Death becomes her: Ellie’s uplifting take on last taboo

Ellie Harrison
Ellie Harrison
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If there is one subject that remains a taboo in our “anything goes” modern age it is death – preparing for it, the rituals surrounding it and its aftermath.

As a consequence few of us have the kind of conversations that perhaps we should, especially when dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one.

Leeds-based artist and performance maker Ellie Harrison has spent time considering these issues and out of it has grown The Grief Series, a sequence of seven projects using a seven-stage grief model from popular psychology as a starting point. Each instalment is a collaboration with another artist, the first of which is a piece entitled The Etiquette of Grief. It is currently touring the UK and stops off at Hull Truck next week.

“I made The Etiquette of Grief in response to my own experiences of bereavement but when I started showing it I was overwhelmed by the audience response,” says Harrison. “People came up to me to say ‘thank you so much for doing this, it really resonated with me’.

“There is a social need to express our feelings about death – and that could just as easily involve humour as well as sadness. Humour is important.”

Harrison feels that since people tend to die in hospital these days rather than at home, we have lost a sense of familiarity with death. “We are very good at celebrating births and weddings but funerals and death we seem to be not so good at talking about,” she says. “I think The Etiquette of Grief works because I have a warm intention towards the audience and it’s inviting.”

Her piece allows people to confront a difficult subject in an environment in which they feel safe and she has been moved by the way in which people have opened up and shared their experiences of grief with others at her performances. “What people generally say is that it’s uplifting; they feel that there is a sense of celebration that underpins it,” she says.

“There are darker themes in it, though, for people to think about and sometimes there are tears. But there is almost always a lot of laughter as well. Sometimes it’s about giving people permission to be joyous and remember in a happy way.”

Harrison trained at Bretton Hall and in Stratford. Her original plan was to become a classical performer but then she moved towards performance art and post-modernism, attracted by the sense of connection and interaction with an audience.

“The one thing that theatre has, that film and television can’t compete with, is that shared experience. I always try and put the audience at the centre of the piece I am making – and a big part of that is the sharing of food and drink. People get port and biscuits and all sorts of things.” Although she grew up in Oxford, Harrison says that Leeds is home now and she feels like a northerner. “There is an honesty in Leeds that I really admire – an openness and a willingness to have a conversation.”

The Etiquette of Grief was first performed in the city last year and Harrison was so affected by the response to it that she decided to develop it further, hence the current tour. “It’s a lovely introduction to the series; it felt like a shame not to share it with other people,” she says. “The idea is to bring different sorts of audiences together as the series gains momentum. ”

The Etiquette of Grief is at Hull Truck Theatre, June 5.