Twelve cabins

The Making of Twelve Cabins Twelve Vacancies

Chris Durnall of Company of Sirens walks us through the personal journey involved in the creation of the new theatre piece, Twelve Cabins Twelve Vacancies, in partnership with Chapter Arts Centre.


My father died in 1968 and my mother eight years later. Like so many couples that spend their life together she never really recovered from the loss. Or as Norman Bates memorably states in Hitchcock’s Psycho, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.” There are so many emotions bound up with the loss of family, especially guilt however unreasonable that may seem. When I was clearing the house following her death I found notes in pencil scrawled on the back of pieces of cardboard, empty cigarette packets. (They were both chainsmokers, the ceiling was yellow not white as mentioned in the piece).

These notes seemed to me to have no connection to the person I knew, some of the notes were prayers but many were comments on life, family and mortality. She gave no indication of these feeling to me or to anyone. This was her inner life: recorded on old fag packets the way a musician, author, artist or film maker would document their work for public view. Everyone, it seems has the need for self-expression. It’s also true that that many people are prevented from this experience due to circumstance and lack of a platform for such expression. The poetry of the ordinary indeed.

Psycho was being shown on network T.V. when dad’s illness took hold several years before, and, consequently it has resonated in my mind with that event. Like almost everything, you become aware of connections between events. Direct and inexplicable links between completely unrelated happenings that over time give a sense of understanding and completion – but only over time. I began to consider the ties between artwork and the real events; I wanted to engage with the idea of how the two become inextricably linked. Perhaps the reason we envelope ourselves with artistic work is due to the age-old desire to achieve clarity and order in our lives

Of course if your life is governed by religion or sport for instance, I’m sure that similar connections between life and purpose can still be made. My obsessions, however, were with books, theatre, visual art, and to a lesser extent film. That became my platform. Hitchcock was particularly enthralling to me; his films seemed to unselfconsciously tap into the personal. Other directors I love such as Terrence Malick, Terence Davies and Katie Mitchell achieved that connection too, but just not to the same extent as Hitchcock.

I have worked as an actor and director most of my life and like everyone key events have had a backing of visual and sound: music, film, visual art and, especially, theatre. I always had the thought that writers and actors were speaking to me personally, sending subliminal messages through their work that allowed me to deal with the everyday. I still do. This I believe is why I went and sought it out in the first place. I decided to put something down that connected the events in Psycho with my personal recollections of family and loss. The relationship between the film and my life was something that I couldn’t shake and it was strengthened by the objectivity and input from my collaborator, performer and designer Angharad Matthews.

I leave it to audiences to decide what really happened and whether these events occurred as and when they are described. In truth it doesn’t really matter. I can, however, say with certainty that emotionally at least it’s true.

The performance is personal but hopefully resonates with other people’s experiences. The main dangers of personal recall on stage are self-indulgence and sentimentality. Sentiment is something I have always avoided in my work. Emotion yes, sentimentality never. I don’t consider myself to be a performer any more, and certainly not a writer. Perhaps this is something akin to my mother’s personal thoughts scribbled on the back of fag packets – something just needed to come out. The work of contemporary writers (both Welsh and international that I have delivered as a director) resonates with audiences due to the use of emotion that transcends people’s individual experiences toward a more collective experience.

I deeply care about moving the work forward expanding and exploring, Twelve Cabins is perhaps a detour on the same path. Working with actors in four sessions each week has changed my approach to what I believe acting to be. I believe at its best it’s linked to the processing of memory, and consequently about presenting the personal as the universal. We all have our story to tell and this piece just happens to contain elements of mine.

(Photo credit: JH Anderson)

Twelve Cabins Twelve Vacancies is on at Chapter on Tuesday 11th June at 8.00 and Wednesday 12th June at 6.30 and 8.00