Symphony of Us is an epic and personal spectacle made by six people of Coventry, a local creative team and Orchestra of the Swan and created by writer and performer Paul O’Donnell. Paul speaks to us about bringing these incredible stories to the stage to celebrate the city of Coventry as part of the year of culture.
Could you tell us what Symphony of Us is all about?
Symphony of Us is a show that puts everyday stories and individual people in front of the epic and extraordinary spectacle of a live classical orchestra.
The People Section, as we have come to call them, are six residents of Cov there to tell you about who they are as people and the insignificant but meaningful contributions that they have made to the world. Their stories are accompanied by a live original score composed by Ivor Novello winning composer Daniel Fardon, and played by the region’s most prestigious chamber orchestra Orchestra of the Swan.
With these six people, and me as the theatrical host, we honour the people of this city who rarely have an orchestra to sing their praises. For this performance at least, they will.
What inspired you to write the piece?
Initially it came about as a response to Coventry’s self-deprecatory nature. As a city we have a hidden pride, a pride often disguised behind self-deprecation. This is something that resonates across the UK but Coventry is a particular stronghold. In January 2019 I was asked by Coventry City of Culture Trust to think about what the theme Being Human might mean in Cov. It made me reflect upon how it is very human to think “ah, plain old me”. Symphony of Us hopes to question why we think that about ourselves.
What has been created since has absolutely been inspired by the six “plain old me’s” who have been with me throughout this process, but hopefully speaks to everyone who comes to experience the performance live. We are all worthy of an orchestra after all.
How has it been working with participants that aren’t necessarily actors, and how have they taken to the process?
It has been an absolute joy!!!
I should say, in my practice I don’t consider myself ‘an actor’. If you ask me to pretend to be Macbeth or Fagin or Javert I’m afraid I will be absolutely awful. I am terrible at accents, my camp ways always shine through and I simply cannot cry on demand. I play ‘me’ on stage, often extended, often parodied in ways, but I always remain true to who Paul O’Donnell is.
I have loved transposing this onto, and with, other people. I have loved working with real life individuals to capture their stories, their personalities and their humour in a text that somehow speaks about the world. They are a hilarious group. Rehearsals are filled with so much laughter, and we absolutely take the p#*s out of each other through out. They are a group that I have a very warm spot in my heart for and as one of them has said “the time we spend together is good for the soul”.
I have no concerns whatsoever about their ‘technical’ abilities to perform, they are not ‘actors’, they are them and they will talk about who they happen to be in a way no actor could meaningfully impersonate. I cannot wait to have this opportunity to share with you the extraordinary ordinary people who form The People Section.
How does the orchestral score interweave with the participants’ performances?
Composer Daniel Fardon has been working closely with The People Section to find ways to musically capture them, their stories and the sentiment of their texts into an original classical score. We have a harp, we have a string section, we have percussion, we have found ways to use these to capture the personalities of real life people.
To our knowledge there is nothing ‘quite’ like Symphony of Us. I think we are walking unchartered territory both theatrically and musically. Musically – creating classical orchestral music inspired by residents of a city, weaving music and theatre in this way. Theatrically – creating community driven co-devised theatre of this scale, accompanying people’s stories with a live original score. Capturing ‘people’ both theatrically and orchestrally.
I have always been excited about pushing what theatre can do next, and so I am very proud that this show is doing that for theatre whilst also challenging how we understand or experience orchestral music.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
For people who live in Coventry I think one thing you will take away is an overwhelming pride for the city and the people who live here and now. For those not from Coventry it has really surprised me how, from these six people we have accidentally tackled national and universal issues. Themes rise from the group such as the LGBTQ+ experience, migration, faith and unfortunately the experience of miscarriage or bereavement. As one of the participants Duncan said in an interview “there really is something in there for everyone”. I hope this is true, I believe it is so rich an experience that it might be,
More than anything, I hope that all leave the Cathedral of Coventry feeling a little bit prouder of the ‘utterly boring’ person they happen to be. Whether you recognise it when you enter the cathedral or not, I hope all leave knowing that they absolutely are worthy of an orchestra.
Symphony of Us is performed at Coventry Cathedral on Friday 4th and Saturday 5thFebruary. For tickets, please visit the website.