CHAPTER THREE- HOW TO LAND

Anna Reynolds, writer

So, despite our best efforts not to focus too much on the pandemic in the writing and making of these films, number 3, How To Land, does in fact have a few relevant issues.

It’s set in a care home, and the narrator is a young woman who has lost her cabin crew job with an airline overnight- due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic although this was perhaps the last straw in a failing business model, who knows. It’s certainly true that many air crew have found themselves suddenly out of a job they loved and thought would continue, and have equally found that their usually excellent people/customer facing skills transfer beautifully to the care and similar sectors.

Jade discovers the similarities and huge differences in her former life and this brave new one… both are low paid jobs and often hugely undervalued, but both are jobs or vocations that require courage, care, thoughtfulness, and an inner strength and resourcefulness. I wanted this story to reflect these hidden qualities that as a nation, we are now learning to appreciate that bit more, hopefully.

One of the residents in the home is a former pilot, whose visitors are unable to see her at present, although this may be partly a blessing in disguise for the proud and dignified June… watch it and see if you pick up the references to other films in the series so far.

Rosamunde Hutt, director

Walking in early lockdown, looking out to sea in South Wales, watching the tankers making slow progress down the Bristol Channel and seeing the empty skies overhead, only broken by the roar of engines of a huge military plane which I discovered was bringing PPE from China to Cardiff, several threads of our Nothing on Earth Shorts project began to weave together.

Our first two Shorts were looking at women involved in flight in the Second World War but as our Chair Thomas Kell reminded us in a planning conversation, all around us in 2020 the aviation industry was in turmoil. We had been touched by the tears of a Flybe stewardess who had heard in the early hours of the morning of 5th March that her airline had collapsed and very soon afterwards my nephew, usually travelling the globe in the travel industry, started as an assistant at a care home, alongside three cabin crew members, all adapting to caring for the residents, learning how to use hoists, to give people comfort at end of life and to transfer their people skills to an entirely new context. And in every sphere it seemed that everyone was adapting. In the theatre industry we were rapidly learning how to create theatre on Zoom. I found myself in my mother’s spare room connected to a fast internet speed courtesy of her kind neighbours directing productions on my trusty old laptop. And full of admiration for the actors involved who had been thrown into a brave new world of filming themselves, dealing with the mysteries of sound and light levels and ransacking their wardrobes for suitable costumes.

We were hearing daily of cabin crew and theatre artists changing identities overnight; the drummer who was now picking fruit and vegetables, the pilot who had opened a funeral home, cabin crew retraining as teachers, and actors, stage managers and lighting electricians driving delivery vans, stacking shelves, working for the NHS. Anna talked to Suzanne Ahmet, playing Jade in How to Land, and myself about June inspiring Jade to raise her game, effectively saying ‘don’t settle for less, don’t shut down your aspirations, be yourself’. Our previous heroines in Learning To Fly and How To Build A Plane had moved out of their comfort zones. Now we needed to follow their example!

We turned to my nephew for a first-hand account of life in a care home and he described the 12 hour days, the tenderness, courage and resilience needed to fulfil the duties, and the emotional toil taken out on the staff, patient, overstretched, exhausted. Part of the daily routine for all the regular care home workers but very new to those from completely other worlds.

So a central theme started to evolve for us whilst making this film, that of transferable skills, the journey overnight from a life in the skies or on the stage to the care home, the supermarket, the screen.

Over to Suzanne to explore this theme further:

Suzanne Ahmet as Jade in How To Land

TRANSFERABLE SKILLS

Emma Christopher

“I’ve been on furlough since April and have used my skills to volunteer with the local council. They were looking for Empathy, Willingness, Time…and a Caring Nature. I shopped for two elderly people self-isolating and befriended a lady who desperately needed someone to talk too. She helped me as much as I helped her!”

EMMA CHRISTOPHER, Cabin Crew, Virgin Atlantic

Sarah Thorne

“In January I decided to redo a TEFL course…Before I finished…lockdown happened (and) part of the course went online. I panicked. My tech skills were minimal. Being furloughed meant I had time to focus on learning the skills to complete the course online.

