Sometimes good things come out of disappointments. Sara and I had planned a Writers in Residence event at the University of Brighton for late April, themed around collaboration and site-specific work. Speakers and space were booked, but the date was too close to exams, and on the night we found ourselves in a small circle waiting for an audience who never showed. No matter. We got talking, and one of the ideas that emerged from the evening was to make a site-specific piece to be put on at my house in Lewes, which was about to go on the market.
Moving house, as we all know, is right up there in the stressy top five with redundancy, severe illness, bereavement and divorce. So it’s been a revelation to discover that devising, writing, rehearsing and staging this show – work that took place over just twelve action-packed weeks – has energised and eased the process of saying goodbye to our beloved home of sixteen years.
Do we ever really own a house? Or does the house own us, for our tenure, allowing us to live within its walls, sheltering us through the scenes and acts of our lives? Any house (particularly an old house, and ours dates from the 17th to the early 19th century) is a concentrated focus of emotion and story. A house like Brookside is in fact a theatre – though the drama is drawn-out and players from past and future can’t always be seen.
During our years in the house we’ve known our fair share of arrivals and departures, joys and griefs. We’ve lived the humdrum, the dreams and the trauma. We’ve also discovered the stories of others who’ve lived here and we’ve encountered – in various ways – resonances of their lives. I’m not talking about ghosts per se, more about feelings picked up and shared, a kind of empathic connection across time. And often I’ve found myself standing at a window or in a doorway, thinking about the others who’ve stood in that exact spot, looking out on the same patch of sky.
Sara, Nicola and I knew that the idea of a site-specific piece for Brookside had intrigue and authenticity. Sara and I would co-write it, Nicola would direct it. We decided the piece should be a collage of verbatim material alongside more conventional scenes with the addition of music and poetry. Sara hit on the idea of structuring the piece around three time periods that offered plenty of material (the house Deeds and various other papers have been rich sources) – 1816, 1916, and the present day – 2015. And so we set to work, weaving facts about the house and its inhabitants with local history and a healthy pinch of fiction.
Themes emerged early on – war and the military, lost children, seasons, clocks, time-slips, hauntings, multi-layered realities, and we privileged those we felt could work across the various textures of the piece. Sara focused first on writing two scenes set in 1816, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when the house was inhabited by officers of the Sussex Militia in charge of soldiers barracked nearby. She also wrote two scenes from 1916, when the Glover family lived in the house and lost two sons on the western front – one in March and the other in July.
I’d already been working on a series of poetic pieces about the house and once the project was under way I knew these belonged with it – a kind of chorus voice linking scenes through imagery. I also wrote a number of stand-alone poems that spoke of my own and my family’s process of parting with our home. I interviewed my friend and neighbour Mary Anne, who had lived in the house for thirty years and we included two stretches of her verbatim material as well as my own accounts of uncanny experiences in the house and those of another friend.
Early in the collaborative process we decided to split the Clare character into Clare the Guide (the pragmatic, storytelling Clare) and Clare the Poet (in touch with the uncanny and the otherworldly). After an unnerving opening scene in which both Clares appear (serially) to talk about a family portrait, they lead the audience around the house, passing the narrative between them.
Music provided an extra layer of texture and another theme since the house has been full of music for at least the past fifty years. My husband Philip plays piano well and he and Nicola chose ‘Etude no.2’ by Philip Glass, ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ by Claude Debussy and ‘Promenade Sentimentale’ by Vladimir Cosma (used in the 1981 film ‘Diva’) to underscore certain scenes.
Nicola designed two episodes of puppetry – one to take place in Freddie’s old room where his toys have a last fling before tucking themselves away in a trunk, all underscored with recordings of the 10-year-old Freddie singing; the other as part of a taut scene in which Mary Anne talks about her grandfather playing piano while Philip plays Glass and our family photographs fly through the air to land on top of his piano.
For the final scene Sara wrote dialogue in which the present day cuts across other periods in a hyper-realistic moment when Freddie is about to move out with his stuff (as indeed he did half way through our ten week writing process) but can’t find some of his things, including a pair of shoes to wear!
All our meetings about the making of the piece took place in the house, and we literally bounced ideas off the old walls as we thrashed through scenes. It was fun and fascinating and the work had energy, driving us on to the July dates we’d set for performances. We were hurtling towards the show just as Philip, Freddie and I were hurtling towards the upheaval of moving out. Potential buyers toured the house as Nicola, Sara and I scattered ideas and materials on tables and floors.
While Sara and I organised online ticket sales and helpers for front of house and bar, Nicola found and cast the actors – a tremendously gifted group. Richard Attlee and Nick Tigg played Major Barbarie and Captain Willard respectively; Matthew Coulton was John the labourer and Edmond Glover; Helena Johnson was Mary Anne, Gertrude Glover and Clare the House; Moir Leslie was Clare the Guide. Nick, Matthew and Richard, alongside Nicola, also appeared as puppeteers, managing lightning costume changes. I was Clare the Poet. Philip played himself and played the piano, and Freddie (whose young voice had been heard early in the piece) came on as his adult self in the final scene.
Nicola started rehearsals of the main scenes in London before we all finally got together at Brookside on Thursday 23rd July – with the preview scheduled for that night and two performances for Friday and two for Saturday all sold out.
Somehow everything happened. We learned how to move twenty people at a time up and down the stairs, in and out of rooms, we honed the show, we had some surprises, including beautifully timed heavy thunderstorms on the Friday night. We welcomed hearing what people thought of this unusual piece of work.
Those few days will be with me forever – the consistently constructive sense of mild panic; the role the house played in keeping us on track – containing us (and some of the actors were sleeping here too) and cajoling us; everyone’s good humour and generosity; the shared meals and the snacks in shifts; the utter professionalism.
I fell in love with Brookside within three minutes of walking through the front door in March 1999, and the affair has been intense. Saying goodbye, separating, is just as intense. Making ‘Vacant Possession’ has been a gift of a journey celebrating collaboration, powerful emotion, hard craft, laughter and extraordinary intimacy. I’m beginning to feel ready to pass the place on to the next inhabitants, who will reset the stage and play out their scenes. And yes, I’m sure they’ll hear us – family and cast – or see us or sense us in some other way. We’re part of the place, just as all the others are.
Read a review of ‘Vacant Possession’ by Strat Mastoris for Fringe Review here.
Sara Clifford’s Inroads Productions website
Nicola Blackwell’s Slotmachine Theatre website
Special thanks to Cammie Toloui for the photos