At the start of 2018 I made a commitment to myself to sing and dance more in my life. So I joined a local choir where once a week I could go and sing, often folk songs, often in languages other than English. Even when I didn’t feel like going, I would go and feel all the better for it afterwards.
In late spring our choir leader asked if we fancied being on stage at the Barbican later in the year. “Hell yes!” replied most of us. It turned out that one of our choir has a mum who is a well known, highly respected and awarded composer. Jocelyn Pook won a BAFTA award this year for her score of King Charles III, a soundtrack one of our choir, Voya (the unmistakeable bass vocalist) had performed on. She had composed music for a project called Memorial and they were looking for a community chorus to perform at the Barbican for 4 days.
Buoyed by the prospect of singing on a stage we all knew, we signed up as volunteers with an Australian production company and were sent the schedule. This is when we began to realise this was a serious undertaking requiring two full weeks of rehearsals and performances in September. As a self employed therapist much of my work happens in the evenings around my clients working days so this meant me rejigging course dates and blocking out a substantial chunk of time to devote to this. I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and having heard some of the score by this time I was going to do everything I could to make it happen.
We were sent a score of songs to learn and the next big challenge was apparent. Memorial is a poem by British poet Alice Oswald. Stripping back the narrative of The Iiad, Memorial is a homage to the 215 fallen Trojan soldiers. In honouring them we were going o sing each of their names. Ancient Greek names…. Abas, Orus, Asius, Socus, Amphoterus, Epailtes, Tlepolemos, Echios, Puris, Ifes Harpalion, Peisander, ….. not only were we going to have to remember them all but we had to first learn how to pronounce them!!!
Our first inkling that this was going to be much more than singing came when we spent time with the production company at the end of July. An induction into stagecraft, we learned the language of the theatre and how to be and how to move on stage. With a large chorus who were almost constantly going to be on the move, weaving in and out of the stage and narrative, we were to have in ear pieces and be directed by associate producer Ben Knapton.
I took to Ben instantly. He has an open friendly face and such a positive enthusiasm that he immediately had us all in the palm of his hand responding to anything he wanted us to do. Having done this show once in Adelaide and in the midst of prepping for the second run in Brisbane you could feel the confidence the director Chris Drummond and Ben had in what they wanted, What I wasn’t expecting was the sense of play and freedom in that day as they tried new things and were always up for discussion. I left still not knowing what the show actually was but feeling energised and excited to find out more.
The summer rolled by and our choir continued to learn the songs and get those ancient Greek names sitting comfortably in our mouths. I knew that if I was going to be able to be present and enjoy the whole experience I didn’t want to be worrying about the songs so I dedicated myself to daily practice and had the lyrics pinned to my kitchen walls for learning by osmosis…
Around comes September and although were scheduled to all come together at the Barbican from the 17th, the production team, fresh from the Brisbane Festival where they’d just shown Memorial, come to join our informal choir practice the week before. This is the first time we met the musical director, acclaimed counter tenor UK Jonathan Peter Kenny.
Have you seen the film Whiplash? Remember JK Simmons’ character and his drive and determination for perfection? That’s what came to mind for me. It was a real “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment and i felt both intimidated and up for the challenge. Over the next two weeks I would learn to love and respect this man. Trying to wrangle 180+ adults, mostly amateur singers, is quite a task. To get them all to a level he’s comfortable with only 45 minutes a day for 7 days is quite frankly insane…. But he did it.
Arriving at the Barbican on the first day of rehearsals and signing in at stage door was a thrill. I’ve seen many plays and exhibitions at this iconic building and often marvelled at the queues hanging around stage door for a glimpse of a performer. The novelty of being able to walk through that door and down into the belly of the building never left during the two weeks it was our home – it reminded me of my days of having a AAA pass at a festival or gig and knowing you were somewhere not everyone could see… Discovering we were going to be working ON STAGE for the whole week before performance week BLEW MY MIND. Walking out on to that world famous stage and facing the auditorium NEVER got old. Every single time I was there I drank it in – it is so deeply imprinted in my mind, body and soul that I can close my eyes now and be right back there.
There’s the meeting of new people – lots of choirs, the crew, performers – and all those dynamics at play when a group come together. Cliques forming and storming, personalities clashing, discovering shared passions and experiences. It brought our choir together in a wonderful way giving us the opportunity to get to know each other in a way that meeting once a week for practice doesn’t. You can’t stop the human mind from doing what it does though and my perfectionist, cynical, impatient tendencies would come up when others weren’t being respectful enough or trying hard enough (to my mind). Ben and Chris would work hard to ensure a fair spread of roles and stage time, aware that many of us would have family and friends coming who would want to see us – that and the fact that a fair few of us now had the bug and wanted more of the spotlight! Streaks of diva would flash, the pushing forward as if for an unallocated Ryanair flight would occur and I would be annoyed by it. I knew after a couple of days iI had to let that go and focus on my own efforts if I was going to enjoy this, so I made a commitment to simply be of service; and to remember to bring the values that matter to me compassion, faith, fun and positivity. This in mind and action the most powerful outcome of our gathering together was the transformational effect that we had on one another. Informed by practice, combined intention, compassion and courage, we shifted from a disparate band of people to a community of companions bringing a shared vision into concrete reality.
