We’re Itching To Talk About… is a new series of blog posts in which we feature some of the brilliant work our theatre-making friends are creating within the region and further afield.

Francesca Millican-Slater
Stories To Tell In The Middle Of The Night

The days may be lengthening but we’re still battling through long hours of darkness… And thankfully, when sleep eludes you, there’s always a soothing voice over the airwaves to get you through the night. Ahead of a run at Birmingham REP, we caught up with Francesca to find out more about her new show which blends radio, theatre and storytelling, and to hear her thoughts on making work, the power of the past and her pick of cinema’s finest female DJs.

Stories To Tell In The Middle Of The Night runs at Birmingham REP between 9th -18th February 2017. Find out more and book tickets here.

Stories In The Basement, a series of teaser events for the production take place at Birmingham REP between 19th January – 9th February 2017. More details can be found here.

You can find out more about Francesca on her website.

Image taken by Graeme Braidwood.

Philip: How would you describe Stories to Tell in the Middle of the Night for anyone hearing about it for the first time?

Fran: It’s set up like a live late night radio show that tells stories to follow the pattern of the night and the frustrations of not being able to get to sleep. The stories aren’t always about the night explicitly but small stories that are familiar, stolen, funny, and true. They reflect the frustrations and missed connections of the daylight hours that can sometimes keep us awake.

Philip: Throughout your career, you’ve made a vast range of work with all sorts of different people. Describe some of the people or companies who have had the biggest impact on you and the work you make.

Fran: There is always Pippa [Frith], who is my producer but also my best friend. I’ve known her since I was 3 and we grew up in Watford together. Without her to bounce ideas off, get feedback, fail in front of, push me and make those finances work, I don’t think I’d be in the position that I am in now.

It is often the brief interactions that have had a big impact on me, people I may only work with for an afternoon, that have a different practice to mine and have given up their time to encourage me to view my work in a different way: Ben Buretta (of Outbox Theatre), Elizabeth Freestone (Independent Director and former Artistic Director of Pentabus). In 2012 I first worked with The Jane Packman Company (now Dens & Signals), on The Wake which was instrumental in growing my practice as a writer/deviser and collaborative performer outside my own work. It encouraged me to think about working with musicians and music and the idea that a performance is an event to be hosted. 

There are large venues that have taken an interest and a gamble on my work. The New Vic in Stoke gave me free rein to make a show with the backing of the brilliant staff designer Lis Evans, and Associate Director of The Hoard, Gemma Fairlie. Moving on from only myself, Pippa and a technician rocking up at a venue to having a whole production team was quite a step and encourages me to think about future possibilities. And of course, there is Birmingham Rep who have been supporting me in various ways since I finished the first Foundry Programme in 2013. From programming The Forensics of a Flat and Gold to providing rehearsal space, dramaturgy support and commissioning Stories to Tell... With the weight of this venue and its team behind me my work has continued to grow and allowed me to take risks. Just a brief meeting with Tessa Walker (Associate Director at Birmingham Rep) can spark new ideas, while going to shows and seeing the alumni of the Foundry continuing to make challenging and original work encourages me to keep driving my work and challenging my process in different ways.

There is the support network of artists and practitioners that I have met through programs such as the Foundry or just by being in Birmingham. Those conversations that happen sporadically or late at night that make me think differently with people such as Stephanie Ridings, Lou Platt, Jo Gleave, Sam Fox, and Rochi Rampal.

Speaking with those outside of the arts are some of the most vital conversations that I have. It is easy to remain in an arts bubble and I specifically seek out people that have different views and experiences to mine. These are the people that tell me if something doesn’t make sense, or that it is too navel gazing, or that they wouldn’t go and see it. They are the people that I meet in basements or in archive rooms, on the street when I am doing research, or in shops. Also… various ex’s come to mind.

