Resident Artist Nell Hardy chats to us about her work

Resident Artist Nell Hardy chats to us about her work

Nell Hardy is a resident artist with us at Tramshed, and she's been developing her piece NoMad with us since the spring. We caught up with her about her work, her practice, her inspirations and more.

Introducuce us to you and your work. 

I have been acting professionally for four years. I trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, but shortly before my class went into preparation for industry showcases and productions I suffered a nervous breakdown, resulting from uncovered memories of childhood abuse. At first I was able to suspend my studies, but approaching my family about my memories led to my father making me homeless, and so when it came time for me to go back to Central I was still displaced and had no money to live on, let alone pay course fees, so I lost my place. 

I started going to auditions as soon as I was set up in emergency accommodation, two years after my initial collapse. At the same time, I approached Jacksons Lane, a theatre and community arts venue in Haringey, and with them set up LAUNCH, a young theatre company of 16-25 year olds. After three successful years taking part in the National Theatre's 'Connections' festival, we now focus on devising and collaborative ways of unlocking each other's creative voices. I also have ten years' experience working with people of all ages with learning and communication difficulties in and out of theatrical settings. 

I have mainly performed in theatre, in projects that have ranged from Shakespeare to adapted fairytales and myths to new writing to devised movement-based work. In all of the above, I feel most at home in projects where each artist is a crucial part of the creation of the piece as well as the delivery of it - where there is a unity of purpose, investment and ownership. So it feels very natural now to be writing, directing and performing all at the same time. 

What inspires you to make performance work? 

Probably the most significant answer to that is one I can't entirely explain: need. Even when I was homeless, I was getting involved in projects, forming creative collaborations. I was in inpatient psychiatric care for nineteen months, for the first year of which I wrote a poem and a song every single day, and during the rest of which I wrote my first play. Sometimes I reach the point of exhaustion and determine to take a break - but that's often when new ideas come to me and it isn't long until I'm hard at work on them. It's just who I am. 

I'm sure my experiences in my early twenties defined my motivation in my work creating opportunities for young people. I owe a lot to my drama school training, but there are huge problems across the board with pastoral responsibility. Not everyone goes to drama school with buried childhood trauma, what happened to me was an extreme case - but training lays you completely bare, and criticises who you are at your very core, without any real psychological interventions or even safety nets. I don't think I know anyone who didn't come out jaded, or hating themselves a bit - when really, young theatre makers need to learn to love themselves and what they individually have to offer. I want to help young people find that and start developing skills to harness and communicate that, so then they can go into their careers or into official training with open hearts and minds, but a strong sense of their unique value underlying that. That's how imaginations blossom, that's how unheard stories, unheard voices, come to life. 

And unheard stories, unheard voices, also guide me in all of my performance work. I believe that there are still thousands of unheard voices inside every classical role, in every fairytale or mythical character, and that's why we keep doing the same plays again and again. But it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to imitate the 'greats' of performance history, then performance stops being empathetic and becomes an intellectual exercise - and a highly exclusive one at that. And with new work, it is so important to approach each story with bare humanity at its core so we don't end up presenting depravity in a way privilege can't identify with, or vice versa. Theatre is the best artistic tool there is for making the world a better place because it has the power to put people together in one space who would never have believed they had anything in common, and to make them share an experience that touches their heart, soul, lungs, kidneys, whatever, in a similar way. Then they share a root, and become better able to access some of the world from each other’s angles. Performers are such vital catalysts for empathy and integrity, and that's what I want to be. 

What were you working on in residency at the Tramshed? 

I was working on NoMad, my solo show inspired by my experiences of homelessness, mental illness, and the relationship between the two. On the one hand, I'm aiming for as pure as possible a reflection of some of what I experienced, the funny bits as well as the awful bits, and especially the so-awful-it's-funny bits, so the human experience is as authentic and accessible as possible. On the other, I want to spark questions about who gets to decide who is 'mad' and who isn't, how we decide one perception of reality is more valid than another, how to separate circumstance from symptom to treat each appropriately, and to raise awareness of the long-term trauma left from the physical and psychological state that is homelessness. 

What was the future of the project before COVID-19 / what would be your ideal future for the project now? 

I had been in touch with a number of theatres, producers, and similar to invite them to the showing at CHARGED, hoping to form some collaborations and make some joint fundraising efforts. I had also been in touch with some homelessness charities and was looking to approach young mental health groups, to gauge if there would be interest in creating special opportunities for their beneficiaries: free tickets, workshops, other things they thought would be appreciated. Ideally I would have wanted to get into a position where I could employ a full production team, get other creatives on board and be able to pay them adequately for their work, find a venue or several venues to host the show, and reach out to the associated communities whose stories also need to be heard and empower them to continue the conversation about their similar circumstances that I am starting. 

It is so hard to know what the theatre industry will look like at the other end of this. Inevitable shortage of funding and likely closures of some venues stand against me, like everyone else. But what I hope will stand in my favour is that the show is at its core about the fear of being poisonous to those closest to you - which everyone will identify with so much more and with so much immediacy now! I don’t think people will want to tell lockdown stories immediately, but we will be aching for stories that explore the emotional residue of isolation, and we will be that much more alert to the significance of ‘home’ and the needs of those without it - so hopefully it will be an emotionally potent time to give the story life. The show can also be done with next to nothing and is very transportable - so, beyond paying a creative team, the costs will not be huge and it can go wherever it is wanted! 

Tell us a bit about the residency you did at Tramshed before we had to close our doors. 

I came in with a script and a basic design/directorial ‘concept’, and ploughed through it as I would any piece in any rehearsal period. The difference was that the vast majority of the time, I was the only one in the room! Since the piece is so personal, it was valuable to be able to take that initial process at my own pace and to realize my own vision in its purest form. But I also had just enough money to pay a director I have worked with since I was sixteen, who is also very personally close to me and helped me through my experiences at the time, for one day, and also during the course of it performed once for Jeremy and once for Andre. They all had very different things to say - which was great, because it gave me an insight into a range of possible reactions and opinions. They opened my mind to possibilities for future development that I had not thought possible before, and made me more ambitious for the future of the piece in many ways. 

The next steps would have been having some initial sound and lighting design conversations, possibly more work with an outside director, and doing a work-in-progress performance with Q&A for one of Tramshed’s youth groups. I was especially sad that the last one was not able to happen! But the time out has given me the opportunity to reflect more on the piece and what it needs, so hopefully the eventual product will be richer in some ways for it. 


What tips/knowledge would you share with our youth theatre students who want to start their careers as artists? 

This is a very uncertain time for the arts, and I’m sure many aspiring young artists are feeling a bit hopeless right now. The bad and good news is - the most established artists out there are feeling exactly the same way! Our industries will be unrecognisable on the other side and will need to be rebuilt - which is daunting, but is also an opportunity. People who have struggled, despite the recent enormous efforts that the arts have been making to welcome new voices, to find a way into careers that were built a long time ago around elitism and privilege - they can now be part of that rebuilding. So you can be thinking now not about how to break into something existing, how to ‘mold’ yourself into what the industry might accept - but about what is really important to you as an artist, what you want your industry to look like and what part you can play in making that happen. 

Learn as much from you can from as many practitioners as you can, and remember that nobody has the ‘right’ answer and all instructions are offers rather than rules. Try everything wholeheartedly, at least a couple of times, to give it a proper chance - but if it doesn’t work for you, find something else that does. If you are going into theatre, watch as much of it as you can, and remember that theatre is what happens when someone watches someone else from the same time and place - so that could be a theatre, or a bus, or a street. When we are allowed, go for long walks and observe. Take advantage of all the filmed performances we can watch now, but remember that theatre is live, and interrogate for yourself what live experiences give you that recorded ones do not. 

Above all, find out something else that you really care about that isn’t directly related to a career in the arts. That way, you have a purpose beyond your own practice, keeping you constantly connected to your humanity and your true reasons for needing to make art. It can also lead to satisfying side jobs to help you support yourself financially without losing your soul - which, trust me, you will need to do. 

It’s hard, but if it’s the right thing for you it’s something that will constantly come back to you, no matter what stands in your way. You will find out quite quickly if you really have to be an artist. On your way to that realisation, let me tell you that it’s not a choice, it’s a diagnosis. So don’t let anyone tell you you ‘can’t’ do it - because the reality is, you may find out you can’t not do it! 

Finally, it’s worth saying that ‘doing it’ will look different for different people. It could happen on a stage, in a playing field, in a medical centre, in a classroom, with an audience of millions, of hundreds, of seven, of one. So you don’t have to chain yourself to anyone else’s description of what it is to be a successful artist. When you’re doing it, you’ll know - and the only person you have to ‘impress’ with your career is you. 

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