Beginnings of Oxygen

It seems quite a long time now since the development of the script of 'Oxygen' for Dreadnought South West began.  It is strange, but useful to be reflecting upon its journey now we are into the tech week of rehearsals at the Barbican in Plymouth.

I have been on quite a journey with it over the past six months.  As has everyone involved.  It is quite something to start to see where it has begun to land now it is in a rehearsal process.  I think plays are pretty restless creatures.  Never quite ready to just sit still.  Beautifully inconsiderate in their refusal to be complete.

But that could just be me.  Thinking out loud.  'Oxygen' started taking root in my head a long time ago.  Way before I thought it might be possible to undertake or even propose such an adventure.

When I started to imagine the idea of touring a theatre show along the South West route of the Great 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage, I didn't quite understand what form or shape or (absurd as this sounds) content it might take.  I didn't know at all what I was going to write.  I was heading into an unknown, excited and a bit phased all in one by what I was proposing.  But most of all I was, and have remained curious about those who walked and why they might have chosen to do so.

Research has acted as a catalyst, where instinctively I found myself selecting moments that struck a chord.  A picture of a Lancashire Mill Girl wearing clogs.  Women speaking to a sea of men as they leave the factory gates.  Bicycles.  Banners.  Women walking shoulder to shoulder.  All being used as acts of defiance.  My wrangle here was that there is just so much to take on board.  About the suffrage campaign as a whole. 

But what I did discover was that so little was actually written about the pilgrimage itself.  This presented to me questions around militancy and non-militancy.  The pilgrimage was organised by the law abiding suffragists of the NUWSS.  Not the firebrands of the Pankhurst's WSPU.  For me a question about what choices you might make, what actions you might be prepared to take, became central to the hook I was looking for in writing something.  Something that might do justice to the extraordinary women who campaigned for the vote.  It's important to me that I honour their spirit.  For these women were incredibly spirited.  However they campaigned.

When I got lost I looked at the route.  When I get lost now I still look at the route from Land's End to London.  Another map.  But not just any old map.  It is one that crossed counties, borders, connecting the whole of England and Wales.  It is rather wonderful and a great feat of the imagination.  That's what I like the most, looking at all these arteries that got joined up, saying "we will reach out, we will try to reach you".  On foot.  By post.  None of the technology aiding them that we have today.  Making the feat of the pilgrimage's mobilisation all the more incredible.

I started with the very ambitious idea that I would write something that spanned one hundred years.  Seeing it initially as a way of holding the centenary.  But the more I thought about how to start in 1913 and finish in 2013 I got held up.  Held back.  A wild idea.  Rough around the edges.  And even though I am quite interested in edges, this felt like a step too far.  What would the moments from across the last one hundred years be?  What would I choose to mark? 

What would you choose?  

So I decided to work with 1913 as a context, with the pilgrimage as a central force.  Acting as an anchor.  I thought if I could locate it in 1913, but find a way to make it resonant, to have a contemporary voice then that might be something.  How might we as a contemporary audience look in on the past to discover something about our present.  With women from the past looking back at us.  Seems obvious now.  When I reflect upon it.  But not then. 

It wasn't back way back when.  And the thought of writing a historical piece brought a new set of questions and challenges to me as a writer.  History that people are very passionate about.  History that I was becoming increasingly passionate about.  As my knowledge base grew I became more lost. 

Through conversations with director Josie Sutcliffe, she suggested that I consider working with the epic form.  Again something I had not ever done before, so I had to go away and decide what I thought about that.  Reading Brecht's work was useful and intimidating all in one go.  But there was something about the nature of the form that felt right as a model.  I couldn't aspire to write like Brecht, but I could try to understand the form in an active way.  In connection to the materials I was exploring.  I could seek a form of expression that might work theatrically, a collaboration sprung out of curiosity, exploration and experimentation. 

For our ACE funding application I put together an appendix for the play and this enabled me to consolidate a wealth of material about form and content.  This did operate as a guide as I moved from holding all the potential ideas to script development stage when the project started.

Just to say that the word celebration became central to the plays idea and ethos.  Celebrating the voice, and in particular women's voices became particularly arresting and central to 'Oxygen'.  This has fed itself into the whole project and when the tour starts next week on the 19th of June 2013, one hundred years later, it will be women's stories and voices you will hear. 

Being celebrated.  Being placed.  Their feet firmly on the ground, ready to take steps forward and to not look back.  Turns out that 1913 was quite a year to look back upon. 

Natalie McGrath
(11th June 2013)

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