Introducing ‘A Giant on the Bridge’

Jo Collinson Scott / 19 Jun 2020

‘A Giant on the Bridge’ is a live show that has been developed as part of the ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home’ project, and is now awaiting a future time when it can be given a live performance.

‘Giant’, as we’ve come to call it for short, is different than our previous showcase concerts in that it is a ‘gig with stories’. This means that as well as being a performance of some of the songs created as part of the project, it also has a sense of narrative that is woven throughout the piece and develops through stories, monologues and poems that are presented between the songs.

The initial idea for this format came from thinking about how audiences were responding to previous shows. We were finding that when audience members described aspects of Distant Voices show that were interesting or challenging or affecting, they frequently spoke about the introductions that were given to the songs as much as the songs themselves. This was the spoken part before the music began, where artists often presented the story or the words of the co-writer of the song. It seemed to us then, that the introductions to the songs were crucially important. For this reason, we decided that we wanted to make a show that expanded on these introductions and gave what came between the songs as much of a focus as there was on the songs themselves.

We had two main aims when we developed the show – the first was to make something that drew on and represented themes, repeated topics, ‘resonant places’ from across the 3 years of the project and all of its very different strands. To do this, we chose key songs that were created as part of the research across different contexts and expanded out from them to generate the ‘story’ material.

For example, ‘Everything’s Spherical’ was a song created in HMP Castle Huntly and recorded for the ‘Looking at Colours Again’ EP. It contained an intriguing invitation to the listener to, ‘come stand on this bridge and be a giant, come stand on this bridge and be Goliath’. We realised that the striking image of a giant standing on a bridge connected with multiple themes and images from across the project, and came to be the central image of the show. The bridge represents the strange neither-here-nor-there space we’ve learned there is between prison and return (or in prison itself), a place of difficult transition. But the bridge also represents the kind of structure that needs to be built if people with very different perspectives and experiences are to reach each other and communicate. ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home’ seeks to bring those differing perspectives together. The giant figure seemed to speak to the need for bravery of people leaving prison, their potential for heroism, but also to how super-visible and over-large they tend to feel as they make the transition to outside life – not least because of being monitored and constantly scrutinised or judged. Giants are also often feared, vilified or seen as monsters in fairy tales (often mistakenly) which also speaks to some media representation of those returning home after punishment or the stigma they face. Finally, for family members and communities who receive those coming home after punishment, particularly people who have been harmed by crime, the return of someone who was removed by the criminal justice system can seem like a looming, daunting prospect. And the giant on the bridge speaks to that experience too.

So, we began to expand on images such as these to create ‘stories’ and sometimes new songs, that would link our key songs together and draw out their connections. Our key songs were chosen from a collection of over 170 that were written in ‘Vox sessions’ in a variety of prison and community justice contexts, as well as in our ‘core group’ and Unbound meetings. We also incorporated what was said in interviews with researchers, by audience members at shows, as well as little moments, experiences, or notable instances that our team picked up or highlighted along the way. (We created two new methods of creating things as research, called “TREEs” and “Pebbles” that fed into the process too. You can read more about those in a future blog post.)

Our second aim was to present something that spoke of the really wide variety of perspectives, viewpoints and types of experience that are represented and drawn in across the project. This variety and richness of perspective is something that is very special and unique about Distant Voices and so we wanted to make sure we represented a wide range of types of experience of homecoming. For this reason, we aimed to incorporate perspectives of:

  1. Someone coming home after a long prison sentence
  2. Someone coming home after a shorter prison sentence
  3. Both male and female perspectives on homecoming
  4. A person whose family member or parent is coming home after serving a sentence
  5. At least one person who has experienced crime, been a victim or a survivor of harm caused by crime
  6. The experience of a person who works within the criminal justice system
  7. The perspective of the songwriter or the songwriting session facilitator who helped to create the songs that found their way into the show.

For this reason we chose 5 musicians to perform the show, and we made each of them a specific ‘character’:

  1. THE HOMECOMER: Our key character is ‘D’. He has been serving a short-medium term sentence and is about to return home. He is played by SolarEye (or Dave Hook).
  2. THE WELCOMER: ‘June’ is D’s twin sister. She has been looking after his daughter while he is in prison and is anticipating his return. June is represented by Jill O’Sullivan.
  3. THE STORYTELLER: This character is simply a narrator. Rachel Sermanni tells the story of ‘The Giant Who Had No Heart in Her Body’. Based on the retelling of a Scandinavian folk tale (with a twist), this is a story about a female, long-term prisoner and the ‘heartlessness’ she has developed as a coping mechanism. The giant, like ‘D’, is a homecomer too.
  4. THE MEDIATOR: Jo Mango plays the part of ‘Clem’. Clem works in the education department of a prison and helps prisoners to write letters. She sees multiple perspectives within the criminal justice system and she is also (it emerges) a survivor of crime. She is wrestling with what it means to bridge or mediate these different perspectives.
  5. THE SONGWRITER: Louis Abbott plays himself here, as he describes what it is like to run a songwriting session in a prison context (the space in which most of the songs in the show were created).

These 5 strands run throughout the show. They seem at first to proceed separately, but all have crucial links to each other. And they all relate to what it is to be a giant standing on a bridge, or to face a giant and to build a bridge to another perspective.

The final development, rehearsal and performance of the show was supposed to happen in April 2020, and therefore was made impossible by the Covid-19 outbreak. The musicians decided that they still wanted to make a version of the show under lockdown conditions. So, separated into their respective houses, and only communicating virtually, they created a film of a kind of ‘read-through’ of the script of ‘Giant’ featuring solo acoustic performances of the songs. The piece above is a taster of that film. And we’re hoping it ignites peoples interest enough to keep them patient as we wait for the time when ‘A Giant on the Bridge’ will finally come to life properly on stage.

If you are interested in more detail as to how the show was created (and by whom), please look out for further blog posts on the process that should be available here soon.


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