Various Stages | Commissioning

Various Stages Festival: One year on...

Freddie catches up with the inspiring group of artists from last year's Various Stages Festival and reflects on the year gone by.

Is it really a year since the first lockdown? Is it only a year since the first lockdown? Time has continued to warp since, that’s for sure. I remember the panicked energy a year ago as we were forced to cancel our Various Stages Festival showcase at the Institute of Contemporary Arts scheduled for Thursday 19th March and the world went into a void of the unknown. And I notice now how much we’ve got into a strange groove with the current restrictions – panic was replaced by frustration. Are we now entering a period of acceptance? Even resignation? In any case, this situation has lasted long enough now that it feels like we’ve crossed a line – something has been irretrievably lost and we are all now incontrovertibly changed. On bad days, I fear we’re slipping into a deeply conservative parochialism. On good days, I see a wave of new, creative energy and positive, systemic change emerging. What has struck me particularly powerfully this year is how futile it is harking back to the past or dreaming of a brighter future. The only place we can meaningfully act is in the present. The pandemic has done much to take away our ability to act which is why I am so full of admiration of all my friends & colleagues, musicians, artists and producers who have managed to adapt, survive and even somehow thrive during this extraordinary time. And none more so than the incredible team at Mahogany who, with their spirit and ingenuity (together with the steady handed support of our board), have been the most reassuring constant during this year. And what has sustained us at Mahogany over the last year? It hasn’t and couldn’t have simply come from within us. The ongoing conversations and work with our Various Stages artists have been a major factor. Every one of the seven projects has developed further over the last year; new collaborators have been brought on, further showcases and workshops have been planned and even performances have taken place. Artists are naturally adept at responding to a changing environment and all the artists we have been fortunate to work with over the course of this year have created works of personal expression that nonetheless speak sensitively to our time; for a need to connect beyond boundaries and to remain open to other ideas and opinions.

Here’s a quick update of what’s happened to each project this year:

A Rumi Passion
The development of the project continues through a seed commission supported by the Nicholas Berwin Trust and Mahogany Opera. Award-winning poet Dante Micheaux has joined the creative team as librettist. The proposed next stage hopes to involve Elaine Mitchener and Lore Lixenberg as key members of the cast and to collaborate on the further exploration of the piece.

Hildegard: Visions
This incredible project continues to grow. We have contributed towards a seed commission of the project supported by The Marchus Trust and RVW Trust. There is a showcase performance planned at East Street Arts in Leeds in June where they will develop the Hamam section of the piece. Audiences will be invited in intimate groups into a sonic Hamam. There will be accompanying online events and we plan to hold a special Meet Me @ Mahogany event to coincide with the East Street Arts presentation.

A Place to Fall to Pieces
Isobel and Anna spent their lockdowns writing, composing, rehearsing, producing and performing A Place To Fall To Pieces, which was streamed live from The Space theatre in London. They still have dreams of a tour of the show. And are currently working on releasing a single, Mr Fox, in April.

During a residency at Café OTO, Wojchiech played a live stream with his 3D printed pipes, a soprano and ensemble of five instrumentalists – where instruments were drilled into, melted and destroyed to alter the tuning.

The Hooligan company presented a 20-minute film as part of Radar Ost at the Deutsches Theater. You can watch the film here: Hooligan: In the field (Short film).

The Passing of the Butterfly
Gwyn and Ogutu are in the process of bringing on a musical voice based in Kenya. Plans for the next phase also include a research workshop with a group of participants in Kent. Freddie managed to meet Ogutu for the first time in person – there are still three more Various Stages artists that we have not yet met in real life (Amble, Anna and Isobel).

We Ask These Questions of Everyone
Amble and Toria were able to adapt their work for digital streaming as part of the Sound Festival Aberdeen in January/February. They also joined us for our very first Meet Me @ Mahogany where they spoke candidly and passionately about the making of their project as well as the role disabled artists can play in informing and inspiring new working models in the industry at large.

More news:

Below Anna & Isobel Hughes and Amble Skuse & Toria Banks tell us a bit more about the development of their projects over the last year.

Anna and Isobel Hughes (A Place to Fall to Pieces)

These are the things we remember from a year ago:

1. Buying rope for our Various Stages performance from a local chandlery and bearing it home in triumph.

2. Sitting together on the side of the bath as Freddie told us the sad news Various Stages had been cancelled.

3. Running to the pub.

4. Days of walking and talking about what-might-have-been.

And before that - a premonition perhaps - discussions during workshops about poor theatre and the benefits of a show with just two performers.

Although we’ll never know what may have come of the festival, we look back now, a year on, and know that working with Mahogany Opera was a moment we would have marked anyway, looming pandemic or no. One year ago we had never shown anyone what we had been working on together, but with the support from Various Stages A Place To Fall To Pieces became something legitimate and urgent. And so we have spent our lockdowns writing, composing, rehearsing, producing and performing A Place To Fall To Pieces, which was streamed live from The Space theatre in London almost a year after we had thought we’d let it go.

We still have dreams of a tour. And are currently working on releasing a single, Mr Fox, in April.

Amble Skuse and Toria Banks (We Ask These Questions of Everybody)

What do you remember about the beginning of lockdown and the cancellation of the Various Stages Festival?
Toria: The workshop session with Freddie in the library in Crystal Palace was the very last thing I did before lockdown. Amble had already decided not to risk coming to London and joined by Skype (not Zoom, which didn’t seem like a thing yet). I remember feeling absorbed in a great chat about the work, and then emerging and deciding to walk home to avoid being on a bus, and knowing as a chronically ill person I wouldn’t be going out for a while.
Amble: I think for me it was really the first time that I felt like the work could be an opera, and I had a strong team who believed in it. That stage is absolutely vital for any first time project and so it really was the platform which we could build on.

How has your Various Stages project developed? New collaborators? Performances or showcases?
We got funding, and we made our opera! Thanks to Sound Festival and Creative Scotland. Once we decided it would be online, and that we weren’t making a film, it took on a digital shape really naturally. I think it was always a good fit for the project. The fact that we had to work digitally really suited our audience, as we knew that we wanted our show to be accessible to people who couldn't get to the theatre normally. We worked with an incredible team, who gave us so much of themselves in the making of the work. It really developed from a two dimensional idea to a four dimensional creature, made by a wonderful bunch of generous performers and creatives. We're very proud of it, and chuffed to have got some lovely reviews.

What new dreams do you have for your project?
More opportunities to stream the digital opera, maybe reaching more people internationally - we have French and Spanish captions now! - and then hopefully, the chance to make a live version that will have been informed and enriched by it’s journey on the internet. We'd love for all our artists to be in the same room, feeding off each other and to feel that arc take shape. We're hoping that once lockdown is eased, theatres can learn from the experience of being house bound and begin to think about making work which works for audiences at home as well as those in the venue.

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