When a year like 2020 hits, different ways of creating and telling stories becomes vital rather than simply canny. A year like this one also calls for reflective work built on shared experience – particularly for those who have struggled with the seismic changes to daily life. Enter Eleanor Hill, who has taken the opportunity to join talents with a collective of womxn from around the world to produce ‘Sadvent Calendar’, an online series of monologues released daily. Here, Eleanor tells us all about this unique project…
So, Ms Eleanor Hill, writer and creator of the brand new online series Sadvent Calendar, tell me a little bit about where it all started for you – when did you learn that a career in theatre was for you?
I think I’ve sort of always known the idea of being paid money to dress up and make believe is pretty cool – not sure I ever really grew up. Plus turning my life traumas into art and potentially being paid for that gives me a sense a sick joy ha ha. It’s like that way I get the last laugh. The turning point for me was when I did my Masters in Acting at East 15, I think that was the point it came to me that I was just completely uninterested in being anything other than a creative.
Now I last saw you giving a cracking performance in Obsolete Tomfoolery at the Camden Fringe a few years ago – when and how did the leap to writing and creating happen? I’m assuming you’re now embracing all three areas?
Oh thank you so very much! Yes that Obsolete Tomfoolery was a mighty fun show to be a part of! So I’d been working on two plays for about a year or two and then was in a show called ‘Under the radar’ at the Bread and Roses last November. That was fantastic because I was able to get back into the acting but it also put a hold on my writing. Then this year, like a lot of people in the industry I found myself with a LOT of time spare and so I got back to writing. The writing and creative bug has always been there I think, just maybe the final push I needed to share the work was 2020 and all it has brought. And yes I’m definitely still acting, I’ll actually be doing the very last Sadvent!
And on that note, let’s get to this new project…tell me about Sadvent Calendar – what inspired you to start work on it and how have you found the journey from seedling to fully fledged performances being released online?
Sadvent Calendar was sort of born from the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the straw in this case was 2020! It has been a challenging year for almost everyone and I think what really inspired me was my own battles with mental health, trauma and a break up. I personally went through a hell of a time and I felt incredibly alone in it, something only made worse by the isolation of COVID world and lockdowns. So I personally turned to Instagram as a form of therapy.
I’m not the most open of books as a person and then a switch flipped and I just started sharing great monologues of truth about what I was going through. This went on for about 6 months or so and I showed the good the bad and the ugly (I was potentially a little too honest) but what I found was that people seemed to appreciate it. I had a HUGE amount of people reach out to me and thank me for sharing my truth as it made them feel less alone in their own struggles. They thanked me for articulating what they could not and for making them feel that it was okay to be broken and a bit messy with pain. So that’s where this sparked in my brain as a social media piece.
There is a really interesting way we interact with social media and I wanted to explore that you see along with the people who had been reaching out to me to see if I was okay and to tell me how much the sharing I was doing was helping in normalising and removing shame around certain issues. There were also a LOT of people, like an alarmingly worrying amount who remained silent. You can see who watched your stories on instagram so I was aware that some people had been tuning in for months to my ups and downs and remaining silent and this I found fascinating and it is something I touch on in one of the monologues.
That’s one hell of a journey then…and an incredibly brave one at that. So the ultimate product is 25 interconnected monologues performed by 25 womxn from across the globe – how have you gone about the casting process and what can you tell us about your cast?
The casting process was interesting for me. I’ve not done it before and also I had no budget for this project so I was asking for people to work for free – something I hate as an actor because we deserve to be paid for our art and so I have set up a go fund me page to ask people to donate if they can and want to pay for the series so that I can pay my actors. So because I was asking for people to work for free I mainly went to friends, people I’d trained with and knew.
I also needed to know that I could have real open dialogues with the actors as the piece is so personal to me, I needed to have people I could work with quickly without having to spend a large amount of ‘bonding’ time and also with literally no time face to face. So I looked to my fellow East 15 Alumni and that is where 25 of my cast are from. Alongside this however I also had a completely contradictory idea (this is the mess that is my creative brain) and this idea was about reaching out to people who I had never met but had spoken with on social media and giving them these incredibly personal stories to work on so that is how the rest of the cast was formed.
They are all fabulous humans and brilliant actors and frankly saints to be able to put up with my rambling voice notes of direction and redirection. All direction was done via WhatsApp voice notes and it is my first time directing so that must have been a challenge for them! When it came to giving the pieces to the actors I tried not to think too hard about who got what, I asked if they had subjects they wanted to avoid and that sort of guided me (there are a LOT of trigger warnings on this piece).
