Wishes and memories, working with the Young Carers Group – Maria and Dagmara

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The title of our project, Snow Q, and of the original story that inspired our collaborative project, the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, could be misleading. Is the Snow Queen the main character? What about the two young people who lose and then find not only each other but also themselves. We’ve been talking about it as the story of a young person caring for someone else – going on a quest to rescue them – Gerda journeys to find her friend Kai who is missing in the snow – a story about selflessness and the determination of a young person in particular who meets and then overcomes obstacles that demand strength and courage beyond her age.

We’re working with different groups of people as part of the research and development of Snow Q. How do aspects of the story resonate with different people? We were keen to involve young people and we were delighted to have the opportunity of working with Brighton Young Carers Group and their Support Team from a wonderful organization at the Carers Centre in Brighton and Hove:


Maria and Dagmara loved meeting them and were amazed at the response they got. The young people in the Brighton Young Carers Group all have someone in their family who needs their care whether through illness or disability. As a carer all too often you are trying to think about someone else and what their needs might be. We wanted the children and young people who came to our workshops to have the opportunity to think about themselves and explore their own creativity.

Here is a description of what we did and some images from our workshops held on a rainy Thursday at the Cornerstone Community Centre in Hove last month. The young carers, (aged 6 to late teens) were split into two groups and participated in two workshops: Creative Writing led by Maria and an Art workshop run by Dagmara. Many thanks to Tom Lambert, Brighton Young Carers’ Team Manager who welcomed us and arranged the workshops, to Ruth Sullivan and Paula Melis, Support and Outreach workers and all members of support staff but most of all to the shiny stars of that rainy and cold day – the Young Carers.

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Dagmara: In the Third Chapter ‘Of the Flower Garden’ young Gerda leaves everything that is safe and familiar and decides to go on a journey to save Kay. Quite soon into her quest, the river takes her to a house occupied by a mysterious woman who puts her under a spell. She brushes Gerda’s hair, feeds her cherries, enchants her with a smell of flowers and their exotic and peculiar stories. Although Gerda forgets about Kay, she is given an opportunity to rest, to be nurtured, to be spoiled.

In our art workshop, I asked Young Carers to imagine that they were about enter the Flower Garden and meet the Enchantress who would put them under the spell. All they knew and remembered, good and not so good, was to be forgotten, all, except what they could capture on a piece of paper or fabric. Young people used drawing, collage, transfer, sewing and printing techniques to create images representing happiest and most treasured moments in their lives they wanted to hold forever. Images of bike rides and trips to the beach were layered with pictures of pets and birthday cakes. Some children added words and objects that represented tools to help them with overcoming obstacles described in Maria’s workshop, for example a set of little keys to open all sort of locked doors.

Here are only a few examples of work by the Young Carers, however all work produced by them will become a part of our art installation at the Annex of the Regency Town House in Brighton. The Young Carers’ artwork will form a giant table cloth for a kitchen table in the spectacular kitchen which, with its glass roof, is not unlike a glass house or even the magical house of the Enchantress that put Gerda under the spell.

What better place to dedicate to the Young Carers but the magical Flower Garden where they can rest, grow and blossom.

Maria:  Every journey or quest begins with a wish, I told the young people. I asked each of them to speak and write about their wishes. We also played games speaking breakfast-speak – a language consisting solely of breakfast foods to get them into a novel kind of language. I was impressed by their perseverance and determination.  Even those for whom writing or spelling was challenging – everyone stuck with the tasks I set and responded imaginatively, in a lively way. Some of their words and recordings of their words will make their way into our installation.

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Wishes ranged from a new pet puppy/cat – or ferret for that matter – to travelling the world, a loved one getting better or someone who had died coming back ‘for a day’. The two groups also wrote and spoke about what gets in the way of us achieving our aims and what helps us –  the distractions of phones were acknowledged by all, adults and children alike, whilst other people could sometimes provide distraction as well as much vital support and encouragement.

The groups then went on a mythical journey creating their own quests, having looked at a storyboard of Gerda’s quest to find Kai.  Here all kinds of rivals, monsters, pirates – even a domestic cat who didn’t want its owner to leave – threw obstacles in their path, while all manner of friendly creatures and persons guided the intrepid travellers across oceans or to the summits of mountains and also helped them win important challenges (one involved caring for goats!) and of course to find happiness.


Girl/boy – not? Maria

If you’ve been following our posts you know by now what a powerful source – Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen story – we chose for our collaborative project. We are Snow Q. What does the Q stand for? Questions? Queer? Quest? Queen? All of the above and more. Unusually, most of the protagonists in the story were women.  Maria wanted to build on that, while she also knew that she wanted the two young protagonists – a little older than Andersen’s children in her portrayal – not to represent girl and boy in a conventional way.  However she saw them as still caught up in a world which discriminates on a range of counts including gender, a world which destroys the planet, which forces people to flee from their homes or to live in poverty.

