. A coffee shop, two glasses, two chairs, an ashtray (“her fingers flicked away the ash”), a waiter who may or may not turn up. I’d started filling in the details that MacNeice’s poem misses out: who are these, “two people with one pulse”? Why are they in the coffee shop in the first place? How do they know each other and what has brought them there?
My answers are certainly not whatever MacNeice might have imagined in 1936. In my version of events, the lovers are Matt and Sadie, who met on Tinder, and use coffee shops and bars as their initial meeting points of choice. Sure, there is something “silent in the air”, but it’s mostly the deeply uncomfortable truths they don’t want to tell each other, but which will inevitably out themselves in time.
Of course, that is how I would sell the play to you in a coronavirus-free world, or even a Tier 3 one if we were allowed to film it in the Assembly Rooms. However, in lockdown, we’re going to make a much smaller offering of a few self-taped scenes, a taster of the full production (which I still hope we can share one day). The actual play relies a lot on physical staging and breaking the fourth wall which, as you would imagine, is virtually impossible on Zoom, and doing the whole show online would have made for frustrating watching.
Happily though, the script is broken pretty neatly into small parts, ideal for filming short clips. The entire play is a collection of meeting points – not just between Sadie and Matt, but with the other people they’re forced to engage with, for better or for worse. Both experience unfortunate Tinder interactions with various strangers, and talk to people who offer support, in the form of therapists or helpline volunteers. There are also a series of meetings with (bear with me on this one) the internet. After all, when we can’t turn to those around us, we inevitably consult Google, right?
In a way, yes, this is a pandemic-inspired play. This year has transformed so much for us, particularly our understanding of space, interaction, the physical versus the digital – and, perhaps most significantly, what it actually means to meet someone. Plenty of people I now call friends are those I’ve not yet seen outside of little Zoom squares, and even before Covid-19, apps like Tinder offered you the chance to get to know strangers through messages alone. Our constant use of technology this year got me thinking about how we exist in a digital world, and indeed we continue to do so – I’d wanted to explore how to we can stage digital spaces in an analogue world, but that production is a whole vaccination programme away. Instead, we’ll begin with something more lockdown-friendly.
While I do hope I get to thank them all again one day, in a proper theatre full of audience members very close together, followed by lots of hugs – the cast and production team have been their delightful selves online too. I could not think of a better Sadie and Matt than Hatty Tagart and Tom Cain, who completely nailed the characters the minute they opened their mouths. Helena Baker and Sean Alcock have already proved their versatility as the ensemble, taking on a range of weird and wonderful roles. And, of course, I’m indebted to my Co-Director and Producer, Hugo Millard and Sol Noya, for sharing in my dark sense of humour and wholeheartedly supporting my assertion that, yes, we do need real cakes on stage in the first scene.
For now, I’m looking forward to presenting this show, even in a fragmented digital form. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt in the endless months of Covid-19, it’s that nothing is ever predictable, and I don’t know when Meeting Point will finally grace a real stage with real people. Until then, like so many creatives all over the world, we will make of the situation what we can – and I hope you enjoy it.
A preview of Meeting Point premieres at 19:00 on 4th February 2021, and is available to stream on the Durham Student Theatre Youtube channel.