Restoke – Man Up

Last night I watched ‘Man Up’ from the wonderful ‘Restoke’, a group of artists and collaborators who work with the local community to craft music, dance and spoken word performances in various unusual locations around Stoke on Trent.

This was the first year I was able to watch a performance purely as an audience member, having previously helped out with the technical crew behind the scenes, and regrettably missing last year’s performance due to baby duties!

What a year I chose to come and watch.

‘Man Up’ was pitched as “A gritty, humorous & revealing performance from the frontlines of masculinity & mental health.” (https://www.restoke.org.uk/man-up/), a strapline that is entirely accurate, but could not possibly convey the emotional heft and punch that we felt in the audience.

Almost radiating from the stage, there was a palpable energy in that room as the cast shared interpretations of their struggles with the concept of masculinity, identity and mental health.

And for what reason? Well, that was made clear early in the night: Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. The prison and homeless population is predominantly male. These facts are the surface reality of deep, social questions that we need productions like this to ask.

The received image of masculinity is that men are not great at talking, at sharing their feelings, at ‘connecting’ with their emotions. At worse, it is almost as if we should purposefully avoid doing so. Yet I just watched a group of men from all walks of life, who started this process as strangers, literally perform their anxieties, their stories, their hopes and fears, together, to yet more strangers.

If that’s not talking about your feelings, I don’t know what is.

This was exceptional in many senses. It was an exceptional production, but it was also an exceptional opportunity for those few who chose to share and see the process through. The hope, I would think, is that focussing on these issues will help conversations happen more regularly in ‘real’ life, whatever that means to each of us.

I certainly heard a lot of stories of audience members inspired to check in with friends, family, or even colleagues who might be needing an opportunity of their own to share, to reach out, to be heard, to be helped. And although these stories came from men who had experienced the extreme edges of mental health, there are none of us immune to the possibility of finding ourselves in those same places.

Mental health, like physical health, is a scale that we can all move up and down, and if society’s preconceived notions of gender identity are causing men to not seek the help they need, then we need to challenge and change society, in whatever way we can, even if that is simply telling someone that it is okay to talk about it.

Find out more about Restoke and their work here: https://www.restoke.org.uk/

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Unearthed Episode 3 – Miners March Choir

I am very proud to present the performance of a choral piece I wrote for the Unearthed project, remembering the tragedy at Lidice and the donations by the Miners of Stoke on Trent who vowed that ‘Lidice shall live!’ and pledged a days pay until the end of WWII to rebuild the village destroyed by the Nazis.

The piece consists of 6 parts, three harmonies constitute the ‘Follow’ line (though the harmonies don’t come in until the end), and then 3 melody lines run over each other after a staggered introduction.

I wrote this piece not knowing if we would have a full choir or just a handful of volunteers. As it happened, we ended up with the excellent Stoke 6th Form performing arts group and additional volunteers.

It is my first composed and performed piece for harmony voices, and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out, especially considering how little time the guys had to learn, practice and choreograph the various entrances and routes of the melody groups that entered from three different angles to eventually join the backing group on stage.

I wrote this to be simple for each individual part, but when everyone is singing together, it is hard work to keep your ear on the beat, not waiver from your melody, and project. But they all did a fantastic job and I was so impressed when I heard it on the day.

I had the added honour of joining them for the performance, and that really helped me appreciate how well they had all put this together when I was fretting about my key, stage position, movements, projection!

The song is based on the poem I wrote ‘Barnett’s few’ – each verse is a melody. In the end due to time constraints, we didn’t include the final couplet outro, and opted for a unison ‘Follow, Follow!’ after a section of hummed melodies. This was worked out by the group themselves and I thought it was really effective in the end.

Anyway, please do take the time to have a watch and listen and if you enjoy it, visit http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk and make your pledge to remember the story of Lidice and have your initials included on a new sculpture to be unveiled later this year in Hanley, Stoke on Trent, by the Victoria Hall where MP Barnett Stross first vowed that ‘Lidice shall live!’.

For more on the story that inspired this, visit the Unearthed website. The lyrics (poem) that I wrote for this (before composing the music) can be found here:

https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/barnetts-few/