In terms of artistic influence,  the people or companies whose work I always go back to, where I feel my roots are, whose work I once saw and thought ‘Oh I want to do that… I could do that…’ are familiar favourites: Spalding Gray, Robin Deacon, Curious, Split Britches, Ursula Martinez, Forced Entertainment (in their less frenetic work – see The Travels).

Philip: You have also made and taken several productions out with rural touring schemes and their networks such as Arts Alive, and with rural agencies such as the Canal & River Trust. What has your experience of working in rural venues and locations been like?

Fran: Rural Touring is where I really learnt my craft. It is where audiences turn up because it is a social event and not necessarily to see your show, where you sit down and eat with your hosts and often stay a night in their house. The audiences are honest, welcoming and always full of questions and stories themselves. As a performer, alongside your technician, you adapt to spaces, technical set up, size of audience… every single venue, and every scheme is different. It takes the ego out of performing and you make the show work for them, which I think is important for any writer/performer to learn. It is about the audience. I’ve turned up to venues where the hall I was due to perform in hasn’t been built, or where the audience are wrapped in blankets because the heating makes too much noise, or where next week ‘they’ve got a proper show’ programmed. It means every show is different. It always works, no matter the show or the size of the audience. The Rural Touring schemes, such as Arts Alive, are doing such important work in supporting performance to be taken to places where otherwise people wouldn’t see it. To expand the notion that there is more to theatre than expensive tickets, the old canon of plays, and well-known actors.

With Arts Alive I made a show (that turned into two!) that means I get to perform in the places where the people I have researched and who I talk about during the show have lived. Sometimes some of the audience know relatives of these characters.

The Canal & River Trust was particularly interesting to work with. I was Artist in Residence at The National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port. The challenge there was to create a piece of work that encouraged new audiences into the museum itself while also engaging regular attendees or those that worked there. With a subject like Canals and Boats, there are a lot of experts so it is about finding creative ways of telling new stories to these people. In a similar vein to Rural Touring, I worked with what I had to create something for the audiences that is contemporary in form but also accessible.

Philip: As a theatre-maker myself, I’m always fascinated to learn about other people’s creative processes. What main ideas characterise the way you go about creating a new show?

Fran: It usually starts with an idea, an object, or a story I hear, or have overheard or read about. Or someone has asked me to make something about a theme or idea. I go looking for stories, and oddities on the internet. There is a period where that ‘thing’ (whatever it is) sits in my head.  I write about it, usually in abstract ways. I research it and discover the larger themes around it – tangents that often reoccur. I buy books online that sit looking at me, guilty. I may mention the idea to a few people (including Pippa). It is about this time that I start to name it, give it a title, even if it is still really just an idea. It is usually a very long title (with brackets). When it has a name it somehow becomes a real thing. Then I make a list: What do I want to do? What do I want people to get from it? What do I want people to feel from it? What might it look like? What is the biggest it could be? What is the smallest it could be?

I set myself some sort of deadline by applying to a scratch night or inviting a small audience to a showing at the end of a rehearsal period.

Then I start taking action by going to places (this could be archives, museums, exhibitions, pubs or places that no longer exist). I talk to lots of people, asking questions, collecting answers, writing. I wake up with half ideas. I swim or walk and think. I write lots of small, medium and long pieces that don’t obviously connect.

I then make a structure chart: a list of things that I stick to the wall of my flat. This is where I pretend I am a detective. Or a serial killer. I take that writing and structure and I spend a week or two in a room somewhere (usually on my own) with the intention of doing things, and usually I do some more writing. I stand up and say the writing aloud and start editing it. Objects in the room that were not originally involved become crucial, accidentally. I throw away some visual ideas that I was obsessed by. I either decide that this show (insert title here) definitely does or does not need a power point. Or music. But it always needs music. Or sound. I play a lot with words and ideas and spend some time laughing at myself on my own in a room. Sometimes I video or audio record myself. I call Pippa and ask if I’ve done enough work and can go home. By then I have a rough structure (usually a strong start with uncertainty later) and I invite some people in, ask them what they think, and what they want more of, and what they want less of. I do some more writing.

