Arts and Culture Interview: Figurehead Theatre

qmunicate sat down with director Josh Dodds and playwright Sine Harris of Figurehead Theatre to talk about their latest production ‘Gartnavel’. This ‘historical play with a post-modern twist’ follows the story of Lucy Fletcher, Governess to the daughter of the Physician-Superintendent of Glasgow’s Gartnavel Asylum.

qmunicate: This is the third production from Figurehead Theatre – how do you feel like you’ve developed over the course of your productions? What makes Gartnavel different from your other productions – or a continuation of your previous work?

Sine Harris: That’s an interesting question! We’ve certainly learned a lot of practical things, and I hope, developed something of a style – historical plays with a post-modern twist, that use technology and music prevalent. The really new thing for Gartnavel is the entirely original score and the presence of the three musicians on stage. Like the other two, there is a central female character who seems confined, and some underlying tensions surrounding identity, and perhaps a slightly bleak outlook. I don’t think we ever set out to recreate those elements, but inevitably things we find interesting will keep coming back.

Josh Dodds: Although this is our third production we’re still in our first year as a theatre company and I feel like we’re still working things out and trying to refine our approach to text and technology. Saying that I feel like Gartnavel is a big step up in terms of scale. We have a live band and an original score, something I’ve been pushing towards with each production, and the subject matter being both local to Glasgow and personal to Sine makes the play feel particularly unique and grounded.

qmunicate: How would you sum up Gartnavel in a single sentence?

Sine: A governess trying to come to terms with the realities of life and her role in a Victorian asylum in Glasgow?

Josh: Stranger than fiction but also kind of fiction.

qmunicate: What was the inspiration for Gartnavel? Where did you come across the story and the history of Gartnavel asylum?

Sine: There’s a bit of family history behind this one. I found this scrapbook that belonged to my great great grandmother, Bessie Mackintosh, given to her by a governess. It’s mostly what you might expect from a Victorian schoolgirl, except for the fact that her father was physician-superintendent of Gartnavel Asylum, and his family lived with him on-site. I found that juxtaposition really striking, and as I started researching I just found more and more interesting material, and it basically snowballed into a (hopefully) coherent script!

qmunicate: Gartnavel obviously engages with the mental health treatment of a very different era, and there are a lot of stereotypes and cultural ideas about the “asylum” – how did you confront this, what was your research and attitude with regards to Victorian ideas of mental illness and how to present them in a modern context?

Sine: Yes, that’s been a definite worry for me, and I’m looking forward to feedback on it, because it’s such sensitive territory and I wanted to balance modern attitudes and historical ones and keep artistic integrity too. I’ve worked with real patient testimonies to try and do this- there’s a fascinating document by a Gartnavel patient called James Frame who wrote about his experiences there (‘The Philosophy of Insanity’, available through the Wellcome Trust) and I’ve made him a character. But in the main the patients are musicians who only ‘speak’ through song, to make them central and superfluous at the same time, and lets us avoid the problem of making people ‘act mad’.

Josh: My thinking behind this was to try and move away from quite limiting representations of asylum patients and instead incorporate the patient into the figures of the musicians. Their presence is felt on stage but they don’t act as such and so don’t fall into some of the obvious pitfalls of representing mental illness of a very different historical period. I think we’ve managed to attend to the importance of these people who are lost to history without trying to reclaim them and fit them into a modern context.

qmunicate: All of your productions as Figurehead Theatre have been new, original scripts – how do you find producing original works differs from adaptations of existing or classic scripts? How do you think original works contribute to the theatrical scene in Glasgow, or to the conversation theatre is having?

Sine: I hope that original scripts are more interesting to the audience – they’re certainly more rewarding for us to produce, and I think it makes it easier to be creative with staging, when the play’s not something that’s been done a million times before. I think Figurehead has a very DIY ethos, not only is the script ours but the whole score and an animation was created for Gartnavel too, which lets the final product be more coherent, more ‘ours’ and also just more interesting to do! As to scene, I don’t think I can speak for a Glasgow scene, but new writing is always a good thing to promote, even if it can make it harder to draw audiences sometimes.

Josh: For me, the one thing that won’t be changing about Figurehead Theatre is working exclusively with original scripts. It’s something that hardly any amateur theatre companies in Glasgow are consistently doing and I think by creating everything from scratch it encourages a participatory theatre practice that is open to different kinds of artists across literature, theatre, film and music. I think this collaborative approach is something Glasgow allows for that maybe other more established art cities do not (cough London). Theatre in Glasgow is and should be cheap, interdisciplinary and ultimately made here. We’ve seen that in using original scripts our actors are much more invested in the production, they want to help set the bar.

‘Gartnavel’ is at The Space, Glasgow on Tuesday 14th and Wednesday 15th of November.

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