THEATRE INTERVIEW: We first discovered ‘Our Glass House’, a site specific piece focusing on domestic violence, at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it garnered much critical acclaim. Thrilled to hear that this important play was making its way to London, we put some questions to Evie Manning, director and producer.
TW: What made you decide to create a piece focusing on domestic abuse?
EM: One day an ambulance was called for my next door neighbour and her three year old son, and it all came out that she’d been experiencing horrific domestic abuse for years, just on the other side of the wall. It was so striking, and it came to me how powerful it would be to stage a play in a house that would see behind closed doors.
As a company, Common Wealth has always made political theatre that has brought together artists, musicians, and animators in amazing collaborations, and I knew that we could work with our style to produce something really powerful. I ranted at my mum and her friends my vision for the play and they all laughed at me and said “you can’t do that”.
When I approached Rhiannon (co-creator) with the idea, she told me for the first time about both her mum’s experiences with abusive partners and her own as an adult, and that really cemented our passion for making the play.
TW: How did the show come together? Can you describe the process you’ve gone through in devising this play?
EM: We’ve been making the show since October 2011 and it’s been a continual process of interviewing male and female survivors and allowing those interviews to feed into our creative process.
We’d interviewed a woman who told us about her experiences in court and we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if a woman could turn her living room into a courtroom, so we did. The things that women and men told us were incredible, you literally couldn’t make it up: the story of a woman climbing out of the window to hang the washing because her husband had locked her in the house and would go mad if his shirts weren’t dry made it into the show.
Aisha, the writer, then worked from the testimonies to write sections of text that were directly inspired by the interviews. We then had a devising process in the first house we found in Bristol, and we did a lot of discovering, making it up as we went along, in response to the house and what it held. That again has been a continual process with every different house. In Bradford, the best thing about the house was the view outside so lots of action moved outdoors, especially at the end when the characters were leaving their partners, and this was really exciting. It brought a whole new meaning to ‘street theatre.’
TW: The format of the show is very far removed from a standard piece of theatre. Can you tell us how it will work for audience members?
EM: Audience members let themselves into the house and from that point are allowed to wander freely, following sounds, characters, just their instinct really. Action happens simultaneously around them, nothing is repeated, the stories are non-linear, so audiences piece things together. It’s an intense experience, with a live score by a sound artist amplified throughout the house. It’s also a feast for the eyes, with a detailed set. We worked with a magician, animators, and illustrators so it has lots of layers for the audience to explore. It’s obviously emotionally intense too, because the content is so real, and things chime with people, even if they feel they have no personal connection with domestic abuse, it might bring something home about their own relationship or someone they know.
TW: Clearly the show deals with very difficult themes. As a company have you found it traumatic to deal with them?
EM: For us, the most important thing is raising awareness, so rather than finding it traumatic, we find it quite inspiring because after each show, members of the audience come to us and tell us how it has changed their perception of domestic abuse.
TW: Do you see this show as a call to action, or just a piece of theatre? Do you have any ideas as to how we could tackle rising rates of domestic violence?
EM: We’ve always seen domestic abuse as a political issue. We made the show at a time when the recession was just starting to hit and the Tories were announcing the cuts that would affect women’s services. We heard personal stories that connected this all up in a very real way and we would go away from each interview feeling more and more fuelled to make this show. We know that it gets people talking and lifts all the stigma and taboo that often surrounds domestic violence so yes, in that sense, it’s a call to arms, that this is everyone’s issue, it’s not just a woman’s issue or a working class issue. The show demonstrates how domestic abuse affects all kinds of people in all kinds of ways.
TW: This is a site-specific piece, which we first came across staged in a house in Edinburgh. Have you been able to find a venue for the London run that is similar, or have you had to adapt the piece in terms of its staging?
EM: The house we have found for the Camden run is completely different to its counterpart in Edinburgh. Our London house is very grand with high-ceilings and original features, the house in Edinburgh was a big council house with more rooms. For us, it’s great to have a very different house and one not on a council estate, as it is all too easy for people to make assumptions about where domestic abuse happens and who it affects.
We’re a site-specific company, so for us the space has a huge role to play and we spend time both during the set build and rehearsals exploring the potential of each room and every nook and cranny! It may be that we move the forest to a different room or stage a scene on a landing, and there are other things too that affect the script – like if it’s too dangerous for a character to climb out of a window. We enjoy being fluid and responsive in the space; as long as the changes still communicate the message or feeling of the scene, we’re really open to where the space takes us.
TW: The show received great reviews during its run in Edinburgh; given its success is there any chance you might tour it further in the future?
EM: ‘Our Glass House’ is a real beast of a show and we feel we have achieved a lot with it, so we’d be open to the challenge of taking it outside of the UK as we feel that would present a brilliant challenge and a chance to explore other contexts but for the UK, we think this will be the last chance to catch it! We are, however, exploring an adaptation of ‘Our Glass House’, which could tour to any open space and not necessarily need a house; we’ve received interest from prisons keen to stage the work and we’re looking at ways of making the piece available for this audience.
TW: What’s next for Common Wealth – do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
EM: We’re currently working on two new shows that we’re really excited by. One centres on Muslim female boxers and will be staged in Huggy’s boxing gym in Bradford, and sees us working with four young Muslim girls and exploring ideas of youth, future and the unexpected. We recently had a week’s R&D on this with a showing at the end, complete with choreography, live sound, video art, verbatim and new writing and it felt very new, raw and necessary. Our other piece in development is about the Nationalisation of Public Utilities and is scheduled for Spring 2015; expect a big simultaneous, cross-UK, raucous event.
Our Glass House is on from 11 – 30 November. See the Camden People’s Theatre website for more details, but please note that the performances don’t actually take place at CPT – click this link here, for an explanation of where to meet, and book tickets here.
LINKS: www.cptheatre.co.uk | www.commonwealththeatre.co.uk | twitter.com/Common_WealthHQ
Sections: Interviews - Theatre | Tags: Camden People's Theatre, Common Wealth, Our Glass House