Fun in the Oven are back and creatively revived after a week-long residency at The Witham in Barnard Castle. Thanks to the Arts Centre’s artist residency scheme, the company were hosted in the town and given space to work for the week.
We were welcomed by Executive Director Katy Taylor and the wonderful team at The Witham and given the run of the place. From playing hide and seek in the stunning Music Hall, to spreading out our research on the boardroom tables in The County Room to watching the snow fall out of the massive windows of The Witham Room…we made ourselves at home, wandering through the building in our socks followed by curious eyes in the café.
We were accommodated by the lovely and generous Lusia; a passionate friend of The Witham who opened her home to us. As well as insanely warm and comfortable beds, we were able to invade her kitchen to prepare our ritual big protein breakfasts and share winter-warming dinners and good conversation with her.
As part of the week we worked with ‘Turrets’, The Witham’s two youth theatre groups , led by Rupert Philbrick. The sessions gave us an opportunity to explain physical theatre using our devising processes, games, exercises and improvisations as well as exploring some of our show themes; munitions factories and WW1. We were ‘blown away’ by the talent and commitment the groups demonstrated and their willingness to have a go at our somewhat absurd imaginings, including the creation of a ‘love machine’ and mannequin challenge of an explosion in the munitions factory.
Rupert came in to help the company with sound design allowing us to choreograph a detailed and precise introduction to the day in the life of the Canary Girls. Clown expert Karen Bell also joined the company on the final day as a provocateur and outside eye and helped us tidy up our physical choreography.
It was an enormously useful week for the company to revisit the content and lay some foundations for the next period of development. We plan to be back at The Witham for that next phase and appreciate their continued support for the project.
In his preface to The Aspern Papers Henry James suggests an ‘odd law’ for the creative writer engaged with the archive:
which […] always makes the minimum of valid suggestion
serve the man of imagination better than the maximum.
The historian, essentially, wants more documents than
he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties
than he can really take.2
Approaching the archive the creative writer/practitioner must bear James’s law in mind as the archive does not give up its secrets willingly; particularly with regard to the silenced and subjugated voices of working-class women which are often only perceived in between the lines of historical documents; in self-imposed purdah or imprisoned in the log-books of court proceedings, the poor-house and the asylum, snatches of women’s voices caught and typified by their ‘troubles’; an effect that Carolyn Steedman calls the ‘presence of the archive in its omissions and silences.’3 This very silence may necessitate the taking of Jamesian liberties with the archive and its idiosyncratic and often wilful systems of cataloguing.
In his novella James comments that the urge to search for lost manuscripts and publish their secrets is allied to the urge to rob a grave, but biographical exhumation is not the business of the creative writer, as Hilary Mantel has said about writing Wolf Hall, authors are ‘creators not coroners,’4 and as Henry James goes on to state in his preface:
Nine tenths of the artist’s interest in [facts], is that of what
he shall add to them and how he shall turn them. Mine […]
had got away from me […], in time not to crush me. […]
This was the beauty that appealed to me; […] the curious, the ingenious, the admirable thing would be to throw it backward
again, to compress – squeezing it hard!’5
It is this act of compression that the creative writer wrestles with; ‘squeezing hard’ the elements of the fugitive archive, trying to catch the runaways and the given circumstances that can be inferred from what is documented. Meaning can be derived from the quality of the paper written on, the fabric and threads constructed from, the documents’ and artefacts journey into the archive, the paint, the ink, the damage, the ellipses, the silenced words, the crossings-out, the misspellings, the blurred phrases, and the legalese: these difficulties existing in the archive are precisely its attractive qualities for the creative writer.
We’ve just completed a great week at Customs House, as part of our North East Artist Development Network residency. As well as welcoming back Matt Feerick, we were joined by our costume designer, Rosie Bristow, who has added more lumps and bumps to our costumes. Our designer, the wonderfully talented, Kelly Jago, has also built us an incredible set. And our stage manager, Patricia Verity Suarez was there too to lend support to the growing production elements and scene creation.
The week ended with an outing of the Canaries to Whitley Bay Metro Station as part of the Arthouses. The community festival brings contemporary artists’ video, site-specific installation and live performances to the streets and community of south Whitley Bay. Bemused passengers watched improvised and set pieces from the show.
Back at Customs House, our lead artist for Public Engagement, Patricia Verity Suarez, ran a two-hour creative workshop that explored history and storytelling looking at historical sources like posters, statistics, articles and stories of the WW1 Munitionettes.
