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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

 

A few yarns on Stitching

Solas Nua's music curator Sarah O'Halloran is a composer from Ireland and she is currently an Artist-in-Residence at GWU. In today's post & a few up-coming blog entries she's going to give us a peak behind the scenes of her GWU residency project Stitching. It's a dramatic piece with a text by Northern Irish playwright Colin Stanley Bell.

Sarah O'Halloran

Sarah O'Halloran

Here's Sarah O'Halloran:

Stitching tells the story of Lana and her Nana, who have lived together since Lana was about three. All they have is each other, and they share a life full of imaginative stories. These stories protect them from the harshness of life. Recently Nana hasn’t been doing very well, her memory is starting to fail, so Lana looks after her as best she can. She’s afraid to ask anyone for help because they don’t want to be separated, and besides, who would she ask? After finding Nana waiting at a bus stop in her nightdress, Tom, the local postman decides to get involved. He takes Lana on a journey through time and space, so that she can try to recover her Nana’s memories. Will she succeed?

Stitching is a radical re-interpretation of a play called Lana’s Nana written by Colin Stanley Bell in 2011. Colin is an award winning playwright from Northern Ireland, who was recently on attachment with both National Theatre of Scotland and the Traverse theatre. He's even worked with Solas Nua's old friends Tinderbox. Stitching is more than a version of Lana's Nana with a few songs thrown in. Together we created a new form and envisioned a new method of telling the story. Colin created a new text to accommodate the addition of music and multimedia.


Here’s Colin Stanley Bell on the origins of Lana’s Nana and Stitching:

Colin Bell

Colin Bell

The piece [Lana's Nana] was commissioned by East Lothian Council for their Youth Theatre and was inspired by the stories and recollections of the local area by the men and women attending Dunbar Day Centre on Scotland's East Coast. We shared tea and buns on Friday mornings and, after a short time, I was fortunate to hear a whole range of personal stories. Their ideas about family secrets and lost histories formed the backbone for the story. The piece was performed for the Dunbar Day centre by the Youth Theatre and although the story contained some controversial elements, the Dunbar residents were delighted. We had knitters throughout the East of Scotland who knitted and crocheted our set. The play was then selected for performance at The Youth Theatre Festival in Scotland.


I met Colin in 2011 when my sister, dramaturg Deirdre O’Halloran, chose his moving play  Pigeons for Siamsa Tíre’s New Voices Platform in our hometown Tralee. I loved the frankness of the play, and its emotional depth, so I was keen to find a way to work with Colin. After that we discussed collaborations online, and during one Skype chat we noticed that both of us were interested in things like magical realism, the sea, memory and secrets. He told me about Lana’s Nana and shared a script with me. I loved it. And we decided that an adaptation of it would be a good project for us. That's where our work began.

Thanks for your interest in Stitching. More soon.

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