Category Archives: Research

Developing The Secret Listener

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.

The Secret Listener is in The Lab at The Theatre Royal on 24/25th July at 8pm

and will return in the Autumn

  • Dramaturgy David Lane
  • Sound design Ed Jobling
  • Audio vocals Derek Frood
  • Set Design Fiona Chivers
  • Film Theo Moye
  • Producer Fiona Fraser Smith

with original recordings by Phil Innes

The Hidden Histories Seminar at Plymouth University 29-30 November

 

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I will be giving a presentation on Wednesday 30th November for a Hidden Histories Seminar organised by the Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery, (a Major Partner Museum in partnership with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter) hosted in conjunction with Plymouth University and funded by Arts Council England. I will be talking about creating an audio trail for a Hidden Jewish Cemetery, how one starts to make a performance for a graveyard and the stories we eventually found. This is a project that I worked on with Derek Frood, together we are a.k.a ripple and you can find out more here or come along to the seminar, find out about our project and hear about the other diverse histories for Plymouth.

https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/whats-on/hidden-histories-2016

 

thoughts on making an audio performance for a hidden walled cemetery

 

 

In 2013 I made a performance for the Plymouth Synagogue, which is the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in continuous use in the English speaking world. I spoke to the ladies of the very small, congregation and used those interviews, verbatim, to create my text. The performance has been performed inside the synagogue every year since and has helped to raise awareness, not just about the hidden history of the site but of the culture and people that have gone unnoticed by many who live here.
When the synagogue custodian came to me to ask if I would do a performance within the cemetery they were opening for the Plymouth History Festival in May 2016, I jumped at the chance. This cemetery is even older than the synagogue and in 1740 it was the garden of a Mrs Sherrenbeck, who gave it to the community for burial purposes. In those days the bodies of Jews who had passed over had to be shipped to London for burial but if a Jewish cemetery was geographically too far away it was acceptable to bury someone in the garden of a fellow Jew. Mrs Sherrenbeck allowed such a burial to take place and eventually gave over the land to the Hebrew congregation. When the plot became too small, adjoining land was leased and as the community grew from strength to strength so too did the burials. After several plots had been used twice, by lawfully interring new bodies on top of older ones, it was decided that this cemetery was full; the last body being laid to rest in around 1867.
So how does one go about making a performance for a cemetery? I have worked with site for ten years and I’ve learnt that you don’t go in, all guns blazing with an idea, instead you allow the site to speak. Mytheogeographer Dr Phil Smith says, ‘fingertip search your site like its a crime scene’ (Aspinwall, Mitchell & Smith, 2010:66),  we needed to go into the cemetery and listen to it, observe, and allow it to communicate with us as if it were our collaborator. With actor Derek Frood  (having worked together in theatre and audio performance) we visited the site; it was so calm and peaceful, and beautiful that it seemed to create its own performance and the stones, some broken some leaning precariously, were creating pathways throughout: the site was becoming its own theatre. Some gravestones are illegible being worn away, some illegible (to us) because they are in Hebrew but in the middle of the last century Dr Cecil Roth had the bright idea of translating all the remaining stones that could be read to keep for posterity and so began a labour of love by Rabbi Bernard Susser who created an archive of the graves.
And that is where the research started, the Rev Susser had not only left this invaluable publication of the gravestones but had written a book, The Jews of South West England: the rise and decline of their medieval and modern communities which was published by Exeter University Press in 1993. This was the starting point, but as we searched other avenues we kept returning to Susser, we found that the routes we were using, Susser had travelled before us. If we couldn’t find that extra family member then we realised we wouldn’t because Susser would’ve found them 50 years earlier, his research was that extensive. But unlike 50 years ago we had the advantage of the internet and the genealogy sites that proved invaluable for the family lines.
For the History Festival we decided to trial something and gather feedback from the participants. We decided to create small biographies for a handful of people buried in the cemetery and we would record those biographies onto MP3 players which the curious could listen to as they ambled around the gravestones. It was really successful and people said they were hungry for more so we knew we had to go away and think this through. We applied for funding from Vital Sparks within Plymouth City Council and from the Drake Foundation, both of whom fund community projects, then we could pay a sound designer and a gardener and also buy equipment that the synagogue could keep and re-use when they open the cemetery in future.