By the end of the first week I had a cold and felt physically drained. Now my days were spent in bed, getting up to go to rehearsals and returning straight to bed. I was now a lower rather than higher alto… With hindsight having to be very specific about where I was spending what little energy I had was probably a good thing. I finally felt much better by the final performance and was so excited / emotional I could have been intolerable if I’d been well all the way through!!
It was also only by the end of the first week that I finally understood what the show was all about. Each evening we’d focus on an act and make that part of the show. By the Friday we were putting together the end and could have an idea of it as a whole. I think this is when we started talking about our own parents and grandparents’ experiences of war. An appreciation of the ‘memorial’ aspect of this poem was growing, we were sharing more and becoming emotionally invested in this journey.
Over the middle weekend the set (such as it is) went in – essentially this meant the grass went down, replete with mounds (aka trip hazards) to challenge our ambulatory art, the platform was created for the band to tower over us like Gods. Having the musicians join us created a new level of excitement, we now had costumes on – all neutral palette apart from the guys who would magically appear as WW1 soldiers midway through. Seeing them would always make me emotional and I know from so many people who saw the show that their arrival on stage struck the audience deeply. Now we had tech join us with the lighting and props, new faces joining the chorus every day, young children joining us in certain scenes.
Helen was our anchor on stage, Ben our anchor in our ears. It’s a very intimate thing to have someone’s voice directly in your ear giving you instructions. Being fiercely independent I’ve never really been one for responding well to doing as I’m told… I’d been surprised way back in July, when we were introduced to the in ear system, how liberating it had been and of course when creating a 100 minute show with a large cast in just 8 evenings it’s essential. Everything stepped up another gear as tech and dress rehearsals were underway getting ready for opening night on the Thursday.
It didn’t seem possible we could pull it together in time.
And yet Chris and Ben seemed to have unwavering belief…. and so I believed too.
Before we knew it, it was Thursday evening and opening night. As we settled to get ready before the performance Chris gave a speech and encapsulated all that I’d been feeling, how honoured I felt to be a part of this, how I wanted to put all that I could into it and support everyone else as a collective. Damn that lovely man and his big, open heart who nearly had me in tears before we even began!
The prologue has the whole chorus lying on their bellies covering the entirety of the stage surrounded by darkness. Lying there, Ben’s voice in our ears telling us the theatre was full, that the lights were going down and the doors closing (if you’ve attended a show at the Barbican you’ll know that thrill!). My starting position was downstage, right at the front, which meant as the thick, heavy iron curtain opened, I could feel the rush of air coming through, the sheer electrical energy coming from the audience on the other side would always have me catch my breath. The fear came. Remembering that right next to fear is the innate capacity to be with it, it would remind me to take a deep breath, soften my jaw and hands to gather that feeling of adrenaline and channel it for the performance. The swell of the music, the slow emergence of light and Helen’s voice beginning her epic journey through Alice Oswald’s poem… I can play it out for myself in my minds eye now… I can feel it in my body – the sheer ‘aliveness’ of that moment…
And this is why I’m writing this down. Because I don’t ever want to forget this experience. The extraordinary feeling of doing something far bigger than one person, a coming together of talent passion, positivity, belief and commitment. The boundless positive energy and enthusiasm from everyone involved, instilled such confidence that by the end I swear I’d have walked over hot coals if Chris and Ben had asked me to!
By the end of the run that confidence was truly embodied and I was able to be truly present. That last show will stay with me forever, as I was able to let go of any expectations or demands and really be there, soaking it all up, feeling all the feelings… By the last “and go” instruction from Ben to look up at the end of ‘Thousands of Leaves’ my eyes were full of tears. They flowed freely at the standing ovation and when the crew came together backstage afterwards and we sang the chorus one last time I was in absolute bits. Joy, relief, disbelief, deep gratitude, love, sadness, a heart-and-soul-felt connection to this big group of people who had been strangers just two weeks before…
The whole experience has informed my life since – professionally and personally. I’m capable of more than I thought. Positivity, confidence, faith, a sense of adventure and trust, courage and vulnerability will take you EVERYWHERE. I started the year wanting to sing and dance more so joined a choir once a week for a couple of hours. Within 9 months I was performing on stage at The Barbican… Be careful what you wish for folks, the universe will deliver and then some!!
We haven’t wanted to let it go just yet…
With 11/11 marking 100 years since the end of WW1, and having promised Chris Drummond at the wrap party that we’d sing “Thousands of Leaves” that day. a gathering of remembrance was organised at Abney Park in Hackney.
It was truly beautiful, giving the large audience that gathered a place to pay their respect and to reflect; it gave us a chance to reconnect with each other and the music again. There was a reunion feel as Memorial members from other choirs joined and we talked about our memories of performing and how much it has touched our lives. The leaves fell from the trees as everyone sang and £500 was raised for charity in donations!