CHAPTER SIX – HOW TO LIVE OR, THE TROUBLE WITH WOMEN IS…

Anna Reynolds, writer

This is the last film in the ‘How To…’ series that is also known as ‘Nothing On Earth: Shorts’. Each of the films has had a theme related to flying; Learning to Fly, How To Land, How to Take Off, How to Build A Plane and How to Space. Each of these previous five have focused on a specific woman or group of women from history or contemporary life whose challenges, struggles and achievements have made them impossible to resist writing about, and in a way the spirit of these numerous, indomitable women are all brought together in this final film.

‘How To Live’ is alternatively titled, ‘The Trouble With Women Is…’ because one of the women who shared stories with us in a workshop on heroines said that very line; ‘The trouble with women is, they’ve got it but they don’t know it.’ This was just too delicious a phrase to ignore, really, and so it makes the title page as well as featuring in the film itself.

The stories in this film are from people of all ages from Dacorum in Hertfordshire, mainly women, from diverse ethnic backgrounds and life experiences, who have given these stories generously to us. Men contributed also, telling us about the heroines in their lives. They are tantalising snippets of lives lived often quietly but with strength, passion, endurance, humour and courage; of tragedies borne and survived, of achievements big and small often unnoticed but no less remarkable, and of slipping the surly bonds of earth, as the poem by John Gillespie Magee would have it. As one of our participants said – ‘I like breaking the ice. Travelling out…’

Filmed with most of the fantastic performers from our Nothing on Earth series – Suzanne Ahmet, Nia Davies, Chanel Glasgow and Géhane Strehler, joined by Shalini Peiris, (Safiyya Ingar was busy elsewhere working on the development of a new play), and with heavenly music by our composer, Helen Chadwick, this final film celebrates the lives of these women and their fortitude. Now at last their stories can fly.

Rosamunde Hutt, director

We would like to thank the contributors very much indeed for sharing the poignant and funny stories which provide the content of this Short. As part of the Hertfordshire Year of Culture 2020, we asked people to send in to us, or to share with us in workshops, memories of lives lived in the area, and to tell us especially about their heroines and their own dreams and hopes. 

People shared stories of courage and community, showing that for some, Dacorum was a place of safety and for others, a stepping off point for adventure.

We are delighted to have worked closely on How to Live with Dacorum Borough Council, who have commissioned the film, supported us throughout the Nothing in Earth project, and brought the Shorts to a wider audience by displaying our trailer on the big screen in Hemel Hempstead Town Square. Nothing on Earth Shorts writ large!

The Nothing On Earth: Shorts trailer on the big screen in Hemel Hempstead town centre.

That trailer, and each of the six films, features music by composer Helen Chadwick. Here Helen describes her process and the special significance to her of working on this film in particular.

COMPOSING AND RECORDING

Helen Chadwick, composer

When director Rosamunde Hutt asked me if I could compose the music for these monologues on film, I said “Yes” immediately without any clue as to how I would achieve it. Rosamunde and I developed a process that was entirely without stress, mainly due to Anna’s writing lending itself so beautifully to song. Rosamunde would email me the script, I would highlight some phrases in it that best encapsulated the theme of each piece, and then she and I would discuss it before I set about composing. It was a very instinctive process and I was looking for phrases that would also be good to sing as well as choosing those that spoke of the themes.

In over twenty five years of recording, I have always worked with sound engineers in studios or churches and have never developed a home studio and now I needed one. Luckily, as recorded interviews are often part of my own song theatre work, I had bought myself a half decent microphone some years back, but I didn’t know what kit I needed to use it!

So the first song I recorded on my mobile and headphones sitting at my piano. I am lucky enough to own a piano passed to me as a child by an uncle who was a brilliant musician. I love composing on that beautiful instrument. In fact, of everything in my home, it is the thing I treasure most. So I was very lucky to have it when this project came up in the time of Covid.

But after the first monologue I realised that I did need to upgrade the way I recorded for this project. Over the last few years I have gone to City Lit adult education classes to learn an industry standard programme called Logic but I still need someone beside me to talk me through it. 

So I resorted to Garageband, a programme which allows simple home recording. With the help of a sound engineer friend in a recording studio in Dorset and another in Cumbria, I gradually learnt how to record. The new sound studio is basically a corner of my spare room. One side of the corner are book shelves with some CD boxes holding up a duvet while against the other side of the corner leans a large ladder, holding up another duvet. We used a microphone stand in our recent show TRUTH so I had it in the props box and set it up facing the duvet corner. Cumbrian Dave had recommended an “interface” (I had no idea what that was) which communicates between the microphone and the laptop. Meanwhile the microphone was jammed into a large foam bubble (recommended by Dorset Ed) with a built in “pop shield” to stop any spluttering on my part ruining the recordings.

Helen’s ‘home studio corner’

Next task was to learn the editing process: choosing the best takes, adjusting volumes and learning various ways of influencing the sound quality. With each monologue I learnt a little more, right to the end. On the last play, I discovered that I had started singing too early and that the computer had chopped off the front of the song which then required some hopefully hidden cutting and pasting to solve the problem. 

The music, in the main, tended to be the end credit song as we really needed something there, but thanks to that need it means that the songs could reflect on and highlight the themes from the play and the whole project. It was a joy to be able to send some of the actors a phrase to sing within their monologue, and in the case of How to Space, filmed in Trinidad, have performer Chanel Glasgow, with whom I had worked in the development process a year before, record the song herself for the credits of her own monologue. 

