CHAPTER FOUR – HOW TO SPACE

Anna Reynolds, writer

It’s been a joy to ring the changes a little with this latest film in the Nothing on Earth; Shorts series, How To Space. This one gets a little abstract in some ways, or at least isn’t in the same fairly naturalistic world as the previous 3 have been. The worlds of the WW2 aviator June, Welsh former Co-Op worker turned warplane builder Betty and cabin crew-turned-care home worker Jade were all recognisable and to some extent specific to their own contexts, but How To Space literally goes higher.

I was inspired by the women who have been into space- of a total of 565 space travellers, 65 have been female. There was the first, Russia’s Valentina Tereshkova, who went up in 1963; the first US woman, Sally Ride, in 1983; Judith Resnik, who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986; Anna Lee Fisher, the first mother in space, 1984; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space in 1982; Christina Koch, who not only spent 328 days continuously in space but also co-piloted the first all-female space expedition. And the rest, all of them fascinating.

Rather brilliantly, for Chekhov fans, Valentina’s spacecraft was called Seagull and when she had launched she radioed down:

‘It is I, Seagull! Everything is fine. I see the horizon; it’s a sky blue with a dark strip. How beautiful the earth is…everything is going well’

https://youtu.be/5rx6nA4aAao

But writing about space is so… unknowable, it demands a different style, from the writer, performer, editor and composer. I think we have all had to elevate ourselves a little on this one- the extra challenge and delight has been that our very talented performer, Chanel Glasgow, has been in semi-lockdown in Trinidad who by huge luck was filming a project of her own…! I’ll leave it to her to say more about her work.

Chanel takes up the story

As a Caribbean born and based actor, perseverance has always been a major theme on the quest to pursue my “larger-than-life” dreams. Ever since I could remember, I’ve had dreams of pushing the limit of my given circumstances in order to make it on the world stage. Growing up in a musical family who allowed my passion for the arts to flourish helped a great deal, but no one ever really believed that I would actually turn it into a fully realized career. It was very rare for someone in the Caribbean to become a full-time actor, especially on the international stage. I never allowed the statistics to deter me and I worked tirelessly towards my dream of a fully-fledged acting career. 

One of my first memories of Theatre class in University, we were all sitting in a circle, googly-eyed and waiting for our lecturer to say something absolutely profound and life changing. He looked at us and said, “If you’re in this room to make money forget about it, you’re here and you’ll only stay here for the love of it”. Many hearts were broken that day, but not mine. I made a pact with myself, that if it is the last thing I do, I will make a sustainable career out of this. I still, however, found myself taking on other jobs after graduating university with my Bachelor’s degree. I worked in the bank, I worked in insurance, I was even a teacher for a bit, all the while doing acting jobs on the side. It wasn’t until I got a call from the National Theater Arts company of Trinidad and Tobago, when I decided to put teaching on the back burner to experience what it was like being a full-time actor in Trinidad. After about a year with the National I decided it was time to take the next step in developing my career further. My eyes have always been on the international stage. I spent months of sleepless nights, researching, applying, fundraising for flights to the U.K just to audition, applying for scholarships, writing countless letters and making endless phone calls. In the end all of the hard work, miraculously paid off and I got it! I got into a top drama school in the U.K, tuition and board, fully funded!

All this backstory is to simply put into context the brilliant coming together of the “Nothing on Earth” story. When I met Rosamunde, Anna and the gang I’d just completed my Master’s. I’d gotten signed by a brilliant agency and I was auditioning for work as an actor in London. The trajectory of my budding international career was very promising, to say the least. The very first time I read the N.O.E script, every bit of the character’s journey resonated with me deeply as a result of what I’d just put myself through to achieve all that I wanted in life. These female heroines on the page in Anna’s play were reaffirming so much of my own choices in such a profound way, I felt like it was my duty to share their level of passion and dedication with everyone else around me. I loved learning Helen Chadwick’s especially composed songs and was inspired by a session with PBAB Associate Director, Grant Watson, in which he explored the possibilities of transmedia storytelling and digital content in theatre. In the end, it was a great run and I felt as though I’d made some friends for life, through that experience. 

