Kristen Brookman chats to Eddie Charles about her short virtual play, Hi, Stranger, and what her ambitions were behind it.

In the UK, 125 people take their own lives every week, and 75% of all UK suicides are male. It is troubling statistics such as these that led to filmmaker Kristen Brookman creating Hi, Stranger, which had its online premiere back in September last year, the eve of World Suicide Prevention Day.

Hi, Stranger is a short, virtual play written and directed by Brookman which uses online dating as an entry point to look at mental health and the topic of suicidal thoughts.

Starring Penelope Yeulet and Tom Lewin, the play follows a young pair of unnamed individuals who’ve met via a dating app during the age of Covid. After texting each other for a period of time, the pair meet for the first time virtually over a video call, but what follows is a Tinder date with a difference, with Brookman using her work to explore the extremely important issue of mental health.

Virtual

After being inspired by a play called Distance by Hudson Stage Company, which was produced via Zoom, Brookman knew that she wanted to write and direct a virtual piece of her own, premiering it as a live event and raising money for a good cause in the process.

“I wanted to raise money for a mental health charity and have mental health be a theme of exploration in the piece, as I know a lot of people – creatives particularly – have been hard-hit by the current situation,” Brookman tells me.

The play is accompanied by a fundraiser in support of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) who do a lot of brilliant work in aid of suicide prevention. “I wanted a piece that showed two people diving deep and being extremely honest, but in a way that felt completely natural and normal,” Brookman reveals. “I was interested in exploring the critical point someone’s mental illness can get to and the effect that simply talking about these things can have on someone’s life.”

A Q&A between Brookman and both leads followed the online premiere, in which the writer and director revealed her key intention to make sure that the play was completed and released ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day. She tells me “I knew [the day] was coming up, so I decided to tie everything together and have the live event the evening before, because I hoped, if anything, that Hi, Stranger would encourage people to talk to each other and not be afraid to approach these kinds of conversations.”

Consequently, Brookman turned the project around in just a few months, which is remarkable given the current state of the world and the understandably stifling effects it has had on our creative abilities.

Yeulet’s character even rightly states at one point that we should not pressure and force ourselves to be productive at this present moment – we are in the midst of a global pandemic after all. Yet the ways in which people are now communicating and navigating their lives through Covid is key to Hi, Stranger. “I liked the challenge of the video call format, as it forced me to have some kind of story arc and to reach certain emotions through a pure one-on-one conversation. It’s also how we’ve all been conversing recently, so I thought it would be quite timely and relatable.”

Restrictions

One of the typical barriers when producing shorts is being restricted to only working with those that live nearby, but one of the creative advantages about this current, virtual method of working is that it has allowed artists from a variety of different locations to come together for projects such as these.

Brookman tells me “I knew I would need some fantastic and willing actors. Thankfully, another beauty of this format was that I could work with actors anywhere in the world.”

Brookman is based in Basingstoke, whilst Lewin and Yeulet are based in Manchester and Warwickshire. None of them have met in person, but Brookman reveals that this was not an issue, “Penny and Tom were both extremely accommodating and up for it from the beginning, and they really made this film what it is. There’s nowhere for them to hide as it’s all completely their performances with no cuts. It allowed them to just act, which I think they enjoyed and they both give beautiful performances.”

Shot in just one take, Hi, Stranger provides a frank yet delicate look at the topic of suicide and suicidal thoughts, as both characters openly discuss their struggles with mental health. Brookman ensures these issues are depicted with nuance and there are some lovely moments of humour.

In the post-premiere Q&A, Yeulet details the significance of hopefulness within the play, noting the need to get to a point where conversations such as these can be had regularly. This is something that is echoed by Brookman. “These conversations shouldn’t be considered taboo or depressing; they should be normal and I hope this film shows that they can be.”

Hi, Stranger and its Q&A are available free of charge on Brookman’s YouTube channel. There, you can find the link to the fundraiser in aid of CALM.

Kristen Brookman is on Twitter @kristymint.

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