Then there are timelines in place and we (me and Pippa) start talking to venues and designers and technicians. At some point I learn the words, but not always exactly how they are written on the page.

Philip: Your blog for Stories includes a brilliant phrase: “the fetishisation of nostalgia” — could you explain a bit more about what you mean by that, and how it feeds into your current and previous work? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

Fran: The world we live in is fast paced, hyper (in all senses), and for a lot of us it is largely digital. This leaves space for a want, a yearning for the ‘good old days’ of ink and paper, postcards, slower pace, more honest words. Or at least that is how it can appear. There are online video tutorials in how to make furniture look shabby-chic so that it looks vintage. We collect records to hang on walls but not to play under needles. A sepia tint or 70’s soft focus filter on Instagram can make the most uninspiring of dinners look delicious. Comfort is found in over-priced re-invented sweets and games from our childhood. It felt like a simpler time. Do I think it’s a good or bad thing? I bounce between scathing words and buying in. It forms questions that inform my work.

My previous work revolves around and is sold on this obsession with the past. Being in contact with documents that have been touched and written by people that lived 40, 50, 100 years ago is amazing. Just that bit of physical contact. Emails don’t carry skin cells and fingerprints. These documents tell stories that cannot be Googled. And beneath the sepia tint of old style clothes and funny phrases are people dealing with friendships and family and poverty and death and change. They teach us about how we have got to where we’ve got, and about what we have and have not learnt. So… the fetishisation of nostalgia, the selling of it, is important for me to unpick.

With some of the tales in Stories To Tell… I’m looking at the friction between finding comfort in the recent past (when information was limited) and the technology of today (that informs us constantly, and connects us whilst at the same time manipulates and isolates us).

Perhaps it is my age, and that I remember when mobile phones were new (mine carried AA batteries), and the subsequent rise of text messages, camera phones, and iPhones. I am trying to work out what other time in history shared a similar pace in the advancement of technology that we are currently living through. Perhaps the Industrial Revolution felt similar?

Philip: Where have all the stories for this new show come from?

Fran: They are stories that I have been writing for 10 or 12 years. They are little snippets of things that I started, things I wrote for the page or stories that were intended for other shows. They come from working in call centres, pubs, living in cities, overheard conversations, newspaper articles, anecdotes stolen from friends (Pork Pie Holer, thanks Martin Cox), frustrations with situations and sometimes extended versions of things that have happened to me.

Part of the process for this show was going through my old notebooks, re-discovering stories and expanding them. It was a little like having a conversation with my younger self. And some of them needed a lot of editing. Some needed re-writing completely because of how technology has changed. There was always a desire to put these stories that have some overlapping themes somewhere together, but I wasn’t sure how they fitted in with my work.

Philip: The image of a lone woman DJ working through the night and talking to listeners who may or may not still be listening reminds me very much of The Fog. Have you seen that film? What other sources inspired the show? Have you based your performance on any well-known radio presenters?

Fran: I am so glad that you picked up on The Fog! When I first started thinking about this idea I was looking at Blues Raconteurs, BB King, Howling Wolf – stories that are told in song and the talking in between. I was thinking about Iggy Pop and Ronnie Wood’s rambling radio shows… that idea of just talking into a mic. But I also wanted a feeling of uncertainty and aloneness, and then a friend of mine (one of those that isn’t part of the arts crowd!) told me to watch The Fog. It has this brilliant atmosphere, and the feel of the sea, of isolation. I was also looking at the film The Warriors, particularly the DJ who appears as just a voice and a lovely pair of lips sending warnings and music across the city. I listened to Jarvis Cocker who reads out excerpts of interviews or short stories as well as playing music and Cerys Mathews who reads out notes from her phone and things she has found out.

