A collective of wonder women and their unsung heroes

Unsung Collective is a product of several female theatremakers from Leeds coming together to create a piece of theatre that explores the stories of brilliant women from British history. The team works to create theatre that tells the stories of unsung women – from those whose stories have been forgotten by history, to those whose stories are unfolding now.

Unsung is neither a history lesson, nor a historical drama. Instead, this piece of new writing interrogates in a lively and relatable way the under-representation of women in history, and society at large. Using a combination of biographical elements, along with physical performance, and an ambient electronic soundtrack from the BBC Introducing featured band PEAKES, the show explores with immediacy the very modern struggles of four women who made – or ought to have made – British history.

Their Producer, Alice Barber, is a Yorkshire-based theatre producer with a passion for female-focused projects. Here she discusses the early days of Unsung, and the continuous efforts of the team to give prominence to the untold stories of the missing women from our history books.

What was the catalyst that sparked Unsung Collective? How did you all find each other?

Unsung Collective is made up of a team of like-minded wonder women from across Leeds, who came together in 2017 to create our first production, Unsung. We have the brilliant Elvi Piper as Director, and the award-winning Lisa Holdsworth is our writer.

Photo credit: Antony Jones

I was just starting out as a Producer, and knew that I wanted to stage a show that would do two things in particular: provide four interesting parts for female actors to get their teeth into, and interrogate the under-representation of women in the history books, the theatre, and society at large. I put a call out online for a Director to collaborate with, which is how Elvi and I met, and through our various friends and connections we pulled together a team of amazing female theatremakers, all with a huge passion for feminism and female representation, to work on devising some ideas for a show. Lisa then came onboard after seeing a work-in-progress performance, and worked her magic to organise these ideas into the fabulous script that became Unsung.

What makes theatre the best medium for representing your unsung women?

There is something so special about theatre with regards to the realms of possibility that it offers us. What we wanted to do was make a show that explored the stories of four entirely different women from entirely different backgrounds and periods, and one of the biggest challenges was finding a form for the show that would make sense of this. We essentially wanted to throw into a room four women who fundamentally would never have met – a strange fusion of history and fantasy that is rarely represented in other mediums. But in being allowed to play with these temporal boundaries through theatre, we could explore the ways in which these totally disparate women faced collective struggles, and by highlighting the congruity between time periods, ultimately emphasise how we’ve been fighting the same battles for centuries.

How has representing ‘unsung’ women been different than showcasing well-known and recognisable figures?

What’s brilliant about sharing untold stories is that you’re never in danger of things becoming hackneyed or stale! It was so exciting to feel like we were truly shedding light where it hadn’t been shed before. I guess a positive spin on the fact that there is so little documented about the women we focused on is that it gave each performer the license to really endow the characters with their own ideas about who these women were, and how they behaved. Our cast, and indeed all of the collective, have influenced how we presented them onstage, which has really helped us to achieve a sense of modernity and immediacy, and avoid the idea of becoming a ‘historical drama’ – which Unsung certainly isn’t!

How has the Unsung Collective been received by audiences? Have audiences connected in the way you’d anticipated?

The reaction we’ve had from audiences, particularly female ones, has been phenomenal. People came out of shows in disbelief they’d never heard of these incredible women before, and they were outraged. Why hadn’t they been presented with figures like these at school? We learn plenty about Samuel Pepys, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin – but where are the stories of the female pioneers that have shaped the world we live in? So there’s that, and what’s also really exciting is the way that audiences have been compelled to go away and learn more about the characters we’ve introduced them to; we had a lot of ‘I can’t wait to Google them when I get home!’ It’s also been fantastic to learn that pretty much every audience member has resonated on an individual level with the particular struggles faced by at least one of the characters – whether that’s to do with gender, race, class – which is the real beauty of presenting characters from such a range of disciplines and backgrounds. There’s just been such an overarching sense that people are really grateful that we’ve given these figures a platform, which is so great to hear, because it really justifies what we do.

Why did you decide that Leeds was the best place for your collective?

Quite simply because we’re all from round here! The majority of the team are Yorkshire lasses born and bred, and we’re so proud of our identity as a Northern company – which I think is part of the reason the show resonated so well in the venues we’ve toured to in the region. Unsung was always going to feature women from our home county (in this case Andrea and Lilian) – everybody loves a local hero – and Northern voices will always be represented in what we make. That’s who we are, there are some incredible stories to be explored, and it just makes sense to present them in the region to which they’re most relevant.

Photo credit: Antony Jones

How has the local support aided and benefitted your team and your productions?

