Read this fascinating new article by Ruth Short, a 3rd Year Drama and Theatre Studies student at Aberystwyth University. Ruth joined Highlights in July ’21 for our final performance with Louise Jordan and her show Florence, at Shap Memorial Hall and met Louise to discuss her work and motivations as a musician and theatre maker.
Ruth and Louise at HL HQ, Mostyn Hall Penrith
The Highlights summer programme drew to a close with Louise Jordan’s powerful one-woman performance Florence, a dynamic show that combines music, acting and storytelling – alongside a healthy dose of audience participation – to tell the story of one of history’s most famous women; although not the part of it we all know. As Louise is eager to share through her work, Florence Nightingale was far more than just the Lady with the Lamp; “Looking at it, the Crimean war was two years of Florence’s life. There is so much else she did and the other 88 years need to be considered and appreciated.”
Florence itself provides a masterful and poignant insight into Florence Nightingale’s rise to unwanted fame – and the repercussions of a public image she never encouraged – as well as her many underappreciated achievements in the fields of health and sanitation. Through song, riveting audience engagement and impassioned storytelling Louise paints a picture of Florence’s life that doesn’t sugar-coat nor glorify her, but tells her story plainly; as a woman who accomplished great things and never had her true achievements acknowledged in favour of presenting her as the “ideal woman”.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Louise and discuss not only Florence and the wealth of messages behind her work, but her inspirations, process and plans for the future.
“I think I’ve always enjoyed performing,” Louise tells me when asked how her interest in performance sparked. “I was one of those children who just got a buzz from the confidence developing from school age.” While in secondary school in Sailsbury, Louise participated in local youth theatre Stage 65 – which is still up and running – but also proceeded to take on various other options aside from performance. “I went from school into youth work at uni and was really interested in social justice, so I worked with the youth offending service, I qualified to be a teacher, I’ve done quite a few not-necessarily obvious things. People might say that being a teacher is a bit like performing, and I suppose looking back I would agree.”
Louise’s keen interest in social justice fuels her work, which seeks to share messages relating to current issues – often by exploring past ones. The vein of women’s stories lost to history is a common theme shared by her works, highlighting her commitment to preserving these women’s legacies and sharing them with the public. Her piece The Hard Way tells the story of Hannah Mitchell, working class suffragette, whose story and accomplishments are overshadowed by those of the upper-class; while No Petticoats Here reveals the lives of women during the First World War, and their camaraderie and achievements in the midst of violent conflict. Although her work tends to focus upon historical tales, she has no issue in making her messages relevant and identifiable to modern audiences, often finding that people relate strongly to the stories she shares and are able to easily connect them to their own lives and passions. “For me it’s about the human experience and there’s so much of the human experience that doesn’t change,” Louise says. “In my show The Hard Way there were so many people afterwards that said ‘I know a woman like that… my mum, my gran, my aunt, my sister, my so and so…’ it’s all the things she achieved in her life that people connect to.”
Louise’s work features music as a vehicle to not only carry the story, but to highlight important themes and messages. Originating in her engagement with folk music from a young age, the songs she writes and performs are often atypical in their message while still bearing the characteristics of traditional folk; “I got really fed up of singing pretty ballads about girls who didn’t get the man they wanted or were wronged in some way, or were otherwise buxom women who just seemed to be extraordinary… as a young girl myself looking at those I thought a girl could be one of two things; you had to cross your fingers and wait for a prince to come along and save you, or you had to direct your own destiny so you knew you were going to be seen as a bit of an outsider, and I think that’s quite a dangerous idea and extremely limiting.”
In the run-up to Florence’s completion, she performed in public spaces with an interactive piece known as the pop-up pedestal; “I go with the pedestal and I put it up in a public space, like a park, and I’m dressed like a statue of Florence Nightingale,” Louise tells me. “And of course Florence Nightingale is a name that’s well known, she’s been on notes and currency… but there’s a much lesser known side of what Florence achieved in her life and they’ve conveniently left that out in in order to present a kind of ‘ideal’ woman. So the statue versions that I’ve seen in the UK are of Florence looking down, all you see is her forehead or she’s looking down at a book or she’s got a lamp, and I find that very frustrating because I don’t think Florence would have wanted to be in statue form, she didn’t, she would have been quite annoyed about that I think.”
The pop-up pedestal sought to change public perception of Florence’s life and achievements, as her legacy and image are often used in ways she would not have approved of; however, it also begged the question: who does the public think should be on the pedestal instead? “A particular moment I’m thinking of,” Louise recalls, “is there was a child, I would guess about seven years old… this child gave the name of somebody that I didn’t recognise and I said ‘Oh, is that a friend of yours?’, and this wonderful young person said ‘No, that’s the name of a person who’s an activist working on behalf of trans children.’ The whole show stopped being about me and started being about that person having the space to share a view which maybe not everybody else in the audience gets to hear or engage with. That was really interesting for me, that they felt able to answer that question.”
