Sitting down to talk about “Claustrophilia”, described by its producer as “A one woman dark comedy about a kidnap victim”, it's easy to see why the all female team of playwright Naomi Westerman, director/ producer Rebecca Gwyther and actor Eleanor Crosswell are so excited about bringing their now full length version of Westerman’s play to the Vaults, beneath Waterloo Station. Gwyther and Crosswell reflect, “We decided that we wanted to take it further but we weren't quite sure how, then Vaults came up and we thought it would actually be the perfect venue for it. The subject matter being the story of an ex- kidnap victim, this kind of underground, creepy, dank environment of the Vaults is quite fitting.”
The team were introduced via a mutual friend, Frankie Wakefield, in advance of their initial collaboration for the Lion and Unicorn. Crosswell expands, “The event was called ‘Untold’, the remit being these were stories from people whose stories may otherwise never be told”. Westerman’s monologue was accepted, the director established, and Crosswell’s casting in the central role confirmed. Gwyther remembers going for a meet and greet event, “which not very many people turned up to, and Frankie just comes to me and says ‘I have the most wonderful actress for you. I worked with her, she's great, she's an LAMDA grad, I love her.’ We were put together in rehearsals and that was that really. Directors didn't get to cast their shows.”
‘Claustrophilia’ revolves around the central character of Alice, who spent a large portion of her adolescence being held prisoner by a kidnapper. When we meet her, Alice, now an adult; is struggling to find her place in the world, and take control of her own life. Starting its journey as a short twenty minute monologue, featured during a series of four evenings of new writing at the Lion and Unicorn Pub, Gwyther applied for a place at the Vaults Festival, and so began the process of transforming the monologue into a full length piece. Westerman recalls, “There was a little bit of ‘Oh God, I've written everything and it's fifty minutes’, sitting looking at it and realising where it needed more. Having to work to a very specific time frame is really weird. If I was allowed to write for however long, it might have been fifty minutes, or it might have been ninety. There was a bit of timing it and going ‘What else can I put in’, but you can't just slot ten minutes in, you have to unpick it and restitch it to make it longer.” Playwright and director worked collaboratively to create the script in a format ready for the rehearsal room. “Rebecca is a really good dramaturg, and it feels like a very collaborative process which I haven't had before. This is the first time I've had a director and an actor come in this early, so to be able to develop it collaboratively feels very different from a play that you work on for 2 years and then a company takes over.”
The subject matter of ‘Claustrophilia’ and understanding of Alice’s fragile mental state will undoubtedly have a firm foundation in fact. Naomi Westerman draws on an academic background in neuroscience, psychology and anthropology for the creative process of all her work, but additionally with this project she has taken into account the current cultural relevance of the material. “I feel like with [Claustrophilia] it's more about the recent pop culture trend. You rarely heard about kidnap victims, or people kidnapped for a long period of time before ten or twenty years ago, and now all of a sudden there is this huge rash of people appearing. It's something that has really infiltrated pop culture over the last five years. You've got ‘Room’, you've got ‘Kimmy Schmidt’, and it's weird to me to think that something that you would never have even thought about is now suddenly part of entertainment and pop culture. I wanted to sort of spoof that because I feel like a lot of those things don’t necessarily reflect those people telling their stories, so I wanted to do something that was very non exploitative and more about empowering someone who'd been in that position to tell their own story, subverting the stereotype.”
The format of the ‘one woman show’ allowed Gwyther to move away from the initial research she undertook for the original first outing of the production, “because it's just Alice’s story, it seemed quite natural to for it to come from the text, and from her character rather than outside research. It's definitely different directing a one woman show, when you have other actors, there's more practical work you can do in terms of what they all think and the relationship between them. It's quite strange it being just Alice, the character, and the audience. That's something that is really hard to rehearse [guessing how your audience will respond] It almost feels as though you can only rehearse three quarters of the play and the other quarter is up to fate.” The relationship Alice has with the ‘audience’ is clearly a key factor in performance, something that Crosswell constantly faces in rehearsal. “Alice is talking to the audience the whole time, she's got quite an ambivalent relationship with them, sometimes she's quite, I want to say aggressive; developing all of that without people is really hard. One of the purposes of the piece is to subvert a lot of our expectations in regards to what we might think someone who has been a kidnap victim might be like. Alice is quite atypical in terms of her story; it's her unique set of circumstances which are quite specific. She's had a relatively unusual life, the kidnapping being part of it, so there's an element of wanting to be truthful without taking away from the purpose of the piece, which is each persons unique experience. What I really like about the script is that people may come in with a preconceived idea of what they're going to see, and throughout the script Alice flips so many of the expectations you have on their head.”
