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Liberty Street

"We strove to capture the sense of yearning that lockdown birthed"

A new web series looks at the world of the Covid-19 era with fresh eyes, writes actor and composer Charles Wu.

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From lockdown to Liberty Street

Date: 29 Aug 2020

It’s the middle of March, and I’m in Melbourne during the penultimate week of the MTC’s season of Benjamin Law’s Torch the Place.

The reach of the global pandemic is starting to feel a lot closer to home, there is a rising sense of panic and confusion, and following the announcement of new restrictions for indoor gatherings a theatre was the last place I wanted to be.

Our audience, it seemed, felt the same.

After a wildly successful season playing to full houses for over a month, we popped a few bottles of champagne backstage and bid an early farewell to the show.

I was lucky. Covid-19 was and is continuing to disrupt and decimate the lives of millions worldwide, and as artists our work was being either curtailed, postponed or, quite simply, scrapped. Futures were uncertain and a great unknowingness took hold.

This was the genesis for Liberty St, a series that for many reasons could only have been made now. While I, like many others in our industry, was feeling lost, unmotivated and uninspired, Duncan Ragg, my co-Artistic Director at The Corinthian Food Store, decided we needed to shift the forms of our storytelling.

With co-writer Jessica Marshall he dreamt up a series about eight people in an apartment complex searching for connection in isolation. It would be helmed by multiple directors with a professional crew. When they reached out to a community of artists to help bring it to life, we flew off our couches, put on our face masks, and jumped at the chance to start playing again. It was thrilling.

Lockdown had forced us to sit with ourselves and figure out the gaps, hold on to the essentials and see the world with fresh eyes.

The characters in Liberty St do just that. I play Tait, a man in his late 20s recently recovered from the virus, afraid of himself and pining for intimacy after spending a long time alone. He calls a sex worker in the early hours of dawn who offers to water his wilting garden, but he can’t quite let her in just yet. He wants to see her and be seen, but is ashamed, weakened, and feels foreign to the world. He certainly doesn’t feel like a survivor.

Being on set in a time like this is an extraordinary and invigorating experience.

The constraints you’d feel on a normal set are tenfold. Shooting entirely inside an apartment block fashioned into multiple different bedrooms and living rooms with a reduced and appropriately distanced crew, we battled time, the light, the cold and the space.

However, this paring down to essentials lent a vitality and focus to the work, and the joy of simply making something with people was our beacon. We strove to capture the sense of yearning that lockdown birthed, the reckoning with loss, and the joy that comes from belonging to the world again, a true snapshot of this particular time.

I then had to switch hats and compose for the series.

It was an immense challenge to find the right tone, one that captured both the intimacy and the occasional majesty of this brave new world. Though the eight episodes can be viewed as standalone pieces, I wanted to find an overarching theme or refrain for the series to allow the characters to find kinship with each other at the fringes of their own individual stories.

There are detours, in the shape of new-age synth psychedelia, thirsty ‘80s schlock pop, syncopated percussion, a duet ballad and an unabashed club banger. However, the heart of the score is a simple two-chord piano refrain that flits in and out throughout the eight episodes, speaking whenever voice cannot.

Working on a micro-budget, it was an extremely tight deadline, which meant most of my work had to be done with only the script as stimulus, sending pieces through to the team while they edited. A bulk of the score was built on a short piece I improvised on the piano with no particular scene in mind. In turn, Duncan and Jessie Hildebrand, our editor, painstakingly shifted the phrases in the edit suite: a note here, a silence there, a ghost somewhere in the margins.

The result, I have to concede, is breathtaking and a testament to the nature of art in a Covid world where musicians are singing and playing from home, theatre is being streamed and television is being made via Zoom – it might not be the same playground as before, but finding each other again is still as beautiful and liberating.

Liberty St can be seen at: www.thecorinthianfoodstore.com

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