Wollstonecraft Live!

Feature in Issue 18-2 | Summer 2006

Anna Birch of Fragments and Monuments documents the making of a site-specific, multimedia event bringing 18th Century radical Mary Wollstonecraft back to Newington Green.

Fragments & Monuments, based in London, began in 1996 as a collaboration between myself and Dutch scenographer Madelon Schwirtz, producing a trilogy of site-based productions in our first four years. Pamela Howard invited me to direct her MA Scenography students' final show at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design where Madelon was a student. We produced new work for Sceno Fest (International Scenography Festival), a turning point where my work embraced physical and visual aesthetics as well as acting and new writing. In this context, I built on my position as Max Stafford-Clark's assistant at the Royal Court in the early 1990s to develop new writing with a forceful scenographic aesthetic.

As a research Fellow attached to SMARTlab Centre, London, I have access to digital expertise and performance technology innovations which continue to help Fragments & Monuments develop its live and mediated performance languages. Now, with a new creative team (gathered from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, from New York's Fringe theatre scene, and from long-term collaborators), Fragments & Monuments has produced Wollstonecraft Live!, our largest-scale, multimedia, site-based production to date.

Evolution of a Show

Mary Wollstonecraft (played by Di Sherlock) was invited by Fragments & Monuments to Di's Midsummer Night Party (2000), a millennium extravaganza set in a 19th Century house where she met a host of celebrities and marvelled at the development of the photograph, something she had never seen as an 18th Century woman. Filmed during its live performance, Di's Midsummer Night Party was projected onto the front of Clissold House, Stoke Newington, one year later.

In 2004 I commissioned Kaethe Fine to write Wollstonecraft Live! For Fragments & Monuments. Koethe quickly conceptualised the idea of a filmshoot telling the story of Wollstonecraft's life using a mix of Wollstonecraft's writing, letters to William Godwin, Godwin's writing and a contemporary thread involving film-location language. She found a variety of voices to communicate Wollstonecraft's story in an accessible, witty and multilayered style. Kaethe brought her experience of performing, film-making and script-writing to bear on the theatrical concerns that Fragments & Monuments is known for: transhistorical character, interactivity and inside/outside, exterior/interior use of space. Her script is a unique example of well-researched performance writing for a site-based, multimedia production. When we were invited to open the Spit-Lit Festival in March 2006, the audience were fascinated to discover how Kaethe had woven together the 18th Century world of Wollstonecraft with our 21st Century world through her writing.

Mary Wollstonecraft lived and worked in the same community (Newington Green in North London) as I have lived in for over twenty years, and she has become an inspiring historical figure for me. Mary's writing and lifestyle resonate strongly with contemporary concerns for human rights and liberty. By bringing the past into the present through script, costume, location and audience participation, Fragments & Monuments conjures up the life and times of this spectacular woman of achievement. The boundary between Wollstonecraft's life and our own lives is explored, allowing the audience and local community to experience two centuries simultaneously.

In its combination of live performance, installation and digital technologies, Wollstonecraft Live! investigates the interface between live and mediated performance, audience and performer, location and history – concepts developed from the previous trilogy of work made by the company: Dogs Are Alone Too and They Live! (1996); Lovely Stones (1998); Di's Midsummer Night Party (2000).

This trilogy has three main themes:

The reappearance of Adela, the youngest daughter of Bernarda Alba (from The House of Bernarda Alba, by Federico Garcia Lorca), Miss Julie (Miss Julie, by August Strindberg), Princess Diana and Mary Wollstonecraft. The destiny of these women is deconstructed and rewritten. Mary Wollstonecraft subsequently reappears embodied by three very different female performers in Wollstonecraft Live!.

The audience interacts as passengers, hotel guests or party guests, becoming part of the action as they sit on the train, take the bus or walk to the midsummer party. In Wollstonecraft Live! the audience take on the role as extras in the Hollywood biopic of Wollstonecraft's life.

The interior and exterior of the performance space are explored as a central expression of gender relations. In the trilogy, windows are seen from both the inside and the outside, and doors are disregarded or used in a surprising way. In the outdoor screening of Di's Midsummer Night Party, we back-projected the film from the front of Clissold House in an attempt to merge our 21st-century experience of the house with its history. By working in a site-based location, Fragments & Monuments open the door of our work to the public.

