About our Wales Lab project
Likely Story were inspired by a grainy black and white photograph from the 1900s of a group of women standing next to a hauled out pilot gig (a sea going rowing boat), found on the wall of the Anchor Inn, Seatown, Dorset. A caption described them as “rude and coarse” fisherwomen who spent one summer fishing from the gig by day and sleeping under it on the beach by night. It’s an image, and the seed of a story that has ignited the imagination of the company.
We found out that Porthgain, in Pembrokeshire has a pilot gig club, the only one in Wales. It also has a thriving ladies team. A previous tour had taken the company to Stackpole National Trust estate and we were inspired by their fantastic theatre space, the stunning and rugged coast line of Pembrokeshire and the sense of being very far away from the centre – something a little bit wild west. Like this was a place where we could try out new models and ditch any rules we might be holding onto.
There were so many ideas around the ‘what’ we might do with this image and we set out with a ridiculously wide brief; to investigate what femininity and authenticity means for women with a body shape, appearance or set of behaviours that is in opposition to media presentations of desirable for a woman. To explore the dynamic of all female groups; how they support individual women’s ability to express themselves authentically, enforce conformity to social expectation or generate and perpetuate expectations.
We also new that we wanted to explore a new process of making work – starting outside of ourselves and a conventional rehearsal room based, Director led process. We decided to apply the principles of open space to the way that we worked. We identified five female artists to support the core company of three. We wanted women who would challenge and shape our thinking and help us generate a range of responses to the initial idea. We struck gold with an extraordinarily generous and courageous team who enriched the project and fired us off in a myriad of directions that we would never have discovered left to our own devices.
We held an open workshop at Stackpole and we took the team out on the water, rowing with the Porthgain ladies teams, to have the chance to experience the rhythms of rowing together, of being in the boat, of handling it and being at sea.
We set ourselves some goals for the research and development period
We spent three days in Pembrokeshire with Louise Osborn (writer / director), Julie Murphy (singer/ composer), Clare Parry-Jones (clown, dramatherapist, performer), Leah Crossley (visual artist, photographer, performer), Joanna Mackie (creative producer) and the core team of Hazel Anderson, Ellen Groves and Anne Langford (Likely Story founders and performers). We based ourselves at Stackpole National Trust Outdoor learning centre and used their wonderful theatre space and we spent about two hours rowing with the Porthgain ladies team, then another hour or so talking about their experiences.
We walked. We talked. We shared stories of women who we felt had not had their story heard widely enough. We shared source material that the central image inspired us to collect. We ate cake. We wrote. We sang. We used a lot of post it notes. We went rowing. We allowed ourselves to blown off centre. We asked awkward questions. We took a photograph of our hands. We followed hunches. We daydreamed. We told stories. Lots and lots of stories.
What didn’t work so well
We wanted to host a workshop for women from the local community on the Thursday evening and despite lots of work to spread the word (phone calls with and emails to local groups, listings on websites, posters and flyers, local press coverage) we only had one participant. That one person enriched our process hugely and actually ended up joining us for most of the project – she became the joker in our pack – gently challenging us and reminding us of what we were doing and maybe who the end audience might be. She was warm and bold, rude and joyous. Building relationships with communities takes time and it’s hard when you aren’t there, this coupled with the fact that Stackpole is a little out of the way made this element more difficult. If we undertook to do this again we would make sure that there was capacity to visit in advance and have some face to face conversations and invite people to join us in this way.
What worked really well
Using the principles of Open Space
It was a little terrifying not to have a tightly programmed schedule for our time away, we had set homework preparation tasks and timetabled work slots but what the work was would be agreed as we went, with loose leadership from Anne. The principles of open space freed us up a little to follow our hunches, to allow ideas the time that they needed. It was an empowering way to work that became led by images, texts and ideas rather than following a pre-conceived path. It helped get past the eternal refrain – more time, more time – so that we could focus a bit more on the time that we had.
The responses from the artists were really rich and textured. We have a huge bank of material to work with and inform the next stage of the process, we have the beginnings of a shared language and sensory experience that could shape the world or worlds we might want to create and inhabit.
We shared stories about women who might inform who ends up in the boat – extraordinary women, formidable women, inspiring women, powerful women, exciting women. From Ruth to Ursula, from Beatrix Havergal to Ana Mendieta it was exciting to uncover and meet women who, for a whole range of reasons, we had not encountered before.
The alchemy of the team
There was generosity, courage, excellence and ribald humour in equal measure – the time invested in finding who to take away (and the seemingly endless diary juggling to land 8 brilliant women in one place for three days) paid off and then some.
The place (s)
Stackpole was a retreat and a workshop (in the garage sense). Like a rather brilliant shed at the bottom of the garden we were able to hang out at the edge of Wales and in that liminal place have new ideas. Rowing from Porthclais, into a sea cave, almost washing up into a sandy cove, hugging the cliff edges and striking out across the mouth of a bay was a unique perspective. Away from our landbound selves we could look back with a new angle.
The rowing / the rowing team
The generosity and welcome of the Porthgain gig club, the ladies team and cox Tom. The openness, patience and good humour and sharing of a passion. The beautiful boats and leather corseted oars, with all their noises and smells. The jargon – bucket and chuck it , catching a crab. The broken pins. The opportunity to experience the ladies team row at racing speed. The raucous laughter of a group of women who know each other well. The sharing of stories of shipwreck, singing competitions and nail varnish that meant you didn’t recognise your own hands. The cake. The reflections on what it means to be a team, to work beyond your physical threshold. All these things are fragments, waiting to be woven together – we hope we can do them justice.
The blog – a holding pen for all that we have collected, the responses from the team and ongoing thoughts. We are working on another show at the moment (shameless plug for Tinsel Tales) and it’s probably going to be the new year until we can really get our teeth stuck into the next phase of work on the project – until then it will stew and percolate and mull…
We think we’d like to create a show about women in a boat that has at its heart female experiences and friendships. We’d like women to finish watching the show and want to pick up the phone or go and see the important women in their life. It will probably be quite funny.
This project may have a number of platforms as well as the show, including a strand of community engagement, a digital archive, a short film (a feature film?) and a printed magazine.
The tile from this post is from a poem, also titled The Maiden's Voyage, written by Louise Osborn as a response to the project. You can read / hear it on our project blog www.seatownladies.com
You can find out more about Likely Story here www.likelystory.org.uk - we’d love to hear from you.
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