The centenary of the First World War has led to a resurgence of interest in stories from the era. Many, now long forgotten, voices of the War have begun to resurface. Many of those voices though are from the men who fought but the true story of Dorothy Lawrence, who disguised herself as a man and rode to the front line on a bike, is now being told on stage by Vital Xposure Theatre Company.
The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence writer Julie McNamara (and Vital Xposure’s Artistic Director) and the show’s director Paulette Randall took time out of rehearsal to speak to Glen Pearce about both Dorothy, the play, and inclusion in the arts.
The story of Dorothy Lawrence is perhaps not as well-known as it should be – what can you tell us about her and the play?
JMc: In among the plethora of stories from WW1 that have reached public awareness, the stories of women’s involvement in the war are all but obliterated. There are so few women’s voices being heard. You can wander around the Imperial War Museum and engage with their extraordinary exhibition on WW1 and the story of Dorothy Lawrence is reduced to an A5 postcard.
P: Her story is a strong one because this was a woman ahead of her time; a woman who wanted to tell the truth of what she had seen; a woman driven by a desire to write.
JMc: Dorothy went completely against the social mores of her time. Influenced by the strengthening Suffragette Movement, Dorothy ignored all advice to leave the idea alone. She was fiercely independent and by the evidence remaining in the public realm, a very bright young woman. She bought a bicycle for £2 and funded her own trip to frontline France.
P: The play brings her voice to life and also gives us information about the rôle of women on the front.
JMc: One of the things that shocked me in researching Dorothy’s story was the presence of licensed brothels on the front. There was a two-tier system regulated by the War office to supply comfort women to soldiers of every rank. This was legalized prostitution. Women were given licenses and had regular checks to ensure their health status. Can you believe that? Quality control stemming directly from a government office.
P: Yes, it’s interesting that we don’t get to hear the stories of those women. They’re just not available to us. Or the stories of Black soldiers…
JMc: … or the 50,000+ Chinese people recruited to fetch and carry goods across the front. These details emerged through the research of the play. I am grateful to Suni La, one of our cast members, for bringing it to our attention.
JMc: I came across Dorothy’s story when pulling together live testimonies for a production called ‘The Knitting Circle’, about the lives of people who had survived the asylums closed back in the 80’s. Our researcher uncovered Dorothy’s story and I uncovered more when I interviewed a nurse who had worked at Friern Barnet, previously known as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Hers was such an extraordinary story, I decided she needed a play all to herself.
What are the challenges in bringing a 100 yr old story to a modern audience?
JMc: I had to get away from Dorothy’s written voice (a censored version of her journal was published in 2010). Her self-conscious journalistic style and RP English would have little appeal to contemporary audiences.
P: I worked hard in encouraging Julie, the writer to unearth her voice for today. Which I think we’ve succeeded in doing. We care about Dorothy. She’s a fighter and she’s determined to tell the truth.
JMc: I didn’t want to lose Dorothy’s voice to the tragedy of her years lost inside the asylum. Too many vibrant souls were simply shunted off into the long care system as ‘persons fit to be removed’. Instead, I revived her as a Bandit Queen inside that village of outlaws.
P: Theatre is crucial in bringing excluded voices to life. Bringing lost voices to a contemporary audience. So suddenly history becomes exciting because it isn’t just the history that we were sold at school.
JMc: Centenary commemorations have been something of a rite of passage, filled with ceremony and theatrical ritual. But some of that pomp and ceremony is lost on young people who live in communities struggling to survive the austerity measures of the current government.
Stories that revive real people in real struggle have contemporary appeal. Dorothy fought like a man for the war effort and for her very survival. She was crushed by the government of her time.
What has been your approach to rehearsal?
P: I love working with Julie because she’s a generous collaborator and a swift editor of her own work. So I will often work with her editing the script within the rehearsal room as the actors are responding to the story. The rehearsal room has to be a safe place to explore the stories unfolding at the heart of the play – the world of the play. I encourage each actor, crew, and member of the creative team to bring themselves fully to the process. Their stories in engaging with the central story are crucial in the mix. For me, this keeps theatre alive.
How has the process of integrating BSL into the piece worked?
P: Deaf and hearing impaired audiences are too often required to play catch up, watching the action on stage and then referring to an interpreter at the side of the action. That’s too much hard work. So we do it rather differently. Julie Mc writes an edited synopsis of each scene and we land the Deaf audiences ahead of each scene as it unfolds. Caglar Kimyoncu has filmed some beautiful footage of the two BSL narrators (Matthew Gurney and Becky Allen) in character telling us the story of each scene to follow.
JMc: And we have stage text that Caglar has worked hard to fit snugly into the very beautiful set created by Libby Watson.
Vital Xposure is a disability-led theatre company. Projects such as the New Wolsey Theatre’s Ramps On The Moon look at improving awareness of disability arts – what is the state of the industry in regards to inclusion at the moment?
JMc: The industry’s commitment to diversity has been variable over the past ten years. But it is struggling at the moment – you’ve got Trevor Nunn’s all white casting of The War of the Roses and it’s 2015. He says it’s an artistic decision about “historical verisimilitude”. Well if that’s the case, where’s all his disabled actors in the mix?
Vital Xposure works with talented actors from across a wide range of communities, both disabled and non-disabled. The drive behind the company is a search for social justice.
P: The industry at the moment is becoming more risk averse. Venues are becoming frightened to take work they do not know so touring work is becoming harder and harder unless you can get a backer.
JMc: Too often, you have to throw money at it and hire the venues yourself. There are a few venues like NWT willing to become models of good practice, they work with new writing and promote disability led work, but these venues are few and far between.
P: It’s also important that more training venues and courses begin to open up to a wider cross section of our society and take more disabled students in.
JMc: Inclusion is not rocket science, but it’s not popular. There’s more push towards assisted suicide in our society than a thriving cultural life!
Dorothy’s grave has been lost after being buried in a pauper’s grave – do you hope this will help resurrect her memory?
JMc: Dorothy Lawrence may well have been buried in a pauper’s grave, but her story is still alive. Her writing (although censored) has been published and in good time that censorship will be lifted. Until then, this play brings something of her spirit and determination to speak the truth of what was really happening at the front very vibrantly to life.
The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrencetours to Wolverhampton, South Shields, London, Ipswich and Salisbury until 8 October
For more information visit www.vitalxposure.co.uk