Welcome to our podcast Rehearsals for Life – a podcast series about Our Space, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s flagship engagement project. Our Space is a creative programme that works with adults with multiple and complex needs. Members come from all walks of life and may have faced challenges including homelessness, mental health issues, reoffending, substance misuse or they may feel isolated for other reasons.
I’m Mandy Precious, Director of Engagement and Learning at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and today I’ll be talking to Lee Hart, who is a theatre practitioner and director and who also delivers Project X sessions. These sessions are for those members of the group who want to make work that speaks to and for them.
Hi Lee, I just wondered if you could introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your practice before we talk about Project X?
So, I’m a North Wales boy and fled Wales at about age 20 and moved to London and trained as an actor and then had the career as an actor doing a lot of devised work. So, my creative life began quite late, at 18 years old, not knowing what I wanted to do at all and being totally lost, at the suggestion of my sister, I started an A-level in Theatre Studies having never done anything before. I was a very shy boy, but anyway within 2 years I was really hocked, auditioned for drama school, moved to London to train at Rose Bruford and then yeah began a career in a lot of physical work, a lot of new writing, devised work, a lot of touring small/mid-scale theatre. But, I had another itch to scratch, I was really fascinated with the bigger picture of making work, I had ideas that I wanted to explore, that I knew that as an actor I couldn’t quite maybe get involved in as many of the conversations that I wanted to be involved in, in terms of making. So, I began to explore movement direction and choreography with Walk the Plank who are a large-scale company based in Manchester who do outdoor, spectacle work, and did a bit of work with them.
Around that time, I also met a writer in the town I was living at that time in Bournemouth, called Nel Lyson. Nel was working with a group of people in the community who were all in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and she was wondering whether I would be interested in coming in and coaching these participants in a workshop environment where she had been working with them on developing some new writing. So, they had generated poetry and short stories and plays and I started to go in to empower them really, to perform their own work, you know, like script in hand, scratch style performances and so I started to do what became a lot of that work with Nel and in a way that took me in a whole new direction. Now, I would say my practice really is, I would say that I still have strong ambitions of making exciting theatre, but I am really super excited about making it with all sorts of people and often those participants, those actors, those theatre makers that are on the ride with me are all sorts of folk, often from backgrounds in, you know, they find themselves in moment of great personal transformation or they are in a crossroads in their lives, they are recovering or seeking recovery and they’ve got something to say I suppose. That’s my work right now.
So, how long have you been working with Our Space?
So I first met Our Space when I came and delivered a three month programme of work as the Resident of Practitioner in 2012 and in that three months I was working across range of stuff with young people on the Young Company programme and I was working with refugee and asylum seeker young people and I met Our Space. At that time Project X wasn’t an entity, so Our Space as a project was the whole group, all working together and we did a site-specific project down in Devonport across those three months.
Can you give us a brief explanation of Project X, which is the project you work on now?
Project X really is like a little off-shoot, like I said, when I first met Our Space, Our Space as a group, how would you introduce them, it’s a project that seeks to work with members of the community from a background in addiction, homelessness, mental health troubles or any other thing that sort of in some way makes them feel socially excluded. Then when I met the group in 2012, there was about maybe 20-25 people in the group and they had experimented with splitting the group, perhaps making a split so you would have more long term people, people who had been coming to the sessions for longer and perhaps were maybe ready to make something. Being separated, if you like, from a more ‘drop-in’ group where we were just about gaining skills, fun sessions, playing and just getting people through the door and into the programme. But, everyone was lumped in together at that point and we created a piece of work in 2013 called The Edge which was a very loose adaptation, or inspired by a short story by Gabirelle Marcia Marces about a woman who was mistakenly identified as a patient in a mental hospital, mental institution, and can’t get anyone to believe her that she doesn’t belong there. So, we made a piece of work. But after that, in around 2013, Project X was born because, the programme was becoming really popular, there were different needs and some people were really hungry to stay and do more, but there were people arriving in Plymouth into treatment who could clearly get a lot of benefit from turning up on a Thursday morning, being introduced to some of the games, ensemble, playfulness and cooperation. We couldn’t accommodate them all in the same room, so Project X became a thing for people who had been hanging around and coming along for a while and we had the ambition to make work with them.
