Monday, 1 December 2014

What’s it all ‘About?’

Isabelle King reviews a Words And Women workshop for the Arts Council supported project 'About'. 

On a characteristically cold November day, a Saturday to be precise, I ventured to The Curve in The Forum, Norwich, and took up a single seat out of the one hundred and twenty that made up the auditorium.
But there was no audience. No performers in the wings. No presentation materials on view. Seven women took the stage, eight if you include myself, all seated around a table armed with pens, paper and laptops. No, this was not an ambiguous production. This was a Words And Women workshop for the ‘About’ project.
As the new Marketing Assistant for Words And Women, I was lucky enough to sit in and listen to this, the third in a series of three workshops, where I found out what ‘About’ is, well... about!
The project, supported by funding from Arts Council England, was launched by way of an open competition in August this year. Women from the East of England were invited to submit a proposal for a short text of 4,000 words or half an hour long which would explore the life of one woman and her relationship to place. The woman could be famous or non, contemporary or historical, fictional or factual. The place had to be within the East of England. The primary aim of the project - to create a text which can lend itself to the page and to performance.
Twelve promising runners-up were chosen to take part in The Tough Room, a workshop tutored by poet Hannah Walker, and the four winners - Jenny Ayres, Lilie Ferrari, Tess Little and Thea Smiley - are receiving ongoing mentoring for their pieces through workshops and on-line tuition. Belona Greenwood and Lynne Bryan of Words And Women, Hannah, and Adina Levay, Director of Norwich’s Chalk Circle Theatre Company, are the mentors. Adina will also take the completed texts and direct them for the stage. The results will be on show during Words And Women’s International Women’s Day event, Sunday 8th March, at The Fusion Digital Gallery, The Forum, Norwich.
The workshop I attended gave me a really exciting insight into what audiences can expect on the 8th March. What struck me most was the variety of the work being developed. Two are based in Norwich, one on the Bungay Straight, and one in Knebworth. Three are historical and one contemporary. The women explored range from regional rebel Jane Sellars, hung in Norwich 1631, to the fiery alter ego of an 1880’s prostitute.
It was also fascinating to learn how the writers are dealing with one particularly challenging aspect of the ‘About’ project; the fact that they are writing for both page and stage. One of the most unique things about the project is that the pieces are written to translate to both forms. But how does writing for prose with a view to performance affect the process?
Actress and playwright, Jenny Ayres, finds it easiest to write specifically with performance in mind. Her piece explores the voices of the Hertfordshire railway women of World War Two in which she incorporates the theatrical device of a chorus to comment on the action that takes place. Jenny will think about how the work translates to the page later on in the writing process and has been looking at short stories by Janice Galloway and Helen Simpson which mimic scripts as a possible way forward.
Thea Smiley however, has found it stifling to write with theatricality in mind. Her piece follows the journey of a recently bereaved woman who annually takes a particular walk along a hazardous road for reasons which only become clear as the text progresses.
Thea explained at the workshop how initially she felt more comfortable with forgetting the audience and writing solely in prose as she finds the form more freeing. When she read it out loud however, it was interesting to discover how the piece transcended. We heard, not just a detailed account of one woman’s experience told in first person, but a powerfully intimate monologue. 
Though each writer seems to have a different process, all four firmly agreed on one point - how refreshing it is to write invigorating and un-apologetically raw roles for women which actresses can really get their teeth stuck into.
The workshop came to a close with Adina  talking about her plans to develop the texts into performance. She explained that sets would be entirely minimal, directing the main focus to the actresses themselves.
This certainly resonates with the project’s concept. I felt similarly about the room in which we sat. It could have been just another auditorium were it not for the women who occupied it, discussing and debating writing, altogether making their ‘About’ a very exciting one.

Isabelle King is the Marketing Assistant for Words And Women. She's worked as an actress in theatre, film and radio in the UK and abroad; a career in which she has predominantly been seen in various Shakespearian guises. She's the founder of literary event Books Talk Back, which is hosted in London and Norwich, including at The British Library with support from The Eccles Centre. Isabelle's creative writing has been short-listed for the Ideastap/Writers' Centre Norwich national fiction competition and she also writes and produces arts journalism pieces for Future Radio. 

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