A week after finishing I was volunteering in a Zoom English class for local refugees who didn’t have access to formal classes. Now I am also working with a lady who is a refugee living in Greece, hoping to make it to Britain. And two other ladies, working 1-1 in Stoke. These are all unpaid but I have been able to do this thanks to the furlough scheme.

As my husband has no work at the moment, I am making extra money teaching English to kids in China.

I have seen this crisis in our theatre industry as a time to step back and take the opportunity to spread my wings a bit. Something that is difficult to do when you work full time and care for a family.

The best thing is, now I know I can do these things I can combine my new adventure with working at the theatre when they find a way to make theatre happen. “

SARAH THORNE, Costume Department, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under-Lyme

A BURGEONING FRIENDSHIP

Before I started writing this blog, I put a post out on social media asking for examples of transferring, learning or sharing skills in order to volunteer or maintain existing work over the pandemic. It seemed like fate when these two stories lit up my inbox.

Aviation and Theatre – two industries severely affected, yet filled with positive, brave professionals determined to stay relevant and connected despite the crisis.

Our heroine Jade, in How To Land, is just such a soul.

She is drawn to a 94-year-old resident, June, at the Care Home, where she now works.

Through their burgeoning friendship, we see each woman reinstate the other’s wings. They probe, challenge and delight one another uncovering an intimate side, not shown to many.

For me, the strength of the piece lies in its honesty. Both writer Anna Reynolds and director Rosamunde Hutt, were keen to give each woman her “edges”. Jade and June state their opinions, snap, flourish, tease and reveal nerves and vulnerabilities under the skin. Without this we wouldn’t believe them. It would be a ‘nice’ story instead of a muscular one. A ‘pretty’ friendship instead of a rich exchange. It would be ‘polite’ instead of rigorous & therefore inspiring.

STEPPING INTO ANOTHER’S SHOES

Fear. Rigour. Bravery. Muscle. Truth. Joy.

All these words reflect what it’s like to take on a new role and learn a new skill. And both our heroines in How To Land do this during a global crisis.

Anna’s terrific script, along with hers and Rosamunde’s insights meant we were on a journey of discovery together, finding Jade and June and bringing them off the page and into life.

THE SET UP

In case you’re yet to watch How To Land, the set-up is this:

There is one actor. Me. I play Jade, she talks to the camera, telling the spectator about her new job and her favourite resident, June. We imagine June to be off to the side of the camera, but Jade voices her, telling the audience what she says and does. I (the actor) change my voice, to reflect when June is talking and then switch back to Jade’s voice when Jade takes over the narrative again.

At specific moments, Rosamunde (director) asked me to use a classic “storytellers” technique, where the narrator almost becomes the character she is describing.

In addition to this, we explored different “eyelines” and “points of focus” to further clarify who is talking when. We hope it’s clear as you watch?!!

* an eyeline is where I am looking – e.g. to the right of camera and straight ahead

* a point of focus is what I am looking at.

FINDING JUNE

June is an imagined member of The Air Transport Auxiliary; founded at the beginning of WW11 and thanks to the remarkable efforts of Pauline Gower MBE, open to women by 1940. Both female and male pilots played an esteemed role in the war effort, ferrying planes to air bases all over the UK, ready for RAF pilots to take into battle.

Pauline Gower, copyright Imperial War Museum

Here is a short introduction to Pauline Gower, in her own voice!

In How To Land, we learn that through a pact made with her father, June not only learns to fly aged 14 but also joins Pauline Gower’s team when she turns 17.

As a modern actor, I need to mentally and emotionally put myself into June’s reality: 1940, 14 years old. Female. What did the world allow for me? What would the world expect of me? What would it mean to ask my father, the landowner, the patriarch and a WW1 veteran if he would let me fly his old biplane? I mean, “Gutsy” doesn’t even come close!

The brilliant writing also gives insight into June’s father. He throws down the gauntlet: “Alright Junie,” he says, “if you can repair it, you can fly it”.

And she does!

As an actor, I read this exchange between Father and Daughter and ask myself the following questions:

  1. How did June manage to repair a plane? Who would have helped her? Where would she have got parts? Tools? Knowledge?
  1. How did June manage to repair a plane? Who would have helped her? Where would she have got parts? Tools? Knowledge?
  1. How did June manage to repair a plane? Who would have helped her? Where would she have got parts? Tools? Knowledge?

