This week I will be performing my show Coffee with Vera Front of House at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. I never thought I would still be performing this show seven years after first making it but it’s certainly not going away. The Theatre Royal are co-producing Amsterdam with the Actors Touring Company and it’s currently in the Drum theatre. To compliment the show they have asked me to bring Vera in to create four coffee mornings [except they are in the afternoon].
Originally the show was inspired by the Jewish Ladies Guild of the Plymouth Synagogue, and to recreate a coffee morning similar to those that the Ladies Guild hosted every month. Vera is a character who is the chair of the guild and she will co-host a coffee morning at the Theatre Royal whilst Ruth will investigate her own potential Jewish roots.
Vera will be handing out teas on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th and discussing the coffee mornings of the Ladies Guild, back in the day when the choice of coffee would have been Mellow Birds or Camp, give or take a few other well known names.
Last week I had the luxury of being in a rehearsal room, by myself, to start developing a new show. Saying ‘by myself’ is a bit of a lie because even though, at this stage it may be a solo show there was a collection of voices in the room with me.
I am a 2020 Lab Associate at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and I have to deliver a show in August next year so I have got the ball rolling, so to speak.
My starting off point comes from this 2012-2015 data from Purple Seven and their Audience Profiler tool; 65% of theatre audiences are female and then, according to their recent analysis from post show surveys, a large portion of that comes from 45-65 age group. Yet, those women [the 45-65 group] very rarely see their stories onstage. It’s around this time in life that women can start to feel invisible and not seeing themselves represented onstage [and also on screen] just adds to this feeling, surely. In 2014 Lyn Gardner wrote “Given that women make up just over half of the population and buy more theatre tickets than men, the industry is shooting itself in the foot if it fails to commit to real change. In the end, we women will simply vote with our feet.” Lyn Gardner 2014 The Guardian.
Why do they not see themselves onstage? Historically the writers have been male and the new generation of female writers are writing stories about young women, yes that’s a broad generalisation, I recently appeared in a show [written by a woman] about two women in their 50s & 60s but that is pretty rare and anyway… you get the gist.
So I am going to start to pick this apart and try to create something that speaks to this large group of ticket buyers but also appeals to other theatre goers.
Speaking to some of the guys who visited me in the room it was interesting to get their take on this feeling of invisibility, the young Plymouth Conservatoire students I spoke to seemed to know from their own mothers. To try to get to the heart of what it’s about – this invisibility – I was given a provocation…to make a timeline of my hair going grey!
This what I noted
I decided to grow a streak first – my hair was a lot lighter [in terms of grey] at the temples so I chose one side to grow out whilst I had a fringe and I chose the underneath part of the hair so it could be hidden at times.
It took three years to fully grow a streak, people thought the streak was dyed and the rest was natural when in fact it was the other way around.
The streak made me feel stylish, it was a big statement and people would notice it = visible.
I then decided to grow another streak on the other side, same way but this time it had a badger effect
so, went for the full on grey halo effect, letting the rest of my hair line at the front grow out, the hair at the back wasn’t as grey so we kept it like this [when I say ‘we’ I mean my hairdresser and I]
When I had the opportunity to grow my hair for a theatre role I decided to stop dying my hair to see what happened, putting my hair up would possibly hide the re growth.
Once the job was finished I cut my hair, which took away most of the old dye leaving a mismatch of various shades of grey.
It’s taken ten years in total and I now feel like the invisibility is total, maybe I can just dye my hair again and bring back the streak.
My performance of The Secret Listener will be performed in Bodmin this Saturday October 12th. The Regimental Museum is a perfect venue for a matinee, obviously they have many WW2 artefacts on display, but they also have a spy HQ where you can learn about code breaking and have a go at Morse Code. They are happy for the audience to explore the museum as part of their visit. The show starts at 2pm in the Officer’s Mess so there will be plenty of time to extend your time into the museum itself. Otherwise you can come along to the Old Library in Bodmin at 7.30pm. Autumn is well and truly here and what better way to spend an autumnal evening inside a cosy theatre space listening to stories, you can’t get more traditional then that.
Inspired by Olive Myler’s story in Jews in North Devon During WW2 by Helen Fry
For the last few months I have been quietly researching my new performance entitled The Secret Listener, a show that looks at the hidden work of voluntary interceptors during WW2 – the VIs would set themselves up in their spare bedrooms, attics or garages/garden sheds and they would listen in on homemade radios that most had been using as amateur radio hams.
home built radio receiver seen at Porthcurno Museum’s I Spy: the Secret Listeners exhibition
It was a brainwave of an idea, to use those people who already had the equipment, armed with the knowledge of morse code, to listen in to given specific frequencies for encoded messages being sent from Germany. Every voluntary interceptor signed the Official Secrets Act and so many took their wartime work with them to the grave.
We have partnered with the National Radio Centre, who work out of Bletchley Park, to make this theatre performance that will also have an accompanying podcast associated with it. I will be collecting other people’s stories as I travel around with the show and these stories will be included on the podcast highlighting the war effort of thousands of ordinary people.
creating sound with Ed Jobling and Derek Frood at the Forkbeard Fantasy barn in mid Devon
The intriguing part of the research is trying to find answers to the stories and the mysteries they present but as we have gone on it has become clear that that is what is drawing us into the telling of them, and who knows, by bringing the story of the voluntary interceptors to light we may start to find some answers.
My first solo show is making a trip to Cornwall, to Bodmin to be precise. Last year I played Millicent Fawcett in Dreadnought South West’s production of The Cause and we opened the tour in Bodmin. The Old Library there has been turned into an arts centre by that south west creative entrepreneur Fin Irwin and his CIC company, intoBodmin and in a few weeks I am going to perform Coffee with Verathere. Why? Because the space is perfect – the auditorium has both a performance area and a cafe and as Vera is a show in the form of a coffee morning, it fits perfectly.
I shall be getting out and dusting off my Grandma Doralee Patinkin’s Holiday Cookbook [mother of Mandy Patinkin] for my cake recipes and taking along a selection of brownies and blondies, I mean what’s not to like there. Past audience members have been known to order the book straight after the performance!!!
Millicent Fawcett in The Cause, photo by Jim Wileman
rehearsal pic of The Cause, at Dartington photo by Natalie McGrath
December 14th marks the centenary of the first votes for some women, and it’s the last chance to see ‘The Cause’, Dreadnought South West’s play inspired by an imagined meeting between two great leaders of the women’s suffrage campaign – Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett.
The play has had a fantastic response from audiences during its tour of the South West and North West.
“I thought this imagined meeting was a wonderful way to explore these two women’s lives and campaigns. Hooray for two female leads and a subversive take on their relationship. I’m inspired to find out more about the history I thought I knew about. Thank you!”
This final performance is at Exeter Phoenix at 7.45 on Dec 14th. There’s more info and booking details here: https://www.exeterphoenix.org.uk/events/the-cause/. After the performance, you can join Dreadnought South West for celebratory events, with a party in the bar and great music by women.
‘The Cause’ considers the impact that a lifetime of political campaigning has on an individual and explores the divide between the violent direct action of the suffragettes and the peaceful constitutional means of the suffragists.