Margaret Crompton is one of the authors featured in our forthcoming Eighth Anniversary anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book. Finding herself, like us, bereft of an event she was expecting to take part in, she relates how her theatre group, Script in Hand got started, and the stories they have told so far.
There are tentative plans for Script in Hand to do readings from No Spider Harmed in the Late Summer/Autumn
April 2020: Katherine Swynford and the Countess Joan
Katherine Swynford and her (uppity) daughter, the Countess Joan, are no longer treading the carpet in the County Assembly Rooms this spring. Brought back to vigorous life by Script in Hand, Katherine and Joan had been enjoying a tomb-break with friends and relations, until interrupted by the invisible intruder, unknown among the plagues of their own day.
Script in Hand is both title and description of a group of actors who perform plays with, yes, script in hand. I’ve written and directed all our productions, so far. We have no auditions, membership, finance, booking, or scenery. We give one another energy, adventure and delight.
2018: The Sellwood Girls
Our first play was The Sellwood Girls, about three Lincolnshire sisters. Emily married Alfred Tennyson, and Louisa married his brother Charles Turner. The play grew from my sequence of poems Lost Lady Found, written to give Louisa a voice. Our performance, in the Church of St Mary Magdalen, Lincoln, raised funds for annual British Federation of Women Graduates grants to female students in our two local universities. Actors were drawn from church members, family and friends. Some were experienced actors, others had never acted before.
This was my first experience of both playwriting (other than Usurper Usurped for my school Junior Dramatic Society – a lively plot but, then as now, I had no idea how to develop action) – and directing. Now 77, I was directing my husband and friends in my own play.
The Sellwood Girls established what would become our pattern. The ‘stage’ was the paved area between chancel steps and congregation. To be heard and seen, actors stood opposite the central aisle. The cast was seated on-stage throughout the performance, moving to and from that position when speaking. I learned that such constraints are a director’s blessing.
Actors developed their own parts, each portraying a whole, convincing individual. In an early scene, the three sisters are schoolgirls. The actors needed no ‘special’ voices to represent the children. Costume was full length black, with coloured shawls for the women, although ‘Alfred’ supplied a top hat, ‘Charles’ his own dog collar, and ‘Hallam’s’ sleeveless pullover and tie channelled Alan Bennett. Experiments with head coverings demonstrated that 21st century hairstyles did not accommodate 19th century lace or caps. We needed neither scenery nor props.
2019: Anne Askew
Although we had only contracted for this one performance, we’d formed such close bonds that in 2019 we performed Anne Askew: a woman of courage in Tudor Lincolnshire, which I’d written some time before, and adapted for the group. Now we needed a name: Script in Hand exactly describes our style. An actor invited us to the County Assembly Rooms, where we trod not paving but carpet. Experience from The Sellwood Girls transferred easily, so that actors sat on stage throughout and spoke from the space opposite the central aisle. Costume was black skirt or trousers with a differently coloured top for every actor, providing both uniformity and variety.
There were innovations and challenges. Cast processed along the aisle, to be greeted and introduced by an actor in role. Period-appropriate music was played by a flautist accompanied by my debut on tabor. An optional episode of mime, with the flute, was developed by the cast. Anne Askew was played by two actors. Feisty Anne (2019), conversed with Eve, a woman of our own time. Anne (1546) read from her own writing*.
We chose The Shannon Trust, a small charity promoting literacy in prisons, as the beneficiary of ticket sales – Anne Askew had illegally read the Bible in Lincoln Cathedral, and in 1546, was burnt in London as a heretic, caught up in a conspiracy against Queen Katherine Parr. In prison, she wrote accounts of her interrogations. Contributing to literacy education seemed a fitting memorial, and we continue to support the Trust. A representative attended the performance, bringing a display of the excellent reading scheme and other materials.
There is no memorial to Anne Askew in the Cathedral, nor would I (nor Anne) want one, and few people have heard of her. But now, her story is included in the new Visitor Centre exhibition.
2019: When Queen Victoria Came to Tea
Our next appearances, both in 2019, came from my idea that SiH might be invited to offer smaller productions, between annual performances. A conversation in the OXFAM bookshop led to When Queen Victoria Came to Tea, a companion piece to The Sellwood Girls for four actors, written with my husband John. The space at the back of the shop was cleared, chairs borrowed, and re-filled with the audience who braved the rain, bought books, and donated to OXFAM funds. Later, we were invited to perform at the British Federation of Women Graduates Christmas party, and were grateful for an unexpected donation to The Shannon Trust.
2020: Katherine Swynford and the Countess Joan
I wrote Katherine Swynford and the Countess Joan for Script in Hand. We thought our audience would be attracted by further material about local people. But I was running out of ideas. Anne Askew had been set in the Cathedral. Who else was there? I reviewed my sequence of poems Women of the Cathedral, which gives voices to those silent women in stained-glass windows, carvings and statues, in ornate tombs and under heavy slabs. Katherine Swynford, whose tomb is end-on to that of her daughter, had always eluded me. Then, thinking about that mysterious arrangement, I found my play. Just as the other plays are ‘out of time and space,’ Katherine and Joan rose from their semi-detached post-mortem accommodation and were joined by friends and relations. And before too long, we all hoped, by an audience.
I thank Script in Hand. I haven’t mentioned any one by name, for everyone contributes and creates this wonderful adventure. Did I mention that most of us are over 70, and several over 80? When I asked their permission to write this, everyone responded, with warmth, encouragement, jokes. So I close this scamper through our story so far with one actor’s comment:
Script in Hand – it’s just a Web of Lives.