The show I have been waiting for years to see

Thoughts from Amie Taylor – the local engagement specialist in Coventry

My past month, spent working as a Local Engagement Specialist on Opera for the Unknown Woman, has led to many interesting conversations with people around the topics it covers. I spent three busy days in the Midlands travelling between Coventry, Birmingham and Warwick. I was particularly thrilled to be working on this show in particular as the feminist element of it ties in with a lot of the other work I do in theatre. I’ve worked with FemaleArts for three years now, an online magazine which seeks to address gender disparity in theatre, but also to celebrate women’s achievements in the arts.

I saw a very early run through of Opera for the Unknown Woman, and found it not only breathtaking and beautiful, but was thrilled to see the show I have been waiting for years to see. To hear a story told through the voices of eleven women on stage is a rare occurrence. I was thrilled to discover in my interview with Melanie Wilson, the creator of this show, that approximately 95% of people on and off stage working on this production are female, that’s an almost unheard of statistic in theatre, and feels like a massive breakthrough in addressing the gender disparity which still exists even in 2016.

Part of my job as an LES was to meet people in the local area that may not have been aware the show was happening and may not normally go to the theatre but would have an interest in climate change, feminism, sci-fi, or opera as this production encompasses all three. I met lots of different groups of people, however one of the things that struck me when I watched this production was that it would be a really positive piece of work for young women about to graduate from drama school, or wanting an arts career to see. I have recently run a lot of workshops with emerging female actors, and know that from conversations it can feel quite disheartening graduating into a world that still seems much easier for men to progress in than women, owing to the roles on offer.

One of my visits was to Playbox Theatre in Warwick, a working theatre built especially for the use of young people. Playbox is known across the Midlands for their dedication to offering a professional training to young actors and creating high quality performances in their 200 seat theatre space. I felt this show would be suitable for many of their staff and members, but specifically young people keen to go in to devised theatre, and young women keen to pursue acting careers.  I was fortunate to speak with the artistic director Stewart McGill during my visit, it was good to talk about Fuel’s show – we seemed on a wavelength, as they have just finished their own season in which they created a version of Henry VI in three, hour-long plays (or as they refer to it ‘a triple box set of a show’), and have approached it using gender blind casting. Mcgill says he believes the plays have ‘gained a fresh perspective’, from this decision. As a director, actor and theatre reviewer I’m keen to see gender-blind casting used more frequently when producing the classics, in order to redress the balance. Or, as is in the case of #UnknownWomen, contemporary stories told by a female voice, which sounds like a small deal, but once you become conscious of it you’d be amazed by the percentage of stories in theatre still told by a male voice. McGill was interested in their production of Henry to consider how the power game could be played if the male line was surrounded by female power and political manipulation – conversations like this are important to have, and I believe bring about change. It feels as though we met at a time where shifts and changes are beginning to happen, with Fuel about to tour #UnknownWoman, many companies going against traditional casting and other work being done to address the gender imbalance on Britain’s stages.

McGill spoke how it bothers them hugely at Playbox Theatre that in theatre and in training boys simply have it easier: at auditions, castings, in avoiding exploitation and so on. There is so much [female] talent and often so little opportunity.  When leading companies such as Fuel directly address this it means they are laying a new path and possibilities for the arts, as well as open up more employment opportunities to women.

I really do feel like we are at a turning point with theatre and gender disparity and works such as #UnknownWoman really fill me with hope for that. It was exciting to work as and LES on this project, and share news of this piece with feminist networks in the area.  I got the sense people are excited by work told through women’s voices, and keen to see things change.

Opera for the Unknown Woman is touring from the 25th May.

8th – 11th June: Festival of Voice, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

16th / 17th June Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martin’s, London

22nd/23rd/24th June Yorkshire Festival, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

Amie Taylor is  Director The LGBTQ Arts Review, Interviews Editor for FemaleArts and a freelance writer, actor and workshop facilitator. @AmieAmieTay @lgbtqarts

 

 

 

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All it takes is one person (or many of them together)

Melanie Wilson probably told Louise Blackwell about the idea for Opera for the Unknown Woman in 2010. They were starting to work together on a new piece called Autobiographer and Melanie spoke of eventually wanting to work on a large-scale choral work with at least 20 singers in it, in a condemned block of flats that get demoslished at the end of the show. Opera for the Unknown is a step towards that work perhaps. The first research and development phase was in June 2014 at  Opera North, thanks to the hospitality of Jo Nockels there and some help from Arts Council EnglandPRS for Music Foundation  we tried out some initial ideas, met some composers and some excellent singers and invited a few people to see what we had been doing including @MysterB (Matt Burman) who then worked at Warwick Arts Centre and now works at Yorkshire Festival – talk about lucky timing for us. We held our nerve.

We travelled around the country talking with researchers, academics and other people in Newcastle, Brighton, London, Coventry, Cardiff and Huddersfield about the themes the show was investigating from climate change to gender equality, in a series of conversations.

Cut to Feb 2015 and with some support from BBC Performing Arts Fund and Arts Council England, we shared some ideas with an invited audience in London which included @graeme_farrow from Wales Millennium Centre and we held our nerve.

Fast forward to Dec 2015 and thanks to Arts Council Wales, Arts Council England, The Hinrichsen Foundation and the The Fidelio Charitable Trust we enter our final phase of research and development. Melanie had written the first draft of the libretto. Katarina had started the score. We cast four of the roles. And we held our nerve.

