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Image of Helen apparently floating in space, with the sun bright in the distance

Interview: Taking Flight with Helen

Nothing To Perform on bringing the story of Helen Sharman to the stage

The story of Helen Sharman, Britain’s first astronaut, is an incredible one. From working for Mars to becoming an astronaut, her story should be one we all know. And yet it’s probably safe to say it isn’t. 

Nothing To Perform (N2P), made up of writer Scott Howland, director Harriet Taylor, and a bunch of talented associate artists are now hoping to change that with their show Helen, which is coming to VAULT Festival soon (14 – 17 March, tickets here). And whilst our dream is that they somehow turn the Vault’s Cavern venue into a zero-gravity space and we can all float around the room is unlikely, we still wanted to know just what they do have planned. So, we caught up with the team to talk all things Helen.

A pleasure to meet you, shall we start with introductions?

We’re Harriet and Scott, co-ADs of N2P! We met at RADA in 2016 and formed Nothing to Perform, a theatre collective that produces new theatre/ film and hosts free monthly events called Networkshops. We also collaborate with London’s top film schools to provide paid work for actors. 

Harriet’s an American director/ producer who studied musical theatre at NYU Tisch and is currently working as a Staff Director at the Royal Opera House. Scott is a playwright/actor/movement director from the North East who has received commissions from The Royal Opera House and Battersea Arts Centre. He also is an Associate/Course Director with the National Youth Theatre. 

Helen is a show about Helen Sharman, what made her story appeal to you?

Well, first of all – the story. It’s just crazy, isn’t it? Equal parts inspiring, unbelievable and yet it has its sadness and certainly even elements of frustration towards the end. Secondly, it’s barely known at all which baffled us. Why doesn’t the world know this story? And then of course there’s the injustice of it all…

For years I (Scott) slept with an annotated copy of Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ on my bedside table. (Pretty sad, I know…) So I’ve always had a keen interest in science. I came from Newcastle to London to study at RADA. The course I did was an MA in Text and Performance in conjunction with Birkbeck University. It was while I was studying in the Birkbeck library that I discovered Helen’s story. Not only was she from the north (Sheffield) but she also came to London to study. She earned a PHD in Chemistry, and where did she study? Birkbeck University. That seemed like a bit of a sign. 

And you’ve gone for a very simple title in Helen, never considered calling it The Girl From Mars then?

The puns were strong with this one! But we like the ‘single word’ title, so we’re sticking to it as a bit of a calling card. So far we’ve got: ‘N2P’ (the name of our first play and company.) ‘Grip’ (our second play) ‘Helen’ (third play), ‘Cold’ (a TV pilot we’ve produced)and ‘Nacht’ is our latest, an opera commissioned by The Royal Opera House. 

There seems a lot to tell about Helen, so what do you focus on?

Helen is somewhere between Interstellar and your favourite Simon Stephens play – otherworldly and yet down to earth. It’s pacy and it packs a punch, it covers legacy and making a mark on the world, but it’s ultimately about family and figuring out what really matters. The play is a dramatization of Helen’s life leading up to hearing that fateful advert – ‘Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary.’ Because before she was a national hero, Helen was just a young lass finding her way in life. And that describes a lot of people we know!

Considering she was our country’s first astronaut, why do you feel she has never become the household name in a similar way that Tim Peakes has?

Helen Sharman was largely written out of history when the UK Space Agency called Tim Peake “the UK’s first official astronaut.” They attribute this to the fact that Helen’s mission was funded by the Soviet Union space programme – the UK didn’t even have one until 2010. The semantics of this never sat well with us, though. She was the first Briton in space full stop. And we think she deserves credit for boldly going where no British people had gone before. 

The show is described as using physical theatre, which does suggest lots of floating around in the air considering the astronaut theme, but without the budget required, what do you really have planned instead?

In Helen a sense of weightlessness is created using lifts, slow motion, lighting and sound effects. We use these tools and the ‘zero gravity’ of her cosmonaut training as a metaphor for the moments when Helen is anxious, or nervous. When things are spiralling out of her control, items (and people!) begin to escape earth’s gravity. I think we’ve all felt that way at times; temporarily ungrounded, or like we aren’t tethered to reality when our thoughts run away with us. The piece shows how, over time, Helen is able to embrace her thoughts and emotions and become more mindful.

 As for the promised Northern humour, how does that translate to American ears then?

Well there were a few ‘translations’ required at first, but it ultimately lands really well. It’s friendly and full of quips and idioms but we’ve got it to a place where it can be understood and enjoyed by anyone. This is the third time we’ve been ready to perform this piece as it was cancelled twice due to covid! And it’s gone through a rigorous edit each time, so now we’ve really honed it.  

Have you reached out to Helen Sharman to let her know you’re making her a star of your show?

You’re not going to believe this, but one winter’s day between lockdowns we literally ran into Helen Sharman herself! She was out for a jog along the river and after a moment of being completely starstruck (excuse the pun) we regained our composure for long enough to tell her all about the piece that we were creating and that against the odds, we’d managed to get hold of a rare and now discontinued copy of her autobiography. We exchanged details and she has read the piece and wishes us all the best with it, and we’re still in touch! We weren’t massive believers in fate before, but we’re having to rethink some things in light of these events! 

The show is commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, how did you get involved with them? And how much has that helped you in getting the show to the stage?

The piece was originally commissioned for BAC’s ‘Wild Times’ season during COVID as a VR film. We saw that they were looking for groups to work with on developing digital performance and we applied! We had already been ruminating on the idea of Helen, even R&D’ing it with N2P associates, but the piece wasn’t finished because we had day jobs! The commission allowed us the time to get it done. Tarek (Iskander, BAC’s Artistic Director) and the team at BAC were so patient and supportive; the play certainly wouldn’t be where it is today without them. 

Since then, as the live version of the play has developed, Battersea Arts Centre have continued to be amazing. They’ve even agreed to extend their support to this VAULT Festival outing, so it’s still a BAC production at heart!

Thanks to Scott and Harriet for finding time to chat. You can catch Helen when it plays at VAULT Festival between 14 and 17 March, 6.40pm each day. Further informtion and tickets available here.

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