By Carol Davies
On Saturday, the 4th of June 2022 the play ‘Singers not Sinners’ premiered at Millgate Arts Centre, Delph and ran for a week. On the 30th August last it was reprised with the same cast at Oldham Parish Church, now Saint Mary’s with Saint Peter, on the site of the 1701 church. It was an extraordinary experience and a major place on the Journey.
Because from Page to Stage IS a journey..
Of course, the journey really began in 1701 in the Lancashire town of Oldham when three women agreed to and were allowed to sing in a church choir alongside men – provided they stood at the west door and behind a screen.
In the context of the times this was extraordinary and generally unknown.
However 315 years later in 2016 the journey of the play began. It began when my friend and co-writer Livi Michael attended a talk at Saddleworth Historical Society. It was a talk about an 18th-century singer called Sarah Harrop who was from Lees and sang in Hey chapel in the 1770s. Victor Kayden, the speaker, told how Sarah went on to become a famous soprano but – almost in passing he mentioned three women who had sung in Oldham Parish Church choir even earlier, at the beginning of that 18th century. 1701 was only 40 years after the restoration. The puritans were within living memory and Nolly -Oliver – Cromwell was still a legend in non-conformist Oldham. The Puritans didn’t like music in the church; it was a distraction. The idea of women singing in the church was an anathema.
So this ‘throwaway’ comment was astonishing. Livi searched to find other instances anywhere in England, anywhere in Europe where women were allowed to sing in a church alongside men; she found nothing. only the documents that suggested it happened in Oldham.
Now Livi is a novelist with a keen ear for a good story and particularly a historical one and she started to dig in the local history library and begin to find details about a choir master called Elias Hall and his choir who sang at Oldham Parish church in the first years of the 18th century. and the choir was made up of 36 men and three women. When Livi came to me with the story we discussed it at considerable length and decided that it would make a good play. We went back together to the Local History library for more research and we visited St Mary’s Church, Oldham and its wonderful crypt. Then we began to map out the characters and we started to write.
By 2018 we had a first script. We had made decisions about cutting down the number of characters to what we needed to tell the story and entertain – this was a play not a lecture.
Oldham in 1701 was a small rural parish of 1,100 souls, farmers, weavers and miners and all the other occupations that make up a community.
Many of the characters in our play are named after real people – Richard SUGDEN, the Vicar. John Taylor, the headmaster Edmund Newton the Church warden and of course the choir master Elias Hall. For others we used the names of the time garnered from our research – family names that are very familiar to us – Clegg, Bentley,Vary, Buckley, Whitehead. But the main problem for us was the women. Our three intrepid singers had no names no matter how much digging we had done they were not named.
So we took a decision; we decided to have a cross-section of society from the genteel to the semi acceptable and something in between.
In 1701 there was a family called Tetlow who lived in Coldhurst Hall; it comprised three sisters who had inherited their father’s money and were benefactors to the town. They ran the Sunday school and they were educated in music.
We reduced the number of sisters to two and decided we would have the youngest Tetlow sister Elizabeth,as our genteel singer. The second singer we decided should be more working-class but nonetheless a pillar of that small community. She would be the matriarch; the woman who people went to when they were in trouble: she laid out the dead, she birthed the babies and she scrubbed the church floor. Alice Butterworth was created.
Our third woman we decided should be more controversial. Livi has done a lot of research into the gypsy communities of the time; they were a very highly persecuted group and we decided that our third woman should be half gypsy but should also be linked to the community. So Mercy Shaw became the daughter of Davy Shaw the gypsy and Martha Platt, a weaver from Foxdenton. To make matters worse -she sang in the inn. Mercy Shaw became our third woman.
Our first script needed workshopping. As playwrights it is very easy to have tunnel vision and we needed fresh sets of eyes on the script. And who better to go to than actors. Our first group was Saddleworth Players and we invited them for a reading asking them to comment on the characters, the plot and anything else that occurred to them. They did not hold back. ‘It’s not dangerous enough!’, ‘I want to know more about that character!’ ‘Why isn’t there a scene with the women all together?’ We were both pleased that they laughed a lot and grateful that these experienced actors commented so thoughtfully and usefully on our script. We went away for a re-write.
We took the re-write to the Elder company at the Royal Exchange for a read through and they too laughed and liked it. A number of the actors in those readings asked if ever we were putting the play on stage could they be considered for a part. And indeed many of the actors in this first production of the play were people who had kindly read our first drafts. By midway through 2018 it was ready for the stage. However theatre companies plan a couple of years ahead.( news to Livi ) And in professional theatre large casts are expensive . So we turned to community theatre.
In September 2018 Saddleworth Players, who have five plays in the annual season, were planning their 2020 season. To our delight they read, considered and agreed to have ‘Singers Not Sinners’ as the June play 2020. Now we all know what happened in 2020 so it will come as no surprise that it actually didn’t hit the boards until June 2022 and I was asked to direct it.
