Writing Festival Theatre: “Devils in Human Shape”
Tom Marshman looks back on the process of researching and writing his 2016 LGBT History Month Festival Theatre piece, “Devils in Human Shape”.
The project started with a day trip to Bristol Records Office by the lead artist Tom Marshman and the historical adviser Steve Poole. Together they looked at old court records of sodomy cases in the 18thCentury. Tom found some documents that he wanted to transform into theatre and took photographs of these. Steve then deciphered the font, and typed them out so that they were workable and understandable for using in the studio to devise from.
The development of the work took place over three weeks, with Tom developing material over two weeks and then bringing it into a further one-week development phase at The Trinity Centre, Bristol. This involved lead artist Tom Marshman, historian Steve Poole, and two additional performers; Danny Prosser and Rachael Clerk. The week’s work ended in an informal audience work-in-progress sharing. The piece relied heavily on engaging the audience, so we used this sharing to test how audiences responded to the work and it’s moments of intimacy. This was very important in shaping the final piece.
During the development week itself, the performers first met and read the texts sourced by Steve and Tom. They talked about how best to convey these documents and what kind of overall message they wanted to convey with the work. At the beginning of the process we had to find a way to use these legal documents, some of which were very hard to decipher, but as we progressed in our understanding we noted that a sense of dramatic story wasn’t strongly present in the sourced texts. We felt it was our job to develop characters who could show these stories and hold a “malignant presence”, embodying public views in the 18th century, in the piece.
A lot of the text was written without any sense of emotion, or any strong viewpoint either judgemental or sympathetic. We were looking for a love story within the text but due to the formal documentation we couldn’t find one. Through further research, we noted an account of two sodomites who “embraced very affectionately” before being hung and chose to dramatise this story and position it at the end of the piece. After studying all these accounts we could see how complex and hard it must have been for these men. We wanted to juxtapose these stories with a modern account of a “hook up” that was mundane, casual and shared in a non-sensationalist way to highlight the difference between modern LGBT culture in society and that in the 18th Century.
The creative team worked alongside costume designer, Neil Stoodley, who costumed the piece, and created incredible large, black hats draped with lace, which made a ‘canopy’ around the wearer’s head. The hats were used as a strong choreographic tool within the performance piece and were very effective in creating intimate, gossip-like encounters with audience members.
Throughout the development of the work, Tom Marshman was the lead artist making directorial decisions with input from the two other performers, Danny Prosser and Rachel Clerk. This was the first time that Tom took on a role as a director.
Steve Poole also came into the creation period for an afternoon, which proved very important, as there were a few corrections that needed to be made to be historically accurate and it supported the other two performers to understand the historical perspective on the documents being used.
There were three performances of “DiHS” as part of LGBT History Month in 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the University Centre, Shrewsbury and at M-Shed, Bristol. The piece also had an afterlife in 2017, with performances at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, The Watershed, Bristol, Dartington Arts, Totnes, and the V&A again at one their late nights openings.
All of the shows were very well received and attended, and there have been invitations to work with a sound artist to make a recoding of the work which would be broadcast on local radio, extending the legacy of the piece.