Flash forward almost half a year later, to a pandemic stricken 2020.  Interestingly enough, I’d decided to come back home to Trinidad for a short while to do a bit of visa restructuring before heading back to London. It was extremely difficult re-adjusting, I’d just spent the past two years living out every bit of my dream and now, it almost felt as though I’d taken several steps backwards. The depression hit. It was terrible. I fought my way out and realized that I was here for a purpose and I was going to find it.

I also wanted to network as much as possible and learn more about the local industry, so I applied for a part time position with the Filmmakers Collaborative of Trinidad and Tobago, aka FILMCO. There I was charged with developing and executing all of their education programs for filmmakers across the region. Once the pandemic struck, we were able to easily structure all of the programming online via Zoom and we hosted numerous workshops and seminars which featured actors, directors, producers, filmmakers from all over the Caribbean region, the US and UK! It was such a success! Personally, I was also able to still send in my audition tapes online, as well as attend international acting workshops, readings and auditions via Zoom. I actually made a few connections to UK based directors during that time and was able to book a residency in France (which in the end I couldn’t attend because our country’s borders remain closed). If it weren’t for the pandemic it would not have been easy, I believe. What the pandemic did was allow a space for new ideas and alternative choices. It gave me the opportunity to reach out, all the way from the Caribbean, because everything is now online. It made my voice as “equal” as someone living in the US or the UK. 

Then one morning I received an email from Rosamunde! Another opportunity to work with the Pursued by A Bear Team and Anna, with Grant as the director! The first time I read the How to Space monologue, I sobbed so hard. It really was a reflection, yet again of everything I’d just been through, in coming back home. The idea of pursuing one’s dreams, achieving it, “having a taste of freedom but must follow instinct”. It crushed me. It was precisely why I had to do it! It was an opportunity to continue telling these deeply passionate stories of women who work hard against all odds. In my country, it almost feels as though being an artist means setting yourself up for a life of disappointment. Everything works against favour, you develop such a high level of tenacity, it is difficult to give up and walk away. This piece renewed so much for me as an actor on a mission to keep creating, to build my home country to experience the international stage. Purpose. How to Space renewed my Purpose.

My education work led me to interviewing Lael Greaves about her artistic work, a 13-year-old student at the Holy Name Convent Secondary School in Trinidad. She recently discovered her hidden talent for visual art during in March when the lockdown began and she starting painting some breath taking images of “Space”. I thought she would be brilliant for the moment on screen. This is Lael’s screen debut as she’s never done any professional acting before. Fun fact: the painting we see of the moon at her writing desk, is one of the first paintings she’s done. 

Once the dust has settled after this pandemic, my hope is that the global industry will keep looking to access and develop those alternative networks methods of casting, work shopping, staging and filming.

Over to Grant Watson, Director

Grant Watson – Director & Film Editor

And so here we are with How To Space. This is the fourth in a series of Lockdown films that develop themes from Anna’s wonderful play Nothing on Earth. Before Covid decided to turn the world on its head Pursued by a Bear were planning a theatrical tour of this fantastic piece to venues across the South East and beyond. Then the pandemic struck and we were pitched into a completely new reality – the theatres were closed, the stages were dark and all our plans had gone up in smoke – what were we to do? There was so much in this play that needed to be said, so much life and vitality that needed to be shared. Art, like life, doesn’t just stop in its tracks, it has to find new avenues, negotiate new pathways through the darkness. So, like a lot of other creatives, we had to get to work. Under the fantastic leadership of PBAB artistic Director Rosamunde Hutt and Chairperson Thomas Kell, PBAB set about raising funding that would take the project in a completely new direction.

