Interview: Eleanor Felton, Gaia Cicolani & Naomi Bowman Reflect on ‘Have You Heard’

Earlier this month, Nora Productions’ ‘Have You Heard’ was streamed via the Applecart Arts website, and, with plans to develop the piece into a site-specific and in-person production in the future, Director Eleanor Felton and performers Gaia Cicolani and Naomi Bowman here take the opportunity to reflect on the show to date, offering up a retrospective on a pretty intriguing new work…settle in!

Nora Productions sells itself as a creator of ‘theatre about womxn, myth, and history’ and Have You Heard looks at the remarkable story of Franceska Mann, a Polish ballet dancer who provided the catalyst for a riot against Nazi oppression by shooting two guards. So, what led the company to this particular woman and this particular story?

E.F: Honestly, I wasn’t looking for a new story at the time. I was doom-scrolling and stumbled across a picture of her with a caption and spent the next three hours researching her. There is such a sense of rage and injustice in this story, and that is a sensation that is growing in society at the moment with women’s rights, BLM, environmental protests, and countless social-justice issues. It felt like the perfect echo of that collective emotion.

N.B: The idea was all from Eleanor. I was attracted to the project because of the themes involved. There are too many narratives involving women as secondary or completely overlooked. There are so many incredible stories to tell and it was an absolute pleasure to be involved in this.

While Mann was real, the nature of the oral storytelling tradition has mythologised her story somewhat – how much of this production centres on the real woman at the heart of the tale, and how much the mythical version of the story she inspired?

E.F: I was very curious to hear what the audience thought of this. I couldn’t wait to ask people who they thought she was! I will say it has been fun to play with this idea of the woman vs the myth as we created.

This was also a devised piece and the work of a cast of seven. What would you say are the vital underpinnings of collaborative work like this?

E.F: The collaborative process is my favourite thing about theatre. It’s important to me that rehearsals are a space of openness and invitation. I have been so lucky with the cast that has worked with me, they really made it a creative process brimming with ideas and questions and excitement.

N.B: Communication and support are the foundations of working in this way but then there was genuine joy at what everyone brought to the table. We established guidelines from the start and once they were in place we had the space to play and really build a show together.

G.C: Clear communication, being open and not being too attached to your own contribution: everyone wants to create the best possible work and whatever is put “into the pot” can just be improved by others’ suggestions. Each collaborative group will have a different dynamic, so we started by creating and agreeing on ground rules specific to our group and kept them in mind throughout the process.

And the cast are a multi-talented collective who will weave together dance, theatre and live music in this production – would you characterise the piece as quite stylised, or do those interdisciplinary elements simply punctuate a piece mostly embracing realism?

E.F: At the moment, I think the piece is sitting about half way between those two places. I think we have a strong start for future development that starts to push the piece into new crevasses, exploring more abstract expressions of her story, and the fallout from it.

Have You Heard carries a few content warnings – how are you approaching the task of depicting such triggering content as scenes taking place in concentration camps?

E.F: The content of the historical event we are looking at is difficult. We have delved deeply into our research as we created this, in order to present the story accurately and respectfully. We have also been careful to depict scenes that strengthen the story we are telling.

During the rehearsal process, we created a set of ground rules to keep the process safe, and began and ended each rehearsal with a check-in and check-out process which helped to hold a safe space to create within. The thirty minute streaming was work-in-progress, so what can you tell me about the process and any golden/ revelatory moments in the lead up to this outing? I love the nitty gritty, and I love process insights!

E.F: The piece has gone through so many shifts since we started working on it, and the process was fast! We developed the entire thing in less than a month of part-time rehearsals. Lots of the creation process looked like a sharing of any homeworks or new thoughts that had arisen the night before, then some writing assignments and a sharing of them, followed by a discussion. As we went along in the piece, there started to be more and more things coming out in the writing and ideas that slotted in together beautifully and unintentionally, which is such a joy to discover when you are creating with a team.

G.C: Zoom can surprisingly work really well!

It’s anticipated that the final piece is probably going to be site-specific. With that likelihood in place, what kind of environment will you be scouting for and what, for you, is the appeal of site-specific work?

E.F: I am going to hold the kind of space I’m looking for close to my chest for the moment. Site-specific work can be incredible for its power of bringing an audience straight into the environment of the performance, and re-evaluating your expectations for what can happen. It opens up a range of curiosities and possibilities in the creation and in the experience of an audience member.

And finally, what are you hoping audiences will take away from their time enveloped by the world of Have You Heard the next time it finds its way to a performance space?

E.F: I get a sense of power, pride, and agency from this piece. I can only hope that audiences will take away something similar.

So there you have it! You can keep up with all things Nora Productions and Have You Heard via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Image credits: photos by Petra Eujane Photography, poster by Steph Pyne Design.

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