One of the primary aspects of Louise’s work and process that proves to me what an absolute powerhouse of a creator and performer she is, is the fact that she works solo; the conception, research, writing and performance of her work is largely conducted alone, which certainly has its benefits. “You can be a lot more flexible in terms of the space. If someone dropped me a line to say ‘Our studio’s become available,’ I could just up sticks and take the kit in the van and go and rehearse.” However, primarily working solo doesn’t mean that consulting and taking inspiration from others is off the table. “It’s really fun to have a kind of network of other performers that you can go to,” Louise says. “The right person will normally find the show… so somebody might say ‘I do know somebody I’d like to introduce you to who might be interested,’ and you sort of expand your network. Or you might go back to people you’ve collaborated with before and think ‘They were great on this project, that’s the angle that I need’.”
Louise’s research and creation process is painstaking and intimate, a thorough investigation of the lives, writings and personal effects of the women she chooses to focus upon in order to accurately relate their stories. “When you do a lot of historical research in museums, archives, libraries, it’s really lovely to sit down with somebody and say ‘This is what I’ve got,’ and unfold all this information and just have loads of scribbles everywhere… and then for them to help you to tease the right narrative and weave it together.”
“I enjoy that process so much of going through the archives, going through the boxes, and finding that handwritten note by the person, that’s such a thrilling point of the process for me. Coming across that signature and going ‘Oh my God, it’s like they’re writing to me!’ I love that, I enjoy it so much I can’t see myself not working with somebody’s story where that might be possible.”
The restrictions imposed by the COVID 19 pandemic, while taking a toll on live theatre, have also prompted her to explore different ways of working, both with collaborators and audiences, and with different forms of media. “I have started using other types of media and software and hardware that I bought, that I never would have done,” Louise says of her time working virtually during the pandemic. “I’ve recorded some video workshops and edited them together in the best way that I know how, and I’m sort of doing a music video at the moment for one of the songs from Florence, which is part of the pop-up pedestal piece. It’s making me think a lot more about audience engagement and different ways that different media can support and enhance what I do live. Live will always come first but I’ve realised how digital can support that and bring it to life in different ways.”
Louise has also been collaborating online with various performers, some with a very different but no less valuable approach to her own; including partaking in a workshop with an MC. “We had an amazing day,” she tells me, “We could have just talked through the night… partly because it got to the end of the time frame and we had to put something together, and partly because of the way that this artist – MC Assassin – works we got together and made a very improvised spoken word piece and I did some harmony vocals on it. It was very much about improvising around these things and that was a real challenge to me because I never improvise, that’s not what I do, so we’re hoping to work together on something when our schedules are a little bit less hectic. I’m really interested in exploring how that improvisational music can happen onstage in a live performance setting.”
While unfortunately Louise’s show The Hard Way’s run with Highlights Rural Touring was cut short due to the pandemic, she has been able to tour Florence with them this year, and has worked extensively with them in the past to bring her valuable work to rural communities. “The rural touring sector have been incredible in their support of artists over the last 18 months,” Louise tells me, “and Highlights is at the forefront as one of the tourist schemes that have most supported artists from what I’ve experienced and from what other people have told me, so I’m grateful to get to do it. I love meeting new audiences, I love saying to them ‘This is something I’ve created and I’m very happy to hear your honest response to it.’ I’ve never had a bad experience with rural touring.”
Evident to me throughout this QnA, Louise is a creator brimming with ideas and enthusiasm for challenging herself with each new piece she sets her mind to. “I’m always very honest that as an artist I want to constantly develop and to always try new things,” Louise says. “When I did No Petticoats Here about the women of the First World War there were people then saying ‘Why don’t you do the women of the Second World War and you can use the same formula?’ and I said no, I’m not going to find that exciting. I always want to avoid it turning stagnant and fortunately I haven’t felt like that’s the case.”
When asked about her plans for future performances, Louise tells me that while prior to the pandemic she would have planned her next 18 months in advance, her plans are currently up in the air. “It’s quite freeing not to have to do that, to not to have to work so far ahead and perhaps being able to be more responsive, so I think I’ll probably take some time out over the next month or so to really think.” Despite this, she certainly has no shortage of ideas; “I have a list of stories that I want to tell, it’s just thinking about what’s right for now and what’s right for me at the moment, but importantly what’s right for audiences. What do audiences want to hear? Do they really want to be thinking about COVID stories over the next 18 months, or will it feel a bit exhausting to go back to something that they lived through that was so exhausting in itself? I feel like I want to tell something very joyful, that’s fun and exciting.” Unafraid to branch out thematically, Louise continues, “I was working with two other artists, one is a theatre director and one is an award winning curry chef. They were both beautiful wonderful human beings and they were just exciting and brilliant to work with, and that’s sort of thrown things up in the air for me. A different way to think about food, food stories, our connection with food and comfort, and actually there is a theatre that goes along with the idea of creating and preparing food, so that’s another idea that’s in the back of my mind that feels quite exciting. So I honestly don’t know where the path’s going to lead next, but lots of ideas, so I’m not going to struggle in finding something.”
by Ruth Short