Anna Reynolds and Géhane Strehler: An interview with the writer of and actress in Learning to Fly
Learning to Fly is the first in a series of films launched by the Pursued by a Bear theatre company as part of the University of Hertfordshire’s Festival of Ideas Reimagined. Inspired by the play Nothing on Earth, that was put on pause following the Covid-19 crisis, renowned writer Anna Reynolds and actress Géhane Strehler talk to us about the inspiration behind this historical and fascinating play, how it all came together and what it was like preparing to perform as an intrepid, unsung heroine.
When the tour of your play, Nothing on Earth, was postponed due to the pandemic, how did you go about adapting it and reworking it for a new kind of audience?
Anna Reynolds: Obviously it was disappointing not to be able to see the play produced this autumn, but the silver lining (you have to find one) was to have the chance to write a diverse range of short plays. So, most of the women featured aren’t the same ones as in Nothing on Earth, but they share lots of the same characteristics – courage, optimism, an ability to be single-minded and to try to transcend what people think about you. They were also all great risk-takers in their own ways, and that appealed. I hope it will draw audiences into the lives of unsung heroines and eventually, back to Nothing on Earth when it can be performed live on stage.
What inspired you to write the first film in the series of your online plays, Learning to Fly?
AR: I’ve long been fascinated by the stories of the so-called ATA girls who flew warplanes from de Havilland airfield in Hatfield (pretty much where the University of Hertfordshire, who commissioned the film, is now located) to different airbases in England, ready for the RAF pilots to fly into combat in WWII. They were intrepid, fearless, intensely practical and by all accounts, loved their job, even though it was for the war effort…
How did you get involved with this project?
Géhane Strehler: Initially I was asked to do some R&D on Anna’s original play Nothing on Earth, which featured the stories of real Hertfordshire Heroines and took place at the Trestle Theatre in St Albans. It then seemed fitting, being a Hertfordshire-bred actor, to play the protagonist in the stage production. When the tour was cancelled, Pursued by a Bear then thought to ask me to explore the lives of other historical Hertfordshire heroines – the ATA girls based in Hatfield – and tape Anna’s monologue during lockdown.
Was it interesting to learn about the history and gender dynamics of the ATA girls? How did you prepare for the role?
GS: Yes, it was immensely fascinating discovering what these brilliant ladies were really up against in every aspect. My research led me to uncover some wonderful stories about my own grandparents who were both stationed at an airbase in Mildenhall. My admiration, and awe really, of the ATA girls grew with each new discovery… as I read extensively on the core eight ladies based at Hatfield. That was my initial starting point in preparation for the character. I paid particular attention to their background and history in aviation, and how they got to take to the skies in the first place. I watched several videos and interviews with other female aviators such as Amy Johnson to get a sense of their adventurous spirit and style of speaking that is so reminiscent of that era. I also had great fun scouring magazines of the time for fashion, hair and make-up tips – especially shades of lipstick!
Having performed both on stage and on-screen, which do you prefer?
GS: It’s impossible to have a preference in my opinion. Each have their own demands on a performer in terms of skillset, technique and approach, but both are avenues to explore the human character, human mind and human heart, our world and our navigation through it.
Will each of your six short plays still be centred on historical, local and inspirational women like Nothing on Earth was?
AR: Some of the plays are based on women with a local connection, some are not so local – but they are all going to focus on the inspirational, real stories of pioneering women in history; some are more contemporary than others.
Would you ever be tempted to perform the pieces yourself or do you have actors in mind for each of your plays to bring them to life?
AR: I’m not a performer, so no! And luckily the very talented and experienced team of director Rosamunde Hutt, film editor Grant Watson, composer Helen Chadwick and the wonderful performers we’re working with are doing a fantastic job of bringing these stories to life.
In terms of performance restrictions, how do you feel being in an industry which has been so utterly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?
GS: I think that the pandemic has proved one thing: art will always prevail. People have been incredibly adaptive, inventive and creative in the most extraordinary ways and taken to the skies when everything was seemingly grounded. Necessity is indeed the mother of all invention, just as the war effort paved the way to women pilots being accepted into the RAF. Lockdown has shown us that art is necessary, essential and vital – and in the same way, mother nature will always find a way, artistic expression, no matter how seemingly limited or curtailed, is inevitable and indomitable.
What do you hope audiences will take away from your new series of plays?
AR: Well, I hope they’ll enjoy the stories, be entertained by the incredible amount of period detail that each performer has brought to the filming process and be as intrigued as I was to find out more about these real lives. They’re all short enough to enjoy in a sneaky break…
What do you like to do when you are away from writing?
AR: Bike rides across the lovely Hertfordshire countryside, finding as many new routes as possible, and dog walks – we’re just about to get a puppy so we’ve been practicing with a borrowed dog!
What do you like to do when you are away from performing?
GS: Outside of performing I’m a public speaking coach, so as “The Oratist Artist” I help people perfect presentations/pitches, deliver wedding/memorial speeches and assist writers/poets to present their own writing. Whether performing or public speaking, it’s all about words, words, words – and bringing them to life!
Thank you so much for speaking to us!
To watch Nothing on Earth: Shorts visit Pursued by a Bear’s website here.
For more information on the Festival of Ideas Reimagined visit their website here.
Watch Learning to Fly here: