Not So ‘Idle Women’ Part 2: Navigating Greater Waters

In my first guest blog, I wrote about the background to The Idle Women: Recreating the Journey – a waterways tour of a show sharing the stories of the wartime women trainees. Young women who took on working a pair of 70’ boats with 50 tons of cargo from London to Birmingham, returning via the Coventry coalfields with coal for London.

Well… we’re well on our way, delivering our cargo of stories as we travel. We’ve done 207 miles, 204 locks, a few lift bridges, had some disasters and lots of laughs. We have a core team of five of us (two performers, two steerers and the tour manager) with other women joining in for a day and getting experience of steering a 70’ working boat and a sense of what it must have been like for the trainees. We’ve had a heatwave, downpours (usually in the middle of a show or at the start of a lock flight) and howling gales – always a challenge in narrow boats as they just go sideways!

So it seems like a good moment to think about what this kind of project means in terms of being a theatre maker.

Much of it is the same as producing any rural tour – juggling dates, working in a different (usually non theatre) space every night and depending very much on the efforts of the local promoter to attract an audience. And the fun of being part of a social event for the community as well as performing.

However, doing it by water with two boats takes it to a whole new level of logistical planning. We wanted to recreate the journey, follow the route the women worked – and turning boats round (especially when one of them is 70’) takes scheduling, and a thing called a winding hole (the sort that blows) – so potential venues had to be juggled into the right order as far as possible. Our route does involve covering some water twice as we return to London, which was a big help as we were able to offer two time periods to some venues and fit in with some other, local events. And we’ve done a few by road, either away from the tour (and booked for a fee rather than the ‘pay what you can’ we use in pub gardens) or to fit in with specific waterway events where we knew the show would be popular. The upside of having two boats is that we have been able to split them sometimes so that we can make the best use of the opportunities to share the stories. The final bit of the jigsaw is working it all out so that the volunteer crew and/or steerer changeover can find us/get home – so nearby stations are an important column in the spreadsheet.

Most of our shows have been ‘pay what you can’ as our aim has been to share the stories of the trainees as widely as possible. It makes budgeting challenging but we have travelled through areas of low engagement (as defined by ACE) and had good audiences, we also reckon a third to half of our audience are older men – often a group who don’t ‘do’ theatre so we feel we are earning our ACE grant! I’m not going to be specific about finance here but if anyone is planning something similar – by gypsy caravan, donkey cart, bicycle… get in touch and I’ll share our experience of being travelling players.

Steering and locking adds a lot of physical work, so we try to schedule to avoid having a show on top of a long boating day – not always possible. We did one at a café on the famous Hatton flight in Warwickshire after doing the aforesaid famous flight of 21 locks in the pouring rain. It reminded everyone just how the wartime trainees had to work through whatever the weather threw at them. There’s a video of that day here.

Sharing the stories doesn’t just have to be at the show; we talk to a lot of people at locks and on the towpath. Our flyer has a bit of background plus all the usual links so passers by can get the gist and follow it up if they want to. And everyone loves taking a peek into the cabin of a working boat (or at the engine). Some even then turn up at a show. My favourite moments have involved talking to young girls or teenagers, suggesting that the next time they need a history project no one else in their class will have thought of the Idle Women!

We have learned so much, and are grateful that we started last year with a modest ‘try out’ tour. As well as the practical stuff about organising and producing a bigger tour it provided us with a lot of valuable material to use in seeking funding: evidence for our audience/income predictions, images and quotes from the audience and the confidence to say ‘we can do this’!

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