Streetwise Opera aims to help adults experiencing homelessness to rebuild their lives. Putting on a show involving some of the most vulnerable members of society provides unique challenges for the professional performers, creative team and technicians alike.
This year’s production, The Passion, is an immersive, fully staged version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion directed by Penny Woolcock. It will have two performances at Campfield Market, Manchester, in March. The piece features a new ‘resurrection’ finale by Scottish composer James MacMillan, with texts written by the Streetwise performers during workshops in Manchester.
Production designer Dick Bird is committed to making the experience as positive as possible for the performers. “Our interest is to make the production as extraordinary as it can be,” he says.
“The most significant element from a technical point of view is that they’ve chosen to do a promenade performance for about 400 people in this monumentally large Victorian market hall, with girders and glass. So you’re beginning with a space that is extraordinary. I began with a 1:100 model, which you rarely use in theatre – it’s normally 1:50 for an opera.
“Then you have this fabulous choir, the Sixteen, and their orchestra, then the 40 or so Streetwise performers, integrated into one thing. So our challenge was to marry those different elements into something that would make an amazing experience for the performers and audience.”
With only a small budget with which to work, costumes and sets had to be kept minimal, with some being made and some hired in. The backstage team is also small, and includes sound designer Dave Sheppard, costume supervisor Brian D Hanlon and two wardrobe assistants.
Lighting and video projections are in the hands of technical design company Imitating the Dog. For lighting designer Andrew Crofts, the main challenge was the structure of the hall.
“Everything needs to be flown out on a truss, but where you can put that is limited due to where the roof is strong enough to rig from and from where you can put motors in. Also, because it’s an old building, there’s a lot of infrastructure in the way. Between pillars there’ll be tensioning cables, and we can’t fly anything underneath them. So it’s a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out where something’s going to go in the rig.”
Andrew is using an ETC Gio lighting desk with a mixed lighting rig of conventional and intelligent units. Because video projections are an important part of the production, he is also handling the video equipment, which includes up to eight Panasonic projectors and a couple of mobile cameras with wireless units.
“The way we work as a company is to work closely with light and video, so we integrate those two things,” he explains. “Traditionally they’re two different disciplines, but we mix those two disciplines. The way we’ll programme the show will be on the same desk, so the lighting desk will also run all the video.”
Putting on a Streetwise Opera production is always going to be a delicate balance between ensuring a thrilling experience for the audience and an uplifting, potentially life-changing one for its performers.
Productions usually include professional performers, and The Passion features singers from the Sixteen, with conductor Harry Christophers and a chamber ensemble. But it’s the Streetwise performers who are centre stage, with several sharing the role of Jesus and others taking smaller roles.
“It’s one of our rules to create a framework that makes sense of the diverse talent and also makes everyone shine,” says Streetwise founder and director Matthew Peacock. “We’ve got a very mixed group performing, so we have to make pieces that will give a chance for people to be the best that they can be.”
Work on a new production starts up to a year in advance, especially if there is new material to be written and learnt, then rehearsals begin in earnest during the autumn workshops, leading up to two weeks of intensive rehearsal just before the production.
“We are working with people who have quite chaotic lives because of their personal situation. They might suddenly be told that they’ve got to attend an appointment at the housing office or job centre, or someone may have a doctor’s appointment they can’t move.
“At the same time we’re trying to put on a performance where national critics come – and we’ve been lucky enough to get really great reviews since we started – so we really want it to be a polished show as well. If we were putting on a professional show we’d insist that everyone is there, but we can’t do that. So the whole production side has to be realistic about making compromises.”
Streetwise Opera and the Sixteen’s The Passion, in association with Home, Manchester, is at Campfield Market Hall, Manchester from March 25-26