Behind the Scenes of Stitching

In today's post composer Sarah O'Halloran takes us behind the scenes of her project Stitching. It's a music drama based on a play by Northern Irish playwright Colin Stanley Bell. As part of Sarah's residency at GWU there will be workshop performances of Stitching on April 4th and 5th. The shows are free and open to all.

Putting Stitching together has involved a lot of collaboration. The first collaboration was between me and Colin Bell, but once we had a script ready we began to work with others. In September 2013 I visited Colin in Edinburgh, where we hired local actors to record dialog for playback in the performances, and to take pictures and video. We worked with Jenny Hulse, Suzanne Dance, Liz Strange, and Tom Freeman.

We didn't have much time, and our budget was next to nothing, so we had to be quick and creative. We created a makeshift recording studio in the little hallway of Colin’s apartment, and tried not to fall over cables as we passed between the rooms.

Suzanne Dance and Colin Bell.

Suzanne Dance and Colin Bell.

For our mailman character Tom Colin borrowed a real Post Office uniform from a friend, and we took to the streets pretending to deliver mail. Suzanne Dance got some strange looks as she walked through busy streets in a nightgown, as the confused Nana.

P1012783.JPG
P1012836.JPG

Our work included a day trip to Dunbar, where the piece is set, to take pictures of Lana and Nana on the beach.

Colin Bell and Jenny Hulse

Colin Bell and Jenny Hulse

The gang on the way to Dunbar's beach.

The gang on the way to Dunbar's beach.

Suzanne Dance and Jenny Hulse joking around as Nana and Lana.

Suzanne Dance and Jenny Hulse joking around as Nana and Lana.

On our microscopic budget we could only afford four actors, so Colin and I had to step up and play Lana’s parents. Playing Lana’s mother, Hannah, involved walking into the freezing cold water at Dunbar’s beach. I was really glad to get piping hot fish and chips on the way home!

P1012477.JPG
P1012621.JPG
P1012641.JPG
P1012647.JPG

When I returned to Washington D.C. I began my residency at the GWU Music Department. This supported my work on Stitching. Creating the music for Stitching has been a fun challenge. It's allowed me to bring together my love of musicals, opera, and avant garde music theater. Stitching is about people facing a very real problem, age related memory loss, in a magical version of our world where memories are stored in the form of knitting, and lost memories are holes in the fabric, which might be reparable. I was attracted to the piece because it's emotionally rich and relatable, but it's also full of magic, whimsy, and humor. This allowed me to created a score with a lot of musical variety, and to create a piece that I believe is both artistically innovative and approachable.

P1015709.JPG

My residency gave me a project budget to workshop the piece with faculty and student performers. Rehearsals are currently in full swing. Four faculty musicians and eight student performers are taking part. The workshop process is a wonderful opportunity for me.

P1015615.JPG

Young composers rarely have the chance to try out material with an ensemble before presenting a final version. At a recent rehearsal I asked our musical director/pianist Neil Weston to play something differently. He mentioned that the first time he played exactly what I had written, I responded “Yes you did, and that’s how I knew my instruction was wrong.” You would not believe how rarely I have had the chance to both find out a weakness in my score and do something about it before the audience hears it!

P1015654.JPG
P1015658.JPG

If you're wondering what a workshop performance means in the case of Stitching. The performers will be well prepared, they will be wearing costumes, but they won't have memorized the material or be moving around the stage. The music that we will perform is a completed draft, but I plan to revisit it based on what I am learning from the rehearsal process, and the audience reaction. The images that will be projected during the performance are also subject to revision.

P1015616.JPG

Creating projected images to accompany my music is a relatively new challenge for me. I've done it on a small scale in the past, but in Stitching it's a vital part of the storytelling. I'm using projected text to underscore sung text, contradict it, and to flesh out ideas that didn't fit in the libretto. I'm using the photos and video we shot in Scotland to give the performance life by taking us directly into Lana and Nana's world. I've also been animating the work of artist Nico Dodd, who recently joined the Stitching team. We met at a  networking lunch for D.C.’s Emerging Arts Leaders. I enlisted his help to create drawings related to the story of Lana and Nana, he’s taken a wonderfully whimsical approach to it.

Evil Agnes the Sea Witch

Evil Agnes the Sea Witch

Lana unravelling Nana's memories.

Lana unravelling Nana's memories.

I hope you can join us for the show. If you do, stick around and talk with us after. The audience is a vital part of the workshop process, we want to know what you think!

You can see a workshop performance of Stitching at GWU's Dorothy Betts Marvin Theater on April 4th and 5th at 7.30. 

Stitching is suited to audiences from about age 10 and up, if you'd like to bring your children with you we'll be happy to see them. The performance lasts about an hour.