And then, just like the other actors in the Nothing On Earth: Shorts, I went on a treasure hunt, researching:

– Videos of old biplanes being repaired and taking off.

– Youtube interviews with the original ATA Girls (Female Air Transport Auxilary Pilots).

– BBC World Service podcasts on Spitfires.

The latter led me to Beatrice Shilling OBE– a female engineer in the 30s/40s, who fixed one of the major flaws in the Spitfire engine – facing a lot of challenges and obstacles due to her sex. In my backstory – (history) – for June, I made Beatrice one of her role models.

Listen to the full podcast about Beatrice here.

All of this helped me imagine a rich and truthful world for June.

Through this research I discovered Joy Lofthouse. A real life ATA Girl, born 14/2/1923 died 15/11/2015.

I fell in love and printed an A4 colour picture of her and pinned it opposite me wherever possible.

This made for a good fixed eyeline and point of focus. It made Jade (me) feel like she was actually talking to someone. I had a scene partner!

Through watching our wonderful Géhane Strehler playing the Aviatrix in Learning To Fly and my discovery of Joy Lofthouse I felt a strong sense of younger and mature June.

Here’s an interview with Joy:

Here’s a picture of one of my filming set ups:

And here’s my picture of Joy next to one of Géhane in Learning to Fly.

FINDING JADE

I used the exact same skills to find the character of Jade.

I researched footage on “A Day In The Life Of Cabin Crew” & “A Day In The Life of A Care Home Assistant” and was in awe of both sets of professionals!

I asked myself: where has Jade come from and where is she now? Which of her former skills transfers over? What pushes her boundaries?

Both Anna and Rosamunde asked: “what does it look like when Cabin Crew morphs into Care Home Assistant”. How do the worlds merge?

I wrote a list of contrasting smells and textures and went around my house feeling materials and sticking my nose in different bottles to get those stark differences into my sense memory.

E.g.:

Disinfectant Versus a Fragrant lipstick

PPE & Scrubs Versus Tailored jacket, heels and a soft smart shirt

Woolly socks Versus 10 denier tights

Tea Versus Gin – (To be fair, you do get both on a plane!)

I also compared the realities of working in the same venue, every day with landing in different countries for overnight stays, with very little notice.

Along with the contrasts came crossovers: patience, emergency medical knowledge, people skills, caring for unwell and/or vulnerable passengers, intense, pacey training, long hours and a warm camaraderie among the teams.

We began to wonder if the biggest contrast between the two worlds lay in intimacy. In a care home staff are washing, changing, cleaning, feeding and lifting another human being in 12-hour shifts, daily. A care home is intimately connected to illness, fragility and of course mortality. While a Cabin Crew member is a resilient, rigorous professional used to long shifts and stamina, this intimate care would be a new, challenging and quite understandably scary experience. Especially when your training is minimal and done at record speed.

While we do not explore this side of Jade’s role with June, we do uncover an emotional intimacy between the women. The slower pace of a Care Home allows for this. They spend private, sometimes silent hours with one another. listening, hearing, watching, waiting and eventually probing each other to speak.

A TRIBUTE

While we must celebrate the human instinct to remain spirited in a crisis, it is perhaps important to acknowledge the feelings of grief, anxiety and loss over these turbulent times. We would like to pay tribute to all professionals in all industries who have offered so much and to so many, despite personal challenges and upheavals.

I would also like to pay a personal tribute to the Creative Community. The generosity, affection, resilience and indomitable spirits among my colleagues and friends have been remarkable.

Thank you for watching and reading. It is a privilege to have your time.

To end, a final quote from my Head of Acting at Drama School. Two words I associate with Hilary Wood: Imagination and Anarchy. I think Jade and June would approve, don’t you?!

“I have acquired the skill of teaching on Zoom, everything I normally teach in the room”.

HILLARY WOOD, Head of Acting, The Lir, Trinity College Dublin, previous Head of Acting at The Webber Douglas Academy

Everyone has a story to tell, let’s keep finding new ways to share them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *