Dark Songs from Around the World – The Irish Times


At the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, nestled in the curve of Blacksod Bay, sits a concrete basin that turns into a tidal pool at high tide. The locals track the moon and gather at the lido when the pool is full: to swim, of course, but also to talk and share news. As composer Ellen Cranitch says, the outdoor pool is “a place of light. There is the physical light of the sun shimmering on the water, or sinking on the horizon, but there is also a metaphysical light. Over the past two years, this has been a beacon of hope and a literal lifeline from a community perspective.

As she describes it to me, Cranitch talks about all the locals who bathe there regularly, those who discovered the tidal pool during Covid – “it was an outdoor space less than 2 km away where they could meet in complete safety safety while complying with regulations” – and those who have learned how to swim for the first time in its brackish depths. In September, with Cranitch’s help, the tidal pool will become another kind of focal point for the community: a theater, where stories of the sea will be told by Performance Corporation, the theater company founded by director Jo Mangan. and playwright Tom Swift. 20 years this year, with the mission of creating “daring theatrical adventures in surprising places”.

Performance Corporation has more than lived up to its ambition since it began producing live shows in 2002. They have done work in rowboats and on lakes, in shopping malls and sports stadiums , in sand dunes and parking lots, in libraries and, of course, on traditional stages. Swift explains the genesis of Disappearing Islands to Belmullet, a place he and Mangan know well. “Jo’s family has connections in Mayo,” the writer explains. “His father is from Belmullet and we have been visiting him for years.” Fifteen years ago, the couple decided to do a show there inspired by the stories of exile from the region, more precisely from the Inishkea Islands, off the Belmullet peninsula. “It was an amazing experience,” Swift recalled. Before writing the play, the company spent a week exploring the area and talking with locals, gathering stories for what would become Lizzie Lavelle and the demise of Emlyclough. The drama was performed by professional actors and a community cast “in a natural amphitheater in the sand dunes.” Production only lasted four nights, but in the research stage, Swift had gathered a lot of material that he knew he’d like to reuse one day. “The area has such a rich history and folklore and there are so many beautiful and interesting places, so we were keen to do something else there, something that would be more sea-focused.”

Tom Swift was also interested in deepening his own relationship with death and grief

Of course, the sea is a temperamental collaborator, and as Swift began brainstorming ideas for a new piece earlier this year, he was acutely aware of the difficulty of working in outdoor spaces, as well as the “dangers of the sea.” and local tragedies” that have affected the surrounding community, both historically and today. “Recently there was the Rescue 116 disaster. [in which four coastguards died in 2017], but that’s just one of many tragedies over the years. There was a terrible tragedy just off the Mullet Peninsula in the 1920s when a dozen men and boys died in a terrible fishing accident; [afterwards] the inhabitants of the islands gave up and moved to the mainland. So there’s a lot of dark history there to explore.

Swift was also interested in deepening her own relationship with death and grief. Swift’s brother, actor Stephen Swift, died of cancer in 2018, “so there was this personal experience of loss that I was interested in, but I’m also aware that we had the chance to tell the goodbye to [Stephen] and come to terms with his death in a bit of a way that people don’t often do. As a writer I was interested in exploring how people deal with loss, how they move on, what is the best way to remember people.

From the start, Swift envisioned writing “a song cycle that would connect local myth, legend, and loss in a series of vocal works”. One of the stories that really captured his imagination was the legend of Hy-Brasil “a mythical mystical island supposedly off the west coast of Ireland”. Weaving these disparate elements together, Swift told the story of a woman who returned to Belmullet after many years away. “It turns out that she doesn’t have long to live and that she is trying to make peace with herself, with her family, with the idea of ​​leaving this world. She is becoming one of those endangered islands herself.

Composer Ellen Cranitch came on board and as Swift set about writing lyrics that would provide narrative impetus to the story, Cranitch joined her in Belmullet to explore the area and “get a sense of the place I could feed into the music. We met so many wonderful people,” she explains, “who live and document the area in so many different ways: retired lighthouse keepers, fishermen, local arts officers, farmers, rangers. We put all that flavor of the region into the pot, trying to find a way to make a piece that would be relevant. I am a contemporary musician, Tom is a contemporary playwright. We wanted to do something that would have immediacy and be relevant both to ourselves as artists and to the community that lives there.

When Swift and Cranitch stumbled across the Tidal Pool site, they immediately knew that was where their collaboration would take place. “The pool itself is like a vanishing island,” says Swift. “It’s a liminal space that disappears at a certain time twice a day.” As with all site-specific outdoor performances, he marvels, “there will be a completely different lighting design and set for each show.” Cranitch, meanwhile, describes the “magic that happens when you play in a space where real time unfolds as the play unfolds. The sun is setting, or the tide is rising, or a seagull is stealing your sandwich, or there’s a swell in the sea, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

The voice is the key instrument in the resulting song cycle that Ellen Cranitch composed to accompany Swift’s lyrics and story.

She admits that “it’s challenging, but challenging” both for the performers, but also from a compositional perspective. “Some tools [like wind instruments] don’t work well in an outdoor space,” she explains. “You don’t have the natural acoustic bounce that you would if you were in a theater.

The voice is the key instrument in the resulting song cycle that Cranitch composed to accompany Swift’s lyrics and story. The score will be performed by opera singer Naomi Louisa O’Connell and Coda, an acapella ensemble of six male voices from nearby Westport. A mix of live and pre-recorded music – consisting of piano, percussion and found sounds – will accompany the singers, with two contemporary dancers providing additional visual interest, with a community of local sea swimmers getting in on the action for the finale.

At least that’s the plan for Disappearing Islands the day we speak. Cranitch is cunning enough to admit that “we’re going to tweak everything until the very last minute. The subject, the execution: everything is fluid until you are there on the day of the performance.

“It’s theater,” Swift concludes funny. “And you have to be comfortable with challenges, especially when doing site-specific work. There are so many unexpected obstacles, but they can provide some really special moments. The creative solution you need to find short term is often where the magic happens.”

Disappearing Islands: Songs from Around the World takes place at Belmullet Tidal Pool from Friday September 16 to Monday September 19

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