saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Honest to God With... David Ralf and Philipp Ehmann
12th February 2017
No one can deny we live in interesting times. Whether you wanted to stay in Europe or to leave Europe, the past year has given us all cause to reflect on where we feel we truly belong. With 75.4% of those who voted in Haringey voting to stay in Europe, Wood Green seems the ideal place for a site-specific audio production exploring citizenship and borders. Like many parts of London, it's one where the local residents have strong feelings about identity.
Set in real-life working hotel Green Rooms, Hotel Europe invites you to look behind five doors and either challenge or cement your own thoughts on what it means to be a part of a community and what it means to choose to leave that community. It's certainly a topical and thought-provoking concept for a piece of theatre and apparently, there are already exciting plans in store for what happens at the end of the run. We caught up with producer David Ralf and one of the two co-creators, Philipp Ehmann, to find out more about what you can expect when you check into Hotel Europe.
VFTG: Could you tell us a little bit about Hotel Europe and what it's about?
Photography provided by Loose Tongue
PE: Hotel Europe is basically a project for five hotel rooms by five writers from all over the world who live in the UK. In the wider sense of the word, it deals with Europe in all sorts of ways. The five audio plays are installed in those five hotel rooms and you can listen to them and get a feel for them through an immersive set.
DR: It is close to many things but it's also a weird mixture of them in some ways because it sort of has that radio drama thing going on, it sort of is a bit of an installation, it's sort of immersive theatre and it's also quite sort of meditative. It's not interactive necessarily in that way; there's a sense that you are a guest in this hotel which we really want to foster and that's really lovely. There's also a sense that you are just here and listening to five different stories from Europe and drawing your own conclusions about them. It's a hard one to describe!
VFTG: When did the project begin life? Presumably it was a reaction to Brexit?
DR: Yes and no.
PE: Actually, an initial idea for the project - not in the very shape and form that it's in now - came from Isley Lynn and me a couple of years ago. And now, because of Brexit, we got talking about it again and changed the mood slightly, changed the direction that it should go in slightly.
DR: When we did a call out for the writers for this particular iteration of this project, that was sent out after the referendum, but didn't mention the referendum or Brexit at all. It was, we want your stories about Europe, about what Europe means to you, about citizenship and borders and those kind of ideas. We really wanted to keep it as open as possible and what we've ended up with are a couple of stories that directly reference the referendum and directly reference citizenship in various different ways but others which don't at all.
In fact, one of the pieces is a Welsh ghost story and it definitely has close links to Europe and European ideals but I think it's actually going to be quite abstract for a lot of people. Whereas there are others that are clearly written in response to the EU referendum, so really interestingly thought through and powerful. We got exactly what we wanted which is a nice range!
PE: Even though Brexit was obviously a big theme, when we talked about what we want from the pieces, I think actually the question that was mostly on our minds was, what does it mean to be European? What does it mean to be in a community, whatever community that might be; how does that influence your everyday life? What does it mean to be a European citizen of this abstract idea of Europe; politically, economically, psychologically even, emotionally and what does it mean to not want to be part of that anymore also?
VFTG: The production is set in a working hotel rather than an abandoned site where you could have perhaps free rein of the entire building. Has this posed you any particular challenges or advantages, having it set in a real life hotel?
PE: I think what's nice with a live hotel is actually it conveys some of the ideas that the pieces pick up on, as well as our philosophical idea behind it. It is a working hotel with people who are staying there who may be from other countries in Europe. That ties in thematically very well. If it were an abandoned hotel we wouldn't have that live background of other people who mix and mingle and represent at least on a philosophical level, a community of some sort!
Photography provided by Green Rooms
DR: Green Rooms is an artists' hotel; it's been set up both as a commercial hotel but also to have a relationship with an artistic community and they have been super excited from the very moment we came to them. They were the first people we approached and they immediately went, oh, yeah, there's something here, that's really exciting. How can we help? They have at every stage gone and surpassed our expectations in terms of what we would be able to do.
We really expected that we'd have to be keeping out of their way, that we wouldn't be able to run particularly late, that we wouldn't be able to start particularly early, that we would have to be working completely away from actual guests, that we'd have to knock off a whole floor. But our rooms are literally going to be alongside hotel rooms that people are sleeping in and staying in so you are walking into a new environment that we've sort of imposed on; very much a working hotel room space.
Don't they sound bloody lovely? If you fancy extending your visit to Hotel Europe and staying overnight in Green Rooms, you can book a stay here. If you're a creative type, get in touch with the hotel with your portfolio for a special rate. Not only do Green Rooms put up artists at subsidised rates and welcome productions like Hotel Europe, they host pop up restaurants and comedy shows and provide rehearsal space. It's easy to see why David and Philipp wanted to work with the venue, but with so much going on there, we wondered how much time they would have to set up.
VFTG: The show opens on the 20th; when do you get to go in and create your five different spaces?
DR: We're going in on Sunday the 19th. We're going in the day before!
VFTG: A very tight window then!
DR: The audio has already been recorded. I directed the five different audio pieces, so we got to go into the studio with the writers with some really fantastic actors. That side of the work is done, we're working with two designers, both Rose Bruford graduates; Sorcha Corcoran and Geneva Brown. They are making plans for each of the five rooms.
The hotel have offered literally everything they've got in the building as a kind of palette for us to draw on. We're going to be moving furniture from around the building, we're going to be bringing in new bits and bobs, we're going to be redressing all of the rooms. We've got a lot to do on that day. There's going to be a big team of us there!
VFTG: With this being a series of audio plays which you've already recorded, have the actors seen the design concept? If not, has that been difficult?