So initially, I think as well there was a sort of ambition that Project X would operate as an independent theatre company, that they would be kind of facilitator-less I suppose and that didn’t work out as planned. So, I think because it was starting to disintegrate a little bit, we started to make sure that somebody was in the room to frame it a little bit, but very definitely in a collaborative way so that whatever work was grown and developed was actually done in tandem with the group and not done to the group.
So, you have done quite a few shows with the group, so when you are making work with that group, what approaches do you take in the rehearsal room?
Do you know what, it’s not so different or in fact any different from the approach I would take in any rehearsal room with any participant really. I suppose the process is built on curiosity, exploration and a willingness to try anything out and initially a lot of talking and a lot of sitting in a circle and talking. Now every session I ever do, every week, even when we are now meeting on a zoom on a Thursday morning, the first thing we do, as our faces pop up on the screen, is we will just check in, and that check in is so important and it is sort of easily overlooked in a way, you know the “how are you doing?”, everyone getting a chance to speak, but in a way, the check-in is sort of the way in to all of the work. Because we quickly establish what is going on in each other’s minds, what’s troubling us, what is going on in the background, outside of the room. Suzi’s having to look after her mother now, she’s worried about her mother’s health, she’s become her carer for her mother, so we know Suzi’s got that going on. Sue’s moved into a new place. So, in a way they bring a little bit of what’s going on in the background for them, and our exploratory work really forms in response to the things that are important to us right now and we might find out in those check-ins that we have got a lot of similarities of stuff that is either weighing heavy on us or bringing us a lot of joy or challenging us or whatever, and I suppose that will kind of quietly influence where we will start to play around. So, I will set up some provocations for them, where they will maybe play with character or a sense of place. We do an awful lot of free-writing, so by that I mean we turn up with a piece of paper and for 7 or 8 or 10 minutes we just write and we are not allowed to stop writing. So, there is an awful lot of churning out whatever is on our mind or in our subconscious mind and over the years I have learnt to trust that, because everyone in the group in extraordinary in terms of the stuff they bring, their humanity, their willingness to face certain things, to share and explore certain things in their life and so it all leads from that. It sounds like it’s the most basic thing and the way I would say I work is really so elementary on so many levels and yet I think it’s profundity, if that’s a word, comes from the richness of all their lives, all our lives which finds a way through those very basic games and activities onto the floor, onto the page and into the room and into the fabric of the work that comes through.
It seems to be that what you are talking about in a way, is setting up a kind of methodology, for want of a better word, that allows people to feel free to be themselves within that space and to express what matters to them in those moments really.
It is a bit of a cliché to say that we want to create a safe space in the room, but it is super important. If you look at any sort of tradition that honours a process or healing it will talk about, in the Shamanic circles of South America, they talk about the sacred hoop, that sacred circle of people who are present for whatever the activity is, the healing or the ceremony. There is that silent sort of acknowledgement that what happens within that hoop, what happens in that space, is honoured, is safe, is not taken anywhere else, is listened to and I think yeah, it is super powerful and people start to go to places and those places are that they go to are very transformational and they find some expression for themselves that there is something to do with it. It has an outlet and it can at least have a voice and then once it’s given voice it’s moved in some way and that’s often a huge relief for all of us usually, to experience that. But, then also, in a weirder context, they see that become something else, take form, take shape, so it becomes less deeply embedded in their personal narrative and becomes something that is played with, not in a frivolous way or disrespectful way, but they just see it transform, and I think there is something very powerful in that process. That “oh my god, what I’ve always held on to, or been so protected of, or ashamed of, or didn’t want to give voice to” has found some beautiful form and look what it’s become and now I am somewhat freer from it.
