ED2021 Caro Meets ED2021 Theatre

Isobel and Anna Hughes: A Place To Fall To Pieces

By | Published on Friday 6 August 2021

‘A Place To Fall To Pieces’ is a show we recommended when it was on at The Space in London back in February, so we were excited to see it amongst the shows lining up for the online programme of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

A blend of music and storytelling, original composition and spoken word, it’s the work of sisters Isobel and Anna Hughes. I spoke to them both, to find out more about the show and the talent behind it.

CM: Can you start by explaining to readers what kind of show to expect…? How would you describe it in terms of a style and genre?
IH+AH: It’s a quest! A musical quest. It’s cross-genre. Anna writes music and Isobel writes stories, but we both are inspired by folk themes: otherworldly encounters, landscapes and earth, human folly, and we wondered what would happen if we tried to become a single voice.

In some ways it’s gig-theatre, you’re definitely getting a whole music set. But also it’s spoken word and storytelling, and at some point we were exploring it as an opera!

But that’s the thing we love most about it, now we’ve come up with this more fluid approach to storytelling, we don’t have to define it as a thing. It can be many, the show shifts shape as the land we journey through in our stories does.

As for what to expect – anything goes! Like in the old stories, where dream and reality combine, expect the unexpected. A ship of souls, a talking hell-hound, ghosts and witches, ancient kings, a woman who is a hare and a girl who can talk to birds. We want to take our audience on a journey to a world beneath our everydays, of things we feel but perhaps aren’t explicable.

CM: What themes and ideas do you explore through the show? Does it tell a story?
IH+AH: It does! Many, actually! We combine songs, spoken word, monologues and music to create alternative folktales for places across the UK. The stories could stand alone, but each is part of a bigger journey: on a sinking island other-world, a mysterious guide takes our hand and tries to lead us home. We tell our tales in the hope of discovering somewhere amongst them a place we can lay our bones, before it is too late.

The themes and ideas that we are led by are: Home and history. What it means to belong. Migration and displacement. Land, folklore, and the hope of the old stories that we have all forgotten. Magic and memory, and the line between them.

CM: What inspired you to create the show?
IH+AH: There is a quote from an Indigenous American, Shunkaha Napin: “I never want to leave this country; all of my relatives are lying here in the ground, and when I fall to pieces I am going to fall to pieces here”.

It began when we found we’d been having these conversations, quite separate from each other, about the fact that because we’d moved around the country a lot when we were younger we felt like we didn’t have anywhere we could say we were from. We were curious about how that affected us – because it had – this sort of lack of belonging.

We were both pretty enamoured with what the other did, and we’d already decided we should make something together, so when we discovered this was on both of our minds – why not make a show about that! A reclamation of the places we’d always felt we weren’t allowed to be from. We were going to create a map – of story and song – of the places we had lived across the UK. Needless to say, the inspiration that followed was from our childhood memories, folklore, and the landscapes we had grown up in.

CM: Can you tell us about the process of creating the show together? How did your collaboration work? Was it difficult or easy? Was your sibling relationship a help or a hindrance…?
IH+AH: Truly, it was easy! We know there’s an expectation amongst sibling working partnerships – should we blame the Gallaghers? – that it’s going to be explosive, but I think in any creative process you reach the point where tensions are frayed. And it’s the best thing to reach that point with someone who can handle it because they’ve seen it a thousand times before. In a way those moments are less personal because we know each other so well. But honestly, we don’t fight! – although there was a point we lived and rehearsed in the same house all through January and February lockdown, and we still can’t tell if it kept us sane or drove us quicker to madness.

The process of creating the show together came about very organically: Isobel would write a memory and send – there was a lot of sending, we were living in different cities – it to Anna, and Anna would use it and her sometimes different recollections to write music. Or Anna would have a song from a certain place and Isobel would take bits she had written to put it into the song – we had some tricky days of writing lyrics, searching for that one elusive word for hours. But slowly, and suddenly, we had a collection of stories. Tying it all together took a while, we both have a predilection for a certain kind of ending – what we ended up calling ‘the end where everything comes back’ – and that was the hardest, it came about almost a year after some of the very first stuff.

CM: Did you create the show with digital distribution in mind?
IH+AH: Honestly, we did not! For one, we started working on this before the pandemic hit, digital wasn’t our forte and didn’t have to be. And even when we knew we were going to perform it at The Space, London – where it premiered – we, in what seems like complete naivety now, still originally thought it would be with a live audience. In February 2021. So we very quickly had to change our plans.

As we were still going to be performing on a stage we thought to keep our staging and performance theatrical, but the main thing we had to do was with the sound. Anna had created the most detailed, intricate soundtrack, and there was a risk that all that would be lost online. So we worked with an amazing sound engineer, Rob Griffiths, who not only gave us all of his live sound expertise, but also supported production and mixing.

Instead of just plugging in as normal and being able to gauge what our audience were hearing, we could hear one thing, the live version, and Rob was monitoring the output that people at home were listening to. What we ended up with, is like you were listening to a broadcast piece rather than live theatre music.

