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  • Anita Sullivan

Ropewalk House: making an impossible building

Ropewalk House began with a dream:

..I was an aerialist on a rope, the ceiling started to pull away and I was ripped upwards into infinity. I woke screaming. And with an idea...

Researching rope, I discovered the Victorian ropewalk at Chatham Historic Docks. The building's a quarter of a mile long, with beams gutted from ships sailing 300 years ago. The Victorian machines are still working today, with a sound like a marching army, a growling beast. Then there were the ropewalk ghosts, tales well told by the historic guides. All of this research is woven into the text and sound design. Thank you to Chatham for inspiration.

The ropewalk at Chatham is a room with a vanishing-point. And ghosts.

Telling tales led me to a story about a site-specific theatre company exploring the Minotaur myth in a building that reshaped to the performers' desires and fears. What could go wrong??

Producer Joby Waldman marshaled Shunt co-creators Nigel Barratt, and Hannah Ringham, and sound designer Ben Ringham. A research day landed the characters and set a working method for incorporating improvisation into a scripted drama.

To record the infinite building, we went to The Fish Factory in Dollis Hill, London.

The Fish Factory is something of a labyrinth itself. It doesn't have a ropewalk, a room of roots, a mirror-pool, or cave of tapestries. But it does have a booth, confusing stairs, a drum room, a mezzanine, and lots of semi-industrial nooks and crannies. A wealth of acoustics.

We used this space as a location, with Alisdair McGregor tracking dynamic scenes with a handheld mic. This is quite a filmic way of working. Some fancy footwork is required to follow a moving actor... silently.

'Ropewalk House' is all about opening doors that should stay shut, walls that move and impossible architecture. Joby choreographed scenes that transition from one acoustic space to another.

Rob Heaps had the most challenging physical performance, as the aerialist. This involved 'upside-down' acting. It looks mad, but you can hear the circus in his breathing, honest.

At the heart of every story is a still, quiet moment of profound change. For that moment we retreated to the low-roofed booth, and recorded with a static mic. We also used it for the really loud stuff, where characters could yell, scream or sing without the sound bouncing off the walls. Gbemisola Ikumelo (below) has the most extraordinary voice, as an actor and a singer. 'Do it like a cat on heat'. 'Make it more music-theatre'. No problem.

The outer corridor (below) became the haunted ropewalk. We recorded some impro sections here, listening with the characters... to the fear. 'Ropewalk House' was an ambitious record but everyone got out alive. I went back at the Fish Factory two weeks later to record the Pan Horror series. We'd left a few ropewalk ghosts behind.

Brave explorers L to R: Maddie Searle (PA) Joby Waldman (director) Carl Prekopp (Mike), Nigel Barratt (Jarek), me, Gbemisola Ikumelo (Nell), Hannah Ringham (Sarah), Rob Heaps (Gabe) and Alisdair McGregor (sound).

All photos taken by the company, mostly Joby and Rob. Used with kind permission.


'Ropewalk House' first broadcast January 13th 2019

Produced by Joby Waldman

A Reduced Listening production for BBC Radio 3


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