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Have You Heard Interview

Have you heard the story of Franceska Mann? Nora Productions' latest show brings to life the story of the Polish dancer who in 1943 shot two Nazi guards and sparked a riot. Her story has been passed from teller to teller, with her courage becoming a myth to inspire hope and vengeance in equal measure.

This new work in progress production is streaming virtually via Applecart Arts from Wednesday 3rd March to Friday 5th March. The piece is devised by a cast of seven multi-talented creatives and weaves together theatre, dance and music to bring the story to the stage.

Photo Petra Eujane Photography. Design by Steph Pyne Design

I had the chance to speak with director Eleanor Felton and performers Amber Wadey, Gaia Cicolani and Naomi Bowman about the production. 

We first discussed where the idea and inspiration for telling Franceska Mann's story came from. Director Eleanor said "I was doom-scrolling this summer and stumbled across a picture of her with a caption and spent the next three hours researching her, so it was clear that this was a story that I needed to tell. I love devising theatre, and as I slowly started to talk about the idea with potential collaborators, the idea started to take shape. Equally, some of the ideas about how to tell her story didn't come up until the last week of rehearsals, or even the last day! And I have new ideas now that we have recorded it, that I am waiting to try out when we develop the piece further."

Performer Amber added "Prior to Nora Productions'; Have You Heard, the only other known stage version of this story that we’re aware of is the ballet Momento, put on by The Jerusalem Ballet.  We wanted to give Franceska a voice because there are so many different accounts of her story - no two are the same in fact. We spent a long time researching and reading various articles and as an ensemble created our own version of this iconic moment in history. We hope to have honoured Franceska as well as the women who united with her on that day"

I asked about how the show was combining the different styles, theatre, dance and music. Amber explained "it was important for us as an ensemble to create a language which explored not just Franceska's story and emotions but her interactions with other people and characters too. By combining the various elements it allowed us to express the story in a new and unique way. Especially as Franceska was a ballerina herself and the myth of what happened that day at Auschwitz so clearly depicts her as a beautiful dancer, it was necessary to include it in our storytelling. Dance was Francesksa's power and we used that to our advantage for an impactful opening to the show. Music is also a key part of the performance because it's universal and has the ability to transport audiences back in time and allow them to be fully immersed in the world of that particular story.

Director Eleanor added that it required "a lot of experimenting! Because Franceska Mann is a dancer, some of those elements were already in her story. The fun part was exploring where else they might fit, and how we could use them to support the story."

Photo by Petra Eujane Photography

We discussed how the story would resonate with audiences in 2021. Eleanor said "There is such a sense of rage and injustice in this story, and that is a sensation that is growing in society at the moment with women's rights, BLM, environmental protests, and countless social-justice issues. This story feels like the perfect echo of that emotion."

Amber explained how she felt it was empowering that a woman was standing up to men in power some nearly 80 years ago. "One thing that stood out to us about this story is that it's still being talked about nearly eighty years later! As a stimulus and starting point for a show, it couldn't have been more uplifting.  The empowerment of women during what must have been the most traumatic experience of their lives is unbelievable. On first reading an account about it, it felt like a fantasy or a dream.  A woman standing up against a man, more powerful than her in both stature and status - it cannot possibly be!? Oh yes, it can.  There is still a way to go in terms of us achieving equal rights as a society.  But this isn't just a tale about gender politics. It's a way to provoke audiences to think about how they can and should stand for what they believe in."

Performer Gaia added "This is a story about hope and finding strength and inspiration by coming together. A lot of the themes we explored are still very current. Also, it is important not to forget history, as well as the power that one single person can have through their actions and how this power can be spread far in space and time because their story is being told."

We then discussed how the COVID pandemic and the restrictions in place have affected the development of the piece. Eleanor described how residency with Applecart Arts has helped with their development. "We were so fortunate to be offered a residency from Applecart Arts, and I was able to work with some of the cast in the rehearsal room. We also had cast members who were unable to come into the space because of COVID, so our creative process was split between a physical and a virtual rehearsal room. It also means that some of our performance was recorded by the actors from their homes, while other parts were filmed in the theatre at Applecart Arts."

Natasha Wright's at home set up.

Amber explained "In an ideal situation all cast members would have been in the rehearsal space together.  I was surprised how easily and quickly we were able to establish a way of combining both working from home and being in the Applecart Arts studio.  We managed to initiate a very creative and supportive environment which gave us a lot of perspective on how the piece was developing.  It challenged us to think in different ways and has been one of the most interesting processes I have been involved in. We have had the opportunity to present the show across different mediums - audio, self-tapes and recorded sections in the studio. This is something we might not have otherwise thought about, and I think embracing that we are in the middle of a pandemic has made our work-in-progress showing even more exciting."

Gaia added "Most of the company worked mainly online, which has definitely shaped the way the process unfolded and therefore the way the work in progress is presented. It is impossible to know how differently the work would have developed in normal circumstances, but I do not think it would have been any better or worse. We focused on certain aspects of the production more than others, but the limitations pushed us to find creative solutions and I believe the R&D was extremely successful.

Naomi said "I actually got Covid just before we began devising but thankfully was able to join online and contribute from home, so I could recover and keep everyone else safe. I think this opens new possibilities for theatre-making.

Eleanor Felton's rehearsal photos.

My final question turned to the future of the production after this online streaming of the work in progress. Eleanor said "We will be looking to develop the piece towards a fully staged production this year. I am especially excited to bring the whole cast into the rehearsal room and be able to explore the show in a more physical and abstract way. We created mostly over Zoom, with a couple of actors in the room. It was incredible to see what we could achieve that way, and I cannot wait to bring this creative team into a room together to see where else we can go with it!"

Amber added "We hope to further develop the piece after it being received by its first audiences.  This may be editing what we already have or extending it.  The hope is also to bring the whole ensemble together to perform the piece, so this will involve a lot of adaptation in itself."

The work in progress production of Have You Heard is will be available to watch through Applecart Arts on Wednesday 3rd, Thursday 4th and Friday 5th March at 8pm (GMT). Tickets are £10 and the piece runs for 40 minutes. You can purchase tickets here. 

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