The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H – Interview with Red Gray

Stitched – Up Theatre presents a new contemporary opera with The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H.

It’s 1837. Piano mistress Mary Frances Heaton is committed to Wakefield Pauper Lunatic Asylum after confronting Doncaster’s authorities. This contemporary music and performance piece chronicles Mary’s life-long struggle of telling her story to the outside world, and is based on embroidered samplers which were discovered in the asylum years later.

I have had the privilege to interview Soprano and writer of this piece, Red Gray.

First of all, thank you so much for having me.

How does it feel to be taking this production on the road?

It feels so exciting and long overdue. We were all set to tour in 2020, funds in place, dates pencilled in and even train tickets booked for some pre-production visits at venues and the pandemic put a stop to it all. But we’re her now which is fantastic!!

Mary’s story is obviously quite an empowering one, as well as rather harrowing. Do you feel that this piece is relevant still in today’s society, with the rights of women dominating the headlines?

Indeed yes. In fact at a singing workshop today women were saying exactly this to me, that even though terrible things like this happened long ago in some ways today things are not much better: they mentioned how women are imprisoned literally in certain parts of the world for speaking out and metaphorically in ‘safer’ places, whether domestically, through online harassment or generally through ongoing inequalities in pay, rights etc. throughout society. As these women spoke I felt again – yes – this is relevant today– maybe moreso in some ways as we battle new struggles, new abuses and attacks which seem to continue and find new ways to manifest despite society’s progress.

What makes this production so unique from other operas, dramas etc.?

One thing is the elaborately created origin of the libretto/script – based on Mary Frances Heaton’s embroidered samplers and in her archived medical notes from the asylum. They have sat for a century and a half undisturbed and quite unknown and I feel so honoured that the knowledge of them reached me and compelled me to write this piece. The show also features the unique instrument ‘the inside out piano’ conceived and designed by our wonderful experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls who plays another patient in the asylum.

What was the creative process for Miss H?

Having Mary’s words and the accounts of her behaviour in the asylum were absolute gifts to start dramatizing this story. Her stitched words were not ‘Bless this House’ or niceties – they were words of protest and slander against the government and the patriarchal powers of the day. There were also accounts of her childhood and education as well as a love story – all rich pickings for drama. Her medical notes included the most fascinating anecdotes about her eventful confinement. For instance once day she saw a fly in her cup of tea and took it as a sign that wings were coming to rescue her from the asylum – and she believed this for a day and a half, waiting in the airing court for them to arrive. Such a poignant and poetic scenario really fired the imagination of Sarah and I musically and Kate Webster as our movement director.

Artistically to have this original content at our disposal was a gift. Our director Zoe Bouras and I spent many hours talking through the events and condensed each scene into ways of storytelling which would materialise as metaphorical movements and evocative soundscape. Re the creation of the music, I let Mary’s words ruminate in my thoughts, let them find their own expression melodically and then gave them a structure harmonically which Sarah in her more ‘avant-garde’ style opened up and subverted so that even the most melodious tunes had a dissonance and an eeriness about them. We were certain that we didn’t want a naturalistic period piece drama so this forced us to have a creative vision which could find innovative ways to represent events, memories and even the character of Mary’s apparent lover. We were also lucky enough to have create costume design from Rosie Whiting who created a ‘dynamic’ costume which has its own journey in the show, and to have the sensitive lighting vision of lighting designer Kristina Hjelm.

What do you want the audience to take away from this intense piece of theatre?

Despite the intensity of this story it is also a tribute to Mary’s resilience through her 41 year confinement. I want the telling of this story to empower others to tell their stories: anyone who has been told they have no voice, no right to assert themselves or to demand justice, and I want those feel they can, to support those who have no agency. In performing Mary’s story I am representing the stories of those who need to be heard. On a lighter note it would also be great if our audience felt inspired to go and visit Mental Health Museum Wakefield to see Mary’s samplers on display! They deserve to be seen!

The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H will be at CAST on Thursday 2nd March, the Second Space.

Click the link below to book! The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H – Interview with Red Gray

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