It’s interesting you say that because I am just thinking about In My Dreams I Dream I’m Dreaming actually, which is one of the pieces that you developed with that group. What was brilliant about that particular piece, which was all about dreams and went to some dark place actually, where that kind of inter-land between reality, what happens when you close your eyes or flashbacks or those kind of things, I think that people might sort of assume, that because of the complicated lives that some of the people in the group have led, that all of the work would be very dark, but actually that release allows it to be dark, yes, but also funny, and also curious and also universal and also all of those different things. I am really interested in how you start to structure that into a piece, they give and you give freely of your stories and then it goes through a process and becomes what is actually a very structured, really well rehearsed, well thought-through piece of theatre.
Yeah, humour is really important and it is there because of who they are, it doesn’t need to be enforced, it doesn’t feel like we have to sugar coat these pills in order for our audience to be able to swallow them. There is very little engineering in that sense, where I as a director or facilitator try and find some particular balance between comedy and tragedy or you know the darker elements, again it just seems to find its way into the work because of what they bring to the table. I think it is important to stress in the work, never is there, we are not looking to romanticise, I always want to shy away from that, none of this stuff that is shared in the room is never kind of drawn out in some kind of “ohhh let’s hear about your, tell us about that terrible time where you were…”, it’s definitely not therapy, yet somehow a space is opened up and people just start talking, people just start naturally….you open the door and things kind of find a way into the room. In terms of shaping, really for a long time, for a long part of the process, we are just playing and we are playing with all sorts of things and we are not necessarily, I am not necessarily as a theatre maker too bothered early on about how things are going to fit together. Again, some of that trust has been born from just seeing it time and time again or finding a way through. So it can be quite fragmented for quite a while and then perhaps we start to see some broad themes arising or characters perhaps emerging onto which we then start to then think about a journey, you know, a journey through, from beginning to end, what’s the journey of this character and how might these three characters’ lives say, as was the case in In My Dreams I Dream I’m Dreaming, how do they intercept or how does each story live in the space and what are the little moments of resonance where they cross over? Again, it is just like ‘Fisher Price’, I remember playing with stickle bricks in nursery school – it’s like well we’re making that little thing there and then we’re making that other little thing there and what happens if we butt them up against each other? In the butting up of material sometimes we learn something about it, we learn when seeing them in relationship with each other and “oh well that’s kind of interesting, but I tell you what’s missing there”, and then the missing links gives us ideas of stuff to explore and sometimes it’s those missing links, the stuff that you create in order to build bridges and join material that becomes actually the most interesting material. It is ever so freeing and playful and not without its challenges I would say. It’s by no means an easy ride, it’s not pure distraction for the participants, it’s not just like “lets go along there and just have a laugh”, that’s a part of it. But they do, we all do, come up against the struggle of “oh my god, is this going to amount to anything?”, “where are we?” “we are totally lost”. And everyone’s personal angst about being up there and looking foolish in front of an audience and this is surely, being right in the middle of a dark, dark forest and not seeing any way out anywhere, but you have come too far to turn back and you don’t even know where back is anymore. We go through that and also I think that is massively important for getting on the other side, because if we didn’t have that, if we didn’t have to navigate those tricky waters and then come good and the massive sense of achievement that we all get when we have navigated our way through that.
In that process, how would say the people who are in Project X, how do they become artists or are they just artists within that process? How does that work?