After much writing and sound-making, fundraising, extensive casting, rigorous creative team building, vicious budget cutting and reimagining of the vision, making publicity images before we knew what the show was and much more, we began rehearsals on  18th April 2016. We were holding our nerve.

With passion, dedication, bloody-mindedness, rigour and trust we have made Opera for the Unknown Woman.

And now, on 25th May 2016 we are about to share what we have made with a paying audience for the first time. And we are holding our nerve.

Let us know what you think.

 

 

 

Hair & Make-up

We met two new collaborators recently: Diana Hudson and Selen Hurer. They worked with us to transform the performers into beings from Praxagoria who come from far in the future (3001) to gather together a series of women in 2016 to save the Earth.

In 6 hours they transformed 8 women from human to alien beings. Come and see the show to see what we mean.

 

International travels

As we begin to preview the show this week in Coventry; another member of the team; Hattie Gregory, Projects Co-ordinator at Fuel travels to Rotterdam to the New British Music Theatre Showcase at the OperaDagen Festival. At the beginning of April Louise Blackwell, Producer, visited the awards ceremony of the Fedora Prize for New Opera in Milan because Opera for the Unknown Woman was shortlisted and last week Louise was in Brighton at the Caravan showcase talking about the show. Let’s hope all this work pays off and in the next few years the show is seen by many people around the world.

Will Duke: Projection Designer

Spotlight on Will Duke 

Will is a video artist, filmmaker, visual artist and projection designer. He studied Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing and at the Glasgow School of Art, since then he has had his work displayed across the world. Will has previously worked with Melanie Wilson on Landscape II.

Will’s theatre credits and artwork can be found on his website here.

Below are some images from nature that were part of Will’s inspiration for Opera for the Unknown Woman.

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What is a projection designer?

The projection designer is responsible for designing all of the moving and still images in the production. This can involve sourcing stock images as well as creating original material, and then editing it together. The projection designer will work very closely with the lighting and sound designers to ensure that all the elements work together and enhance, rather than distract from, each other.

♀ Inspiration

Many real-life women have inspired the characters and the imagery of “Opera for the Unknown Woman”. Here are a few whose actions and images have contributed to Will Duke‘s projection design and Melanie Wilson’s libretto.

Hildegaard

Hildegarde of Bingen

1098- 1179

Hildegard was born into a German noble family and became a nun at the age of 15. She went on to become a renowned mystic, writer and composer. Unlike many composers of her time, Hildegard wrote mainly for female voices.

 

Joan-of-Arc

Joan of Arc

1412-1431

One of the most famous warrior women, Joan of Arc claimed to have had many visions from God, which inspired her to lead an army against the occupying English army. She had several quick victories, but was then captured by French forces allied with England and was burnt at the stake, aged 19.

 

 

Kathleen HannaKathleen Hanna

Born 1968

Kathleen Hanna was the lead singer of feminist punk band, Bikini Kill in the 1990s, before becoming fronting Le Tigre, a left-wing electroclash group. She is also a feminist activist and zine writer. She is one of the people credited with creating the riot grrrl punk movement, one of the movements which helped to inspire third-wave feminism.

 

 

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

Born 1997

Malala Yousafzai is one of the most famous campaigners for female education in the twenty-first century. In 2012 she was shot in her native Swat District in Pakistan for her activism. Since then she has moved to Birmingham, UK and continues to campaign.

 

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole

1805- 1881

Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica to a Scottish soldier and local Jamaica woman. She set up a hospital where she nursed wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War. She overcame the social expectations of her gender and race to travel, set up her own business, and help others.

Meet the Performers: Miriam Gould

 

Miriam Gould is a theatre-maker, performer, musician and writer. She has tried to hide away in the woods, growing vegetables and getting blown about in the fields, but theatre-lights and dressing rooms have their undeniable charm. She is also an Associate Artist at Little Bulb Theatre.

For “Opera”, Miriam  is playing the violin, as well as the part of Nadezhda, a woman from Russia.

Follow her on Twitter @Momims1

Meet the performers: Adey Grummet

 

Adey Grummet is playing Catherine, an artist from North America.

Adey is a soprano who attempts to defy classification. She is also a lyricist, animateur, writer, vocal consultant, historian and gardener with a dark past in the theatre and musicals. A founding member of The Shout, she has created numerous roles in contemporary operas for British composers. She has worked for most major opera companies in the UK and appeared as a concert soloist in most major British venues. She is a programme advisor to the Spitalfields Festival, a member and trustee of the writers’ laboratory Book, Music & Lyrics and a Mentor for Music For Youth. She works regularly in education and outreach work for the BBC and is part of the delivery team for Big, Big Sing. She can play the Hawaiian guitar on her nose.

 

Rehearsals: Week 4

 

It is Saturday 14th May and rehearsals of Opera for the Unknown Woman are now coming to the end of week 4.

Costumes have been fitted by Fly Davis and Lisa Aitken, movement has been choreographed with Carolina Valdes,  Melanie and Michele have been creating the sound scape, and Will Duke has been green screening the cast and playing with the projection. The technical team have worked their magic with projectors, paint and rubber crumb.

A run through of the show has happened. And now on to week 5 to put all the technical elements together. Wish us luck.

The Unknown Woman

Rehearsal, Opera for the Unknown Woman (photo Karen Robinson)

‘You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. Remember the planet is carrying you.’
– The Earth Chorus