CM: What are the benefits and drawbacks of producing digitally?
IH+AH: Like we mentioned, we aren’t necessarily the most digitally adept – Anna is now studying to become more so – so the most obvious drawback is all of that time you waste trying to figure out wires, and connections, and systems, and that feels so the opposite of creativity that sometimes you despair. And you miss an audience. Always. That feeling where you’re all going through something together, the communal power of storytelling, when the whole room is alive with it, you feel the lack of it.

However, the audience you can reach digitally is incredible. When we first live streamed the show we had friends and family from France, The Netherlands, Germany, Russia and Australia watching. People who would never have made it to a UK theatre, who knew us so well but not what we did, could be there with us! The ability to reach so many people has to be one of the best benefits of digital production.

CM: Do you think digitally delivered culture is here to stay, following its growth and development during lockdown?
IH+AH: It feels hard, when you come from pre-pandemic theatre and gig worlds, to say YES, because it feels like a betrayal to the joy of live performance.

However, some of the innovation that has happened in just a year and a half is amazing! One of the best things about digital producing is it seems to have opened the playing field a bit, it felt before that making work yourself was riddled with these pitfalls, so many people had these fantastic innovative ideas but they just couldn’t get them on stage, because they didn’t want to take a risk, or other people didn’t want to take a risk on them, and so often money or connections seemed to dictate art.

But now – people are doing whatever the hell they want – and that anarchy is so exciting! I think a lot of emerging and established artists aren’t going to give up that freedom so easily, so yes, probably digital culture is here to stay.

And how are you ever going to take it away from all of those people for whom suddenly art and theatre is accessible, digital culture feels in some ways much more inclusive for the isolated or the marginalised, and it would be such a shame for that to be temporary.

CM: Are you planning any live-in-person performances?
IH+AH: Most definitely! We’ve been trying to do this live since the pandemic, we were all gearing up to preview some of the stories to an audience on March 17 2020. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve still had the chance to do it digitally – but we are chomping at the bit to do it live. We’re just starting to put together a tour, so hopefully – soon!!

CM: Have you performed at the Edinburgh Fringe before? What made you decide to ‘bring’ the show to this year’s Festival?
IH+AH: We have – but as part of a different company – in 2017 we were part of In Tandem’s ‘A Great Fear Of Shallow Living’, which was sort of the jumping off point for this collaboration. So we have a special place in our hearts for the Fringe as it was where this whole thing was born really.

We wanted to feel that open, innovative, collaborative atmosphere again, because we’d missed it for so long. Of course, things change, we’d wanted to bring it live – but when Hartley – the Artistic Director of C Venues – offered us a slot in their digital programme we were really excited to be part of it.

The Fringe has always been a place where audiences can see shows that perhaps they never would usually see, or shows can meet audiences they never would have considered, and we see no difference in that with a digital programme. We’re looking forward to seeing who we meet that we may never have in person.

CM: Can we talk about your past now…? How did you both end up in your current careers..? Did you always want to perform?
IH+AH: We always did, even if we didn’t realise what we were doing. It’s a thing people say, isn’t it, ‘they were always going to be a performer, because when they were young…’

We don’t know about that, but if we’re going that far back it definitely feels like what we’re doing now is just an adult version of the epic sagas we would perform for long days in the garden.

Isobel went to drama school from high school and pursued a career as an actor, and then fell into writing and performing her own work partly out of impatience, partly because she’d never been told she didn’t have anything to say, and mostly because of a group of friends and colleagues she fell in love with and wanted to work with indefinitely.

Anna has played the fiddle since she was three years old! But it was never a career – she was going to study geography – until she had an epiphany and knew she had to be a musician, so she applied to Newcastle to do a folk degree, studied abroad in Finland, and the rest – as they say – is history.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
IH+AH: For the show – it’s our dream to take it to the places that inspired it. As natural wanderers, we have sort of latched onto this idea of travelling players and troubadours, we’d like to cart it across the country, set up shop and perform for communities that will recognise in some form the stories that we tell, as they belong to them too.

So we want to go to Cornwall, to Somerset, to Bolton and Manchester, to East-Yorkshire, and the North-East and to Suffolk.

We’d also like to experiment with the show as a binaural experience because it’s so sound led. Because it is in some way like a childhood tale we like the idea of an audience having it told intimately in their ear.

And then – who knows what’s next? Anna studied in Finland for a year, and there’s a vague idea we want our next show to be some sort of detective drama with music, inspired by that scandi-noir genre.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
IH+AH: As we said, most immediate is a tour, and then perhaps developing something new. As an emerging company this is our beginning, and we’re both mainly looking forward to seeing how our practise matures and what comes of that.

In the meantime, Anna is composing for ‘Waiting On It’, a new dance film project with an accompanying zine, combining movement, spoken word and music. And Isobel is writing again.

‘A Place To Fall To Pieces’ was part of the C Arts programme at Edinburgh Festival 2021.

LINKS: www.isobelandannahughes.uk | twitter.com/IsobelandAnna | twitter.com/Cvenues