|Dorothy Lawrence (left) & the cast of Lilies|
Brief Encounter With ... Land Girl Dorothy Lawrence
Date: 14 June 2010
Dorothy Lawrence plays Margie in Lilies on the Land, which is currently playing at the Arts Theatre.
The play charts the personal journeys of four women who signed up for the Women’s Land Army during World War Two. The piece is devised by The Lions part company based on hundreds of letters and extensive interviews with real Land Girls who signed up to work long hours on rural farms and “Dig for Victory” as part of the war effort.
How did the idea for Lilies on the Land come about?
The Lions part, the company who developed Lilies, were searching for a sister play to complement Christopher Fry's Sleep of Prisoners. This has an entirely male cast and is set in WW2. We wanted to create a companion piece for the female members of the company; one that gave voice to the wartime experience of women. Frequently the decisions made within the Lions part are 'actor led' and Lilies was no exception. We placed an open letter in SAGA Magazine entitled, "Calling All Land Girls".
What was the response to the advert?
The response was overwhelming. Over 140 letters, memoirs, photographs, poems, songs, drawings, memorabilia flooded through the Lions part letter box. Handwritten letters, some of them as long as 20 sides of A4 from women from all walks of life. We even received responses from America, Canada and Australia. It took us three full days to read them out loud to each other. We laughed, we cried and we felt a huge responsibility to translate what we had read into a lasting piece of theatre, namely a script.
How many real land girls' stories are included in the show?
Its difficult to say. We wrote to some of the Land girls who had contacted us and asked to meet them. We held a workshop with them at a farming museum in Kent and also travelled around the country to interview them in their homes. The four characters in the play are based on the women we met.
Can you tell us a little about the devising process?
It took us a month to translate the letters into a full-scale theatre production. We photocopied the letters and then cut them up. We had huge rolls of wall-paper, each one representing a theme. There was a roll for pig stories, another for cows, one for farmers, one for bombs, love, dances, friendships and so it went on. The play was built around one farming year, but covered seven years of the war. The time-line is complex. We worked the play through on themes and selected stories that best suited the characters we were creating from those stuck on the wallpaper. There are four storytelling characters in the play: the cockney girl, the northern girl, the posh girl and blue stocking and then there are all the characters who appear in the girls' stories.
Your character is Margie: can you tell us a bit about how you see her?
Margie was in her 70's when I met her. She lives in Stokesley in North Yorkshire and I travelled from London to interview her in her home. She's small in height and full of youthful energy. What struck me about her was her positive life-affirming enthusiasm for life and child-like openness, qualities that had not been softened with age. She had a North East accent. I asked her questions about her experiences and recorded her responses on a dictaphone. However, what was most rewarding was the fact that she got up from her seat and basically acted out her stories for me. This is a feature I use in the show. Each character has their own way of storytelling and Margie's is colourful, energetic and physical. Margie is a lady with a histrionic imagination and a flair for comedy and clowning. She's also the most vulnerable and naive of the four characters in Lilies, which serves as a useful dramatic conceit.
The show toured England initially; what was the audience reception like?
Staggering. It played to 96% capacity. Ladies came in their droves, bringing their sons, daughters and grandchildren and said "this it what I did in the war". The play sold itself through the subject matter. The first national tour was in 2003 and I produced it. The initial booking period was six weeks of one-nighters, but there was so much demand we decided to tour in the autumn again for a month. We took it all over and Margie came to see it in Darlington.
How has the script changed over the years?
We've redeveloped it several times. The script has not changed an awful lot but the playing style has. We have physicalised it much more this time round and since we're in the West End in one space, we felt the need for a set. This was a luxury we could not afford before and touring also placed its limits on the design potential. We've taken on the challenge of performing the different characters in one anothers' stories. Act II is darker than Act I and war is more prevalent than it was before.
How long has it taken to get this production on at the Arts?
We began discussions in 2005 (we had a different production company involved at that point). However the Arts Theatre closed at very short notice in 2005 due to fire regulations, just at the time we were looking to take the play there and it has taken since then to realise our ambition. Fresh Glory is a fairly new production company and we're delighted they have put their faith and resources into Lilies.
Are 'your' land girls still around? Did any make it to the press night?
I'm not sure how many were at press night, though Eve Diet, the inspiration for the character Poppy, was there. Margie is still alive, but too frail to travel to London. Sadly many of the ladies have died since the play was originally developed in 2001. On Saturday 12 June, I came down from the show and was introduced in the theatre foyer to an ex Land Girl, whose family had brought her to the show for her 84th birthday. She said is was the best birthday present she had ever had.
What was the Arts press night reception like?
It was fabulous. The show was sold out, the theatre was decorated with bunting, sandbags and huge crosses on the windows, just as it would have been during the war. Guests were given free drinks with a ration ticket and there were a lot of people there in 1940's costume. It was very atmospheric and exciting, Clearly it involved a lot of hard work by Fresh Glory, Dewynters and Target Live. So thank you to them for their imagination and commitment.
What is it about the play that makes it so special for you?
Its a beautiful piece of theatre and it is all true. The women were given little credit for feeding the nation during the war years. Two out of every three meals was provided by these courageous girls during seven years of war. They were badly paid and it was not until 2000 that they were invited to pay their respects at the cenotaph. It was in 2008 that they were awarded commemorative medals. By this point there were only 20,000 of the 250,000 women left alive.
But the women we met were the inspiration for Lilies on the Land. At the heart of which is a celebration of that particular quality in some of us that triumphs in adversity, that strives without expectation of reward, and that discovers the joy of living purely by chance.
I am so proud that Nick Hern Books has decided to publish the script. That is a true achievement for the Lions part and the Land Girls.
Lilies on the Land, which also stars Rosalind Cressy, Sarah Finch and Kali Peacock, continues at the Arts Theatre until 17 July 2010.