CARVE coLAB represents the collaborative creative voices of independent music and dance artists Amy Mallett, Danielle Teale, Nicola Wydenbach and Sarah Lewis. With a shared vision for developing inspiring artistic opportunities for people with Parkinson’s and their families, CARVE coLAB devises new professional music and dance performance work in collaboration with people with Parkinson’s.

We are a constituted association operating as a collective of artists and community members. Our aims are:

  • To extend the artistic experience of people living with Parkinson’s by developing accessible and inclusive performance opportunities 
  • To celebrate the artistry and quality of art created by and for people living with Parkinson’s
  • To raise the profile of the positive impact of arts participation for people living with Parkinson’s 

Writing Home

An article by HerStory cast member Jonathan Eckersley

Am I dreaming? Or am I really singing in an opera? Yes, an opera! 

The relationship between me and this most grandiose of the performing arts has always been polite but cool and distant. This despite my grandmother taking me as a boy to see the Little Baddow Players performing “The Marriage of Figaro,” or a bit more recently going with my wife to see “The Magic Flute” at the Prague Opera House. I’ve always tended stick with the folk music. 

But whatever stage you might be in life, changed circumstances bring with them new opportunities. A year or so ago I joined a “Singing for Parkinson’s” group. Singing and movement are known to have a positive effect managing the symptoms of this condition, and I was very happy to go to Snape Matings once a fortnight to sing and be sociable. 

However Amy, the leader of the group, had more to offer us. She is part of a team writing a brand new opera, and a number of us have joined the Company that will take it forward to its first production. 

The opera is based upon the life and loves of Margaret Catchpole, a maidservant who lived 200 years ago but is well remembered in Suffolk, the County of her birth. There are a lot of myths about what Margaret really got up to, but a consensus agreement regarding her illegitimate birth into grinding poverty, her employment by local grandees the Cobbold family, and her love for a sailor William Laud, that led her into many misadventures. 

That phase of her life is positively Pickwickian, with a stew of fierce night time rides, stolen horses, sickly children, smuggling and shooting, a hanging judge, an escape from prison. Music and dance build this drama, there are drinking scenes, courtroom scenes and prison scenes. And beyond this scenes of letters being written and posted. 

Margaret was sentenced to death for horse stealing, but the sentence was later commuted to transportation for life, and in due course she arrived at Botany Bay. 

Mrs Cobboldd had been an enlightened employer, and while Margaret was a member of her household she had learnt to read and write – a rare achievement for a working class girl in that era. After her arrival in the penal colony she began a correspondence with Mrs Cobbold, and her letters have been preserved for posterity. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography she has provided one of the best accounts of convict life at that time, with remarkable descriptions of the aboriginals, the wildlife, and the natural disaster if a river flood. 

It seems that Margaret achieved redemption for the crimes she committed in Suffolk, for some years after her arrival in Australia she received a pardon. However, she never achieved her ambition of a return to England, dying age 57. 

Parkinson;s sufferers in the cast or seeing this production may reflect on the fact that Margaret found herself in a strange place, and never got back to where she started from , but it was still worth writing home about.

Evaluating our scratch performance

On 22.10.2019 the company came together for a group evaluation of the scratch performance of HerStory: The Catchpole Chronicles that had taken place in August. We watched video footage of the performance, ate some scones, drank tea and spilled our thoughts, good and bad. All voices and viewpoints were heard, from the creative team, the cast and some audience members. The feedback is summarised below, and will be incorporated into the next iteration of the work.

Music

  • Need to bear in mind acoustics of performance space
  • Singers sometimes felt overpowered by musicians as they were so close by
  • Repeated musical ideas keep consistency and tie narrative together

Scenes

The Cruel Sea section – could the music be elongated and get more dramatic, ‘crash and batter’ rather than be repeated? Might need more narrative movement or projection. Not sure what the dance is saying here.

The Revenue Man – started a bit slow, but then great sense of party and energy. Needs more hustle and bustle.

Hell Above Ground – although this was one of the most challenging/complex pieces it held great power – rhythmic sections were spot on, movements large and volume high. Could the ‘Bloody Code’ be embedded into the animation or read out?

Ev’ry Turn of the Tide a bit weak – not as well learned

Margaret Catchpole song and reprises – Could there be a really strong visual (dance/movement) theme?

Send Her to the Gallows – need separate groups for each character otherwise this is confusing. Could the judge address the audience as if they are Margaret? Could the judge be mic’d? Cast should stay standing after the walking to move into clumps for ‘arson, robbery, murder.

Words/lyrics

  • Could some be shown on screen to help narrative? Maybe in repeated Margaret Catchpole song, as sometimes these were sung too fast to be heard. Need to be just enough to give the audience a clue, but not every word as this would be patronising
  • Spoken word sections were very powerful. Could we use more of this, perhaps without music? 
  • Some spoken sections could be slower
  • Silience was very powerful

Animation

  • Used as scenery and to explain some of the narrative, a backdrop giving flavour to the story and setting the location for each section
  • Could the animation ‘rewind’ at the end just before the film is played

Film

  • All felt to finish on this was very powerful
  • Drew sense of realism back into the piece
  • Told the story of the letters well

Narrative

  • Could more be made of the fact that a crime has been committed? Audience need to know gravity of this.
  • Do we need to show Margaret as a separate character?
  • Need to punctuate meeting of Margaret and Will more strongly
  • Is an interval needed, or do we need to include more of the story?
  • Could each scene end with a strong visual of the closing chapter, or introduction of the next chapter? Maybe parts of letters appear in the animation as though being written between scenes? Or the performers anticipate the next scene by moving into it at the end of the last, so not all scenes begin with the beginning of new music.

Staging

  • Considerations to be made regarding type of chair, colour of costume (beige may be too light? Though offers potential for performers to be projected on?)
  • Good to be bland, but could we add colour via scarves or accessories?
  • Radio mic instead?

Lighting/ projection

  • Can be used effectively between scenes (do we need a lighting designer?)
  • Could we create Margaret’s ‘shadow’ to appear and disappear to help the narrative (could words turn into her shadow and back into words?)
  • The beginning scene with the dancer, violin and projection could be enhanced with lighting and timing of who comes in when
  • Could we also project onto the floor when the space isn’t being used by performers (only useful if we have raked seating, but could create more movement and narrative potential – projecting water/ horseshoe prints or a galloping horse/ flowers in Australia that might be more interesting projected on the floor than on the back, or as well as)

Our company voice

“I can honestly say that I was exhausted but exhilarated to the point of wishing that it hadn’t come to an end because I felt so alive.”

What did it feel like to be performing an opera (albeit a work in progress) in the Peter Pears Recital Room at Snape Maltings? A huge thanks to all of our cast for sharing some of their thoughts about their experience of the project.

What were the successes?

“Becoming a cohesive group, all supporting each other and respecting each other; performing in a lovely space to an audience; knowing that this was not the end of the story but part of the process; hearing and seeing all the parts coming together.”

“The unifying affect on the entire cast. We are beginning to gel as a group and that is very exciting.”

“We managed to make something cohesive and watchable in such a short space of time when not all the participants had attended all the rehearsals! Quite an achievement.”

“Seeing other members of the group get an emotional benefit from all of us singing and dancing together. I have seen people stretch themselves and then blossom when they find their involvement is a success.”

What were the challenges?

“Knitting all the parts together was daunting.”

“Overcoming feelings of ‘Will I let everyone down?’ Remembering the words music and movements we had to do, concentrating on the task in hand but trying not to be unresponsive. I am slower sometimes when I have to co-ordinate tasks.”

“The biggest challenges for me were keeping my singing in tune and getting up at the right times to take part in the dances.”

“I was very tired after the workshops and for a couple of days after the residency.”

How did performing make you feel?

“I felt proud to have been part of such a great show. You all made us feel we were just the same as a group without any handicaps, which is a major achievement. Parkinson’s was hardly mentioned, no one asked for or expected special treatment, and I think all of us just felt part of the team.”

“Great. I hoped what we did was helping others that also had Parkinson’s.”

“I found that all of us working so well together and actually performing in front of an audience, made me feel enormously proud, emotional, slightly euphoric and glad that it all went so well for others in the group.”

“It is normal for me to feel anxious in the minutes before any kind of performance. But once I got in into it I felt very positive about the whole production and my involvement in it.”

What part does Parkinson’s play in this project?

“It is a fantastic achievement for those with the illness. It highlights different capabilities.”

“In my opinion the awareness of PD is essential to the project going forward.”

“I think that projects like this could make a big difference in changing people’s perspective of Parkinson’s and raising awareness can only be helpful.”

“This project was started with Parkinson’s people in mind aligned with music and dance too. I think that not many people see the true effects of Parkinson’s. They equate Parkinson’s with a strong tremor when it has other debilitating effects which are different for each person affected. [This project] would make an important statement, both to sufferers and the public at large what is achievable and highlight the problems Parkinson’s people face and the abilities/disabilities involved.”

“We need to think about it in terms of what we can and can’t do,
especially things like balance and turning round quickly, but you all made it easy for people to do what was within their limitations. In fact, I try not to acknowledge any limitations on what I can and can’t do.”

What impact has being part of this project made on your life?

“I felt that I was at last able to hold my head up and give something back for all that has been given to me via the help and treating us as normal. At the time I felt equal to all of you and your talents.”

“My family have encouraged and enabled me to partake fully in this project. It lightens my mood, gives me more ability to use this feeling to better effect in my personal life. My confidence has greatly improved and I have made new friends whose company I have greatly enjoyed.”

“For me, it’s been an inspiring experience which has meant a lot. I think all our participants have been constantly cheered by singing and dancing, which will have improved all our daily lives.”

“Being involved with the production has helped to improve my mood. The group is very welcoming and allowances are made for any issues without any fuss and bother. It was lovely to feel that I ‘belonged’!”

A conductor’s perspective

20th August 2019 had been looming in my diary. Although rehearsals had started, the piece, HerStory: The Catchpole Chronicles was still being composed by CoLab composer Amy Mallett. I had had seen some of the work but not all. I had been to some of the rehearsals but not every single one. I had not seen any of the dance that had been devised or met all the participants, and two of the musicians were new too. 

We would be performing a workshop performance in an Open Session in front of a paying audience in the beautiful Britten Pears Recital Room at Snape Maltings. The purpose was to test some of the artistic ideas on front of an audience to see if they worked as concepts. Would it be too much to have animation? Would singing and dancing at the same time be possible for people living with Parkinson’s? Did the story arc make sense?

From my persective, there were so many variables that might not work. Would the dancing fit with the singing, would the singers know the songs and be heard….the list was as long as my arm. So I just did not think about it all. I decide to not worry about things I could not control. I decided to take everything as it came. After all, this piece was about the performers, the people with Parkinson’s developing and creating and exploring.

And do you know what happened……..every single member of the company, every single performer exceeded expectations. It was supposed to be a ‘scratch’ performance but we more or less delivered a full showing of all the composed material. The level of artistry and commitment would have made any professional proud. it was a powerful and moving performance that will stay with me forever.

Nicola

Work in Progress: audience feedback

As part of our relationship with Snape Maltings during this stage of the project, we agreed to host a sharing of the work in progress. These sharing platforms at Snape have taken many different formats, so we knew we could make it useful to our process and where we were at. We knew it would be useful to:

  • See the overriding arc of the narrative and energy of the overall piece in front of a live audience.
  • Try some transitions from scene to scene, as we anticipated this to present a challenge at times.
  • See some completed scenes in front of an audience, including at least one full physical scene.
  • Find out what is most important and memorable for the audience about the work so far.
  • See if there were any holes in the narrative.
  • See the whole flow of the piece and where more or less movement might help to keep an interesting journey for the audience.
  • See how the film and animation adds to, or could distract from the live performance and narrative.

I think we were all surprised at how much we achieved in such a small amount of time, but I think having a sharing at such an early stage helped with this. Working towards this common goal, knowing we were going to go public created an excitement and confidence in decision making and gelled the group quickly. We were able to achieve all of the above and received the following useful feedback.