Growing up I looked like a boy, got mistaken for a boy (to my delight) and had no desire to become a woman (or an adult possibly.)  Grown women wore pinchy shoes and they didn’t climb trees, did they? Hard to tell now how much of that came from inside or outside. Boys had so many freedoms denied to me as a girl. My frantic mother carted me off to see a psychologist. As I grew older it got worse, since I was attracted to other girls as well as boys. Later I found women (and men) who were detonating the notion of what being a woman means in this society.  Ever since, I have embraced identifying as a woman. I still get mistaken for a man from time to time.

Back in those 1960’s/70’s, Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy, June Arnold all wrote books with characters who either switched genders or defied categorisation. They used pronouns such as per or na, instead of he and she. I also read writers like Sheila Rowbotham* on the dominance of the male point of view, Don Milligan* on gender and sexuality. There were countless books, papers, meetings and discussions on how inextricably the rigid male-female dichotomy was linked to racism, class, all the ways of dividing people. I realised I was part of something bigger. I joined campaigns and protests, became a feminist.

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By Tony Toggles, source: https://everydayfeminism.com

Perhaps because it was so hard for me to communicate with the generation before mine when I was growing up and also since I’m passionate about language,  I’m interested in the different ways older and younger people talk about the world. Younger people are also challenging preconceptions about gender. They’re using words like ‘non-binary’ which reminds me of my experience but I wanted to hear how they see it so I asked some friends:

Tate and Jude Fletcher wrote to me saying:

“A non binary person is neither male nor female. They would place themselves on the spectrum somewhere between or outside of those two genders. In Western culture this can be little understood, however there are many cultures around the world that recognise more than two genders and have done for many generations. Non binary people have always existed in our society but it is only fairly recently that they have been able to have a voice and be more visible. Often non binary people use different pronouns to the more widely recognised he/him, she/her. One alternative is the use of they/them pronouns. This is often argued to be grammatically incorrect which is in fact false. It is usual to use ‘they’ when speaking about a single person whose gender is unknown to you. For example: “Someone has left their phone here. I wonder if they’ve realised?” There is no correct way to present as non binary. You can present in a feminine, masculine or androgynous way. So a person’s gender should never be assumed based on their appearance.

It would be a big step forwards in making non binary and trans people feel more at ease if it became the norm when meeting someone for the first time to ask what pronouns they use as well as their name. A non binary gender is just as valid as male or female and hopefully this will be recognised legally in the not too distant future.”

Tate and Jude also pointed out that being non binary can mean different things to different people and and that non binary people can present in many ways. You can’t lump any people all together. I asked writer Elly J Morris what non-binary meant to her specifically:

“I’m a nonbinary person, specifically a genderfluid femme. It’s taken me a long time to decide on the words that best describe how I feel about my gender, and for me they work perfectly. Nonbinary in the rejection of the gender binary, genderfluid in my presentation and the way I feel on different days, and femme in my embracing of feminine energy separate to being born AFAB (assigned female at birth).

Engaging with gender in a deliberate way gives me power and agency in a way that being a cis women never did. As well as being a political statement, my gender is a feeling I have within me. I do experience dysphoria, but not as severely as others. It’s more of a frustration with not being able to present how I’d like to all of the time.”

*Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (first published in 1973! )
*Politics of Homosexuality

Wendy – Searching for Landscapes

As well as working closely with Dagmara, Snow Q’s fine artist to enhance her work, Wendy has been developing her own photographic responses to the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, the starting point for our project. In her last post Wendy told us how – ingeniously – she would be working with landscapes to create a sense of the snow-bound world we are developing. She is just back from a summer field trip to Wales and tells us more about her own journey:

I am planning to create an ambient, landscape visual/backdrop for the room, we have given the working name of ‘The Snow Palace’ for this Snow Q project.

I wanted to explore and photograph/video a UK landscape that I could transform into the imagined landscape of the Snow Queen story. So after a bit of research wondering where to go, I instinctively decided to take a road trip and venture in to the mountains of Snowdonia for a few days in August.

Wales has a place in my heart and memory, mainly associated with The Island of Anglesey which was our annual family holiday destination during the 70’s and the early 80’s. Even though we went to Wales every year of my childhood, I have no memory of venturing off the island into the more mountainous region of Snowdonia.

So as I drove through central wales for the first time this August, it was a pleasant surprise to be struck by the splendour of the Snowdonia Mountain region. They may be small mountains on a world scale but they are dramatic, rugged, beautiful and perfectly formed. There is also a rich body of folklore that is deeply woven in to the landscape and everywhere you go, the rich Welsh history and mythology added an extra affinity with the backdrop I want to create for our reimagining of the snow queen story. An interesting sideline, whilst I was in Snowdonia, I discovered that there’s a theory Hans Christian Andersen apparently chose the name Kay (Cei in Welsh) for the main boy character of the Snow Queen story after the character of Sir Kay, who was the foster brother of the legendary King Arthur. Apparently Kay at times had a volatile and cruel nature, but was decent at heart and was one of King Arthur’s most faithful companions. Sir Kay is supposed to have been based at Caer Gai, a fort in Snowdonia. This fort, originally a Roman Legionary base, was said to be called the fortress of Kay.