Back in 2016 PBAB had produced my play The Lamellar Project at The Arcola Theatre in London (subsequently retitling it Perfect Blue when it transferred to the United States the following year) – this ambitious (and slightly mad) piece was set across two continents over a live Skype line (no, really) which back in 2016 was something completely new (and somewhat precarious given the quality of the signal!) The play was a great success and put me on a new trajectory as an artist. While we worked on the production I became more interested in the idea of Transmedia storytelling – that is creating ‘universe’ stories across different platforms. Perfect Blue lent itself perfectly to this kind of work because it was set in a future where genetic engineering had saved the planet from the sixth great extinction – but the price (there’s always a price) was all kinds of terrifying corporate skullduggery. As part of the production we created films, websites, short stories and all kinds of content that operated within the same universe – an audience could find their through an ecology of storytelling and have their own unique experience of it as they went along.

I gradually became more and more interested in this kind of work and have been developing Transmedia projects with various companies ever since. Out of this the idea of telling Nothing on Earth across different platforms came about and we decided to apply for funding to create a series of films that interrelated with one another and told stories that would form part of a Nothing on Earth universe. There were plenty of stories to tell, fantastic, rich characters from diverse backgrounds across a landscape that stretched from South Wales to Trinidad! After securing funding from ACE Rosamunde set about casting and directing these shows over Zoom (and the results are available to see on this website!) What I particularly love about these films is the way they all connect – characters bleed in and out of the narrative – in Learning to Fly we see June as a young woman during WW2, then in How to Land we revisit her as an elderly woman looking back on her life in a care home in 2020. The characters drop in and out like old friends – there’s something so warm about it, so precious and intimate. The performances are simply delightful – full of energy, wit and compassion. Then when it came to the fourth film in the series Rosamunde asked me if I’d like to direct and I jumped at the chance. How to Space had a very different vibe to the other films in the series – there was something rather poetic and dreamy about it – it really did seem to exist a little outside of the world – floating in its own orbit among the stars. I was delighted when Rosamunde suggested Chanel Glasgow for the part of the astronaut – I had met Chanel at a reading of Nothing On Earth at the University of Hertfordshire and really loved her performance – so the prospect of working with her on this was terribly exciting.

Then during our initial conversation about the piece I said to Rosamunde that I thought it might be interesting if we set the monologue on a beach (thinking we might be able to shoot it in Clacton or Bognor Regis) – so when Rosamunde told me that Chanel was based in Trinidad it seemed like some kind of cosmic alignment had taken place! After hearing Chanel deliver a beautiful reading of the monologue over Zoom I was introduced to two wonderful film makers from Trinidad who would be working on the film in locations across the island. Jian Hennings and Sophie Walcott were already making a film with Chanel and had access to cameras and equipment that would allow us to take an entirely different approach to the production – rather than the actor using an iPad to capture scenes – we would use a more traditional method of filming to create our piece. With film makers of the calibre of Jian and Sophie on board I knew we would be able to create some startling images. So then we set about trying to find a process that would work.

One of the locations in Trinidad and Tobago

I created a treatment for what I wanted that included descriptions of shots with reference images and various photo-shopped frames. Jian and Sophie took this treatment and started to think about locations – but given the various restrictions that were being put in place in Trinidad, our options started to narrow. Luckily Chanel was able to hire a beach house with its own private beach (!) in a rather reclusive part of the island that was able cover all of the shots we had decided to shoot. Although communication was difficult (there was barely any signal at the beach) Jian and Sophie were able to shoot some incredible footage and Chanel delivered a stunning, mesmeric performance of the monologue. Because of the various delays we had an incredibly short time to edit the piece in time for the Watford Fringe Festival – but with some help from the wonderful Lindsay Chambers we were able to edit together the film that you can see here. I think it’s a strange, mysterious and beautiful little film that really showcases Anna’s evocative, enigmatic writing and I feel very honoured to be involved in its creation. I was also incredibly pleased to include another one of Helen Chadwick’s amazing songs at the end of the film with the incomparable Chanel taking on vocal duties. The whole thing has been a joy from start to finish! I’d particularly like to thank Chanel, Jian and Sophie for their dedication to the cause – a truly brilliant team of people that I hope I can work with again one day. Perhaps this time in person…

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