Working from experience: Our Glass House

The day Evie told me about her idea (to stage a performance about Domestic Violence in a house) we were in a car with her son taking him to the sea for the first time. Although we were friends, I’d never told her about my past. My way of dealing with the abuse my family suffered was to pretend it never happened and just carry on. I grew up feeling deeply ashamed of what was going on in our house, I never really told anyone because as a kid I just wanted to be from a normal family.

When she told me about the abuse her neighbour had suffered it all came flooding back. I told her about the abuse we suffered at the hands of my mothers second husband, how as a family we had to escape to a refuge and what it felt like to be a child in a house continuously under threat. I admitted to her about my own adult relationships how I had fallen for someone who in turn had became abusive towards me and how I had managed to escape and turn my life around.

From early on we both knew that ‘Our Glass House’ would have to be based on interviews with people who had experienced domestic abuse. Such a complex and taboo subject could only be defined by the people who knew first hand the tactics and implications of living under the pressure of a perpetrator.

The first person we interviewed was my mum. It felt safe to start with someone we knew and trusted. As mother and daughter we were always very open about what was going on in our house, our relationship has always been incredibly strong and through the years we’d look after each other through the difficult times. It wasn’t strange to hear her answer the questions we’d prepared, I knew most of the answers as well as her. What it did help me to understand was the reasons for some of the decisions that she had made.

We got in contact with a charity called Survive, and were lucky enough to meet an incredible group of women that were happy to share there experiences. Each person different from the next with only too familiar stories of what had happened to them at the hands of partners. What came across most of all from meeting these women was there incredible sense of courage and dignity. What resonated the most was that nearly all of them had left to protect their children. What amazed me the most was how many people we knew that began to step forward to share their experiences. It felt mad that I should be so ashamed of my past especially as it seemed to happen to so many people. In the end I asked Evie to interview me about my past relationship, it felt hard knowing her and having to bring up what I’d rather forget. It was hard to get the words out; a lot of what I wanted to say wouldn’t come. I felt relieved to get some of it out, it was good to be able to say to myself ‘ok, it did happen and it could happen to any one of us, you’re not an idiot or weak because it happened, you’re just a normal person’.

We knew we had to stay true to the people we interviewed and their stories. From day one of our rehearsals we used them to develop the set, characters and action of the show. Using a technique called verbatim, the actors listened to the interviews in headphones at the same time as repeating what that person was speaking word for word. It was incredible to watch our research; my mum’s voice come out through another women’s mouth and it reinforced my belief that this can happen to absolutely anyone. For the actors it was invaluable, hearing the matter of fact way that the survivors spoke about the abuse they had suffered. This tone of delivery would be the way that the actors would deliver the performance.

I have to admit I did find it difficult at times creating something that was so personal to my own life. Coming into the house the show was staged in and creating that tension that I remembered so well from growing up. Working with the child that my story had been worked into and hearing my mums words resonate through the house. I also found it cathartic, watching the world we created from all these experiences come to life and knowing that it would help people understand a topic that was so taboo.

Going to Edinburgh with the show was when it finally became clear to us that this was more than just a performance. It was a campaign to get communities talking and officials taking notice. When the chief of Scottish Police came to the show, it felt like things had the potential of change. When I was young it felt like the Police had no power to do anything, they would come, take him away and he’d be back in the house in the morning, but in Edinburgh they seemed to take domestic abuse as a serious crime, so much so that a case would be classed as murder prevention. This was a real breakthrough for me, it wasn’t that long ago that Joanna Williams a women from St. Mellons, the estate I grew up in Cardiff, was murdered by an ex partner after the Police had failed her.

Watching the show grow, adapting to each community and meeting people who have had similar experiences along the way has made me realise that when you experience Domestic Abuse the best thing to do is to tell someone. When you experience domestic abuse you literally feel as if the world outside is a million miles away, I remember feeling so isolated from my friends and family and that became as much as a problem as the abuse itself. At the Edinburgh Fringe last year, when me Evie and Aisha received a Special Commendation Amnesty Award I remember thinking to myself, five years ago I would never imagine myself making theatre again, let alone receiving an award.

Our Glass House has made me a stronger person. It empowered me to have the strength to tell my story and share the experiences of many others. What I would say to other theatre makers is that every one of us has a story to tell, so be brave and create dangerously. Theatre is a powerful tool; don’t be afraid to use it.