REAL LIFE EXPERIENCES

The last play, with all the actors together, was based on real life stories gathered by the Pursued by a Bear team in workshops or sent in by people living in Dacorum. Much of my own song-theatre work has been based on interviews about real life experiences. Dalston Songs was based on interviews with my neighbours about “home” and what that means. War Correspondents is based on interviews with journalists working on conflict zones, and Truth is based on stories people sent me about a moment in their life when they told the truth or lied, and the impact of doing so. Choosing which words to use to create a song and which themes to highlight, has always fascinated me, it’s a different way of bringing other people’s voices into the light. For years I have set the words of known and unknown poets as songs, bringing their views, thoughts and suffering to other ears. Many of these poets are women and this week I thought “It’s time to make that concert programme you thought about years ago, with an entire programme of women poets and women writers works.” I think it will be called Women Sing Women.

Often play scripts are not easy to set as song, but somehow Anna’s are. We have been secret collaborators, in that we hardly ever meet. She is writing away in her shed in St Albans, and I am in my duvet corner in Dalston, but somehow we collaborate beautifully despite not seeing, not talking, not meeting and not rehearsing together. It’s incredible what’s been possible under these very restrictive conditions. Rosamunde’s leadership magic has been a big part of that. Sometimes theatre shows can be stressful and difficult, but this one has been a joy to work on and I have found it very inspiring to be working on plays about such incredible women and to be a part of such a wonderful creative and production team.

Dalston Songs, created by Helen and developed with Liam Steel & Steven Hoggett
Truth, created by Helen and directed by Steven Hoggett
War Correspondents, created by Helen with Steven Hoggett

For more information about Helen’s work please visit her website here.

HOME

Shalini Peiris, performer

Where is home? Who makes it home? What does it mean to be at home? Why do we leave home? How do you make a new home?

HOME has taken on an even greater meaning this year as so many of us have been confined to our homes, unable to return home or separated from the people we left behind when we left home. Moments like this one now are a ‘kodak moment’ in human history – it marks a change between how it was and how it will be. We’ll always remember because we can’t forget. In moments like this, you can’t help but look back.

Working on this piece about home while at home in Sri Lanka was a timely exercise. While diving in to the stories of women from Dacorum, I was moved to re-examine my own.

The young Shalini

I was 2½ when my parents made the difficult decision to leave our home in the Sri Lankan hill-town of Kandy for new opportunities in Newcastle. It was 1988. From there, we moved to Hong Kong (now with a little brother in tow!). It was 1995. From there, I came to London as a wide-eyed freshman at University. It was 2003. As you can imagine, home for me is a complex concept! My heart is Sri Lankan and yet I haven’t lived there since I was a toddler. The Newcastle I remember is not the Newcastle of now. Our Hong Kong flat used to be my physical marker of home, but my parents moved out last year. I’ve been living in London for the past 16 years and somehow still feel like an expat.

I’m a Gen Y child. We’re the “dream big”/”have it all”/MTV/therapy/first to join Facebook generation. We’re now used to convenience at the click of a button but still remember the days of dial-up internet! We constantly negotiated between being the children of our parents and our own person, between the old way and the new way. When I first told my parents that I wanted to become an actress, they weren’t surprised, but were afraid. Afraid that I’d become another statistic in the broken dreams category, afraid of what success I could hope to have in an industry with very few brown faces, afraid because it was so unknown. I was afraid too.

Hobson’s Choice, Manchester Royal Exchange, 2019

My parents have been my biggest supporters throughout my career. Being separated by continents was never a deterrent – they’d sometimes fly to London just to support me in a show and then leave the next day. I’ve always been aware (and very grateful) of the fact that it’s their hard work and sacrifice which has made it possible for me to not only dream, but dare to believe that it could come true.

I had tried to carve out a career in Academics but became quickly frustrated by its lack of empathy. I then tried my hand in the NGO sector but became equally exhausted by its politics. Not to say that our industry isn’t frustrating or exhausting, but in its purest form, it’s one of the last remaining places of raw real activism. Simply by telling a story – either real or fictional – you can reach people in a profound way. We can connect them, empower them, educate them, comfort them, entertain them, galvanize them, impact them.

TELLING STORIES AND LEARNING TO FLY

Telling someone’s story can be a very loving act – especially someone who never expected to be heard. There’s a strong sense of perceived “ordinary” that runs through some of the stories in this film – a lot of the older women look back on their lives with a shrug-of-the-shoulders acceptance that they’ve lived a good life, but nothing extraordinary. And yet they’d all journeyed, they’d all in their own way lived a life that the women before them couldn’t. There’s a beautiful line in my first monologue where one of my characters (who I lovingly named Kamala!) talks about how instrumental her Mother was in her making the move to England; “She wanted me to have a life that she could not imagine”.

Yet another character of mine (who I named Mala) remembers the words of her Mother: “You can do anything if you want to. You can do anything. I couldn’t, but you can. Remember that…Hold up your head”.

What we can do as women now is because of the little acts of lived defiance by the women who came before us, the women we come from. They look at us and think “What are you waiting for? Go! Be! Do!”. We look at them and think “I hope I didn’t let you down”.

My sense of self is strongly crafted around my identity as a nomad, an immigrant, a woman of colour. I was so identified by the colour of my skin and clear ‘other’-ness that I’ve remarkably only recently started to examine my womanhood in and of itself.

Our first Zoom rehearsal led to a lively discussion about this very thing. Women from different corners of the UK as well as the world all brought together by this very lovingly crafted piece of storytelling. What became apparent the more we shared is that we all felt the hand of the generations of women who came before us. We all felt loved, led and sometimes even pressured by it. The sacrifices they made, the dreams they shelved, the secrets they kept and the tears they shed -they’ve trickled down through the generations and swim within us. It’s such a powerful realization; also overwhelming at times. But through it we realize that even in our loneliest moments, we are never alone.

As our character chorus of Dacorum women say at the end of the film: “Learn to take off. Learn to land. Learn to fly”.

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