Jane Arnfield is a stage actress from the UK. She was here in Mumbai (with Tony Harrington) at the Tata LitLive festival last year, performing at the NCPA. It was an amazing solo performance one evening in an open stage with only a chair as a prop. She had the entire audience of a few hundred people (seated, some standing, around her) riveted for an hour.
Jane was performing a specially-scripted piece from the story of a WW II holocaust survivor, Zdenka Fantlova. The performance was called ‘The Tin Ring’ and was based on Zdekna’s published memoir (also called ‘The Tin Ring’).
This is the second part of my interview with Jane Arnfield (and Tony Harrington). You can read the first part of the interview here – where I also provide a longer introduction to Jane Arnfield.
Tony Harrington of ‘In The Forge’ – Jane’s collaborator on ‘The Tin Ring’ project – also joins us in the concluding part of the interview.
[All photos courtesy Jane Arnfield.]
Is anybody going to accompany you… in terms of music or…?
“There are two sound cues: the piece opens with a piece of music, when Zdenka chooses to learn English. It is a Hollywood musical Broadway melody. She loved to sing it fanatically. That’s how she realised she wanted to learn English. That opens the piece. And there’s another piece of music which is Arno whistling. Arno used to whistle under her window when he wanted her to come out… before they went to Terezin… a kind of tune… a love song. So, there are just two sound cues. No lights… I mean there are lights, but no light changes on stage. I see the audience and they see me. I have to be able to see the audience… I can’t make it if I can’t see the audience. So, it’s very open. One chair. That’s the only prop. And it’s a dress. A simple black dress. And it’s about 62 minutes, I think.”
I think it says 68 minutes…
“… that’s interesting. We reduced it. Because, what we found is that, the audience need less and less information… because they could see it themselves… they didn’t need me… so we reduced it and reduced it… but I don’t think it’ll reduce anymore now… because you find that…”
… that imagination does the job… and that your acting is just the trigger…
“… yeah… and that was very important for us… because there’s a lot of material which is written obviously by experts on the holocaust, but we didn’t want to look at it and…”
… duplicate it…
“… yeah duplicate it… exactly… and also because we aren’t experts in that area of history… We aren’t historians. But what’s important is that, somehow, by seeing the individual, you see the history. It becomes a part of us. The ring gave us licence to go to those places. Zdenka went to six camps before the war finished. And two death marches. But you couldn’t go to those places unless you got a reason… and we needed a reason… and the ring is the reason. So, when we go to Auschwitz, we go there because we are following the ring. We’re not telling the audience that now we’re going to Auschwitz. There’s a reason to go… and that gives us a licence… and that’s very important for the history…”
Image courtesy Jane Arnfield
… that’s the string that connects everything. And after your performance, you said that you needed to feel the audience… because of the connection that happens. Is there any interaction during or after the performance?
“That’s a very good question. There is interaction apart from there is interaction. Because when they look at me and smile or look sad or whatever they’re doing… it kind of feeds whatever we are making together… and the text is scripted, it’s not improvised… it’s a set text… but I’m not blocked… I can go wherever I like… so the direction works like… if it feels right to go over there, you go over there… if it feels right to sit down, you sit down. Eventually that’ll become stale, so you have to find something… you don’t just sit down for the sake of it. It’s always about trying to make it different every night. It’s in the sense of being in the moment… in being spontaneous even though it’s structured. But what happens is that people wait after the performance… and ask to talk to me… a little bit about me but more about themselves… about what they have suddenly remembered… a story they had forgotten… or they want to phone somebody because they remembered a story they told them… about their father, could be an aunt, a sister or cousin, or could be a friend… and people stop to tell that story as it had come back to them. And it seems to go across the ages… from people who are 78 to young people who are 19… remembering things… and nothing to do with that period of history…”
… the play triggers another million stories…
“… yeah, yeah… and they seem to vocalise it… I’ve got letters from people saying ‘I haven’t talked about this story… I haven’t said anything about this thing that happened… and now I’m going to write it down or tell one person.’ And that’s what this piece is for, isn’t it? It’s about exchange of stories. I don’t know why it surprises me, why they do it… but it does surprise me. I feel very privileged to be in a position where one story is unlocking others… it doesn’t surprise me it’s this story, because this story is so powerful… Zdenka’s world is so powerful… it means the spectator, the audience, completely enriches it. So I look at myself as a conduit really… you know, it goes through me as a performer… and I use accents, I speak in the first person, the third person, I’m different people… I’m Jane always, the storyteller… that’s always visible… but there are different ways and devices that we use to tell the story.
But, somehow, the audience is allowed to own it. I didn’t want to replicate or imitate Zdenka. It’s about a passing on. And that, I think, comes back to the reason that Zdenka allows this to happen. She’s going to be 92 in next March… and she knows that she’ll have five maybe ten years left, if she is lucky. And she is very concerned about what happens when the first-hand testimony goes. Because she’s allowed to say things because they happened to her. And because that period of history is so strong in people’s minds. And the way that historians and everyone look at it… a kind of first-hand testimony from someone who was there… her pragmatism takes away your breath really. For her, it’s making sure that somehow her words stay.”
Has this kind of thing been done before? Is it a genre of performance or theatre…?