Photography provided by Loose Tongue
DR: It's meant that it's been a writer-led process all the way through. The audio and the design are both working together but also can be quite different. For instance, we have a piece about Danish citizenship written by Tom Black who's written and performed with DugOut Theatre and is also starring in the audio performance of his piece. He's created this very familial, friendly and comforting conversation between a mother and a son about recounting their stories of dual citizenship and in that case, the designers really wanted to tap into that feeling so the current plan is to create that Danish hygge and make it almost a Danish family kitchen. Bring lots of furniture in there, have food that the audience can dig into - I'd love to have a pot of tea there; we'll see if we can make that happen!
There's another piece called Epifania which is much more difficult to represent directly. It's written by Rafaella Marcus who's primarily a theatre director. She's recounting the story of her grandmother coming to the UK from rural Italy which involves her leaving her village which is then bombed, her travelling across France and finding herself trapped in essentially a prisoner-of-war camp run by the Nazis that is in a hotel in Vittel and eventually making her way to London. It crosses Continental Europe in a huge way but also spans from the 1930s to the modern day. With that one, we've decided to pick a particular place in that story and for the audience to gradually realise where they are as they listen to this story and gradually put all those pieces together. It's a different audience experience and we're trying to do something different in terms of that relationship between the audio and the design with each piece.
PE: Sometimes it can be quite abstract. But it leaves room for interpretation which I think can be very nice. A lot of the pieces are quite evocative and our aim is very much that while you listen to them and see the room and while you're in the room, you can think about them and make your own interpretations and your own connections to maybe your personal stories or stories you've heard.
VFTG: When your audience turns up, do they move through these rooms in a particular order or just wander through the hotel? Practically, how does it work?
PE: Basically you can pick your room and decide to go in if it's open for you. Each room has a key and if a room key is available, you can pick it up and go in and if it's not, someone else is in there. And you decide which one of the keys for the free rooms you want to pick up, you go in, listen to it, when you're done, you go out and you can pick a different room to visit, until you've done all five of them.
DR: There's not a particular order!
VFTG: Have you both worked on audio only and site specific plays before? Or has this been a new experience?
Photography provided by Loose Tongue
PE: I've done several audio walks, video walks, I've done installations. Most of my work is site specific in the city, rather than in closed areas, but it's quite nice as a change to have a closed area and a very controlled environment rather than the chaos of a city to work in.
DR: For me, this is pretty much brand new! I've been working in primarily straight theatre environments, so every aspect of this is new! But I do have a bit of radio experience as an actor from years back, so I was very much channelling that and my experiences as a director have always been very much focused on sound design and sound generally. I'm not much of a visual director, so that's been a very nice thing to revisit with these plays.
VFTG: The production has a really short run; it's only a week long. Is the intention to bring it anywhere else? I know it's site specific but with five different rooms you could stage something similar in another space. Or is it intended to be a one-off?
DR: Yes, it's a short run, but we will be making the whole experience available online after the run. That's been possible through the MGCfutures bursary which I was awarded essentially to commission the digital version of this project. It will be a slightly different experience obviously, but it will have both the audio elements and some of the design element as well. That will be a digital experience which everyone will be able to access.
It was really key to us to make sure that this play would have some reach beyond London. Although it was very much written by Londoners, it has a reach that goes beyond that and one of the things that we would love to do is to take Hotel Europe - not exactly on the road - but take it to other cities. But I think if we did that, what we'd want to do is either recommission or rebuild or add onto the existing plays that we have and add in new roots that were directly stories form local writers. So if we were to do Hotel Europe Birmingham, we wouldn't want to just be taking the five pieces that we already have, we'd want to be adding to those pieces. But yes, we've designed it very much with those ambitions in mind - we want it to be something that we can take further.
PE: It acts like a blue print for other cities.
We've often wanted to revisit a production after its run, so the idea of creating a digital version of Hotel Europe is one that very much appeals. Plus, as David points out, it will open up Hotel Europe to new audiences outside of London and making theatre more accessible can only be a good thing, particularly when it explores as significant issues as Hotel Europe does.
VFTG: What do you hope that audience members will take away from seeing Hotel Europe?
PE: I hope that they try to rethink citizenship as a broader concept, that maybe the way we treat nations and borders at the minute is a bit silly because even if we deal with local politics, it's actually all global anyway, especially in terms of economics. To rethink what citizenship means, what it means to be part of a nation or part of a community, on a macro and on a micro scale - that's what I'd like them to take with them.
DR: For me, the central metaphor which is what Isley and Philipp brought to me and that I was really excited by was just the idea of the Hotel being essentially a collection of rooms and the idea of Europe being essentially a collection of countries and that is a fascinating little metaphor on its own. I don't really know what I think about it. I'm hoping to find out when I watch all of the pieces in a row if you see what I mean!
I want it to be as we both said a kind of meditative space and I hope people come away thinking all sorts of different things rather than coming away with the same response.
VFTG: To wrap up, the production starts on the 20th and runs until the 26th, is that correct?
DR: Monday the 20th til Sunday the 26th and we are running from 11am all the way through with our last performance being 9pm. It's any time during the day and you can buy tickets online or on the door!
We are checking into Hotel Europe on 21st February, but if you can't wait until then to find out how we rate it, you can snap up some tickets now by following this link: http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/artist/hotel-europe-tickets/980154. The production runs from 20th to 26th February with staggered admission times from mid-morning through to late at night, so there's a convenient time slot for everyone.
To find out more about Loose Tongue, the company behind Hotel Europe, you can visit their website here: http://hoteleurope.loosetongue.co.uk.