Tag Archives: Plymouth’s synagogue

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

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Cemetery Audio Tour in the Plymouth Art Weekender

Over the last few weeks Derek Frood and myself aka ripple, have been busy researching archives, censuses, newspapers, genealogy sites and books, books, books about the old Jewish cemetery on Plymouth Hoe. In 1740 this plot was a family garden; today it is a calm oasis that hides a wealth of history and culture. We have created 15 short pieces; stories, biographies and happenings, murders, bankruptcies, plague and adultery and for three days over September, within the Plymouth Art Weekender, we will be sharing those stories with you.

http://plymouthartweekender.com/events/the-old-jewish-cemetery/?l=L1&ri=0

Audio Trail in The Old Jewish Cemetery, Lambhay Hill, The Hoe.

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Located on Plymouth’s historic Hoe, in the shadow of The Citadel, lies a hidden secret: The Old Jewish Cemetery. Contained within high stone walls it has always remained hidden from public view. The only clue to its existence is an insignificant door.
Earlier this year that door was opened and for the first time in its history the general public were given the opportunity to step over the threshold. A few months later, with the aid of funding from Vital Sparks, an audio trail has been created in the garden cemetery, bringing to life the lives of those buried within this hidden gem.
In 1740 this plot was a family garden; today it is a calm oasis that hides a wealth of history and culture.

Open for one hour
Friday 23rd September at 11am
Saturday 24th September at 2pm
&Sunday 25th September at 2pm
Audio created by Ruth Mitchell and Derek Frood, aka ripple
Ruth Mitchell and Derek Frood have been working together for ten years making performance and audio for intimate spaces. rippletheatreco.com
Recorded with StS, Stage technical Services http://www.stagetechservices.co.uk
Plymouth Hebrew Congregation http://plymouthsynagogue.com

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More Coffee with Vera

Coffee with Vera returns to the Plymouth History Festival during May, so if you haven’t had the pleasure of coffee with Vera yet, come along, it’s free. The show runs for 50 minutes and then afterwards there is the all important conversations with the coffee and, if we are lucky the kosher cake!

WHEN ? Wednesday 11.5.16 @ 11am & Saturday 14.5.26 @ 7pm in the Plymouth Synagogue, Catherine Street PL1 2AD

I believe Wednesday is getting pretty full but if you want to come please book a place via this number 07753 267616 or phccaretaker@yahoo.co.uk

Coffee with Vera is a performance I made as part of my MRes in Theatre & Performance at Plymouth University.

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Coffee with Vera returns to the Plymouth Synagogue

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When I first performed Coffee with Vera it was inside the vestry of the Plymouth Synagogue. My decision to use the vestry rather than the synagogue was twofold. The synagogue can be accessed through an appointment to view with a guided tour, conducted by the caretaker. It can be considered a performance in itself, which gives a particular reading of the site. This is very much a male dominated space where the men perform the service and the women are seated upstairs away from the males. This is, according to Rabbi Aaron Moss, so that both male and female can focus on their prayer away from the opposite sex, an opportunity to be with your ‘true self, to communicate with your soul’ (Chabad.org: online). Roberta Mock states that ‘women were (and still, in traditional Judaism, are) “exempt” (that is, excluded) from most religious learning, prayer, and ritual’ (Mock, 2007:2). Secondly, the vestry is a lived in space; the building houses two flats, one for a rabbi and one for a caretaker and there is a kitchen to make refreshments. ‘Women’s sphere of influence is defined exclusively in halacha, or Jewish law, as “domestic affairs”’ (Mock, 2007:2).

For the next three weeks I will be performing Coffee with Vera within the Plymouth History Festival and I have been asked to perform within the synagogue itself so apart from the Saturday (when I will be in the vestry for the Sabbath) I will be performing within what I consider a male space. Will this change the performance? I have no idea but it will be interesting to find out.

Mock, Roberta (2007) Jewish Women on Stage, Film and Television. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

COFFEE WITH VERA
Saturday 9 May, 3pm to 4pm (in the vestry)
Tuesday 12 May, 11am to 12pm (synagogue)
Sunday 17 May, 11am to 12pm (synagogue)
Tuesday 19 May, 7pm to 8pm (synagogue)
Synagogue Chambers, Catherine Street, Plymouth, PL1 2AD
Watch Ruth Mitchell’s award winning performance of ‘Coffee with Vera’ in the Plymouth Synagogue, followed by coffee and cake in the Vestry with “Vera” herself.
Admission is free. Donations are welcome. Booking is essential via 07753 267616 or phccaretaker@yahoo.co.uk

Taking the specific out of Site-specific

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Vera in the Vestry at the Jewish Museum, London

