Museum On Tour, 4 May 2017: Ropewalks #6 – Writing Ropewalks

by Jon Nash, Scriptwriter

As a writer and theatre maker I’ve always been interested in story. The stories we hear, the stories we tell each other and ourselves. Stories help us make sense of the world around us and can bring us together to learn and think and feel.

So around a year ago I began a project of research into the history of the Barbican: its buildings and people, trades and events. As I collected the expected dates and timelines and names and records, I was looking for the smaller human stories that stood out against the backdrop of history with a capital H.

An historic photo of the Barbican, Plymouth from Plymouth City Council's (Arts and Heritage) Service's collections

In workshops with young people from the city I shared some of the stories I’d found and asked them which ones they felt were the most interesting to them. The ones that caught their attention had a few things in common:

  • They connected Plymouth to big important history in a way they hadn’t known or imagined
  • They showed how ordinary people lived often during extraordinary times and talked about people just like them
  • They were unexpected or surprising or funny or a bit dangerous or subversive

Over the weeks of research and development with our brilliant volunteer actors we talked and improvised a lot about these ideas and how, in something like a walk, we could bring them to life and surprise our audiences.

An historic photo of fishermen on the Barbican, Plymouth from Plymouth City Council's (Arts and Heritage) Service's collections

We began to take fragments of history, from the Bread Riots, to smuggling to Dutton’s shipwreck and looked for the human beings that could tell us those stories, what they might have to say about them that could surprise us. We’ve been pirates and fishwives and emigrants and customs officials and all sorts of characters. Which led to the questions: who is telling these tales on this walk? Why are the telling them and from whose point of view?

Among the historical quotes about Plymouth, one stood out. Count Magalotti (visiting from Italy) in the 17th century describes Plymouth as a city of ‘women and children’ as the men were often away fishing or sailing or at war. We wondered what stories the women of the Barbican might tell and how they might view the events we were interested in. We imagined them being there by the harbour side from the very beginning. They’re still there today if you look in the right places.

The initial focus of my research had been food and drink. Over time this isn’t really about menu options but something much more urgent. How do you survive? How have people who live on the Barbican survived? What would these women want us to know about how they lived their lives, even when the going got tough?

Photograph of Nancy Astor campaigning on the Barbican, Plymouth during her historic 1919 election campaign

Much of my work in writing the final show has been about finding these voices, listening to them and not minding too much when they argue or disagree or even stretch the truth a little. To create a trio of long-lived Barbican women who can bring these stories to us and make us feel as if were were really there.

I’m on to my second draft now and they still keep surprising me. I hope they’ll do the same for all those who come to see the final performances.

Buy your tickets for ‘Ropewalks’ here. Performances take place on selected dates during May, June and August.

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