Distance Remaining is an ambitious collection of three inspiring theatrical stories from writer Stewart Melton.
The production has just embarked on a virtual tour of Scottish venues including The Byre Theatre in St Andrews, Dundee Rep Theatre and Perth Theatre, and audiences can view Distance Remaining from the comfort of their own home.
For Kally Lloyd-Jones, joint director of The Byre Theatre, the production is a welcome addition to the schedule at a difficult time for everyone involved in theatre.
She said: “At a time when the Byre’s doors are closed, we’re really pleased to be supporting theatre makers as they venture into the digital world. While we wait for theatres to reopen, it’s wonderful to see the range of creativity coming from our community and Distance Remaining is such an ambitious production, making a film that feels theatrical, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing it.”
Distance Remaining may be the brainchild of playwright Stewart Melton, 38, but – talking from his home in London – he reveals that the project has been a team effort from the beginning, when he first discussed the idea with producer Helen Milne.
“This is the first project this year that I have been able to take to production,” he explains.
“Talking to Helen, our producer, with whom I worked on Islander, we were very interested in the different rapid responses of other theatre companies and makers to the moment. We started watching a lot of online work and thinking in a practical and analytical way about what theatre could be on screen.”
A different approach to making theatre
Stewart and Helen saw Caitlin Skinner’s monologue piece for the Traverse Theatre.
“We really enjoyed it and felt they had really thought carefully about a sense of ‘liveness’,” says Stewart.
In particular, it was the sense of immediacy and proximity, two components of theatre that are difficult to translate to a recorded performance that drew them in.
“We were thoroughly impressed by that and got in touch with Caitlin to see if she wanted to be part of this conversation,” says Stewart.
She was keen to come on board and Stewart went about creating three storylines and characters whose performances would be captured “gorilla-style”.
He adds: “At that time we were expecting the performances would be filmed under strict lockdown rules, probably in the actors’ own homes.”
The characters in Distance Remaining are unapologetically an examination of lockdown and living through the pandemic, both in the broader sense and Stewart’s own experience of the events of the past year.
He says: “This is the longest I’ve been in one place for a long time.”
Stewart grew up in Aberdeen and is currently based in London with his partner and young son, where he has spent the various lockdowns.
“Like many people in theatre, what I thought I would be doing for the next couple of weeks and months was abruptly arrested,” he says.”
The early months of the pandemic led to some difficult questions: “How do I continue to do what I have been doing for so long in a way that is safe and still contributing, will there be a theatre culture to return to and will there be a hunger for it? Will people’s habits change?”
The next stage of the project was getting videographer Seth Hardwick and composer Louise McCraw (Goodnight Louisa) on board.
Stewart says: “Seth works a lot with the National Theatre of Scotland and he was working on Scenes for Survival at the time so he has immediate experience of producing work in these circumstances.
“For the soundtrack, we really wanted to collaborate with a Scottish recording artist. We had a bit of a shortlist and Louise was at the top of our list – she just embraced this project. She has never soundtracked a narrative piece before and she has created a really lovely set of tracks and cues for each of the three stories. They are quite varied and there is a slightly nostalgic feel to them – a wonderful sense of lightness and hopefulness in the tracks she has crafted for us.”
The three stories written with parallel plots feature characters representing three different generations and Stewart hopes they will each have something audiences can identify with, either directly or as the experience of family members or friends.
First up is pensioner Jess, played by Dolina MacLennan, who Stewart describes as, “the matriarch of a family of former fishermen”.
“I think Jess may have been gestating in my mind for some time, but found her moment in the last year,” he laughs.
“She is also a product of my linguistic inspiration. I love writing in Doric-inflected Scots.”
Jess’s story explores the journey of a character trapped in her own home.
“That home now feels almost like a landscape,” explains the writer, “the inspirations for this piece are women who I have met and admired in my life. Also, very natural survivalist stories like The Revenant or 127 Hours where it’s almost always a man pitted against hostile environments. It’s a bit of a twinkly satire of that but one that takes Jess into peril.”
From the Doric of his Aberdeen childhood, Stewart’s next story takes us to Montrose where his maternal grandparents lived and a place he visited a lot as a child.
Here, we meet Lindsey played by Karen Dunbar, who has been furloughed from her job and is filling her time as a volunteer for a community group.
Stewart says: “Her plight, the thing that she is struggling with, is feeling redundant in every sense – not usefully engaged and disconnected from everything that we took for granted. This is something I felt quite acutely in the first weeks of lockdown.
“I was trying to examine what work has become both pre and post-lockdown and the extent to which we think ‘I really needed to be working to self-validate’.
“So many things that are valued by society at large – things like people’s salaries, all of those things – were swept away by lockdown.”
The final piece of the puzzle is the story of Cam, a teenager played by Reuben Joseph, dealing with his own version of isolation on an unnamed Scottish island.
“With its contrasting location and photography style this story is theatrical in different ways,” says Stewart.
“We had much more freedom with our camera, to try something more free and open in the wide open spaces of the islands.
“Cam is searching for a dog, among other things. Outside we have a little more physical freedom if not emotional freedom. He is coming to terms with a sense of being cooped up, trapped in different circumstances – a young personal who knew the city but now is living in a rural community and feeling isolated in a different way.”
The island location is inspired by childhood trips to Mull and recent periods of work with the theatre in Tobermory. Together, Stewart hopes that the three stories will offer something for everyone: “I really wanted to shake the kaleidoscope with each story, to help people reappraise their own experience of this time.
“I hope that the contrast will offer a sense of connection and open up a sense of what this time has meant to most people – in a way, what we have been trying to achieve by attempting as theatre makers to produce something that can mimic the social space where people gather and exchange ideas, even if we are experiencing the show in our different households.”
The challenges of producing a piece of theatre to be delivered to its audience via phone, laptop or table screen are not to be underestimated and Stewart is generous in his praise for the efforts of the whole team who have brought Distance Remaining to fruition.
He says: “These could not be more difficult circumstances to put everything together, even simple things like costume fittings or returning clothes to get a different size, finding locations for the exterior shots are no longer straightforward.
“ The work of the team has just been heroic and this is not counting what we have all been facing in our personal lives as well. Everyone has been so generous with each other.”
Distance Remaining is touring Scottish theatres virtually now.
Upcoming performances include: Dundee Rep Theatre, April 20 ; The Byre Theatre, April 23 and 24 and Perth Theatre, May 8.
Look out for opportunities to engage with Stewart, the actors and team via Q&A events