Taken on a phone camera by a member of the audience we will forgo the quality and look at what the picture tells us.I was invited to perform my Plymouth University MRes practice as research piece at the Jewish Museum after performing at the Plymouth Synagogue – the site it was inspired by and intended for. So what does one do when you take the specificity out of a site-specific performance? In this instance I was performing in a room that usually housed talks and readings, it was geared up for this activity. Part of my performance involves taking family photographs out of a suitcase and placing them on a table but as I had an AV system at my disposal I thought I would take advantage and project images behind me as I related to them. I had originally thought I would just project an image of the vestry, the room I used for my Plymouth performance, behind me and imagine I was within the room and not change anything in my text. Then as I went over my script I realised that there were things I had to explain to an audience who were not actually sitting in the vestry. Things that the Plymouth audience witnessed first hand. Therefore before the ‘performance’ started I gave a brief talk to contextualise the vestry, it’s place within the city and why I had come to make the performance there. We decided to call the performance ‘a performance talk’ which seemed to fit well within the space that is set up for that. Having decided to contextualise it I then took advantage of the fact I could project larger images behind me and continued to produce images to help the audience visualise my content. Therefore, in the end I constantly referred to my performance in the vestry and didn’t try and pretend I was there. I have to say that my performance was geared up to allow those references. I had always referred to Vera in the Vestry as ‘starting a cultural conversation’ and felt that I could just interject at times without taking anything away from the text. There was even someone in the audience who had been with me at a point I refer to in the performance so I asked her if she remembered, which also highlighted the conversational aspect. The feed back was really positive, people liked the ‘talk’ aspect and the information about the Plymouth synagogue, indeed the wider context about Plymouth and where the synagogue sits within the city. I had feared that would come across as a history lesson.

In Plymouth I welcomed the audience into the vestry as if there were coming to a coffee morning and I was the host, I offered coffee and cake and introduced people to one another if I saw fit – just like a host would if people were arriving at their home and introductions were needed.

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In the museum I hadn’t any coffee or cakes but the event space was directly next to the museum cafe which worked really well. The audience arrived and I told them to get a coffee and introduced them to whoever was waiting in the cafe. This had been the interesting part in Plymouth for me, people on arrival were always questioning whether I was in character as Vera or Ruth. They couldn’t work it out, I was greeting them as Ruth but seemed to be attired as someone else. This made me question my ‘performance’ as myself and how being a host is actually a performance in our everyday life. In the museum I was replicating this part of my performance by greeting people as they arrived and keeping up the appearance of being Ruth whilst obviously about to be someone else.

And now Vera is going to Latitude and will be performing in a caravan or tent. How will I adapt for an audience of five? Well, I will remember the campsite retreat where I did a ten minute performance and take inspiration from that. I think a 1950’s flask is in order, to give my audience some coffee and I’ll have some Kit Kats handy. Watch this space and I will tell you how it goes. Oh and keep your fingers crossed for good weather, Vera doesn’t camp very well.

Coffee with Vera in the Vestry

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COFFEE WITH VERA IN THE VESTRY: sharing a cultural conversation

A solo site-specific performance                    Created and performed by Ruth Mitchell

Wednesday 22nd May @ 3pm and 7pm       Sunday 26th May @ 12 noon

In the vestry of the Plymouth Synagogue    Catherine Street, Plymouth

A performance of stories  about identity and heritage from the oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in continuous use in the English speaking world. Join Ruth and Vera Jockleson, chair of the Ladies Guild, for an informal coffee morning.                                  This is a free event and is part of Ruth’s MRes in Theatre & Performance at Plymouth University.

I will also be giving a performance at the Jewish Museum in London, on Sunday 30th June.

The Liminality of my chosen space.

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The synagogue Catherine street, photo by Simon Gomery

So, I can reveal that my chosen space for my site-specific performance is the vestry of Plymouth’s synagogue, the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue, in continuous use, in the English-speaking world. Hidden away, even from the pavement (you can just see the roof of the building behind the synagogue above), many people don’t even know the building the vestry is housed in exists. If you’ve read previous posts you will know that I am very interested in the hiddenness of places and I have tried to explain one of my reasons for choosing it below; I can’t deny that my theatre background has had a hand in that.

If, according to Victor Turner (1992), a theatre and dance hall is where liminal behaviour takes place, then a dressing room must surely be an example of a liminal space. The performer enters the theatre from their everyday life, they divest the garments of that everyday world and put on the costume of the character they will play within the theatre. The dressing room acts as an in-between place where one performance ends and another is about to begin. In the vestry of a church, chapel or synagogue the priest or rabbi comes into the space just as the actor enters the dressing room. They enter as themselves but put on the garments of the ritual performance of the service. The vestry therefore acts as their dressing room, the place in-between the outside everyday life and that of the performance of the service they are facilitating. In its previous life as a Hebrew school the vestry of the Plymouth synagogue also had a liminality – the place where childhood met adulthood, where the boy is tutored for his coming of age bar mitzvah. This act is liminal in the ritualistic performativity of tutoring children into the ways of adulthood. Therefore, the space has remained a liminal space throughout its two hundred year existence from school to vestry.

The building itself was built at a time when planning in the relatively small town included a green area at the front of the synagogue. When these plans didn’t materialise and other buildings were built around it, the school building became hidden away becoming liminal in its place within the mapping of the city. Only accessed by people who were using the building, the place, never noted by passers-by because there was no visibility from the pavements, was therefore never in the psyche of the gentiles in Plymouth. Therefore in its architecture, it’s usage and its place within the culture of the city, the entire life of this space has been mainly forgotten by all but one group of the city’s inhabitants.

Turner, Victor (1987) The Anthropology of Performance, New York: PAJ Publications.