What a full week! With just a one week left, we all feel like the process could have been 3 months, rather than just 3 weeks. Next week we’ll be hurtling to the finish line, shaping the pieces we’ve created for a showing to peers, partners, programmers and friends next Friday, 1pm at Dance City. I’m excited, nervous, worried, elated and proud, all at once.
Phew what a week! Last week Miss Alys, Miss Katie and Miss Robyn were busy working with Matt Feerick, Karen Bell and Bev Fox creating funny, meaningful and surprising routines drawing on our research into the munitionettes.
Miss Patricia led two workshops one at Space Six and one at Headway Arts using theatre, movement and clowning to engage with archive material on the munitionettes.
This week we look forward to working with Matt again and our designer Kelly Jago and costume designer Rosie Bristow at The Customs House, South Shields.
On Saturday at The Customs House there is a creative workshop that will explore history and storytelling. We will look at historical sources like posters, statistics, articles and stories of the WW1 Munitionettes to ask questions like “Were we tougher back then?”, “Would we support the fight for Queen and Country now?” and make a bit of theatre all whilst drinking tea! https://www.facebook.com/events/845661872195731/
Last but not not least don't forget to pledge your support on Kickstarter. We still need to raise £350 in nine days to reach our target. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/655199758/the-munitionettes
Stiff upper lip!
Wowee so far we have £475.00 pledged on our Kickstarter page and we want to thank:
Davva, Siobhan Burke, Uncle Tacko, Jack Burton, Holly Wallace, Paul Dewhurst, Jane Williamson, Jane Park, Jane Angel, Kerrin Tatman, Kat Borrowdale, Michelle Fox, Ben Ainsley Gill, Sarah Smith, Ged Camille, Cameron Hall, Falbala and Steph North.
You are all good sports.
However, we still need to raise £525.00 in eleven days! We need to raise the full amount or we don't get a penny. When you pledge you could receive such goodies as: a postcard, sponsoring a button, suggesting a line for the show or a speciality munitioned explosion in your honour.
As Fun in the Oven start their adventures in the studio Miss Robyn Hambrook reflects on a field trip to the Devil's Porridge Museum in Gretna Green.
The Devil’s Porridge
"The nitroglycerin on the one side and the gun-cotton on the other are kneaded into a sort of a devil's porridge" wrote Arthur Conan Doyle, in a 1918 article following a visit to the Munitions Factory in Gretna.
Described as the ‘Greatest Munitions Factory on Earth, HM Factory Gretna’, it stretched for 9 miles and employed 30,000 workers at its height, to manufacture RDB Cordite, a type of munitions propellant.
For centuries, the quiet, rural area around the tiny hamlets of Eastriggs and Gretna lay undisturbed with only a few farms and small settlements dotted about. Then in 1915, soon after the start of World War One, the men from the Ministry of Munitions arrived and everything changed.
By 1917 the factory was producing 1,100 tons of cordite per week, more than all the other munitions plants in Britain combined, providing much-needed ammunition or the troops fighting on the front line.
Two new townships; Eastriggs and Gretna, were designed and built by the pioneers of the Garden City movement to provide housing amenities and recreation for the 30,000 factory workers who came from all across the Empire.
This remarkable story is told by The Devil's Porridge Museum. On a visit on a sunny Friday afternoon, Katie and I, along with a couple of friends explored this wonderful museum in Eastriggs. A superb journey through interactive displays and past unique objects, revealed the secret wartime history of southwest Scotland and Cumbria. From the worst rail disaster in British history to what life in the factory and hostels was like for thousands of people. Upstairs piles of folders were filled with the collected stories of women who had journeyed from across the United Kingdom to work there.
Devil's Porridge was the name given to a mixture of nitroglycerin and gun-cotton used to produce cordite at the Factory. The side-effects for women working with these toxic substances included headaches, dizziness, feinting spells and skin turning yellow, which earned these women the nickname, Canary Girls.
The museum adopted the name Devil’s Porridge. Over the past 17 years it has been expanded by the local community, from a small exhibition in St John Church, Eastriggs to a larger uninsulated industrial shed into a fantastic interactive museum. Well worth a visit!
Now some behind the scenes gossip from Miss Patricia Verity Suarez.
Here at Fun in the Oven we like to drink tea, chat and make theatre. It’s a good thing I love to drink tea and coffee because as part of my job I have had the opportunity to have meetings with many lovely people over coffee and pots of tea.
At these meetings I have had conversations about the munitionettes, feminism, theatre and plotting and planning workshops. I also drink plenty of tea and coffee whilst writing our newsletters and uploading the posts onto our blog because we want to keep in touch with you.
