Feature | Building (Hi)stories: Ladyfriends in Rehearsals

by Diana Miranda

Period dramas have become the ultimate weekend watch according to trending British media. And while Ladyfriends, written and directed by Clodagh Chapman, is pretty much suffragettes Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney’s story, this isn’t one of those dramas. Ladyfriends starts from the premise that Annie and Christabel are dating. Though historians dispute this based on ‘lack of scholastic rigour’, Chapman’s take doesn’t engage in these controversies and sees Chris and Annies’ dating as a fact. To her, a more exciting endeavour is to explore how people relate to history, and what lays behind re-visiting it and pursuing new readings.

The rehearsal period is spread out over two weeks. The director works daily with the actor-musicians of this two-hander show. A dramaturg joins them sporadically, as well as an electronic music specialist that assists in embedding music throughout the devising process.

This queer (hi)story uses live music and film to unravel the story of two of the most influential suffragettes in Manchester and London. It’s as if the characters created a soundtrack and visual archive of their lives, making a period drama out of their own relationship. It’s a narrative that, nonetheless, will be out of their control as History (with a big H) sets the framework that shall influence the way their partnership will be documented. While such a gist doesn’t come across from observing a short part of the rehearsal process, the aesthetics of the techie stuff feels intriguing and it’s captivating to watch.

I join Clodagh and performers Lucy Mackay and Kat Johns-Burke for a morning session at the end of their first week of rehearsing. After a warm-up that includes a storytelling exercise to develop attentive listening and a tongue-twister game that the actors embrace with playful rivalry, the team gets comfy to chat about their homework: research on events from the beginning of the 20th century. For instance, they talk about the Titanic, royal succession and related controversies, world wars, and pandemics. Curiously enough, a thing or two resonate with contemporary times. Their aim is to evidence how context influences change. The world can actually change if we all collectively decide, Clodagh points out, just as with the past lockdowns due to COVID-19. It also shows that daily life is imbued with conflict in a way that people simply learn to navigate in order to get along. It happened then; it happens now. When the conversation circles back to women’s vote, Clodagh touches on the fact that the movement wasn’t linear (rocking the big H boat again).

Everyone in the room seems well-acquainted with the characters that inspire Ladyfriends and the suffragettes’ activism. In this rehearsal, the director looks at three short scenes ahead of the afternoon’s open rehearsal with a few queer spectators who will lend their eyes to provide an outsider’s input. It is worth mentioning that there are not one but two embedded critics in the team, both with the chance to engage and respond freely. So, it looks like Ladyfriends is all about inviting multiple perspectives during the making-process.

The director uses improvisation to navigate the relationship between the protagonists. In this way, she discovers the beads that build up the script that she’s writing parallel to the devising process. To ensure the improvs are distinct, she gives instructions on goals to achieve by the end of each one, or attitudes to tackle throughout. Afterwards, the performers discuss their discoveries about the characters and what they liked or disliked about what they made.

They also discuss the inconveniences of going over a scene repeatedly and how that may decrease actors’ engagement if they do it once they’ve had the feeling that it’s worked well. In each repetition they’re trying to hit the same point but with different words, which may feel redundant rather than liberating. But this concern doesn’t diminish the performer’s commitment to finding new angles, and each sketch looks fresh. Not everything fits, but everything can be learned from.

There is a collective vibe, although there is a hierarchy in the process. Chapman sets out the agenda, and Lucy and Kat turn to her to make decisions. She lets the actors set the pace during the scenes, but as she pursues the beads of the story, she takes notes and guides the actors to navigate their relationship and understand the political context.

Although the rehearsal I observed includes an analysis of historical facts parallel to the suffragette movement in Manchester, the aesthetic is modern. Again, this is no period drama. The performers move away from ultra-eloquence, physical stiffness, and formalities characteristic of the beginning of the 20th century (as we may learn from Bridgerton and other similar British favourites). Instead, they navigate the natural awkwardness, long silences and messy interactions of two people when they first start dating. And they do it while tuning an electric guitar, for instance.

The idea of navigating how people relate to history influences the process in Ladyfriends’ rehearsal room in subtle ways. You get a glimpse of it in what each person finds relevant in their research on historical context, and the lines they draw from documentaries, Hollywood movies or personal journals. Considering that the writings of embedded criticism differ from the standard archiving processes that build the foundation of theatre historians (i.e. objective reviews), I can’t help but feel that my response as an embedded critic is part of that exploration, too.

Overall, the process in Ladyfriends hints at the ways we ‘build’ (hi)stories, and how history resists multiple readings. I’ve never been to Manchester before; Ladyfriends brought me there. As I walked the streets the afternoon after watching the rehearsal, I was over-sensitive to things that reminded me of puzzle pieces that bring the show together: the LGBTQ+ community, suffragettes’ symbols, and even the city’s romance with live music. Ladyfriends opened my eyes to multiple readings in that sense, and I can’t help but notice that I didn’t see something that weaved all those themes together during my walks. This feels like a metaphor for the lack of intersectionality in our means of communication and in the way we share stories. And, taking it a step further, our tendencies to see (hi)stories as linear, segregated, and simple. So let’s re-visit that.

Ladyfriends tours London and Manchester through 7 May.

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