'May'

on Monday, 13 February 2017. Posted in Events

Turning a story from the past into a play for the present at Trowbridge Town Hall

This month's guest blog is written by Lizzie Crarer:

2017 has had a bit of a rocky start. The events in America over the past few weeks are a challenge to the liberal values that many of us have hitherto taken for granted, raising questions about political resistance, and what this looks like in today’s world.

In this context, I have been lucky enough to spend the past 2 weeks at Trowbridge Town Hall with a group of 5 other theatre artists, exploring a story of politics, protest – and, ultimately, hope.

Rosa ‘May’ Billinghurst was a young woman at the turn of the 20th Century who grew up in London, conscious of the massive social injustice that was the legacy of the industrial revolution. Increasingly frustrated at her inability to create political change, and with a government that evaded the issue of the women’s vote, she turned to the suffragette movement. She rose quickly through the ranks of the Women’s Social and Political Union, becoming a key member of the organization. She engaged in direct action, she spoke at rallies alongside WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and she endured prison sentences and the horror of force-feeding. She was funny, ascerbic and passionate, with a loving and unusually liberal family. She was also wheelchair-user.

Theatre-maker Phoebe Kemp approached me at the end of last year with an invitation to help her develop a one-woman show about May. A wheelchair-user herself, Phoebe is infuriated by the lack of diversity and representation of disability in the arts and media. Thanks to Radio 4 podcast ‘Disability: A New History’, she had discovered that at the end of the 19th century over 60% of the inhabitants of her native village, Box, had some form of impairment. The social reality indicated by the records of this typical Wiltshire village is simply not reflected in the image of history that most of us gain from our totally unrepresentative costume dramas and historical documentaries. When Phoebe discovered, a few months later, the huge unpublished archive of letters, articles and papers relating to May, she knew she had to bring her story to life.

Thanks to the support of Town Hall Arts in Trowbridge, and to funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England, Phoebe has been able to assemble a group of collaborators to spend the past two weeks exploring how to turn this treasure-trove of historical research into an engaging and theatre show for a contemporary audience. As an embodied artform, theatre is a powerfully effective means of exploring the nuance and complexity of the life of an individual caught up in a pivotal moment in history. We have spent two weeks exploring the research through discussion, play, and through experimenting with dramatic structure. Research and development is a crucial part of the theatre-making process, and this two week process has been invaluable in providing Phoebe with the information that she requires to write the first draft of her solo theatre show, which will tour from the end of this year.

A person’s life is long and complex, and so a key question during the process has been: ‘what is the story that we want to tell?’ In exploring this question, we have also been exploring the story of the present.  The conversations that we had in the coffee breaks about the morning’s news were entirely relevant to what we were exploring within our work. Through looking at the history of political resistance through one woman’s personal story, we – and our audiences - can learn about the moral issues that we are facing now in all their complexity, and, I hope, come up with more effective and considered solutions for the present.

Phoebe’s collaborators were: theatre-makers Alison Farina (Butterfly Psyche), Lizzie Crarer (The Heroine Project Presents); actors Ed Browning and Stephanie Hazel; and designer Natalie Remington.

A huge thank-you to Town Hall Arts at Trowbridge Town Hall for their fantastic and generous support.