By Elisha Westmore
Tobias and Syd is a time travel play involving seduction, tobacco, shape-shifting and breath made by 2BU Productions. For more info, including links to the play and how we used Professor Andrew Russell’s research, as well as original letters to the breath, see https://2buproductions.org/tobias-and-syd/
Elisha is 2BU Productions’ Young Advocate for the Tobias and Syd project, attending Young Advisory Groups and helping with social media. She is a freelance writer and editor who currently splits her time between Portsmouth and Bath. She is a Creative Producer for House of Imagination and has worked with a wide variety of small creative businesses and publications such as 2BU Productions, The Writing Platform, and Sooothe.
“Paper thin, one thread connecting my life from first breath to last. Friend, barometer, flight, companion, anchor, witness. Traveller through time and space, I sip the air.” – Letter to Breath, Tobias and Syd
The theme that stuck with me most throughout the process of working on Tobias and Syd was the theme of breath, and how it connects us. Breath came up time and time again throughout the events and discussions, listening to the play itself, and sharing stories on social media of people’s relationship to smoking and tobacco. It became apparent how this ritual/activity/act, that is so closely intertwined with our breath, is a vehicle through which so many people, from all cultures and walks of life, have found connection.
Breath in Tobias and Syd
In the innovative audio format used in Tobias and Syd, breath is used in dynamic ways to connect the listener to the idea of breath itself, so much so that Breath almost becomes a character. Scattered throughout the play, ‘Letters to Breath’ are read in transitions between pivotal moments; stark sound-poems that touch upon our relationship to our breath and how we connect to this life force at various points in our life.
Towards the end of the play, when Syd is desperately unwell in the hospital, we hear her laboured breathing mixed with her stop-and-start narration describing how her body is struggling to repair itself. The nature of high quality audio drama is that we as the listener feel right there. In addition to this, our attention has been drawn back to the breath throughout the narrative, and so we can’t help but gasp for air alongside her.
Smoking as Connection
I was also noticing the themes of breath and connection continuing to appear throughout the Tobias and Syd events. Designed to spark conversation, the events – each centred on a certain theme – were winding, explorative conversations. But in each one, these themes seemed to be a natural point of return…
For instance, a speaker sharing her experience of dating someone who smoked heavily, “in order to spend time with him I would go outside when he had a smoke break and joined him. Tobacco became a really important part of our relationship and how we connected.”
A practising Buddhist reflecting on how smoking helped them to relax and connect to their breath.
How the ritual of chatting over a smoke and a cup of tea at sober festivals became a way to connect with others where the usual social connectors (drugs and alcohol) were absent…
A mental health nurse reflecting on the impact that the smoking ban had on the patients and staff: the garden which used to be a place where friendships were forged and hierarchies removed was suddenly barren without the routine of smoking.
The ‘smoke break’ as a ritual
The stories shared on social media also began to reflect this.
Going outside to join colleagues on their break at their first job even though they didn’t smoke, just so they didn’t feel left out.
The idea of the ‘smoke break’ being an essential part of a night out as a chance to step away from the madness and sometimes, build real connections with other people in the smoking area.
Sharing a cigarette with another girl in the corner of a party leading to an important part of a sexual awakening.
Space to Breath
Similar stories that appeared again and again, seemed to centre around our human need for connection, and the tools we use to do so.
Why is it that we need an excuse to connect with people? Why have we built a cultural barrier that means we need an excuse to take some time out, or spark up a conversation with a stranger?
It’s important to point out here that the harmful and addictive qualities of popular tobacco use nowadays are real, but it’s not tobacco’s fault. There are ways in which people engage with smoking and tobacco in ancient ritual and traditions that are not harmful. Could it be that it is less that tobacco is the problem and more that smoking seems to have become a crutch on which we rely in order to take a break and form connections?
Are there ways we can find or rediscover that help us connect with ourselves and embrace the vulnerability required to connect with others?
Are there ways in which we can build more time in the systems we operate in to take breaks, get some fresh air, connect to our breath?
Tobias and Syd as a project posed a lot of questions and didn’t pretend to answer them. In response in this article, I pose a lot of questions and not a lot of answers, because I’m definitely not qualified to answer any of them. Something just became clear to me over the course of this project: that most of us just need a bit of company, and some space to breathe, and that we need to rediscover different, perhaps healthier ways of doing so.
Find Tobias and Syd, the audio-drama on Podbean, Spotify, and other major podcast platforms. Handily, you can also access the play both in omnibus edition and separate parts directly here on 2BU’s website at: https://2buproductions.org/tobias-and-syd.
Prepare to be hooked… It can be addictive: Tobias and Syd is a play about smoking and vaping, which 2BU Productions released in January 2023. We ran 4 discussion events alongside the launch, to explore the myriad of roles tobacco plays in the world historically and currently.