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Anna Reid’s Woven Bones Blog

On a drizzly Tuesday afternoon the Cap-a-Pie team took the train to Durham. Welcomed into Durham University’s Department of Archaeology we were given an incredible opportunity: a full tour of the human bioarchaeology laboratory and the chance to lay out a skeleton of our own in the pattern of the identification process of the Scottish Soldiers. These weren’t the skeletons of the Scottish Soldiers but others who are part of other research projects being conducted at Durham University. The visit was so we could better understand the archaeology and the science behind the story of the Scottish Soldiers.

We entered the room to find the dry yellow bones/bone fragments laid out with care across the benches. The room was warm and bright, busy but neat. I was reminded of the much loved plastic skeleton in the Biology department at school (Bob) who used to disappear and reappear in ever more unlikely places (the locker room / the roof / the garden) but that complete and anatomically precise cast didn’t come close to the weathered shards on the cushioned table top.

Dr Anwen Caffell of Durham University with some of the remains of the Scottish Soldiers. Photo: Durham University / North News and Pictures.

I’m not a squeamish person, I’m reasonably robust about the ins and outs of the body, and there was nothing gory in what we were looking at. But it was somewhere after the cast of the newborn baby skeleton and just before the detailed discussion of the way abscesses burrow through the jaw bone that my vision began to dim and a gradual, persistent wave of nausea started to build in my body. I realised I was on the verge of passing out and had to sit down with my head between my legs.

For me this was the most surprising thing of the afternoon: the instinctual connection I felt with the bodies (because that’s how I realised I was thinking of them, as bodies not skeletons specifically) and my own sudden awareness of the very real writing of injury, disease and poverty on the human body. Lives so hard and so brief that the pain is written into the skeleton itself.

And that’s what we need to capture in the design: an appropriate and respectful language which can speak not just about the short painful lives of the soldiers themselves, but also about the emotional impact of the dig; reading the story of these men and boys from their final remains. The archaeologists at Durham University are deeply respectful in their work, extending to a firmly worded sign on the door reminding students of the respect due to human remains. It is incredibly moving to see the curved leg bone of a child with rickets, the deep painful cavity a young man had to live with, or the spongey bone texture of a weak and malnourished body: there is so much story in the skeleton alone.

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Creating Woven Bones – Brad McCormick

Photo: North News & Pictures

Last week we concluded our first two weeks in the rehearsal room for our brand new production ‘Woven Bones’.  We spent the fortnight devising with three actors and writer Laura Lindow, around the stories of the Scottish prisoners of war from the 17th century Battle of Dunbar whose bones were found buried in Durham in 2013.  On hand to help were also academics from Durham University’s Department of Archaeology who conducted the analysis of the skeletons and uncovered their stories.

We’ve worked with academics many times in the past and there are two things that really stand out for me about working in this way:

  1. Having such specific expertise plugged into the work in real-time.  After we show a researcher something we’ve made or complete an improvisation, they can suggest tweaks to better align the theatre with the research which in turn can have incredibly useful outcomes for character and story.

The process here was slightly different in that the Scottish Soldiers Archaeology Project has a small team of researchers attached to it so we were visited by four academics during our time in the rehearsal room, as opposed to just one in previous projects.  Each had their own specific knowledge and were never without some kind of considered and knowledgeable answer to our myriad questions.

I said to the actors at one point that if they were able to pose a question to a researcher that didn’t elicit a response then I would give them £10.

I am yet to pay anything out.

  1. You are opened up to worlds that you didn’t know much or anything about.  Things that help feed you creatively but are also just interesting and useful to know about.  What struck me most about this aspect in this project is that there seemed to be a palpable sense of interest and enthusiasm coming to us about the work that we do.  That is, the researchers themselves, who had little knowledge about making theatre, were fascinated about how we work.

Having such a clear and democratic exchange of expertise was really heartening and bodes well for the rest of the process.

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Brad McCormick: The Town Meeting visits Startforth

Photo: Northern Heartlands

Whenever we perform our show ‘The Town Meeting’ we get a good amount of people back for the post-show discussion.  After being involved in an 80 minute immersive show where the stakes are high and emotions can be fraught, we feel like people want to process what has just happened to them.

But after that discussion was over, we had no idea what happened to that energy that was created and whether the show had any lasting residue in the community.

But in the past couple of weeks, we were able to answer that question.

Northern Heartlands (one of 16 Great Place Schemes running across England with funding from HLF & ACE whose aim is to put arts and culture at the heart of their communities) invited us to the village of Startforth in Teesdale to perform ‘The Town Meeting’ one day and on another day run a workshop around planning, community and place.

What was unique about Startforth is that they were on the cusp of developing their Neighbourhood Plan – a potentially daunting and time-consuming process with real-world consequences for the village.  The hope was that this two-pronged approach would allow the community to look at the creation of the Plan more holistically and creatively.

We did wonder about the compatibility of having the fictional show one week and then changing gear for the workshop the next but the production not only allowed the community to become familiar with us but it allowed them to take a step back from the real issues affecting their community and reflect on what was important to them.

Dr Paul Cowie of Newcastle University who co-created ‘the Town Meeting’ and helped to plan and lead the workshop said:

“The workshop was a more constructive process which helped the community think about the vision for the neighbourhood plan and perhaps about the challenges they face along the way. It was great to see so many people turn out for both both events and tackle them with energy and enthusiasm.”

Jill Cole, the Director of Northern Heartlands was very pleased with how the two strands of the project came together:

“‘The Town Meeting’ and following workshop proved to be excellent vehicles for engaging the community, provoking discussion and getting people to think about some of the wider issues they face in their locality in a fun and inspiring way.”

Completing this work provoked us to think about an even bigger question that could be answered sometime in the future:  if planners, artists and communities could work together over a bigger project, what might that look like?

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