Contemporary theater can often be overrated: the problem is that the more contemporary it is, the more elitist it becomes. Yet, sometimes it is quite the contrary and life has enough content not to have to be exaggerated.
From a postcard found in 2003 bearing the alarming message “Be careful tomorrow. A.C.” it has become a show: Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs. Going through Francesca Milican Slater’s ten years journey, we plunge into the effervescent world of young and improvised detective Francesca, in search for Miss Gibbs.
Employing storytelling and drama to questioning theatrical physicality; Francesca acts what looks like a physical map. “My work has a lot to do with learning documentation at Dartington,” she explains. Using amount of collected information, photos and uncovered facts, the plot thickens along the windy lanes of Lincoln Cathedral to 62 Douglas Buildings in London, where Miss Gibbs last lived.
Francesca is alone on stage but her performative style and skills make for all the characters we encounter. On the 19th of August will the story of Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs will be revisited in details at the Fringe in Edinburgh. To what she says: “It’s a good time. What will be interesting is to keep the pressure, the pace and the rest…”
SG: Your show Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs. How did it all started and what is it?
Francesca Millican Slater: I have studied Theater at Dartington College of Arts and a MA in Contemporary Performance Making. At Dartington, I didn’t really realise that it would be quite a difficult situation. I hated it – I wanted to be Lady McBeth (laughs)- then I started to devise the project that led to the show, Miss Gibbs. I came to like it and understand the point between researches and practice which is now the most important thing for me.
I went to see The travels by Forced Entertainment, which is about individuals travelling around the country. Once they’ve come back they share their stories and talk very simply, about the things they found, almost like a press conference. That started me, I left and started my own research. I wanted to travel around; I wanted to travel within train stations, over the country, and researching trains: how do people behave on trains.
What I needed was a reason to go from one place to another and the genuine plan was that I pick four postcards whether they had a name that was familiar to me or because it was where my granny lived. I went to the shop and came across the one for Miss Gibbs.
Did you find the postcard and thought that’s it?
I felt incredibly lucky and also did get a bit silly about it as in “it was meant for me” (laughs). So I started my researches, Miss Gibbs as first, and travelled around the country to investigate until I chose the most relevant story. All the postcards were actually very interesting but the stories behind them are even better. I met some really interesting people, as a result but also some surreal ones.
At the time I did my research it was all on OHP (Overhead Projector). Eight years ago I didn’t have all these computer stuffs and it was all really basic. I wanted to keep some of that in it. But what I show is only half of what I’ve got, there is actually so much more bits and pieces and (laughs) this is how my studio is as well: it’s bits and paper and things I have tried and collected together.
So, an hour at the Fringe, then ? How do you feel about that?
(Pause) Gooooood. it’s been two or three years I wanted to move towards this point: I have got a show that I am happy with and I can take it to the Fringe. I did a show in Birmingham on the 28th and 29th of July and sold it all. This is when I realised: “Oh, oh, oh. There’s people actually wanting to see me!” Despite that my producer lives in Birmingham, people came just because of the advert and it was a very difficult show. The audience was much older and not particularly responsive, I wanted to impress them but the worse is that I knew that they knew I wasn’t telling the story and that’s the most important thing for me: it is to be telling the story and to be telling it honestly. I’ll be playing Miss Gibbs at the Fringe for ten days and it sometimes happen that one time you have a bad show; but I am prepared for it. Actually, my producer and also best friends Pippa Frith pushed me towards it.
Do you feel your work comes as a reaction to what you’ve been taught at Dartington?
Yes, when I look back on it taught me quite a lot. But it’s only in retrospects…The show has changed quite a lot since the beginning and I took quite a lot of inspiration from storytelling writers. I also like to see what the audience thinks, I went on asking them questions or collecting feedbacks at the end of the show so I can gauge their reaction. There will always be this kind of question with me about being myself on stage or go into a slightly more performative sense, the type of language that I use or more like a rhythm. It is very hard not to take on a character but it gives the audience different levels and it is also about telling the story truthfully. Everything starts with writing for me, I know what I am going to say, I have got the rhythm but it’s never going to be technically finished because there’s still things to add.
Aren’t you just too perfectionist?
Y-yeaaaaaaaah. I am, definitely. I am, and it’s very difficult when I am not 100% clear about what I’m going to do in the front of an audience.
How did you teachers take your project?
They took it very well. For them, the whole thing was a contextual inquiry’s project: I went to investigate a context on an effectual practice and then practice upon your context, so every postcards I did I had to document a particular house or address and document what I had found out about a person. I loved it, I knew I wouldn’t get an opportunity like that to go and experiment for four weeks, researching stuffs and walking around. It went down quite well.
What did you previously do?
I have done a lot of my own different things. For the fierce, where I talked to a mannequin and invited people to talk about someone to the mannequin. It kind of work and there was a series of question…I didn’t realize how much people would confess. There was so much I couldn’t put into the final because it was all too personal. That’s the most live art I have done so far. Let me take you by the hand where I built London out of cardboard and How to give yourself a heartbreak” which is a power point presentation on heartbreak.
Hahahahahha! Is life so cynical?
Hahahahaha, I don’t know! Hahhahahaha! Somebody one day said to me: “yeah, you don’t have to say you’re obsessed by death, it’s pretty obvious!” Hahahaa! Seriously, for Heartbreak I did some research about where heartbreaks comes from. Its all about grief and not just love, I discovered that heartbreak comes when you lose someone from your family. As for powerpoint presentation, I always liked them and like to mock them.
Do you mind me calling your show “non-fiction”?
No, not at all.
So the story come naturally? We meet different characters, the psychic, the two old women, the Big Issue seller…do they come in order?
At first, it was about bringing it to the space of the theater. It was so much of a writing process beforehand… Every events and characters are in the same order, but the first draft was written on third person and most of the structure comes from that. Most of it was written when I was a lot younger and there is always the side of the audience and its reaction. It was hard having to chose and break it down to an hour; it is a lot to ask from an audience to sit still and watch one person talk for more than an hour and keep people, kids interested. I have worked a lot more with some of the characters since then. There were people who told me their life and history which I had to cut out.
At what point, you bring in suspense when you say: “Now, I could be telling you everything about Miss Gibbs. But I won’t!” What other narrative devices did you use?
(Silence) I don’t know…I am often asking myself about present and past tense. What I am trying to do is re-enact what has happened before and acknowledging that I know what is going to happen in the end. I think it is what’s difficult about it it’s restaging what happened.
I like the way you impersonate the characters you have met throughout your quest and your show feels “New” to me but storytelling is actually in the Zeigeist. Had you planned that? How about the style? I mean it looks almost anecdotic but played at the same time…
Yes, I did and although very unsual that I am telling stories, it remains quite avant-garde. But I wanted the story to have a beginning, a middle and an end; I wanted people to be able to take something away with them. I think it is my responsibility as a performer, and if people pay to see “you” then “you” should entertain them. I have worked with different directors and this particular show is difficult to work out on your own; I needed people’s opinions. I met a director once who hadn’t heard or seen the show; he was the first person to say to me that I was an actress and I should stop apologizing about the fact that I couldn’t do certain contemporary performance. I thought:”Oh, what a dirty word. An actress, an actress…”(laughs). I have worked with Aaron Patterson a much more traditional theater Director with whom we had very different ideas about theater. I also worked on developing the story telling side of it with Livia Armstrong.
Francesca Millican Slater thank you and good luck for the Fringe.
Me, Myself and Miss Gibbswill be at the Hill Street Theatre, 19 Hill Street. Edinburgh, EH2 3JP. Scotland from 19 to the 29 of August at 12.15