Theatre: Interview: FellSwoop Theatre

Steve Wright, September 30, 2015

Bristol’s brilliantly inventive FellSwoop Theatre explore hauntings in this spoken and sung performance, with music provided by acclaimed string quartet Van Kuijk.
Two strangers, both haunted by living ghosts in their everyday: one, her dying mother, and the other, his celebrity idol. Escaping to seek refuge at a spa retreat, the thirty year-old woman and the seventeen year-old boy meet, and together they try to resist becoming that which haunts them.
Here’s FellSwoop’s co-artistic director Bertrand Lesca to tell us more. 

Tell us about the genesis of the show. 
Ben (FellSwoop’s composer) and I were invited to the Invererne residency programme, which takes places in a very large, very old house in Scotland. As soon as we arrived, we knew that we wanted to make something about ancestry, memory, and the haunted.
To varying degrees, these things had already been present in much of our work: but it was really the place itself that encouraged us to focus on them. The place was full of portraits and objects that belonged to all the people who had lived there. We asked every participant to play these people we could see on the paintings or in the photographs, followed by a session where they had to play their own ancestors – which brought up some extraordinary things. 

Where did the haunting aspect come in?
Later on we started devising scenes around the concept of the haunting or the haunted. Two devising actors worked with us for a week creating these incredible visuals, using a boarding school in Oxfordshire which was empty for the Christmas holidays. After the end of the week, one of the actors talked about how we had to set this play in a place devoid of meaning. A place where supposedly there is no ghost living there, no traces of the past. That really followed our initial idea, which was that people are their own haunted houses. The ghosts of the past are really within us all. 

And why these two characters in particular?
They came from two our sense of different types of haunting. It seemed that this woman could be haunted by her past, whilst someone much younger could be haunted by the prospect of his future – something which we remembered as being quite daunting at that age. You’re haunted by these expectations on you to be a certain way, as well as by your own dreams of what your life might be.
Having them meet as strangers – he’s a pool cleaner, she’s a visitor to the hotel – gave us some interesting statuses to play, and different needs to explore. An interdependency between the two characters is fostered as they learn more about each other and want to help each other taming their past and their future selves.

So, what sort of journey do the two protagonists take?
At some point in the play, the space changes. The woman finds herself in another place where she sees figures of the past and people she was haunted by as a child. She is at a crisis point in her life and needs to be able to return to this frightening place in order to interpret the images of her past. Her house was haunted, she could see murders happening inside the house. With the help of the pool boy, she is going to decipher what these images mean – and how she can get rid of them. 
So on the one hand ghosts are being manifested externally, for the two of them to face together, but on the other hand they are being haunted internally, in different ways, which means they are often at odds with each other.

Pics: Jack Offord

Does the show suggest that all of us might be haunted by someone or something? And is that haunting only ever a negative experience?
Not necessarily negative – but it is something we all have to face. This is why we were interested in this subject in the first place. We are all haunted in some way or another. Some people have memories or people who stay with us for always. Every summer I go back to this place where my ancestors lived. People tell me stories about them and it’s amazing how connected I feel to these people I never met. I feel part of a line which I can’t really try and get rid of (and don’t really want to!).

Tell us about the format of the show – a mixture of spoken word and song?
At the core of the company is a collaboration between a composer, performers and a director. Our aim is to make theatre that is genuinely collaborative: not just a play with a soundtrack, but a composition process that’s entwined in the devising process. For this project we’ve brought on an additional composer, Josephine Stephenson, who has written these incredible string quartet pieces that the actors sing and speak over.
We’ve often talked about moving toward a more operatic form – but we knew it would have to be our own take on opera. With that in mind, we looked at a range of influences: Laurie Anderson (particularly Bright Red), Bjork’s concerts with the Brodsky Quartet, Robert Wilson’s Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the operas of George Benjamin and Oscar Bianchi…
It was about finding a way for the haunted to come through. A ghost could be many things – it could be a voice that you can’t help but hear, a word you can’t help but speak, or a voice that wants to be heard or spoken but that you aren’t able to hear or speak. Early on we looked at EVP, these strange recordings that ghost hunters have made in haunted places supposedly of voices from the dead; in response to that we’ve used cut-up techniques on our text – trying to create a voice that’s straining to be heard, that’s stuck in the wrong language. At other points, the voice cuts through in intense moments of emotion. There are points when language doesn’t work anymore, and music takes over.

What thoughts do you hope to send audiences away with?
Reflecting on what their own haunting is and what it might mean to each and all of us. And understanding this quite complex central character: someone who is very strong, but going through something so strange and difficult.

What does Bristol mean to you as a company? 
Bristol is the place where we have really developed as a company – through the support of Tobacco Factory Theatres straight after we came out of university with our shows Most Drink in Secret and Belleville Rendezvous – not to forget Bristol Old Vic’s Ferment artist scheme, which helped us to develop Ablutions. The artistic community here is so positive and broad.
But more broadly, we also feel inspired by Bristol as a society: its political consciousness, green agenda, diverse community. It is an inspiring place for us to live and to be active, as well as being fulfilling creatively. This place defines us, both as people and as a company.

Ghost Opera Tuesday, October 6 to Saturday, October 10, Brewery Theatre. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/detail/ghost_opera

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