A Multitude of Media

As a consequence of working on location, a work style found on film/TV locations has become a hallmark of Fragments & Monuments' production design. The film crew follows the performers and audience as film crew and paparazzi, to create an atmosphere of celebrity and occasion for the performers and audience (both filmed by the camera crew). The film Wollstonecraft Live! (2006) will be projected at Newington Green, London N16, one year after the live performance (September 2006). Jana Riedel is our editor and multimedia consultant; Tina Lonergan created the production design for both the live show Wollstonecraft Live! (her first professional job after achieving a first-class degree at Central Saint Martins) and our short film titled VINDICATION. Music composed by Alastair Gavin (jazz pianist and media composer) underscores the live show and films. VINDICATION was shot on location at Newington Green where Reverend Richard Price introduces Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin for the first time in the company of Thomas Paine and her publisher Joseph Johnson. Their discussions focus on the importance of dissent from the 18th Century monarchy and enthusiasm for democracy and human rights.

We worked for six months on the production design, and Tina designed and made a scale model of Newington Green which helped us to stage the show. The dresses worn by the three Marys provide one of the projection surfaces for our multimedia installation. In her article for Theatre Forum (UCSD) 'Fragments of a Life: Performing History in Newington Green', Lesley Ferris says: 'The difficult box skirts provide a constant visual reminder of the ways in which clothing has been used to both confine and control women.'

One year after the live performance, the audience are invited to watch themselves on film in relation to the live performance, location and each other. VINDICATION and Wollstonecraft Live! will be saved to DVD and distributed both locally and globally to enthusiasts and scholars of new performance and Mary Wollstonecraft. The local community around Newington Green will be given the DVD as a tool to increase community ownership of their local history and as a record of participation in a large-scale community arts event.

To Sum Up

Fragments & Monuments are engaged in a five-year investigation into the ways in which multimedia, site-specific performance can reveal lost biographies and encourage regeneration through the arts. The investigation involves a number of strands: the site-specific performance and filmic event about the life of human rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97); the conception and creation of a living monument to Wollstonecraft to be realised as an open commission; and the production of The Dramaturgical Tool Kit, offering aspiring artists, students and scholars a way into making and understanding how the production of original contemporary performance work can be grounded in contemporary, popular and historical approaches.

A version of this feature appears on the Total Theatre Explores website, launched June 2006.

Explores is a discrete project hosted by Total Theatre Network to support and celebrate women practitioners of physical and visual theatre/performance, funded by Equal, a European Social Fund programme, and led by EQ (formerly known as Metier).

See www.totaltheatre.org.uk/explores

Fragments & Monuments coming events:

September 2006: Wollstonecraft Live! outdoor screening. VINDICATION & Wollstonecraft Live! talk-back with writer and director presented on Newington Green and at the Unitarian Chapel, Newington Green N16.

December 2006: Ssamzie Gallery, Seoul, South Korea, invited to screen VINDICATION & Wollstonecraft Live! films.

February 2007: Air Gallery, Soho, New York, invited to screen VINDICATION & Wollstonecraft Live! films/talk-back with writer and director & multimedia installation.

September 2007: Large-scale projection on Newington Green, London N16, UK.

Dr Anna Birch has the following publications and conferences coming up:

Birch, A (2006) The Dramaturgical Toolkit: a visual analysis and making kit. Lines of Enquiry: Explorations in learning in the School of Art (Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design) edited by Alex Lumley Birch, A & Barbieri, D (2006). Frocks in Space, Courtauld History of Dress Association Annual Conference 2006 (CHODA), Dress and the Performing Arts 7-8 July 2006 Courtauld Institute of Art London researched, written and presented with Donatella Barbieri, London College of Fashion.

Birch, A (2006 in press) Staging and Citing Gendered Meanings: A practice-based study of representational strategies in live and mediated performance in Birgit Haas (Hg.): Der Postfeministische Diskurs. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann For more information email Dr Anna Birch on silvabirch@btintemet.com or see www.wollstonecraftlive.com

This article in the magazine

Issue 18-2
p. 16 - 17