The Spooky Ship: Fear of the Dark – Dorothy Collins, Made in Bristol

Propolis Theatre's The Spooky Ship in 2014.

The Spooky Ship marks Made in Bristol 2015/16’s first devised performance as a new company. This process of creating a Halloween performance for audiences aged 8+ and 12+ on the iconic Bristol landmark, the ss Great Britain, will be the first chance for us to get a feel for how we collaborate to create theatre as a company. Our process started with research about the ship and her many passengers.

Upon our second week of being a theatre company, we visited the ship for a tour and initial brainstorm of ideas and characters. With a basic knowledge of the extensive and varied life of the ship, we explored all the nooks and crannies in search of inspiration.

Propolis Theatre's The Spooky Ship in 2014.

Some of the 12 cast members explored alone, some in groups – to either bounce ideas off each other, or to isolate oneself to try and capture the potentially spooky atmosphere of the ship. Our aim was to find areas on the ship that creatively inspired us, and perhaps triggered us to start to think of potential characters. More often than not, characters would emerge in our minds inspired by the general atmosphere and layout of the ship rather than any specific area; which gave us the opportunity to have characters moving around the ship on the performance night. Whilst exploring the ship, Propolis Theatre’s Spooky Ship performance loomed in our collective thoughts as we all want to create new, fresh characters for old and new audiences this year, whilst also living up to its success.

After wandering around the ss Great Britain for an hour or so, we re-grouped to discuss any initial ideas and characters; a list which formed our first draft, so-to-speak, for our performance.

Propolis Theatre's The Spooky Ship in 2014.

Last week, Made in Bristol returned to the ss Great Britain, via Bristol library and archives. We spent two hours reading real-life accounts of real passengers aboard one of her many voyages in attempt to add some colour to the primary ideas of our characters, and to inspire new ideas for our performance. There’s something about the slightly archaic and over-formal language in which the diary entries were written that not only entertained us, but gave us a feel for the time period of which our performance will be set; for example, “Mr Fenton never seems to see or hear anything. He walks about in a kind of dream, and only wakens now and then to play chess” from Rachel Herring’s diary.

Such extracts also helped us gain a strong sense of the prevalent British class division of the Victorian era which naturally infiltrated through to the community aboard ship. This strong divide gave us opportunities to create diverse and contrasting characters, thus hopefully keeping our audiences entertained on our performance night. Some of the diary entries, such as Rachel Herring’s, were already naturally scary and creepy whereas other extracts simply documented the mundane and daily life of the passengers. All records helped to gain a sense of the type of people and the types of events that happened on the ship during her heyday. With this new inspiration, taken from real events and passengers on the ss Great Britain, we once again explored the ship in attempt to place our more rounded and in-depth characters in specific areas on the ship.

The cogs in the devising process have only just started turning. Once we returned to Made in Bristol HQ (Bristol Old Vic), we had a meeting to collate all our ideas. We started by separating into groups and mind-mapping what makes us scared, what makes 8+ audiences scared and what makes 12+ audiences scared. Trying to not get too carried away with our imaginations in regards to creating scary characters is a task for us all; especially considering our audience demographic, but everyone unanimously agreed that the mannequins lurking around the ship shocked and frightened members of public of all ages. What is it that is so terrifying about these mannequins? They’re just plastic figures created to give a sense of what the inhabitants of the ship would have been like. In fact, they add a certain vivacity to the experience, especially combined with the different smells and sounds in the different spaces of the ship: they are a key element in the overall sensory experience that is the ss Great Britain.

Propolis Theatre's The Spooky Ship in 2014.

Perhaps its the fear of the unknown – no one is ever sure what is going to be around the corner as you explore the ship.That’s when the mannequins are at their scariest, when you least expect them. It’s that same twisted desire to scare yourself that almost made us seek out the mannequins, for the adrenaline rush of fear. Essentially, that is what our audience will be seeking when they come aboard The Spooky Ship on Halloween.

They will seek out the fear of the dark, shadows, eery laughter, sounds of scuttling; the list could go on, around every corner, all for the adrenaline.

Photos by Adam Gasson

Visit Brunel’s ss Great Britain this Halloween (Sat 31 Oct) to explore The Spooky ShipStep aboard from 6.30pm for an experience suitable for those 8+, and from 8.30pm for those 12+.

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