That’s a really great question isn’t it? Of course it makes me consider, well by definition what is an artist then? I know that’s a bit philosophical but its an important question, for me, my definition of an artist is, an artist for me is not necessarily like a skill base, it is a way of looking at the world. If there is one thing I would want to open up for them in terms of a process, it’s a capacity to see the world through different eyes. That’s why ‘artist’ also transcends all these forms, its just somehow like, the capacity to dissolve meanings and define new meanings, to take a feeling and to give some expression to it, or to become somehow conscious of our capacity to make or transform things and I think it happens pretty quickly I think in lots of cases. People just start to…..that’s a really good question, there is no like definite moment, but you see it and you see that moment in a way where they take responsibility for the making of something. Another part of our process is setting lots of tasks, so not necessarily, I don’t work in any sort of traditional, we have never worked from script, so you know there is never that “ok, turn to page 7, act 1, scene 2, go and stand over there”, you know blocking. That just does not exist. But what happens is a lot of “ok can you guys go and….ok, see if you can find me 30 seconds of something, you’ve got half an hour, come back with a scene exploring blahhh, or 6 images exploring blah blah blah”. So, they are given an awful lot of responsibility straight away. Thrown right into the deep end I would say, but their generosity comes good, they love it, they love just going away and just running at it, with very little fear, they are great, they play.
So, in a sense they are artists?
Yeah, it’s about taking responsibility, and “how can we do this?”, and you could say well yeah we give, we share tools, there is a certain amount of if we play with exercises, in the exercise we could say what we are working on, which skills are being developed in that exercise, but really it is their capacity to play and have a go and tell stories and, yeah, I would say, just that. As soon as we take their natural energy as human beings and how interesting they are as people and we put them in this context where they are invited to make something, they are artists right away, I don’t see what they do, there is any difference between what they do and what a bunch of drama school trained professional actors do.
And you get that when you see the shows, there is an absolute professional commitment to those shows, they are very slick in the end and they have committed very wholly to that process and they own that material and then they deliver that material. Within that there is an enormous impact, because there is a universality to the stories that they are telling.
I mean I think as well and I will be speaking to these guys, some people do then, have I think, their own artistic practice, they feel very confident then, or more confident then in stepping out on their own as artists and that’s a sort of legacy of the project too.
Yeah, it opens up in different ways doesn’t it? If we think about individuals in the group, but for some it might mean that legacy has meant that they want to learn and give this gift to other people and in a sense become facilitators themselves. For some it just lifts the lid off their brain, heart, soul and it comes out in writing and arts and its like an explosion of creative output and in others it could be a greater capacity to live their life with more attention and flow and ease. All of them are massively valid and artistically led.
Yes, I think so and certainly creatively led.
So, in terms of my last question, what are your personal highlights in terms of the work you have done with the group?
Every show, because, that’s the great thing about Project X, all of our endeavours work towards some kind of sharing, some kind of spectacle and that’s really important for me. I like teaching, I like facilitating, but I am less and less interested in just doing it on a sort of week to week, just for the sake of it, I really love the shape that having a show, having a performance gives, the shape of that thing that we are working towards, the sacrificial moment, where we are laid on the alter for our audience and symbolically die, it’s brilliant! Highlights, every project has got them. Seeing people take on responsibility of a central character, for instance, Pete, in the last project we did, which was loosely based on Orpheus and the Underworld, which I called Underbelly. Pete took on the role of this guy who’d lost everything and journeyed through the guts of a city at night to reclaim himself and to put his life back together. And knowing what Pete has been through in his own life and seeing him take on that and just be so brilliant, he was so brilliant and took the audience with him and have them in his hand and see and feel. Feeling the impact that his vulnerability and his capacity to put himself through that journey, through that process, has on an audience, that is the highlight always. Hearing after a show just how moved people are, or how impressed they have been with the quality, and they have been taken on a journey with us. That I suppose is the best bit, because then, I just feel so pleased for all of us, for myself, for everyone there, just massive pride and appreciation for the whole thing. The magic of being in that room, at that time, on that night, when you know with right now with where we are with our Theatres closed, ahh that’s gold dust, that’s gold, that’s sharing together. Yeah those are the highlights.
I am just going to say thank you very much, that’s brilliant, I am really looking forward to speaking to the participants in a couple of weeks so that we can get their take on the impact on them personally.
Thanks for listening to this podcast. Our Space has had an extraordinary impact on lots of people over the years. To find out more please go to www.theatreroyal.com/ourspace