A Haunted Existence: An Interview with Tom Marshman and Jo Kimber.

Performance Artist, Tom Marshman and his Producer, Jo Kimber tell us about their upcoming show A Haunted Existence.

How did you do the research? Is there a way people can view your findings to put the stories in context? 

TM: I did my research in a few ways, I first heard about the story in an LGBT History conference, where local historian Andy Foyle spoke about this case and the story really captured my imagination.

It was so shocking I knew I really needed to know more. When we secured the funding I recruited another Historian, Jennie Sinclair. Jeanie visited some LGBTQ Archives in London, like Hall Carpenter at LEC Archives, where she was able to gather more information, related to the case, as well as more general information that formed an overall view of what life was like for LGBTQ+ people in post war England. 

Part of my research was also hosting a seance, where I tried to reach anyone that had passed on but still had a story to tell. It was a pretty unorthodox way of gathering research but it has really informed the mood of the show. During the run of, ‘A Haunted Existence’, the audience will be able to come to into the space an hour before the show starts and look in the old police cells where myself, Jeannie and my producer Jo Kimber have created Installations as responses to the research. We also used Ancestry.com, so there were many, Who Do You Think You Are, moments!

Why do you think finding these stories is important? 

TM: People forget what the world was like before the partial decriminalisation in 1967. Gay men really did live a haunted existence. I am also interested in exploring how living with the constant fear of persecution, manifested itself as trauma, which in turn is passed down on to the next generation of Queer people. Inherited trauma is something we are just beginning to understand and I spent a short time at We the Curious, talking to people about how they feel about inherited trauma, which was very enlightening. It brings the history bang up to date and helps us understand, we are our history. Even though these men were not blood relatives of mine, I do feel a strong sense of kinship. In the LGBTQ+ world we often talk about a sense of family, which I have profoundly felt for and with these men.

JK: A lot of these men weren’t allowed to ever tell their story. We obviously know from some what it was like to be gay during this time but the oral histories that survive were more often than not, those of privileged, public school educated white men. A lot of the men in the story were labourers and farmers from very working-class backgrounds. They also lived in rural Somerset and Devon where life was pretty tough, especially after the war. Imagine throwing being queer into that mix too? So, we tell them now because they never could.  

Why do you present these stories in the way you do? Why do you think it is particularly effective? 

TM: I try and make them engaging, it is difficult hard-hitting stuff, which makes them compelling, fascinating and very real. My work often tries to grapple with sex, death and things we don’t find easy to talk about, this show is no exception!

I have animated them in a style that feels natural to me, making use of my theatre tools, like lip synching, drag, dance and video which adds some moments of lightness but also I hope makes them more memorable and relatable.

Why did you choose to present the piece at The Island?

JK: The building that is now The Island was a still a working Police Station up until 2005, very little though from that time has survived but, in the basement/lock-down remain some of the original police cells. These cells are similar to the ones the men in the story would have first been taken to, they may even at some point have been in the cells at the Island, as they were all predominately South-west based, so who is to say they didn’t come to Bristol at some point, a place where even though it was illegal, did have gay bars.

Staging the show in such a site-specific location has allowed us much more creative freedom but we’ve also had to think about every aspect of the production a lot more, from where we seat the audience to the noise of the people chatting at the bus stop just above us at street level.

We are also trying to create a more immersive piece of work and I think for the audience, walking down the stairs, into the dark of the basement, visiting the Installations in the cells before watching the show will really help the audience to really begin to put themselves and imagine what it must have been like for the men, whose story Tom so respectfully tells.

Why have you used creative technology in the show?

JK: Myself and Tom are both based at Pervasive Media Studio, Watershed. For those that don’t know the Studio, it hosts a community of well over a 100 artists, creative companies, technologists and academics. There is definitely a collective push to think about things in a different way and push the boundaries of your own practise. Tom has never used creative technology to the extent that he is in the show. I think when using creative technology especially in theatre, it’s important to keep asking yourself why? What is this really adding? What is this taking away? Is it just a bit gimmicky? I’ve had those questions in the back of my mind throughout but I’m confident we’ve found a happy balance. We decided to use projection mapping in the show and it has definitely added more texture to the piece and allowed us the freedom to tell the stories of these men, without the emphasis always being on Tom. Essentially, it’s a one man show, so it’s been important to find innovative ways of telling the story through technology that still feels authentic.

You can catch A Haunted Existence at The Island from Thursday 13th September to Sunday 23rd September.

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