“Walk on our twos, buckle our shoes…”
Just over a month ago, I arrived at Helston School for my first Wolf’s Child rehearsal. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting in to, but as soon as I stepped into the school hall that morning, I was swept up into a crowd of around 70 women and girls, ranging in age from 6 to 80-odd, and without much hanging about, we were off!
Some quick warm-up exercises – a surprisingly violent keep-the-ball-in-the-air game, a briskly competitive hand-squeeze-passing game, and a rather nerve-wracking precision-bowing game of ‘Je mange’ – later, we split into three groups, Highs, Mids and Lows, and cracked on with singing. Somehow, five hours later we had learned the bare bones, at least, of all of our parts for the songs that we sing in the show, and a few more for good measure. Later I learned that some people refer to singing with Vicky Abbott as ‘extreme choiring’, and certainly there’s a real buzz to be felt from learning fast, singing rich harmonies, and being required to be really, really, really precise in terms of both tonal quality and diction (not to mention hitting the right note).
“…Keep our composure, keep our little mouths close-d….
Tie back our hair, sit upright in our chairs…”
Being really, really, really precise has become a running theme with us Maids. And really, really, really neat. Well, neat for us. Hair is a bit of an issue. Those with particularly short, or wild, hair wear demure bonnets, which starts a less-than-demure ‘online dating: giant baby’ section on the Facebook page that was initially set up for lift-sharing, but has now expanded to include caption competitions for some particularly fetching shots of Maids in varying states of un-Maidly demeanour.
Despite our un-Maidly natures, Becca Hulbert (as Larch) and Mary Woodvine (as Hazel) keep us all in line during the show, and it’s interesting to see how easily we relinquish our day-to-day sense of responsibility: what a relief it is to go with the brainwashed flow, and to know that if we slip up at any point, Larch or Hazel will be on hand to bellow orders. To say nothing of Mother, our feared yet revered leader. Whilst we’re waiting on the stone stairs for our first entrance, or – as has been pointed out – ‘huddling like penguins’ in the meadow prior to our second appearance, conversation turns to the Maids’ troubled relationship with Mother. More or less savoury back stories and future possibilities are suggested. There’s definitely a prequel, sequel and several spin-offs waiting to emerge by now: we could give Game of Thrones a run for its money.
Our readiness to toe the line really interests me. As I get to know my fellow Maids, it becomes clear that we’re a naturally rebellious crew, and yet we readily fit in to the pattern of deferring to others, barking out our responses, falling into line, bowing our heads at just the right moment and angle as Mother passes down the line (yes, I know that bit’s been cut now! – but it was just so satisfying at the time). As Vicky says quite early on, “We have a cult!”. At Becca’s suggestion, we take to watching Japanese walking competition videos on YouTube (yes, that is a thing!), revelling in their precision formation. We practice our homilies over and over. We place our hands on our belly, left over right, even when walking to ‘The Pizza Place’: our refuge from the elements between acts, where the light and the setting makes us look like an unlikely flashmob version of Rembrandt’s ‘Study of a Woman in a White Cap’.
Over the last few weeks we’ve become very good at making sure we all know where we are, what comes next, and what we might be about to do wrong – there is a near-constant hum of correction and self-correction, as we pass on notes from the night before, hoik each other’s costumes into line, or remind each other of details in the next scene that we think someone might have forgotten. I have seen grown women manage to get other grown women to turn and face the other direction using mere eyeball strength. Do. Not. Mess. With. The. Maids.
“Smile with good humour,
Imagine the future…”
So, a little more than a month on from that first rehearsal, the show is up and running, and I already know I’m going to really, really, really miss Maid life and the wider wildness of Wolf’s Child. Even being laced into waist and neck corsetry is a small price to pay for this level of camaraderie. And most of all, the experience of being part of making such beautiful sounds and powerful images is one I will always treasure: there is something so hugely satisfying about being a small part of such a big, vivid picture. The other day Gaston Bachelard’s phrase ‘intimate immensity’ came to mind, and when I have time to reflect on this whole thing, I think this idea will somehow be a way of writing in more depth about what exactly it is that WildWorks do. In the meantime, who else to turn to, to sum up what I’m finding hard to put into words, but Bill Mitchell himself? I love this description from him about the events that WildWorks create:
A world where everything is narrative: the light, the night, distance and closeness, from vast to tiny, a flag on the horizon, a character holding a rose so close you can smell it next to you (2007: 11).
This in turn brings me to a suggestion from anthropologist Tim Ingold, that ‘Imagination is not the work of mind alone, but of one’s entire being’. For the duration of Wolf’s Child, performers and audiences are asked to immerse themselves in this story, in this world, and to be open to it all, to imagine with their entire being as events unfold around them. This full-bodied approach to my surroundings and their possibilities is a sensation I want to remember and be able to call on in future.
Thinking about what else I might want to keep from Maid life, so far this is what I know: I really, really, really want to sing more, I want to make more time for hanging out and belly laughing, I want to work outside more and, having spent three weeks inhaling the one and eyeing up the other, I really want to come back to the New Yard Restaurant sometime when I’m not in an all-white costume, and have a tomatoey pizza and a glass of red wine. Cheers!