Q&A with writer and performer Francesca Millican-Slater
Birmingham writer-performer Francesca Millican-Slater has been collecting the stories of visitors, past and present, to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the childhood home of William Shakespeare’s wife. You too can be part of the story.
The Visited Orchard is an interactive treasure trail around the 9-acre grounds in Shottery, Stratford-upon-Avon. You’ll be able to discover stories of Second World War sweethearts, migratory birds, writers of letters, and famous visitors. At each station you’ll be invited to take part in fun activities and post your photos on social media, using #thevisitedorchard
The adventure will finish with visitors writing or drawing their own story on an ornamental apple and hanging it on the special ‘Visitant Tree’: a summer art installation that will grow with visitors’ apples throughout the summer. On Sept 21 come back and join Francesca when she ‘harvests’ the tree in a live event where new stories will be told and places celebrated.
Francesca’s previous work has included 2016’s Stories to Tell in the Middle of the Night, commissioned by Birmingham Rep, a series of short, quirky, sometimes dark tales told live to an audience that follows the pattern of a sleepless night. The show played to critical acclaim at Edinburgh 2016.
Q&A with Francesca Millican-Slater:
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I grew up in Watford, but now I live in Birmingham. I love telling stories and much of my work has involved archives, people and places that all have fascinating tales to tell about particular moments in time. Last year I had a residence at Warwickshire County Records Office to research the extensive records of Hatton Asylum to create A Patient Life, a performance that told the life of one patient alongside the hospital itself. I’ve also worked on an immersive audio and film piece for Salisbury International Festival that told stories throughout history of the ‘lost’ village of Imber, which is now used as a part of a military training ground. I’ve been artist in residence at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port, written and performed a piece called Gold! as part of the Staffordshire Hoard Festival, and had critical success at Edinburgh Festival Fringe with a show based on my investigation into the message on a postcard sent in 1910.
Where did the idea for The Visited Orchard come from?
So many different types of people visit the cottage and all for different reasons. There are people who turn up on the coaches, go through the cottage, take their photo and leave, and then you’ve got the people who are returning because they’re really interested in the history, and then you’ve got groups of young students, who spend a couple of hours there as well. I wanted to do something that talked about the history of the cottage as a whole, and also how all those different types of stories that have been told by the visitors over the years have made it this tourist destination, this place that is promoted around the world. There’s also a little bit of subversion to what the tourist trail is!
Are there any stories from your research that you particularly enjoyed?
I really enjoyed the stories of people who have built replicas of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in different places around the world, I find it really fascinating; that want to take away something… almost literally! I also really liked the Second World War stories of the American GIs taking their sweethearts there, which adds to the whole romantic ideal of the cottage. And the more modern stories too. I’ve been looking at You Tube videos made by people giving their own tour or review. There’s also the people who have visited the cottage and tried to mimic Shakespeare by writing their own poetry in the visitors’ book!
The last member of the Hathaway family to live at the cottage was one of the greatest storytellers out there in Mary Baker…
I kind of became obsessed with her, but actually she’s not really in the trail because she’s in the cottage quite a lot when you visit anyway. It feels like one of those things that could become a whole performance in itself. She had some great stories to tell and was also a brilliant entrepreneur, she was trying to make money for her family out of those stories when they had fallen on hard times.
While you were researching the project you spent some time as a guide at the cottage too. Tell us about that.
Telling stories is my thing, but I was really interested to find out from visitors themselves why they come in such great numbers. Upstart Crow [Ben Elton’s BBC sitcom] was mentioned an awful lot, with people thinking that Anne Hathaway was really like Liza Tarbuck’s character portrayal of her. It was also good talking to the other guides about the stories they have about the cottage — each has a different one that, put together, builds up the story of this wonderful place.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on something called An Island Nation and will be swimming the equivalent distance of The Channel and back in municipal swimming pools across UK, investigating the history of swimming and who we are as an island nation of inland swimmers as we set sail to leave a union behind
The Visited Orchard runs from Jul 22 – Sept 1 and is included in the admission, shakespeare.org.uk/whatson.
Find out more about Francesca here: franescamillicanslater or follower her on Twitter @franMillicanS, or at facebook.com/FranMillicanS