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The research was the most fascinating and the most frustrating part of the dramaturgy, some people were pre census, some had changed their names, some had arrived from parts of Europe that no longer exist and some were, for all manor of reasons, not on any records. Two ancestors came forward who had relatives in the cemetery and they shared their family trees, so we thought it would be a nice touch if they wrote their own ancestors’ biography. The rest was down to us. Yet what reads well on the page doesn’t always translate to recordings and once on our feet speaking the words we found we had to re-write and tweek lines to make the text sound like we were sharing stories out loud for the first time, to draw the listener in with our voices and keep them with us. Sometimes we needed the text broken up with another voice, sometimes that was just a throw away line, other times a different voice to take over the telling. We realised we would need a variety of voices to fill these stories that we unearthed; two murders, tales of bravery and heroism, of plague and famine plus connections with royalty, six generations of one family with royal ties that became untangled – thank goodness for those genealogy websites. We also noted that many were just ordinary lives, but are as important because, this cemetery shows life in all its guises but mostly in the ordinariness of it. People just getting on with their lives and assimilating themselves whilst at the same time being true to their faith and culture without flaunting it. It is this aspect that we felt had a relevance today, the people buried here came to England for a better life, fleeing persecution, some were the children of immigrants and in the eighteenth century Jewish immigrants stayed in Plymouth and the south west because of religious tolerance.  Susser says [The book] ‘describes in detail the integration of a foreign ethic minority  into the mainstream of English life, without entirely losing its distinctive characteristics’ (Susser, 1993:sleeve note). We can see today, from these hidden buried lives, how the stories from one small community can illustrate how much they gave back to their adopted home.

You can find more information on this and other audio performances here

 

The cemetery audio trail was researched and created by Ruth Mitchell and Derek Frood aka ripple  https://rippletheatreco.com

The audios were recorded and designed by Stage Technical Services, http://www.stagetechservices.co.uk

The cemetery will be open as part of the Plymouth Art Weekender on the 23/24/25 September, you can find us in Garrison Green, Lambhay Hill Plymouth PL1 2NP
Friday open 11-12noon :: Saturday open 2-3pm :: Sunday open 2-3pm

Aspinall, Rachel, Ruth Mitchell & Phil Smith (2010) The Hidden City Festival Handbook. Plymouth:University of Plymouth Press

Susser, Bernard (1993) The Jews of South West England: the rise and decline of their medieval and modern communities Exeter:Exeter University Press

Creative conversation or development discussion

When I travel from the south-west up the M5 beyond the turning for Bristol south and the airport you pass an orchard, row upon row of young apple trees in perfect straight rows at right angles to the motorway so you can see the precision of the planting. I don’t travel up with enough regularity to see the changing of the seasons but I am always taken with the industrial scale of it.

On a train journey from Plymouth to Exeter between Totnes and Newton Abbot there’s an old orchard, ancient gnarled apple trees some leaning perilously, some uprooted by recent gales, yet none seem to be dead roots still clinging on still grasping for life. In no particular rows or order with new saplings for 2015.

A morphing of these two orchards and you have the eponymous orchard in Natalie McGrath’s new play. This orchard is in the imagination both visually and mentally, we don’t have a huge set or projection to show the canopy of blossom, we only have words to paint the picture of the setting. The Orchard is an imagined meeting between two incredible women so, therefore if it’s an imagined meeting then maybe the space is imagined also and by painting the picture with words we can allow individual’s imagination to work allowing their own personal orchards to develop.

