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Gas Girls Documentary


“I’m sorry.” “The whole system is completely unsafe…” [Voices and music gradually fade in] “You don’t know anything about me!” “They’ll pay…” [Voices get louder and more chaotic] “The whole system is completely unsafe!” [Silence] Neil: Well, sometimes the best ideas come out of the blue. I found this story. I found a little mention of people were walking past a building site and getting nose bleeds and sore throats. In the article there was a mention that this was the site of Avonmouth’s Mustard Gas Factory. I was absolutely astounded. I had no idea that there were Mustard Gas factories in Avonmouth ever, or that the British ever made Mustard Gas. “Factories all across the country. Manchester, Banbury, Avonmouth. Make the Gas. Fill the Shells. Beat the Hun at his own game! That was the plan and nothing… nothing was going to stop it’s success. ” Neil: In those factories a lot of local women and men worked and no one knew about it. It was clear at that point that there was a story here. A story that had to be told and it felt absolutely right for acta to be the ones to tell that story. [Slow, repetitive music. Piano and Cello] We looked at film from the First World War, we looked at research, we talked about it. We looked at how different life was then, to life, 100 years later. Tracey: We were very privileged to go to the National Archives and look through a whole lot of material that had been classified as ‘Top Secret’. It was really mind-blowing really. Rebecca: Finding out stories about these people that you just wouldn’t imagine, would you? I’ve always been quite a feminist, so for me, the part of the play where the women being shown proving their worth, was very important to me. Karen: Being brought up in that area, even as a child, we knew that there were certain areas that you couldn’t play in because the ground was contaminated by Mustard Gas. But we didn’t know why. Cherry: This sort of catalyst is also very important. More things come forward. People bring documentary evidence to light. This is what is happening across the country, in remembering the First Word War, but also having to help younger people, future generations realise just how terrible it was. Neil: Mustard Gas was, and is an evil substance. It has the effect of liquifying tissue. If you breathe it in, it destroys your lungs. If it gets on your skin, it burns through. Everyone suffered from conjunctivitis. Everyone suffered from bad lungs. It was gradually killing the men and women who worked there. The Ministry of Munitions kept demanding more and more shells from the Chittening (Avonmouth) factory. They upped it by thousands. They wanted to make a thousand shells every day. Impossible. But, the women had to do it. There were hundreds of accidents. The facts about the Mustard Gas factories in Avonmouth have been hidden for nearly a hundred years. [Quiet, mechanical music] We put together three different weekly groups to make this show. They had never worked together before. There were twenty of them. We had never done a touring show with more than six people so this, in itself was going to be amazing. Amazing and amazingly difficult. Katie: One of the best things about the project for be has probably been learning more about the war and actually what went on. I didn’t really know about the Mustard Gas factory prior to the play. So it’s really been educational in terms of being able to find out what it was like to live in that era and for women I suppose, and how uplifting it was for them to be able to work for the first time. Neil: Each of the performers developed their own character completely themselves. There was so much of them in the final play. Through a process of improvisation and discussion, we crafted the play scene by scene. Cassius: We’ve had to use quite a different approach to how we play the characters they’ve a completely different mind-set that you would have in that time, but also our approach to acting has been different as well. The way we started doing this we would improvise characters as if we were from that time. Kirsty: We’ve had to think, when we were given our characters. They were based on real events and things but ‘made-up’ people. Some of us ‘real’ people. You had to put yourself in the position of this person. There was no way that you could draw on previous experience because they are so different. Jack: My character, he doesn’t go to war. He decides to stay home because he is really against it. But, men of that time did not like that at all. So, playing a character who was really not liked by his fellow characters in the play was quite difficult to do. Grace: You really have to be considering what you are saying and what you are doing at all times and I think that is much more challenging as an actor. It has allowed us to really develop our skills that we wouldn’t necessarily have done in other plays. Neil: We wanted very much to tell the story to people around the city, in places that theatre doesn’t normally happen. [Music. Anticipation] “He went away, you see? He signed up. He was only just old enough, but he wanted to go, and I wanted him to go. So I waved him off. Cheering. Now he is blind. Mustard Gas they said. I just don’t know what is going to happen when he comes home. How it might have changed him. How he might not be the same Robert. My Robert. I just don’t know.” Neil: It was really important that we followed each character through because each character showed a different aspect of reaction to the war. “Is there anything I can do?” “I don’t think so… I’ve seen too much suffering to believe in a kind God anymore.” Neil: Most of the monologues were actually improvised, and then written by the characters who said them in the play. There is some remarkable, poignant, heartfelt pieces of performance in those monologues. “They said he was a deserter… but he wouldn’t desert would he? Not my Sam! It must have been some silly misunderstanding. Neil: I saw the play so many times, obviously directing it and working through rehearsal and then seeing it in performance, and there were certain moments that always sent a shiver up my spine. No matter how many times I saw it. “What was that?!” “Can you smell that?” “Get outta the way!” [Voices screaming. One voice left behind] [Terrified breathing. Gasping] [Piano music. Calm, reflective] Audience member: I’ve read every book on the First and Second World War and all the novels and not once have I ever, ever read about the Gas Girls. Audience member: We’re from Avonmouth and we actually had no idea that this was going on there. Audience member: I’m in tears now because of the wonderful portrayal. Audience member: You could see that you had researched it. I had never heard of the Gas Girls before. It was a big secret. Now the secret is out! Neil: Commiunity Theatre is a fantastic medium to use to tell this sort of historical story. What really worked was the fact that our performers were not trained actors but they are using their own natural responses to play the sort of character who… if they had been born a hundred years before… it would be them. Working class people from Bristol caught up in the machinery of war. Cherry: There are the sorts of things we need to understand because it’s part of what we are making decisions about today in our lives. It’s going on in the word. We shouldn’t think that we’re immune from it because it was a long time ago and, well, let’s just pray that it doesn’t happen again. [Music] “How would anyone know that there was a story to tell if I said nothing… So I told him, everything that happened. All about us Gas Girls. [Music]

One thought on “Gas Girls Documentary

  1. I had so much fun working on and performing Gas Girls loved working with everyone, I hope to work with them again on another show that tours 🙂

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