Here is a picture of Miss Katie and I having a spot of tea and cake at The Olde Young Teahouse in Middlesbrough (you should pay them a visit they do awesome tea and cake).
Join me in having a cup of tea or coffee right now and check out our Kickstarter page:
We need you! Yes You! To keep us decent! Keep us safe! Keep us making explosions!
With your help we can make magic with the help of our darling production team to make costumes and a set to bring our show to a venue near you. In exchange we will give you a unique rewards such as having a line you suggest in the show, or having your own explosion in the show.
Click here to support us and our Kickstarter project:
In researching 'The Munitionettes' in preparation for our August residencies, we came across a fantastic Kate Adie documentary,'The Women of World War One'.
The documentary examines what it would have been like to be a woman pre, during and post World War One, following the journey of the suffragettes, and exploring the impact World War One had in women's fight for equality.
Kate Adie describes in detail the variety of jobs that women did, much of them involved hard labour, life threatening risks and highly skilled tasks. Maybe the most dangerous jobs the women adopted during this time were the roles of The Munitionettes. We hear about these women handling explosives, working heavy machinery and dealing with hazardous chemicals that made their skin turn yellow and led to chronic health problems.
The documentary is packed with inspiring stories that depict the heroines of World War One. It is well worth a watch: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04hzmh4/the-women-of-world-war-one
Stiff Upper Lip!
Miss Alys North
Here is the story so far as told to us by the one and only Miss Katie Tranter....
In May we were fortunate to embark upon our first adventure together as Fun in the Oven. The Mining Institute kindly agreed to let us set up home in their marvellous building in the centre of Newcastle. Our residency gave us time and space to start working creatively with the theme for our upcoming project The Munitionettes *working title*.
The aim of the residency was to work on our skills together to create complicity, trust and a common language for making theatre. We played lots of games, did structured improvisations and used our research findings to start playing with characters and scenarios.
Through the week we invited special guests to join us in our lair for discussions and to make creative provocations to the performers.
On Tuesday we were joined by academic and theatre maker Tracy Gillman, creator of "The Handmaidens of Death" an audio visual installation forming part of her PhD studies at Newcastle University. We discussed how to approach the Tyne & Wear Archives when researching the Munitionettes and how these materials could be used to make theatre.
Tracy told us that whilst the the activites and day-to-day lives of middle and upper class women were fairly well documented between 1916 and 1918, the lives of working class women were not. As soon as we began the question why this might be, the answers were obvious. These women were much less likely live in an environment which would the time, space, skills and resources necessary to keep a diary to write letters to family and friends. Just managing to get by on low wages and supporting large families with the possibility of losing their husbands, fathers and brothers to the war took up rather a lot of time, we imagined.
As the week went on, we became increasingly fascinated with class. When the munitions factories opened in 1916, thousands of women were recruited from all social backgrounds to do their bit for the war effort. For the first time, women were out of the home whether they were ladies of leisure who employed servants, or indeed the maids who served them. The walls had fallen and everyone worked together under one roof. We enjoyed exploring what kind of situations might have arisen in such a mixing pot of women! We really enjoyed improvising a worker's strike with all the different characters bringing different intentions to the scenario. An aristocratic "weekender" (women from rich backgrounds who just did factory work at weekends in order to "do their bit", a committed middle class suffragette with a criminal record and an older working class mother of six attempting to work together to organise a strike offered the perfect conditions for misunderstandings, slapstick and grotesquery.
On Wednesday morning we were joined by Paul and Dan from Labyrinth otherwise known as the Barefoot Businessmen. For the first time, we invited men into the room and this brought an invigorating shift of energy and perspective. We played some clown and improv games together and then they plotted some tasks for us to undertake in character. They set up a factory situation and gave us a set of physical actions to achieve with strict rules as to when, where and how they had to be done. Every few minutes, the foreman would come in and tell us we were not working fast enough and that one of us needed to be fired...then left us to decide which one!
Towards the end of the week, we focussed on making preparations the Munitionettes' Tea Party - a family friendly Great War themed area featuring a Great War cafe serving exploding scones, a Recruitment Station to test if participants have what it takes to be a Munitionette and an area with lots of information about the project and our plans for the next few months.
We had such a fruitful week at the Mining Institute. Spending time together as a company without the immediate pressure of creating a finished product is really important for developing trust, sharing skills and starting to find our process. We hope the skills we gained in play, complicity and devising will form a solid basis for our devising and creation process which begins in August.
Stiff Upper Lip!
Miss Katie Tranter