Dreadnought South West have been traveling with our Rebellious Sounds roadshow since the beginning of March, starting down in Redruth, traveling through Cornwall and Devon and up to Wiltshire. Every time we have shown the performance we have had a discussion with the audience (see the previous post) and I do mean discussion, some taking longer than the play itself. The conversation has enabled Natalie to cut and refine, to move around and allow issues to be heard in more detail. Whatever the audience feed back becomes part of the text development. We have changed parts around so that both actors have played both parts to see what differences that makes, we have gone from a nod to costume, to just wearing our own clothes. The feedback has been fascinating, all enthusiastic and constructive as if knowing that their thoughts will be used dramaturgically the audience are more animated in their discussion and, as the time goes on they start to think deeper about why they think or believe something. The play deals with politics, equality, pacifism versus militancy and friendship so this has also stirred up some emotions in the room particularly with a view to voting. One audience member claimed he had never voted only to be advised by another audience member that that was the wrong action to take if you want to make a point. Younger members of the audience have also been extremely eloquent in their views and one even wrote a review here. Many discussions, once broken up so people can get home, have carried on in little huddles so that you want to split a little bit of yourself into each group to get the continued thoughts, some of which would not be aired in a more public arena. This has all been an incredably interesting process for the writer as everything has been geared to the text and this is where now, as a performer I want to fly, I want to take the text to another level, to play the subtext, to find moments within the characters minds and thought processes where each other knows what the other might say. We have two more development performances on the 24, 25th of this month and two days in the rehearsal room with the script. This time we are expecting something bigger than just a tweak or a cut speech, this time Natalie is doing something ‘big’ and we don’t know what that will be. I do know that The Orchard at Plymouth will not be The Orchard that played Exeter, or Bodmin, or Teignmouth. In that respect each audience has been witness to a unique night at the theatre, never to be repeated in that mode again, and I don’t just mean the ephemerality of live performance but a different text to speak each time. Yet for the next two performances I have no idea what the text will be and that, my friends, is truely exciting.

The Orchard plays The Barbican Theatre Plymouth on 24th April @ 7.30pm http://www.barbicantheatre.co.uk/event-details/?eid=15826

and Appley Pavilion Somerset on 25th April @7.30pm – tickets on the door, contact avrilsilk@aol.com for information

Bringing the audience into the cultural conversation

In August 2014 four women came together to research and develop the first draft of a new play The Orchard. It wasn’t even a first draft, it was two monologues for two actors. Although intended to be a dialogue playwright Natalie McGrath wanted to find the voices of the characters, she was finding one easier than the other and so wanted to play with them in a rehearsal room. And we really played, joyfully and democratically, we read the monologues, spliced them apart and slotted them together to begin a conversation between the characters. Once we had created the start of a dialogue we invited a small audience to hear it.
The characters were Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, two women who, one hundred years ago had a huge impact on the rights of women but had opposing ways of achieving their goals. What came out of that work in progress showing was a determination that these voices should still be heard, maybe over the years they had become silent to new generations of women and with a general election coming and 9million women not using their vote in the last election, it was time those voices were heard again.
With funding from Arts Council SW, Exeter City Council and Fawcett, Devon, Dreadnought South West are touring with a roadshow – an imagined meeting and conversation between Emmeline and Millicent as it isn’t documented that they met on their own after Emmeline left the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) to set up her own movement.
What is so fascinating as we dissect their rise to power and their tussle between militant or peaceful methods is how pertinent that central argument is to today’s politics…the impetus to walk for hundreds of miles across a country in protest, or to chain oneself to railings or go on hunger strike whilst in prison in order to have a voice and be considered an equal citizen. As Pankhurst says in The Orchard ‘the world must get used to hearing us speak’ that is an incredible idea to get a twenty first century head around. We think we are used to hearing women’s voices, but are we? Is it a lack of hearing women’s voices in the public realm the reason some women don’t vote, because they think they won’t make a difference?
We have gone off onto the road to ask questions like these and to receive some answers from our audience. Our roadshow will be a scratch performance of the play The Orchard, a script in hand reading which, of course, some people may have a problem with. Is there any benefit from seeing a ‘reading’ when the actors are only engaging with a small percentage of what is required if they were performing a fully rehearsed show. I have seen many performances by theatre makers who read from a script after many weeks of research and preparation, I have seen performances that question the very premise of what is a traditional theatre performance and what isn’t and I think the time for theatrical snobbery is over. This is a different way of engaging with an audience, this performance is followed by a conversation with them but more than a question and answer between us and them, a dialogue about what they saw, how they perceived it and whether it came across in the way we had hoped. Any feedback will then be fed back into creative discussions and these discussions will shape the final draft of the play. This method of gathering an evalued response creates a platform for the voices of the audience and not just female voices.
Last night was our first showing at Krowji in Redruth Cornwall, an artistic hub for creatives across different practices. In a rehearsal room with a log burning stove we performed in traverse for forty minutes and then sat for twice that time whilst every member of the audience returned and every member of the audience responded. They weren’t asked to but volunteered to. I have never witnessed that in other Q&As. The audience considered everything they had seen; the relationship between the two women, the setting of piece -not just in traverse but also why an orchard. They wanted to know where the audience were coming from, they wanted more young people to see it because there was so much to learn…is suffrage still taught in Schools? One history teacher spoke up, we have to obey government guidelines… well I know how Emmeline would respond to that! To perform as part of this process is very emancipating, our voices ARE being heard, as I come to terms with who I am playing the audience are feeding me with their outside eyes and this feels very democratic.
We finished on a point made by a male member of the audience ‘it’s not just a feminist thing, its a human thing’ he said and that seemed to sum up the evening in every way and it makes me very excited to hear how other audiences will respond.