Well it does sound like quite an intense work, being a dark comedy exploring heartbreak, mental health and trauma – is there a sense that in a year like this one, audiences are primed for cathartic theatre?
I think Sadvent is marmite. Either you are like me and you are completely over people pretending like this isn’t the year from hell and you want someone to be honest about how awful everything is so you can feel less alone and less guilty about feeling shit OR you just want to pretend everything is rosy and post another cinnamon latte on your instagram.
I think there is a market for the former and I think that there is a need for a bit of cathartic theatre, I think we like to feel less alone. Mind you I’m not completely convinced this is cathartic, I never tell you how to feel or what to do, I’m not interested in that but I am interested in the removal of shame and isolation and I guess that is the cathartic aspect of Sadvent.
The dark comedy side, well that’s just my brand of humour, some people love it, some people hate it, some people get it, some don’t but it is a way that I am able to explore really heavy subjects without melodrama and great break downs. Also I really enjoy the sort of gut punch you can give an audience when you have a character joke about things like abuse and self harm, for me that hits harder than a sobbing wailing breakdown.
And the monologues look at those themes through a ‘lens of social media’ – what’s your take on the role of social media in contemporary issues with mental health and trauma? Do you explore the positive, affirming sides as well as the more problematic and damaging sides here?
Social media was a HUGE driving factor for this project. I have worked in social media, I was in marketing before acting so I have some understanding about the beast that is Social Media and I personally do not take the view that it is the devil incarnate. There are many positives , for example it gave me a platform to share how I felt in a time when I felt alone and it also drove me to share this work. However it is also a place where self confidence comes to die and comparison corrupts the soul.
We get so lost in believing the curated feeds of positivity so lost in this space of filtered fantasy that we forget what life is, we forget it is an up and down rollercoaster, it’s just that most people only post the ups. So that’s why I am interested in posting both. I want to highlight the messy as well as the pretty to remind people of reality and to encourage others to share their unfiltered reality too, so that social media might be a more positive space.
Sadvent Calendar is described as ‘semi-autobiographical’ and reflective of recent experiences in the pandemic. Exactly how personal would you say the work is and what are you hoping audiences will take away from pandemic-centred narratives as they continue to experience the pandemic first-hand?
The project is incredibly personal and some stories are direct lifts from my life but I’m not saying which ones, ha ha. There are real humans who are in the piece and the names have been changed but they’d know themselves and that’s something I need to be careful with, so I think it’s important to remind people I say it’s SEMI autobiographical rather than purely factual. That being said I’d say this piece is about 90% real life and I think that raw honesty is what draws people in.
I write how I speak and so I think the monologues sound like a human, they’re not flowery and they’re often poorly punctuated. I have dyslexia and dyspraxia and I purposely didn’t have a friend proof read before sending to the actors, the reason being that when I write a huge splurge or words with no punctuation that’s how it should be said. It’s not about good grammar it’s about how real humans speak and I think that helps the audience to connect. Also from a personal POV the use of having the pieces fed to the audience via your instagram aids this. The audience feel the actor is talking directly to them and it’s in the palm of their hand, this human just very honestly telling them a story. That’s a massive aid for his series.
I’d like someone to watch Sadvent and have the courage to say the things they think but feel they are not ‘meant’ to say. I want someone to watch and then jump on their own instagram and think OKAY I feel shit today I’m going to be open and honest and say that. And I want people to reassess how they interact with humans behind a screen. (More on that last point in “If I wake in the morning we will all know you cant die from Tony not loving you”).
The project is now live, with a new monologues posted to social channels daily – how have you found the reception so far?
The feedback has been really great so far- I think people are really liking the alternative xmas countdown! I’ve got some really personal responses from people and a lot of people saying they are so grateful for me speaking about supposedly taboo subjects which is incredible to hear! I’m aiming to gather more feedback though so I can further develop the project for next year so any more I can grab is very welcome!
And when some sense of normality returns and live theatre is once again the norm, what are your plans?
So I want to take Sadvent further, I have a few ideas but first I want to grab as much feedback from people as possible and then begin the mammoth task of the Arts Council! I’ll still be using Sadvents as a title and the flavour will be the same but I’ve got some exciting ideas I want to play with!