“… well, in the UK, in the last few years, there’s been various kinds of debate and documentaries on what is real… there’s a lot terminology about new ways of telling stories. To me, it’s telling stories… that’s what theatre is. At its very best it’s Peter Brook drawing a circle in the sand and standing in the middle and that’s a performance. There are pieces that have been done definitely… it’s not anything new at all… and, I think, the director is quite brilliant in the way he uses the form or device in order to tell a story… I mean, he’s a master at it, Mike Alfreds… he has worked for many years throughout the world and really understands the mechanics, the mechanisms, of telling a story in the theatre. And the power of the material, in this case, suits the mechanism used here.”
I was thinking, this could trigger off people who would start doing their own thing… whether they are theatre people or not…
… if they could practice it in their own way… which means it could go into a bedroom or drawing room… and people using this to communicate to unravel things which are locked up inside them… it could become therapy of some kind…
“… yeah… I think there’s an idea of some kind of catharsis… it’s not the catharsis of the performer… or even the host… Zdenka’s catharsis has been her own… it is the catharsis of the audience. ”
Image courtesy Jane Arnfield
Can you tell me something more about ‘Human Remain’? Then ‘The Forge’ and ‘Suitcase full of Stories’.
“’Human Remain’, as I mentioned, is only just launched. It’s a holding company for me to put the pieces I have been making. I was teaching a seminar… I’m also a principal lecturer and performer in some of the universities… with my students… and we were looking at a play and looking at texts and something in the text jumped at me… something about human beings… about individuality… about human remain… and I thought ‘human remain’, ‘human remain’… something about ‘human remain’ I thought was important and I felt it was an appropriate title for the company… and the tag line is ‘performance from the human for the human with the human’. It’s about the live acts that we are making as theatre.”
[Tony Harrington, Jane’s friend and colleague from ‘In The Forge’, joins our conversation.]
Tony, what’s ‘In The Forge’ all about?
Tony: “’In The Forge’ is an arts organisation based in the UK. We work with young people and their families. The programme impacts approximately 20,000 young people a year.”
Through communities and schools?
Tony: “Schools, communities… wherever we find people. We do it for two reasons: one, art-making has a value in itself. Great art can be made by communities and non-professional performers. Also, there’s transformational impact from creative processes. And, it can help change people’s lives. In a sense that’s why we are interested in working with ‘The Tin Ring’ as a piece of theatre… transforming people’s views and understanding. Equally, we want to create an educational programme that draws out the learning from ‘The Tin Ring’. More and more people can (a) be aware of Zdenka’s story, and (b) feel the impact in their lives.”
Yeah, how their lives can change by unlocking their minds and hearts…
Jane: “And ‘Suitcase of Survival’ because Zdenka talks about Last Aid. Not first aid, but Last Aid. That everybody has this box of Last Aid… you don’t know what’s in it till you’re in a crisis. And so ‘Suitcase of Survival’, SOS, came out of that. But I also like the way you said ‘suitcase full of stories’ because, actually, that’s what it is. It’s beautiful though, that’s what it is.”
Tony: “And that’s what happens with the show. People are often inspired to come and share their own stories afterwards because, they may not have had a relative who’s been through Zdenka’s experience, but within the piece, there seems to be universal values, spirit and conditions… that people want to relate to and discuss. For us at ‘The Forge’, it’s to find ways to do it creatively and teasing out the thinking around the people.”
Is SOS a programme?
Jane: “Yeah. It’s a deliverable programme. It may be one day or four days or two weeks. It can be, you know, bespoke. If an organisation were to come to ‘In The Forge’ and say ‘We’re working with this group of refugees, or this group of elderly people, or this group in a hospital’…”
… you’ll tailor the programme accordingly.
Jane and Tony: “… yeah.”
So, after this evening, where do you go?
Jane: “Well, on Monday night, I’m performing at Surrey University.”
Yeah, I saw on your website 18th November or something… gosh, it’s like the day after tomorrow.
[We all laugh]
Jane: “But we do hope to come back to India. One of the reasons being that, the fact that we were invited to the Mumbai Lit Fest might, hopefully, allow us to come back next year or in 2015. And, to deliver ‘Suitcase of Survival’ as well… as performances throughout India… if possible.”
Obviously you’ve come through the British Council. They have programmes every now and then. So, if you stay in touch with them…
Tony: “The Arts Council and the British Council have been incredibly supportive of this piece… and we are very grateful for that.”
Jane: “And the festival director said ‘This piece seems to gather people, so that’s what you need.’ So, there’s Surrey University; then a very small gap; then Australia. To Sydney… to the Jewish Museum in Sydney. Then Wollongong University.”
Tony: “Then in the New Year, we have a performance in Durham Cathedral… which should be fantastic.”
Yes, I’m sure it will. Well, it’s late. You have to go now and get ready for your performance. Thank you very much for the interview.
Jane and Tony: “Thank you so much.”
[This is the concluding part of my interview with Jane Arnfield (and Tony Harrington). Read the first part of the interview here.]
Here are a few links to information on Jane Arnfield and Tony Harrington:
The Tin Ring http://www.thetinring.com/
Human Remain http://humanremain.com/
In The Forge http://www.intheforge.com/