BY ANNABEL PRIBELSZKI
I met up with Alison Child and Rosie Wakley, who founded their theatre company, Behind the Lines three years ago, with the objective of creating a production company that focuses on performances with lesbian content.
It began with the writing, production and performance of three shows. In All The Nice Girls (2014), we are introduced to Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney; two forgotten lesbian variety stars from the 1920s.
Deep in the Heart of Me (2016) was a more contemporary piece, being semi-autobiographical, as it charted Ali’s coming out story. It was taken to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, to great acclaim.
“We were surprising audiences, getting them in with a bit of sleight of hand, saying ‘its a Shirley Valentine story with songs from the rat pack’. Lots of straight people came to see it, mainly couples; they were rather surprised to find it was a lesbian love story, but they all stayed and enjoyed it, so that felt like a bit of activism.” explains Ali.
Their third show, which toured alongside Deep in the Heart of Me, was Fall of Duty, which charted the life of another forgotten performer from the early twentieth-century; Basil Hallam. This was performed with a young actor, Harry Child, and was directed by Rosie.
Whilst performing in Edinburgh, Behind the Lines became active as producers; Rosie discovered a show called Scene.
“Two young lesbians from Cambridge performed an original production written by other Cambridge students. I was very impressed by the contemporary piece, staged by young people, about a mixed race relationship. We brought it to Brighton, where it sold out two nights at The Marlborough, and met with great acclaim.”
“We also brought down the BFI’s recent LGBT Britain documentary programme to The Dukebox Theatre, with an archivist from the BFI giving a talk; that sold out as well.”
Behind the Lines interweave their narrative with a fantastic range of music and song.
Ali enthuses: “When we discovered forgotten British variety stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney, we got a recording archivist, from the British Library sound archive, to let us have some of their tracks. We’ve been hard at work transcribing songs that we’ve found, particularly songs which Gwen and Norah performed. Norah Blaney made two hundred recordings in her lifetime; I’m still discovering them.”
Rosie explains: “They were 1920s musical variety stars, whose repertoire wasn’t readily available, so we had to research to find snippets that had been recorded, in addition to seeking out sheet music. We re-enacted them, by working with a friend who creates piano backing tracks. They created soundtracks which enabled us to tour them with our show. As they were a duo, and we both sing, it enabled us to create a double act music hall variety.”
Behind the Lines found that there was also some scope for this with Fall of Duty, where Harry Child played the Edwardian character Basil Hallam. He was a big star of the stage; he performed duos with Elsie Janis, singing variety songs. So Ali was able to take the role of Elsie.
“In the more up to date Deep in the Heart of Me we introduced songs of the rat pack, as my alter ego Ronnie Rialto has a jazz, swing and blues repertoire of rat pack style songs, which we used them to drive the narrative of the piece,” explains Rosie.
“We’ve had three years of producing new shows to take to festivals, so we are taking a slight step back at the moment, with regard to fully formed drama pieces, but we’re still doing a lot of the cabaret type performances, that we get asked to do.”
Behind the Lines have two exciting, new projects in the pipeline. The first one is Ali writing a book about Gwen and Norah; she recently finished a postgraduate degree based on her research and has been giving talks on it, at the V&A, as well as in Bedford and Woking, at the Surrey History Centre, as part of LGBT History Month.
“Our second project is 400 Questions which is about lesbian asylum seekers. It’s a very short piece, we’re going to try and prepare it in time for the submission deadline for the ‘Women Over Fifty Film Festival’ (WOFFF). It’s a completely new departure for us, it’s based on a short play which Ali wrote, called 400 Questions, which has already received recognition, as it won a prize for new writing at the Chesil Theatre, Winchester.” explains Rosie.
Ali expounds, “Its a piece of work that got me on to Royal Court Writers Programme in 2014. It’s been shown at the Rialto, we’ve done rehearsed readings half a dozen times. We decided that it would be a really good piece of work to be made into our first short film.”
It is a very stylised piece that lends itself to being on the big screen.
“We’re working with a young director who’s made lots of pop videos. It will be about eight minutes long; we are interested in getting it into lots of film festivals. We’re big fans of the WOFFF which will be in its fourth year in 2018, we are going to submit it for that; I hope it will be ready in time, for the submission date in the summer, it will be amazing to see it on screen.”
400 Questions is something very different and very dark; its set in a Home Office interrogation room, a complete departure from what Ali and Rosie have done on stage, previously. Ali was inspired by a piece which she’d heard on Women’s Hour, based on the really inappropriate questions that get asked by Home Office officials, particularly to lesbian asylum seekers. She experimented with the idea, then took it to an extreme.
The piece uses a rhythmic device by which to stress certain words, almost like a rap. There’s a metre in there, to stress the crassness of the questions, so there’s rhyme and a beat, for part of it, then it returns to a more naturalistic presentation, swapping between the two.
“It works well theatrically; the challenge now is to make it work on screen. Rosie has some really good ideas about it which we won’t tell you now; you’ll have to come and see it!”
The WOFFF has been held in Brighton for the last three years; in September 2017 it was held at the Sallis Benney Theatre. Its the brainchild of Nuala O’Sullivan. Films must be under thirty minutes and have a strong input from a woman over fifty, as a writer, actor, performer or producer, to be eligible to for submission. Nuala and the panel make their selection, which leads to two days of screenings. Prizes are given for the best documentary, drama, plus other categories.
“It’s a fantastic event, we were involved in the first couple of years. It’s really gathering pace, the quality and number of entries are very high; they have workshops and visiting speakers, it’s such an important thing. The first year was called the ‘Hot Flush Festival’ but it changed its name to WOFFF; it does what it says on the tin, with that title.”
Check out Ali and Rosie’s website behindthelines.info where you will find audience testimonials, photos, a diary and links to Youtube footage of all the shows.
You will also find information about Ronnie Rialto and Zac Backencrack. The latter is Ali’s alter ego, who is currently the reigning drag king of the International Women’s Festival in Scala Eressos, in Greece.
“So we will be going back there in September, where I guess I will be judging this time, that’s what happened last year, to last year’s winner, I will pass on my crown, my literal crown, to next year’s winner, which we will be exciting, in Scala Eressos, in Lesvos.”
Future gigs include Paul Diello’s festival at Junkyard Dogs, on 21-22 April. As part of LGBT History Month, Ali is giving a talk about Gwen and Norah in Bedford, which is one of the official LGBT History Month hubs; it’s especially relevant as Gwen grew up in a stately home near Bedford, called Chicheley Hall.