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Interview: Director Katharina Reinthaller discusses the three adventuresses from Miles Apart Together

While most people have heard of Amelia Earhart as a pioneering female aviator, few are aware of Bessie Coleman. Fighting the double prejudice of sexism and racism, Coleman was denied entry from flight schools in the USA and moved to Paris where she obtained her license and became the first female African-American pilot.

While Edmund Hillary's successful climb to the summit of Everest is common knowledge, less is known of his female counterpart. Japanese climber, Junko Tabei, became the first woman to ascend Everest in 1975 and almost twenty years later would become the first woman to complete the Seven Summits - ascension to the highest peaks in all seven continents. Unbelievably (or perhaps entirely believably depending on one's current levels of cynicism), Tabei was widely accused of taking on such "traditionally male" pursuits simply to find a husband.

Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky acquired her Anglicised middle name after anti-semitism led her to drop her Latvian surname when she became the first woman to cycle around the world.  Learning to ride a bicycle merely days before her trip began and remembered for her wild and wonderful stories that would beguile audiences throughout her journey, Kopchovsky was determined to show that her gender would be no barrier to adventure.

It is these three insprirational women that form the basis of Katharina Reinthaller's show Miles Apart Together. Weaving their stories with recreations of their adventures, Reinthaller seeks to enlighten audiences on their triumphs, strength and perserverance in the face of overwhelming scepticism and prejudice. Powerful histories that are no less relevant today.  Run-Riot caught up with Katharina to discuss more about the play and what modern audiences can learn from these incredible women.

Kerenza Evans: The backgrounds behind these women are amazing. What inspired you to bring these three specific stories to the stage?
Katharina Reinthaller: It was very difficult to choose just three stories. We found so many women that went on incredible adventures throughout the centuries, women that achieved, invented and fought - and that we’d never heard of.
Ultimately, we decided on Annie, Bessie and Junko’s stories because each of the women came from different eras, different continents and different cultural backgrounds. Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky was the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle. Junko Tabei was the first woman to climb Everest and all the Seven Summits, and Bessie Coleman was the first African-American female to obtain a pilot’s license.
We chose these women because they not only overcame conventions and cultural laws, but they also had to push their minds and bodies to the limits. Still today there is a perception that there are male and female roles. In a study, when asked to draw an engineer, a firefighter, a doctor, children mainly drew male figures.

Kerenza: What prompted the decision to frame the performance as a podcast recording?
Katharina: Because the women are from different times in history, we needed to find a way to bring them together into one space. We recognise that their stories were a sign of the times they lived in, but we wanted to be able to examine these stories under the modern lens to question our current social and political constructs and examine what and how life for women has changed throughout the last century. A podcast is also all about voice - these women didn’t always have theirs. It feels right to finally let them have their chance to speak.

Kerenza: Do the characters interact with one another throughout the performance? What links them?
Katharina: The piece is very much ensemble-led. We recreate moments of these women’s journey’s through language, movement and elements of physical theatre. We follow Junko to Mount Everest, Bessie takes us on her plane to fly stunts and we join Annie on her worldwide bike tour. Each character leads their own story whilst the other two unnamed performers support by helping to recreate these moments in the shadows using their voices and bodies. However, throughout the piece all three women have moments when they come together in podcast sections to compare their stories and share moments of their lives.

Kerenza: What resistance or setbacks did these women meet in trying to obtain their goals?
Katharina: What they all had in common was that society chastised them for their dreams and aspirations. Each of these women were repeatedly told ‘You can’t do it’ and they were attacked for their endeavors to be independent. Annie and Junko were both berated for leaving their husbands and children behind to complete their challenges. Bessie and Annie were subject to racism, resulting in Bessie having to move to France for her flight training and Annie dropping her surname, Kopchovsky, replacing it with the less Eastern European sounding ‘Londonderry’. People also didn’t want to believe that women were capable of such incredible physical feats. They were accused of lying (Annie), cheating (Junko) and there is a (unverified) story that Bessie’s death was not an accident but a deliberate attempt to get a black, successful women to disappear, which sadly worked.

Kerenza: After years of progress, the state of the world is becoming alarmingly regressive when it comes to women's rights and voices. How do you think we can educate and attract new audiences who may be less receptive to female-led work?
Katharina: As artists I feel we need to always question ourselves on why and for whom we make the work we do. I believe we need to make people aware of inequality, intervene, question and ask for their help. I think it’s important to attract audiences that both do and don’t agree with you. As a theatre maker, sometimes you feel like you are preaching to the converted, so we encourage audiences who don’t usually see this type of work to come along. The female experience is so diverse which means the work is too and therefore there is something for everyone.
In Miles Apart Together we celebrate how far we’ve come and think about where we need to go. We present these women as real human beings who experience extraordinary trials and tribulations on their journeys to becoming legendary adventurers and we think anyone can champion this. Hopefully we inspire our audiences, of all ages and backgrounds, to chase their dreams regardless of what society tells them.

Kerenza: Would you consider touring the production, for example, to schools to bring these inspirational stories to a wider audience?
Katharina: Absolutely! Our aim after VAULT Festival is to tour the show. We actually developed this production with St Margaret’s House, a community centre in Bethnal Green. We performed the show several times with them and their partners to a range of audiences from 8 – 80 years old which made us realise just how cross-generational the show is. If we could do a tour in schools, theatres and community centres across the UK, that would be amazing.

Kerenza: In your research, did you uncover other women's stories that you would like to bring to the stage?
Katharina: Oh yes, definitely, there are too many! There is for example, Emma Clarke who is considered the first black British female footballer, playing for a team in Haringay in 1895. Her sister, Jane was on the same team and I really want to know more about this skilled duo. There’s Zheng Yisao, a Chinese pirate queen who roamed the seas in the 19th century – her story is fascinating. Another inspiring woman was Beate Uhse, a German pilot and entrepreneur who after World War II decided to start the first sex shop in the world. She had a tumultuous life and was a milestone in liberating female sexuality. We wanted Miles Apart Together to be suitable for all ages, so her story wasn’t quite the right fit, but maybe in the future…

Kerenza: If you could have lived the life and adventures of any of these women, who would you choose?
Katharina: That’s difficult! Probably, Bessie Coleman. I can’t fathom what it must be like to fly and be in control of a plane, especially in the 1920s. I admire her for her determination, independence and courage – travelling and living all by herself in a different country, fighting her stance in the stunt world and always pursuing her aims, even after the worst set backs. She talks about both the literal freedom of just you and your plane in the sky, but also the freedom from prejudice that comes from being in the sky, which I find inspiring. But equally to travel the globe and be the highest woman on the planet would be also extraordinary, so it isn’t easy to choose.

Miles Apart Together is at the Vault Festival from 17th - 22nd March. Tickets are available here.

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