Who is Heroica Theatre Company? How did it start?
Heroica Theatre Company (launched in 2015) began life as Square Peg Productions in 2005 - founded in West Yorkshire - operating then at a fairly local level and focusing mostly on women of the north. It was all inspired by the life of Lady Anne Clifford of Westmorland/North Yorkshire whose fascinating story we brought to life in her home castles of Skipton and Brougham. Eleven years on and seven heroines later, we now exist to tell the stories - through promenade, interactive theatre experiences - of women who, across the history of Britain, have achieved great things yet been overlooked or forgotten: ‘unsung maverick women’. We have expanded into touring our productions further afield and performing in interesting non-theatre spaces – such as gardens and art galleries. The company is run by me, Anna Carlisle, resident writer and Alexandra Mathie, actor.
What stories have you explored in your past performances?
As a writer, I was inspired to look into the lives of women who had either carved niches within their own communities or made amazing contributions to the national heritage of Britain. As the company evolved, I realised that we were spanning a vast range of eras: five centuries of female experience from the fifteenth century to virtually the present day! These women ranged from royalty to shop-keepers, via landed gentry, suffragettes and highly skilled working women. The productions all explored the lives of these heroines - and the men and women closest to them. Specifically, they have been:
Queen Anne Neville, wife of King Richard III
Lady Anne Clifford, landowner and benefactor
Elizabeth Blackwell, botanical illustrator
Margaret Fell, a founder of Quakerism
Martha Crossley, mill owner’s wife and philanthropist in her own right
Lavena Saltonstall, suffragette and activist
Alice Longstaff, photographer
and now …
What drew you to Joan Eardley, and to try to engage with the life and work of a visual artist?
The 2007 National Galleries of Scotland retrospective! We were mesmerized by the land- and seascapes that looked as fresh as if they’d been painted yesterday: the extraordinary audacity of Eardley’s textures and the vibrancy of their colours. We were captivated and intrigued by the life story that was filtering through the film footage and echoed in the portraits: a solitary-seeming woman in a studio yet giving life and, even more, a sort of ‘eternity’ to a range of children from the streets of Townhead - as well as to a small fishing village on the east coast. We resolved to find out all about her – and from there I would say quite simply that she became part of our lives - well before we were persuaded to make her the subject of a Heroica production!
Different from your historical subjects, there are living memories of Joan – through friends and family, and sitters – how has this affected your creative process?
Well, Alice Longstaff (who died in 1992) was also a subject with a vast ‘entourage’ of local people who remembered and treasured her – like Joan Eardley, she was well known in a small community whose lives she had touched through her artistry. We learned in that research process how valuable people’s real memories are and how delicately they must be handled. We had to find a balance between what we all knew and what we would all want to see re-created: to re-imagine the heroine’s life – and that of her contemporaries – and create a dramatic persona without slavish attachment on our part to fact and chronology and detail. We learned the process of re-conjuring the essence of the person people remembered in the flesh. We ensure that we leave enough space in the final theatre experience for people to project their own memories and knowledge into the new person they see before them – and our experience has proved that the outcome is both moving and dramatic.
The process of writing has been very public – with public readings and performances by the cast being held, even as you still develop your ideas and the script - how has this affected the play, and your own creative process?
Public readings are designed largely to test whether we are achieving our goals: for example (as described above), to make sure we are not stepping on people’s memory offerings or creating a set of contexts that people will not recognize. Public feedback is vital to our work because it alerts us to what is being received by the audiences: how much they are learning about the person and their work, and whether it rings true to the people who knew – or didn’t know - the heroine. The presentation of the full work in progress in Edinburgh last May allowed us to know whether the production elements were going to work; and whether our imagined version was actually getting to grips with the reality of what will finally be received by the audiences. It’s also a honing process: it’s a bit like permission-granting which leads to a new sense of freedom and confidence to innovate. As the writer, I find the process enlightening and disarming: it inspires honest re-crafting as a direct outcome of people’s responses – and of course this helps the final play become a truly shared piece of theatre.
What do you feel a dramatic interpretation of Joan’s life will offer, that can’t be learnt/experienced/created through traditional visual art exhibitions and lectures?
It’s the shared energy of creating this piece of work with an audience: we enter that space between the painting and the viewer, and into it we inject the artist - and explore that space further to see if we can touch the energy that created that painting and spark off a relationship between it and where it came from. By embodying the artist theatrically, we allow people to interact directly with that energy.
As you have worked on the play, has your view of Joan and personal experience of her art changed?
Put simply, no. It has, rather, grown. Just grown. And grows apace!