What stuck with the audience…

  • Margaret in the third person, rather than having a face to the name
  • The end film was moving and poignant

Things to think about…

  • Text in the animation would help to follow the narrative
  • More film as this was so popular
  • Narrative (more explicit at some points and introduce some characters more clearly, eg Margaret’s sister)
  • Could be longer (possibly expanding on her life in Australia

Other reflections from the creative team…

  • More movement is definitely possible throughout
  • The sharing was an important part of the process
  • Use of professional performers moving forwards is beneficial

A multidisciplinary work

One of the defining features of our practice as a collective is the interdisciplinary nature of our work. We share the belief that the combination of a variety of art forms provides richness and opportunity for innovation and challenge. Working across art forms in this way can be a challenge, due to the conventions and subject specific language relating to each of our fields, but flexibility and trust help us communicate our ideas effectively.

Not only does the HerStory project involve music, dance and drama, but we are also thrilled to be working with visual artist and illustrator Simon Wild. Simon visited a recent cast workshop at Snape and within the devising stages of the project is developing concepts for projected animation sections. These will be used both as a storytelling aid (Margarets’s story is somewhat epic) and also add a visual dimension to the opera.

One of Simon Wild’s stunning first images.

Amy

Pour another drink…

Yes, this may look like a pretty wild party, but is in fact an action shot of our first London workshop for HerStory: The Catchpole Chronicles. Around 20 people joined us for a day’s singing, dancing and devising at the Vestry Hall, St Gabriel’s Hall, in Pimlico. We were working on musical and movement ideas for a pub scene from the opera.

The scene, set to a traditional folk/drinking song, depicts local residents keeping the revenue man occupied at the bar whilst smugglers transfer the loot from their boat to a safe hiding place. Keeping representatives of the law distracted so the community could benefit from cut-price goods was a common practice in the late 18th century.

Our devising process encourages the company to play with ideas and themes during improvisational tasks, which are then combined in choreographic sequences by our dance artists, Danielle and Sarah. Today we used plastic glasses and cups as props to add to the ambience, and saw celebrations, bar fights and very merry behaviour as well as some more conceptual movement development.

Later on Nicola and I played with the folk genre and used a smuggling tale local to Leiston in Suffolk as inspiration for our company to generate further ideas for libretto. Real life characters and happenings proved a great place to start from, as our group members quickly rattled off ideas for new verses and rhyming words for the drinking song “The Revenue Man”.

We also gathered personal responses to another recurring theme from our opera; the sea. The material gathered will be used to develop further musical material for the opera. Here are some of the evocative and individual thoughts gathered today:

At night, the sky is huge and you can see the curve of the earth, and realise how small you are…

Rollocking, rambunctious, ravenous sea.

The sea can be cruel, yet patient. It connects the world, and filters our rubbish.

Gaping void, endless motion, howling gales, distant coasts, restless longing…

I love to be by the sea. The waves crashing to the shore, the sound of the water rolling back again, taking with it the worries and upsets of the day. Washing them away…

A huge thank you to our London group for their enthusiasm and input today – so much material to draw from as we begin making this brand new, collaborative work.

Amy

Our story – the birth of HerStory

This video documents our research & development residency at Snape Maltings in January 2019.

Within the space of 5 days, within the inspirational surroundings of Snape, our creative team came together for the first time, formed a collective, incubated ideas, explored movement and music with some generous and game participants, and formed a company!

To help support the next stage of our project, visit our fundraising page.

HerStory: Developing our Opera

CARVE are thrilled to announce that we have recently been awarded a grant from Arts Council England to support the next stages of our project. Together with the kind support of Snape Maltings, this funding will enable us to work collaboratively with our community company to devise and develop artistic material for the work in a series of workshops in Suffolk and London in July and August 2019.

In late August the creative team and company will come together for another residency at Snape Maltings, and showcase the material we have so far in a workshop performance in the Britten Studio at 3pm on Tuesday 20th August. More info to follow!

The project will also include the capture of a professional audio recording of the work, and several short films to document our process and promote the piece.

SUPPORT US

We need to raise a final £1500 to support this stage of the project, which we are doing via a crowdfunding campaign. If you can help, please visit our campaign page. All donations gratefully received, and we will be delighted to keep you regularly updated on our activities and progress.

GET INVOLVED

It’s not too late to get involved in the project, whether as a performer, creative, behind the scenes supporter, or partner organisation. Please get in touch.