The writing of the stories themselves is influenced by Richard Brautigan (that was a tip from a Jarvis Cocker show), Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, Angela Carter (always) Jeanette Winterson, John Cheever, and the adult short stories of Roald Dahl.

Philip: Another phrase on your website’s homepage really jumped out at me: “I never pretend that you are not there.” Why is it so important to you to have such a direct relationship with your audience?

Fran: Ahhh, this goes back to technology. We can be entertained digitally anywhere. We have it at our fingertips in films, games, the internet… and theatre is up against these cheaper and more accessible forms of entertainment. Theatre is unique in that it allows for a shared live experience with those people in that room at that particular moment. I believe we should acknowledge that we are in a room to tell a story/stories, and that it is about an exchange in the live moment. That could be done in the smallest of ways. I always like a low level of house lights on the audience so I can see them and look into their eyes.

Interestingly, Stories To Tell… is the one show out of all my previous work where everything takes place somewhere slightly ‘other’. It acknowledges the audience and asks them to come with me into a place/space that is unknown. It doesn’t ask for a direct response as a lot of my other shows do, but it relies on them trusting me to take them into different places and to different people. There is some suspension of belief, without me asking them directly to do that (as I usually do). I guess this was a way to push a different way of performing on myself as the material is different to what I have worked with before.

Philip: You’ve been working with the lovely Iain Armstrong on this piece, who Little Earthquake audiences will remember as the celery-twisting doctor in our production of The Tell-Tale Heart. What has Iain’s contribution been to the show?

Fran: He has created a sound design which heightens the atmosphere of the show and assists in creating this dream-like quality. It also creates the different space/spaces I talked about above. With a simple set and simple words, the subtleties of Iain’s design make this show. His ideas both in sound and also in terms of structuring the piece were invaluable. He managed to translate some of my confused ideas about what I wanted (I’d usually try and do it with a karaoke track and power point) into something beautiful in its own right. He explored the themes of the show by manipulating Nocturnes (music to be performed at night) to create an ongoing repeated sound that signifies The Navigator (the DJ) and that takes you through the night. Every idea that I gave him he was able to find a way of looking at in a more subtle way. Every sound you hear has reference to the stories and the themes at large. And you should hear how he has turned KC and Jo Jo’s ‘All My Life’ into something distressingly beautiful (though he’s never really forgiven me for having to download that track).

Philip:  What keeps you awake at night? And what do you do to help you get back to sleep again?

Fran: Frustrations, worries, anxieties. Conversations that I had years ago and that don’t matter. Things I could do better. The world and how it could be better. Targets I set for myself. Other people I think could be awake. Things I wish I’d said. Things I did say. Birds. The buses outside. A 4am wine wake-up (from drinking earlier in the evening, not to get up and drink at 4am). Ideas. Snippets of shows.

I never look at my phone when I can’t sleep. Part of me enjoys the feeling that you might be the only one awake. I try counting back from 200. Or I get up and write in a book I have that is not for creative writing or ideas, but just for writing in, to get stuff out of my head and somewhere else. I tell myself stories – some old ones or new ones. Or I look for plot holes in TV shows (Empire, Death in Paradise, Jonathan Creek). Or I go through lines.

Philip: When you were little, what was your favourite bedtime story?

Fran: Pugwash (which my Dad told me he’d written and before it had the taint of innuendo attached to it). My Mum used to tell me stories about the Little Green Man and the Little Red Woman when she wasn’t reading me Feminist Fairy Tales. She also told me a story about the Seven Sisters who made the cliffs near Seaford. Oh and a book called Fred, about a cat who had died and then it turns out he was an international cat pop star. I realise that is a list of stories, not one.

Philip: Many of our blog subscribers are theatre students who plan to go on and make their own work professionally. If you had to give one piece of advice to them, what would it be?

Fran: Keep asking yourself ‘What do you want the audience to get from this?’, ‘ What do you want them to feel?’ Make your work adaptable to different places and numbers of people.