The Welsh weather is legendary for its rain, as was the case for my trip. So to motivate me, I embodied The Snow Queen’s heroine: Gerda. Her tenacity & her stubborn refusal to swerve from her quest and purpose as I embarked up the slippery, craggy mountain with my heavy camera kit to search for the shots I needed drove me forward. I chose Cader Idris, one of Wales most iconic mountains and stands at the southern gate of Snowdonia. After a two hour arduous hike, the weather had improved and I arrived at an otherworldly place. Cader Idris is named after a Welsh giant and according to tradition, the lofty, chair-shaped impression atop of the mountain is the result of Idris creating a colossal seat for himself from which to study the heavens! This is just one of many legendary stories full of characters associated with the shape of The Welsh landscape, teeming with its own strange species of hobgoblins, devils and angels that perfectly resonates with the essence of the Snow Queen story.

My trip to Snowdonia has inspired my ideas to take through to the next stage of this project. I am now excited to explore digitally the footage I captured in the context of the Snow Queen story.

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Cadair Idris – Wendy Pye

Why the viola? – Peter

After Peter’s previous post people started asking about the music he is composing for Snow Q, our collaborative project to reimagine the Snow Queen Story by Hans Christian Andersen. Why had he chosen the viola – when, as well as composer, he himself is a cellist ? When could they hear some of the score in his last post? No spoilers – but here is a little more about what he’s up to:

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Peter Copley

Since starting this project, a number of people have asked why I chose to compose the music for solo viola. In some ways, this was the kind of decision where I followed an initial instinct, rather than being something planned and carefully thought through from the start. Therefore, anything I write here is a rationalisation after the event, rather than a description of my actual thought processes at the beginning.

As I wrote in a previous post, one of the major themes of The Snow Queen for me is an underlying sense of loneliness, whether that of Kai in his enchantment, the Snow Queen or even Gerda herself, as she ultimately acts alone, although with help from others. Therefore, once the project had been agreed, I immediately decided to write the music for a solo instrument – and given the nature of the project as it has developed, this has proved in retrospect to be a fortunate decision from a purely practical point of view!

The specific sound of a solo viola has always seemed to me to suggest loneliness but the instrument also has a wide variety of tone, articulation and attack. Therefore, there is the possibility for a lot of contrast in the various movements that I have so far composed. These represent different stages in the story but rather than giving them specific titles, except for the purposes of identification for the performer, I would prefer that they only suggested and stimulated associations with aspects of the story for the listener, rather than making these explicit.

Header image from The Complete edition of Andersen and Grimm, 
illustrated by Joyce Mercer

‘Advanced skills in uncertainty…’ Mark

If you’ve been following this blog you will already have read posts from each of the artists involved who are working on a collaborative project to reimagine Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen – each of us bursting with ideas. But how will our work actually fit together? Poetry, visual art, music, photography & film…Every group of artists working together like us benefits from someone with an outside overview. We are very lucky to have Mark Hewitt as our project manager and performance director. Both Peter and Maria have worked with him before. He is a fine writer himself and he has 20 years experience working with artists and in the community. Here’s how he sees it:

“As a creative process, collaboration requires a high tolerance for open spaces, advanced skills in uncertainty, a hunger for the question and a commitment to surpass what is routine.”

I came across this quote, by American dramaturg Lynne M. Thomson, in 2011, on an artist residency at Castletown House in Ireland run by The Performance Corporation, where a number of practitioners working in different artforms, (mainly Irish but with a few foreigners like myself) were thrown together for two weeks to explore different ways of working and collaborating.

While I was there I stayed in the 18th century gatehouse shown in the picture above, an eccentric almost fairy tale building known as Batty Langley Lodge. And this quote has stayed with me. I like the way it encourages an elasticity of thinking and a sense of adventure and the way it elevates the quality of not knowing, not necessarily having an answer, and not being scared by that. Often, I’ve had recourse to it as a point of reference when I’m working on productions, or when I’ve been running live literature courses for writers who want to explore turning their pieces of writing into a production. It holds true for me as a principle of how to enter into a spirit of collaborative endeavour. Not everyone is a natural collaborator, of course. Some of us are happy to collaborate in one context but not another.

Illustration by Joyce Mercer for The Little Robber Girl in the Snow Queen, in The Complete Edition of Andersen & Grimm

What is also implied in Thomson’s statement is the idea that any perceived solution or strategy should remain subject to review. At the start, nothing is known, or very little, and nothing is fixed. All is in the working. It is, or should be (in my opinion) a process of discovery. If we are to make a decision we hope that it will not be the wrong one, and that if it is the wrong one, we will have the courage or sensitivity to see it and the honesty to say it. But such things are never easy. We all have egos. Nevertheless, this is probably my idea of fun.