The Wardrobe Project: both documentary theatre and training ground

Recently with Visible I have been conceptualising a type of auto/biographical production process which is both highly engaging in process and product. What I mean by this is that the project may have professional theatre outcomes, but operates as a specific community engagement and capacity building project for the duration of the group collectively creating the work. The Wardrobe Project is one of our most major Practice as Research Projects, bringing together women actors and creatives to learn about becoming documentary theatre makers while, in parallel, embarking on a co-conceived documentary play to explore their shifting identities over time, as reflected by their evolving clothing choices and by their changing body.

Our inquiry stemmed from the cultural pressures on older women to stay slim and youthful-looking if they are still to be deemed worthy of interest is nowhere more pervasive than in the acting profession. The prevalent cultural bias towards youth discriminates more against older female actors than older males, who continue to play leading and even romantic roles, their lined wrinkled faces re-defined as ‘craggy’, or ‘lived-in’ rather than ‘wrinkled’. This bias combined with the paucity of roles for older women means that older women actors find their careers dropping off even more than their male counterparts.  For some, taking control by producing their own work, often in the form of auto/biographical one-woman shows, can reap huge rewards of empowerment and creativity. At the time of this research (2016), there were no training opportunities tailored for older women actors that fulfil this need.

Our research questions were:

  • How do we create performance outlets with and for professional female actors that also act as training grounds for new skills, particularly those that are entrepreneurial?
  • What themes are relevant for this cohort of women to build on for such performance work?
  • How do we improve auto/biographical or documentary theatre making practices when thinking about ethical representation from real-life?

We opened the project with an intensive research stage, led by Professor Julia Twigg of the University of Kent, on her work at the intersections ageing and sociology, particularly on the body, clothing and age. It also included research on documentary and verbatim theatre, and the ethics of representation, led by myself and Sonja Linden collectively. The actors were also trained in interview approaches and techniques by former BBC producer Chris Mohr, before they entered fieldwork as the interviewers.

After the interviews, the actors returned to collate their findings with writer Sonja Linden, who created a performance script from transcriptions of their interviews.  This research and development phase was followed by a two week script development period, culminating in a showing at Graeae Studios.

As a very quick note on the evaluations, all participants were extremely positive in how the process was structured, with most commenting anecdotally and in writing about how it increased their knowledge as theatre-makers. The women also gained a lot personally as well as professionally from it being a women-only project, suggesting that it created a safe space for both learning and sharing. We look forward to a second-stage development of the project at some point in the near future. Yet, at the same time, since the project was not just aimed at producing a show to engage people, and more about a sort-of consciousness raising and skill sharing project of women in the room, we might all just be happy enough to move onto the next project!

There is more info that I wrote on the project here at Visible’s website.

Claire French is a performance maker and researcher, specialising in multilingual, applied and autobiographical performance.