So we have the ‘page’ now we had to put it on stage.
As the play was about singers it had to have music. I am not a musician. So I took the play to my dear late friend Ruth Dixon who had been head of music at Hulme grammar school. She noted with grim humour that we had written all the lyrics of the songs and hymns in the script but asked where the music was? To my shame it had never occurred to me that well known hymns and even bawdy songs needed arranging. Couldn’t we just get it from YouTube???? Best not to record what she said to that – our music needed arranging – particularly because we had demanded four part harmony in the script. But Ruth Knew just the person to do it. And so I met a very talented young man called Daniel Hicks. I handed him a copy of the script with the music marked on it and said 1701. Assiduous to the date both lyrics and melodies changed. He sent me four part harmonies, recorded rehearsal tracks and even came to the Millgate Arts Centre, sat at the piano and sang. I then added Peter Wakefield as Musical director who could take the choir through its paces and Ian Ball actor musician who I cast as Elias Hall the choir master. We had the music. Now we needed a cast.
Most plays have between 2 and 8 actors. But our play needed 19 and not only that, most of them had to be able to sing and sing acapello – acapulco as they persisted in saying! Luckily I had been directing ‘The Road to Nab End’ at Playhouse 2 in Shaw as Covid descended and then in October 2021. As a musical play, it was full of singers and I persuaded many to come to Delph to be in the premier of ‘Singers Not Sinners’. I needed very particular sounding singers according to our script – Alice Butterworth had to be able to sing a tenor part. Elizabeth Tetlow had to be mistaken for a treble choirboy and Mercy Shaw needed an unusual quality. But I had Lisa Kay, Kira Richardson and found Lauren Charnock and boy could they sing. Rehearsals began.
So we had the actors – we now needed to dress them. Next stop Costume. We were blessed with Saddleworth players again. They have a costume department with very creative and skilled people. Fashion in 1701 is a mixture of puritan and cavalier: plainness and a bit of lace for the posh people. I decided it should not be black and white as plays like the crucible often are. I decided it should be a palette of earthy colours -greens and yellow ochres and browns with just a little bit of black to give a puritanical edge. The secret to the 1701 look is collars, aprons and bonnets, tall hats and cuffs with breeches and buckles thrown in. So Verity Mann and Sue Lund dug out the box of Elizabethan/mediaeval- do -anything- historical costumes and took a look at them. Linen tablecloths bought from charity shops and a 3-D printer creating buckles plus the amazing sewing team at Saddleworth Players, all came together to produce the most beautiful set of costumes and just what we needed. The detail is astonishing.
We have a very talented stage manager & props master in Colin Watt and he was able to make a mock spinet and stocks etc with great ease as well as learning his lines for Amos Clegg.
Next stop Set .
I hate blackouts in which people in black move scenery and furniture. yet our play required different settings. It moved from Church to street to 4 different homes and to a pub. So early on, the decision was made to use a general composite set relying on the actors and a cunning back projector screen to take the audience with us to these different places. The stage at Millgate Arts Centre is above Delph library right behind the striking clock. We decided on entrances, a raised set of steps then got painting. The result was 3 sides of stone complete with stone flags – this worked for homes, church, street and pub. It also enabled fluid changes with a little mood music – harpsichord or organ.
This brings us to sound and light. Again Millgate have a team of people with amazing talent who help create atmosphere and ‘paint’ changes in time and space. For instance I needed to indicate that the choir had been rehearsing for a couple of hours and made headway so I asked Mark in the sound team to record each of my choir members separately and make a sound collage. He just did it. Similarly Bob the lighting chap put in window reflections on the floor to add to the illusion.
Next stop Publicity. In theatre, particularly amateur community theatre we say ‘ People know what they Like and Like What they Know’ – so a new play can be hard to sell. Posters and flyers are an obvious way forward but Andrew Mann also flooded social media. Word of Mouth is also important & our charity Sunday in which we give half the house proceeds to worthy causes helps too. By half way through the run we were close to sold out. And on Tuesday at the Church we were totally sold out and at the end, the vicar in her thanks said she hoped everyone would be at Church on Sunday!
Latest but not final stop. We transferred to the Church 10 weeks after we had closed at Millgate. We had to adapt to a different venue – sound & light had challenges and with the double echo so did the actors.
Livi and I had added an extra scene and I had planned an unrehearsed flashmob of female choristers near the end. Both a bit of a risk. However the experience was magical, despite not being able to raise the audience to improve sight lines. And when the flashmob of 25 stood one by one to join in ‘All People Who On Earth Do Dwell’ female voices soared through the Church. It made the hairs on the back of my neck rise up.
We are now helping to fundraise to have a plaque put on the Church wall near the west door to commemorate these 3 unnamed women & have already had enquiries about the script from other drama organisations. So far it has been a very exciting journey.