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  • Stephanie Fuller

Letters to Ferdinand

Ferdinand Cheval was a postman in France. He spent 33 years building a castle out of rocks he found on his postal round. In 2018, Significant Other made a performance trying to discover what it is like to build your own castle. Below are my letters to Ferdinand telling him about our process.

He died in 1924 btw.

Dear Ferdinand,

An artist named Ivanka Muller has created a piece called ‘A long song to an unknown spectator’. It will take her seventeen years to write it, one verse a year. Her body will change, her voice will change, the song is the same. What did you look like seventeen years after you started? Was your vision of the palace still the same?


Dear Ferdinand,

Our research took us to this article about a man who has been burrowing tunnels underneath the streets of Hackney for the past 40 years. The tunnels extend out like tendrils, forcing their way through the earth. The papers are calling him the Hackney Mole Man. They quoted him as saying something that might interest you…

People are asking you what the big secret is. And you know what? There isn't one.’ (Guardian, 2006)

Is this how you feel?


Dear Ferdinand,

A woman from Hemel Hempstead named Diana Keys transformed the inside of her council flat into the inside of the Sistine Chapel. She used only her fingers. She has never been to Italy. She said this, and I thought of you…

‘When I eventually go to heaven, the council will paint over this all in magnolia and all this 40 years of painting which I have actually done, will be the end of it’ (BBC, 2017)


Dear Ferdinand,

You might recognise these words, they came from your mouth, they slipped off your tongue, they’ve inspired a vision.

‘What can you do when you always walk in the same setting, but dream?’


Dear Ferdinand,

Isn’t it funny that we were chosen to perform at a theatre that isn’t permanent? Just like Diana Keys’ council flat that is destined to be re-set, re-purposed, re-painted, so is the fate of our stage. As we sat on the benches on the last night, drinking our gins by the bar, we read a post detailing that the site of Theatre N16 was to be turned into luxury flats. We feel something. It’s not the hows that bother us, but the whys. To commence construction of something more permanent, an ode to productivity, a monument to architecture, a finished product. A new set of plaster and ceilings and doors will now replace an ever-changing landscape; the stage that once was Theatre N16.


Dear Ferdinand,

By the third night of the run at Theatre N16 the show was still not finished. We were still making choices about our relationship and testing them out in front of our audience. Each performance felt alive because we were still building it. Tiny choices that changed everything about our relationship, provocations that kept the blood pumping and gave the performance a pulse. New rocks, lain on top of old foundations, changing the form in the tiniest of ways.

By the last night we made no new choices. I felt indifferent, neutral. I felt unfeeling. The show had happened but I wasn’t the creator anymore, I was part of a fixture, the finished product. Did you feel like this when you finished the palace?


Dear Ferdinand,

It really is a process of transformation. When you picked up that rock it transformed into a palace. When we looked at a chair it transformed into a waterfall.

We spent hours of rehearsal time transforming objects, making images with our bodies and furniture, never staying in one place for too long. I would move a screen, Elana would move a table and suddenly we had a palace of our own.

Transformation is more than an alternative arrangement, it is a marked change in form. A metamorphosis. An act of building. We projected images of a fireplace onto a bin, we built a new identity onto an old one.

We wanted to create feelings not facts. We wanted to see how one element interacted with another. We projected our faces onto our faces. We wanted to see what it would feel like to be one thing and simultaneously another.


Dear Ferdinand,

Diana Keys from Hemel Hempstead knows all to well that her Sistine Chapel will one day be painted over. But that didn’t happen to you did it? You kept your palace, even in death, you are buried within the rocks you collected. We want Castles Palaces Castles to live on in some way, but should a performance live forever? We have kept a record of our scores, marks of our creation, pen scratches on paper, a permanent documentation of our work. But the performance itself is gone, those moments have vanished, the space is no longer occupied. The show is both here and not here. Existing between permanence and anti-permanence.


We chose ornate furniture to create our palace but found that the materials themselves mean very little. It is our relationship to them, the way we interact with them to fulfil a vision. What we do with them transforms the ordinary into a dream.


Ornate furniture imposes an illusion of permanence, an attempt to transcend time, to be a reminder of greatness, wealth and power. A monument to humanity. Wrapped in plain fabric it is no more than a shadow of itself. We can turn a chair into an army of ants.


Images of different castles and palaces are projected onto my body as I sit in a chair, positioned like a queen on a throne. My body facilitating a transformation. Image follows image. There is nothing permanent about life. Our bodies take the place of monuments but only for a brief moment. We do not wish to be a monument to ourselves, instead we celebrate transformation.


Dear Ferdinand or Diana Keys

We worry that we have made a monument to you. Our performance has a sort of permanence; lighting has been programmed, music has been composed, text has been written, saved and documented. The show has been filmed, more than once. We have performed in theatres monumental spaces that are a dedication to creation. Have we missed the point?


‘If theatre is already partly monumental, then a counter monumental theatre might also need to be counter theatrical.’ (Schmidt, 2010: n.p.)


It is a memory which is also a dream. A moment that punctures the opacity of text. A hand outstretched between worlds, inviting audiences further into the surreal. Ally sits at the desk which is littered with technology and modernity, the rest of us in Victorian outfits, dance with our beloved furniture. Both in the here and the there. Simultaneously becoming one thing and unbecoming another.

We danced the same dance but we were not in the same worlds. We differed our speeds to show how we disconnected from one another. In rehearsals we drew upon Laban, playing with pace, we would take five minutes to stretch our arms to the ceiling just to see what feeling it created. How it changed the atmosphere, our mood, the very structure of the room. We travelled around the space, stopping and starting, adapting our pace, finding ways to be in multiple different worlds.

Our gaze was directed to the objects we danced with; these vessels capable of such transformation, these objects became the driving… the motivating aspects of our work. They defined our work.


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