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Q&A with Spitalfields Music

Ahead of the world première of Sister in the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival, the Spitalfields team caught up with Alex to see how the piece had developed since our work-in-progress performance in the Winter Festival.

Alex Groves © James Berry

What was the inspiration behind interviewing sisters from all walks of life to create Sister?

Often in music theatre, and especially opera, the story comes from a historic or mythical tale, revelling in the otherworldliness of the subject matter. As a company, we’re interested in telling stories that people can directly relate to and see themselves in – stories of the here and now – and that’s why we sought out true stories from women from all walks of life. We wanted to shine a light on their personal experiences, zooming in on individual lives whilst also reflecting on sisterhood as a whole. We’re also really passionate about showing multi-faceted and empowering female characters on stage – something that we feel is lacking in the opera world. It’s this that drew us to focusing solely on sisters. We wanted to show all the ups and downs of these complex relationships and use it as a way of celebrating the bonds that we all share with our friends and families.

How did you go about interviewing sisters?

We reached out to a huge range of people via social media, other arts organisations and through word of mouth and the response was really fantastic. We’ve had stories from all over the UK and abroad and from girls aged as young as four right up to women in their nineties. It’s been really humbling to have so many people share their stories with us as these things aren’t often spoken about. The emotions are deeply felt but it’s rare to set them down in words, so we’ve found it really exciting to build up this archive of experiences and personal reflections, some of which may never have been talked about before.

How did you feel about presenting Sister as a Work in Progress in our Winter Festival?

The Work in Progress performance of Sister back in December was a great opportunity to get some material up on its feet and in front of an audience. We’re always looking for new ways of creating our work and so it’s important to have the time to experiment and take risks. Sister features a lot of live sound design which is something we hadn’t done before and so it was crucial that we had the space to explore this new technology before getting stuck in to making the finished piece.

How has Sister developed since the Work in Progress performance and what means have you taken to develop it?

In December, we presented a first draft for the opening of the show and one of the main storylines. Since then, we’ve conducted more interviews, written the script, and started to compose the vocals and electronics for the piece. We’re about to do a couple of residencies at the Bristol Old Vic as part of Bristol Ferment and, in those, we’ll be finalising the script and music. Then, we’re heading into rehearsals at Ovalhouse where we’ll bring in the set, costumes and lighting ready for the première in June.

Was it valuable to you to perform it as a Work in Progress? Did you take anything away from the audience feedback that will shape the final performance?

The Work in Progress was absolutely invaluable to the creation of Sister.When making a new work, we find it really useful to present ideas and sketches along the way, because you get the feedback from the audience as well as the chance to see your own work in a different light. Outside of the rehearsal room, you can get a much clearer sense of what’s working and what needs to be refined. The feedback session that we had in December was also really fantastic, because it meant we could gather reactions to the piece in a way that was constructive for us. We’ve taken on board lots of the points from that session and it’s had a real impact on how we’ve been developing the show.

What can audience members expect from the performance?

One of the audience members in December described the show as ‘slightly bonkers but strangely beautiful’ and we really like that description. Sister captures the complexity of sibling relationships, taking the audience on a journey through all the highs and lows which that entails. Our unique fusion of spoken word, song and live electronics creates this rich soundworld that encompasses everything from intimate, fragile moments right up to huge walls of noise. Sister will be funny, tender, joyful and heartbreaking in equal measure and we can’t wait to share it with everyone in June.

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