The local support has been so integral to the success of the show – both in terms of its development and the tour itself. Another one of the reasons it’s so brilliant to be working in and around Leeds is the incredible support we’ve received from local theatres, which is absolutely invaluable to us as a small theatre company. We’ve been supported by so many incredible organisations throughout the journey of the show, ranging from Leeds City College, to Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax and Bradford Playhouse, and going all the way back to the earliest development of the show which took place at Slung Low in Holbeck.

What’s next for Unsung Collective?

Oooft now there’s a question! First off, Unsung is coming back! The show will be out on tour again in Spring 2020, the dates for which will be announced by the end of this year. Then in terms of new projects, we’ve got a couple of really exciting ideas brewing – again both focusing on giving a voice to unsung women, and with all-female casts. I won’t give too much away, but one idea will be based around Roller Derby, taking true stories from local female teams, and the other will look at the pioneering musician and band leader Ivy Benson (who was from Holbeck in Leeds), and incorporate a lot of live music! So watch this space…

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The perfect first opera: The return of Opera North’s La Bohème

La bohème is one of the most popular operas of all time, and it’s back at Leeds Grand Theatre this month. Opera North’s take on Puccini’s heart-wrenching opera was originally conceived by Phyllida Lloyd – who went on to direct Mamma Mia! and the Oscar-winning The Iron Lady. She transports the action to the smoky cafés and garrets of 1950s Paris where we witness the tragic love affair between two impoverished bohemians, seamstress Mimì and poet Rodolfo, who meet one freezing Christmas Eve.

NRTH LASS caught up with Lauren Fagan and Eleazar Rodriguez who play the ill-fated lovers on opening night (there are two casts alternating over the course of the run). They are also performing at the company’s first dementia-friendly performance on 24 October. Henry Neill, who sings the part of Rodolfo’s friend Schaunard, and revival director Michael Barker-Caven joined the conversation.

NL: Tell us more about La bohème. What's it about? 

L: It’s a story of beauty, love and, ultimately, tragedy. Life and death basically!

M: As you watch it, it’s like going from a big evening, feeling that life is nothing but a party, to discovering that the morning after can actually be a place of terrifying shadow. You didn’t know that, of course, when you were dancing the night away and believing life was just joyful and fun.

H: I think people will find it really familiar. We’ve all been there, especially students. We have the mate who’s the joker, we have the mate who’s the intelligent guy, so immediately that’s something that’s basically straight from young people’s lives, and then the story is born out of that.

M: Everything feels like you’ve been there, seen it, done it. That’s what’s remarkable about it. Anybody who’s never been to the opera, this is the place to start because you will come and learn that great opera is about you.

NL: What's this particular production like?

M: I’m reviving a piece that was first done in the early ’90s. It’s stood the test of time, so the pleasure for me as a director is not messing it up basically! It’s set in a world that people will recognise: the young people have motorbikes, they’re drinking out of bottles, they’ve got leather jackets on, things like that. There’s also a modern art element – a visual homage to the Jackson Pollocks of this world, the Hockneys, all those artistic icons. You get this commercial pop art world beginning to come through juxtaposed with the harshness of real life.

What’s really exciting about this production though, is that it’s young people who sing this extraordinary, vibrant piece of work. Every bit of it is gripping to watch and that’s all credit to these wonderful casts. They’re bringing their lived experience into it and making everything come alive.

E: I think for us the challenge is that we know what’s going to happen in the opera, but we have to keep it really fresh in every phrase we do. Everything we sing, everything we act, it has to be like it’s the first time it’s ever happened.

NL: Why are you doing a dementia friendly performance and how will it be different?

H: Research consistently shows that music can be an incredibly powerful force for people with dementia, so we hope this will make a real impact on them and their families. We’re looking forward to it as singers, because the lights will be on we’ll be able to see a bit more and the auditorium should have a very different feel.

E: For me, it’s wonderful to make opera accessible to anyone. Inclusivity is one of my favourite words!

NL: What kind of
music can people expect? 

M: If people are going “I wouldn’t like opera – it’s all that weird screeching”, then they should experience this. It’s full of melody, it’s full of the most beautiful tunes, it’s full of this extraordinary playfulness. It’s so fresh. In fact, the paradox is that it feels like it’s been written by a young person, and yet it’s written by a mature genius. The skill and the originality are simply breath-taking.

La bohème opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 12 October and runs until Saturday 26 October before touring to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Nottingham Theatre Royal and The Lowry at Salford Quays. £10 tickets are available at every performance for under 30s.

Photo credit: Richard H. Smith