The roadshow continues, as will the blog responses.

For more information click on the image below to enlarge

the art of good conversation

I am getting to that point in my life where sometimes I struggle to find the word in a conversation, sometimes a small everyday kind of word that normally you don’t have to even think about. This doesn’t matter when you are with a group of friends, people who know you, who understand because they are experiencing the same thing, or younger people who think ‘oh it’s just Ruth!!!’

But sometimes you need to put your point across concisely, with clarity so that hopefully people will listen. As a performer I believe I think instinctively, I am used to being in a rehearsal situation where I need to be able to jump up and improvise a situation, not to think about it but just see what happens. In terms of my conversations they tend to be similar, I am not strategic and I certainly don’t think before I speak, which I know has got me into a pickle before now. As I talk I have often focused on people mid sentence to see them staring back at me as if I am speaking an alien language. My usual problem is that if I am talking about something I know about or have created, lets say a performance or cultural event idea, then I talk as if the person listening knows about it as well as I do, I forget to come at it from their point of view. For example I have just created a performance about baseball and when talking to the other creatives working on it, who don’t know the game as well as I do,  I expect them to understand  and therefore I have to repeat myself, with explanations along the way.

Last night a few individual theatre makers within Plymouth all came together to talk about the ever growing Plymouth Theatre scene, a term that has grown to acknowledge an alternative to the Arts Council funded large organisations with the big buildings and resources. Here were graduates at the start of their cultural journey alongside actors and theatre makers who have been in the business for a couple of decades as well as those inbetweeners. From our conversation we realized that no matter what step you are at on your journey you would always be learning, and the one thing to keep us all going and to keep an alternative theatre scene was to communicate with each other, to know we are all in one group and that we can help one another. What was vitally important to everyone was to keep the conversation going.

Which brings me to a new ebook by Karl James, he is the director of the Dialogue Project and conversation is his main tool. I heard A Different Kind of Justice on radio 4 recorded by Karl about restorative justice and it was one of the best radio conversations I have heard. He also works in my world, the theatre world, as a co-director for Tim Crouch, (Adler & Gibb, What Happens to Hope at the end of the Evening, The Author) and his recording of children’s conversations created the fabulous Monkey Bars for Chris Goode and Company which we saw play the Theatre Royal (Drum) in 2012.

The book is called Say it and Solve it and it comes at communication from a business point of view; those work conversations that are going to be difficult, that you are not looking forward to, where the stakes are high. Karl creates a toolkit that takes you through the process from the absolute beginning. Checklists of the time and the space, i.e making the time and creating the space, to navigating your way through the conversation. I don’t belong in the business world of the suit and tie, the nine to five, the conversation at the water cooler but I can see how this book could help me find my way through countless different situations. Talking to an Arts Council advisor, talking to the keyholder of the building I want to use for a performance, talking to students who are all going to be the ‘next big thing’ in the arts.                                                  We all need to re-check our conversation techniques and this looks like a great resource. I wonder if it will help me with short term memory loss, I reckon it will have some tips.

For a free download of the first chapter click on this link.

Look out for What Happens to Hope at the End of the Evening coming to the Theatre Royal (Drum) next Spring.

Research for my @TheatreWestUK show

Believe it or not this is research for my next show. When you are there, at a baseball game, it is pure theatre. This clip is a mash up of Robert Redford in The Natural and the real life drama of the 1988 Kirk Gibson home run to win the World Series, which features in my new show Homeward Bound.

“Baseball is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of those who have gone before”. Ken Burns, The History of Baseball

Homeward Bound is a solo performance inspired by my son’s love of baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the team he plays with in the South West Baseball League; interwoven with the spectre of my own upbringing in a Northern household with three generations of women.

 Homeward Bound will play the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol 15-26th September 2014 for Theatre West