Sheila Hill on HIM

In an article originally published by Disability Arts and shared here with kind permission, Colin Hambrook interviews writer/theatre-maker and installation-artist Sheila Hill to find out about her collaboration with actor Tim Barlow on HIM, a commissioned piece showing this weekend as part of Unlimited Festival at Glasgow's Tramway and in October at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre as part of Luminate festival.

Actor Tim Barlow stars in HIM. Photo by Hugo Glendenning
Actor Tim Barlow stars in HIM - photo by Hugo Glendenning

My relationship with Tim began 20 years ago when we were working on a show called Crocodile Looking at Birds at the Lyric Hammersmith. It was a piece about fragility and how our bodies shape our lives. The show contained a moment when Tim had to just sit in a chair and not move. And he was wonderful. If I had a directors note it would be to ask Tim to move less. He has a presence that is naturally engaging and comes through in stillness. In fact it was the first time of meeting Hugo Glendinning, whose photographic portraits of Tim, made for that show, have been a foundation block of the construction of HIM and the video pieces that are an integral part of the show.

I wanted the live performance, but also the focus and space and fine details that a film offers.- Sheila Hil

I made a joke then that the next show Tim and I would do together he would be lying in bed not able to move at all and all the action would simply focus on his eyes. The idea was that you’d see him in bed with a live motion camera recording the emotions on his face played on a screen above him on stage. And that’s the work we’ve been talking about one way and another over a period of 20 years.

I first applied for an Unlimited research and development award through Artsadmin and Shape initially in 2014 because I thought it would be a good fit, mainly because Tim is deaf and it’s a work that in many ways follows on from other pieces of autobiographical work that Tim has done.

He made My Army Parts I and II with Complicite back in the late 1980s / early 90s and in 2007 he did a show called Earfull about going deaf and getting a cochlear implant. Underneath it all Tim is a serious actor – but he has been given few chances to really explore that side of his artistic talent. His natural performance mode tends to be gestural and entertaining, but I felt there were other qualities to his performance he’s rarely been given the opportunity to expand on.

Tim has a substantial C.V. for film and theatre, but because on set and in rehearsal he has often been excluded from the detail of everyday ongoing conversations that people have, certainly before the cochlear implant, he has often opted for a comic take on what's happening and the subtlety of his presence as an actor will get overlooked.

I wanted to somehow get beyond that and to give him a role that was substantial; to give him his own work, where he didn’t have to fit in as a comedy or character part. Originally the idea for HIM came from something Tim said about how it’s very difficult to achieve a subtlety in theatre because you’re always playing to the back of the circle. It’s hard for theatre to achieve intimacy because it’s viewed from further away. So HIM was conceived as a theatre-work with a film element that made that shift.

I wanted the live performance, but also the focus and space and fine details that a film offers. What I love about film installation in a gallery setting is the subtlety you can achieve with it, the fineness and the quietness. When you’re right up close audiences will stop and give attention to a slow pace of movement much more readily. It’s a big leap to achieve that sense of contemplation within a theatre setting.

When we were doing some work on the original script we filmed it as an account of the R&D. We were in the process of trying out some early ideas of using a screen to tell the stories Tim wanted to tell. Various aspects of the films got shown at Summerhall in Edinburgh as part of Shape and Artsadmin’s Unlimited showcase and then again as part of the Southbank Centre’s Being a Man Festival. These R&D pieces were received well, but HIM was always intended as Art meets Theatre.

However, within that dynamic there is a tension, which we’ve had to straddle in the process of mixing the warmth and engagement of theatre with the beauty and precision of art.

HIM provides a solid narrative that mirrors the kinds of story about his life that Tim has told in the past. But the film brings in a meditative element. If I were to sum HIM up I would say it’s a work about watching and stillness – and because Tim is 80 that introduces the idea of ageing.

For Tim, HIM was always much more about having an opportunity to talk about acting and theatre and the life that he’s had. He’s very engaging on stage and is a great storyteller but he also brings in a poetic element. Tim talks about how the older you get the more the landscape of your life opens up behind you. That echoes my sense of wanting to achieve a stillness and peace in directing this work, to create a chance for silence and focus that is too often missing from contemporary life.

HIM was supported by Unlimited (administered by Shape and Artsadmin), with funding from Arts Council England, and additional support from Luminate. HIM will perform as part of Luminate Festival on 20, 21 and 22 October at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, see the Luminate website for ticket information.

Unlimited Festival runs at Glasgow Tramway 15-25 September. HIM runs this weekend with integrated live captioning on Saturday 17 September and audio described on Sunday 18 September.

This article was published on 16 Sep 2016