This time round the team had a remarkably short official rehearsal period which began on February 1st, leaving 16 days to be performance ready. They're a busy bunch; Westerman has another production ‘Puppy’ running in the festival, Crosswell was in another show in at the Vaults which only finished on 29th January, and with Gwyther juggling directing and producing it's a fast paced process for them all. The fact that they were revisiting the piece was clearly helpful in that the foundations were already in place, and for Crosswell, her familiarity with the role provided both comfort and challenge. “I don't think I've ever played a character, put her down for the best part of a year and picked her up again. For me, the things that have been most surprising have been the times when we've come back to the original parts of script and changed our minds about how some parts should be played. The differences between how it was the first time round, and coming back and going ‘Oh, I don't think this what we thought it was.’” This element of surprise is echoed in Gwyther's feeling that in their most recent rehearsals there “have been a few moments that we've stopped at the same time [and said] “Ooh, we've never really considered that before”.
All three creatives seem happy and confident with the journey they've had. Back at the Lion and Unicorn, the show was both Crosswell and Gwyther's first experience of a one woman show, and both parties reflect upon whether a lengthy rehearsal process would have been the right choice. With only three people in attendance, things might have become too intense. “It’s unlike anything I've done”, says Crosswell, “Everything is focused on you! Rebecca’s focus is on me, if Naomi is there then her focus is on me! It's lucky we got on really! I do wonder what it would have been like if we'd had two weeks of full time rehearsal, part of it would be great but also wow, but would it also be really tiring? What has been nice though, is how it has felt really collaborative because we've all been involved from the start. Everyone was really pleased with now Alice turned out in the beginning and I think there's been space to gain a joint sense of what we each feel Alice’s voice is. What feels authentically her.”
As for future intentions once the piece completes its Vaults run, Gwyther reveals, “we don't know yet, we've got a few people coming in to see it, some quite exciting people, so we'll see what happens. “It would be nice to carry it on”, Crosswell feels. “I feel like it would be quite nice to have a longer run and see how that relationship with the audience develops. I guess if you did a two or three week run, the first [few performances] would be like your last week of rehearsal because really you're introducing the other character (audience) at that point. Whenever you do a short run you just get into it, and it's gone. I’d love to do it for a bit longer to really explore Alice's really complicated relationship with the audience; it's not just that she talks to them, she's kind of got them there. They represent all the people who make assumptions about her, she's got really complex relationship with them and with only three performances to try and feel that, and get it right, it's hard. Each audience will respond differently, so from a personal point of view it would be interesting to try it over a longer period to see how that relationship goes.”
As the lights went down on the Vaults incarnation of ‘Claustrophilia’ last weekend, the girls will have to wait and see what opportunities arise from their efforts. I had the opportunity to hear from a non-industry theatre going friend of mine, Nick Meredith, what his thoughts had been on seeing the show on its opening night. From what he says below, it seems their hopes of challenging people's expectations, something we had discussed during the interview, were successfully realised in Nick's theatrical experience. To wish these hard working, determined young ladies all the best in bringing Alice's story to a wider audience, I will allow Nick's words to summarise what they achieved at the Vaults.
"The rough, damp brickwork of the railway arch set the stage for a downbeat look into the PTSD-affected mind of the long-term captive. Thoughts of “Room” made me wonder, would this be the tale of an older, female ‘Jack’, or did the title hint at stronger links to ‘Stockholm Syndrome’? It was neither. As I waited for the funny, strong character of Alice to crack, it seemed to me this was not someone who had been broken by the experience, nor one who had come to depend on her captor; but a woman who had come to terms with her situation and dealt with it through her own strength.
As the tale unwrapped, this ‘strange little alien’ was revealed. Damaged, yes, but as much by her experiences before he kidnapping, the loneliness that had shaped her to survive this strange life, as the ordeal itself. The pivotal segment, telling of her escapes from direct captivity suggested is much of what it was that really kept her captive. An hour is a long time for a single-act solo performance, and I came in expecting perhaps forty five minutes. It's a tribute to the writing, direction and performance that, at the end if the hour, I was concentrating hard, waiting for a possible twist, as it came rapidly to an end. By then, thoughts of Alice breaking were a long way behind, but there was still more I wanted to know.
I like leaving the theatre with that feeling. The show had been quite different from my expectations, and that was a very enjoyable surprise."
Many thanks to Nick Meredith for his contribution.