Definitions of wonder encompass feelings of amazement, as well as feelings of curiosity and doubt. It can also refer to a spectacle, a miracle or a remarkable person. We are looking for an artist who is interested and curious in how such feelings or things might inspire us to work towards a more sustainable world. (from 2014 Artist Commissions brief)
Daniel Bye, a writer, director and performer best known for his acclaimed show The Price of Everything and award-winning How to Occupy an Oil Rig led this commission creating a collaborative community performance in Manchester Museum inspired by the Museum’s extraordinary collections. Wonderstruck was developed with curator/director Sarah Punshon, and Boff Whalley (of Chumbawamba), published writer, playwright, songwriter and musician, and made in collaboration with Museum staff, visitors and community groups. Joshua Coates also came on board as associate artist as well as performing in the piece.
From September 2014, four community choirs (the Manchester schools Network Choir, Golden Voices Community Choir for older people, the all-female She choir and the Ordsall A cappella), joined forces with Dan, Sarah, Boff and Josh in Manchester to create Wonderstruck, a large scale performance combining text, movement and song to present a weekend of wonderful surprises for museum visitors on 15 and 16 November 2014.
As well as the Manchester choirs taking part, people were invited to get involved in a range of different ways from being part of a flash mob choir made up of individual members of the public, to stage management volunteers who made sure that everything went smoothly on the performance days when over 200 people watched Wonderstruck.
Reflections by Dan, Sarah and Boff on the process can be seen in Tim Knights’ artist film.
Read the Wonderstruck blog.
People United and Manchester Museum are both wonderful organisations and I’m totally delighted to be working with them on this project. I hope what we create will reflect and magnify the museum’s awesome collection, and bring together some of Manchester’s great communities in speech and song.
Daniel Bye, Lead Artist and Writer
The Artist: Daniel Bye, Boff Whalley and Sarah Punshon
DANIEL BYE is a writer, director and performer of theatre and other unusual performance encounters. He is perhaps best known for his acclaimed show The Price of Everything, a show dedicated, like People United, to increasing the amount of kindness in the world.
BOFF WHALLEY: After 25 years touring and recording with Chumbawumba, Boff is now a published writer, playwright, songwriter, designer and musician. Ranging from pop songs, film scores and musicals to newspaper articles, radio scripts and books, his work is motivated by society, politics, culture and history.
SARAH PUNSHON is a curator, theatre and television director. Aside from working with Daniel Bye on Story Hunt and How to Occupy an Oil Rig, she has directed for Manchester's Library Theatre, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme and Salisbury Playhouse. Sarah has TV credits ranging from Shameless to Eastenders, and has curated art events for major museum collections.
Some questions revealing a bit more about Daniel Bye, Boff Whalley and Sarah Punshon
Why did you apply for this commission?
We applied for this commission because of People United. Any organisation whose stated aim involves changing the world for the better, involves the simple encouragement of people to be nice to each other, is an organisation worth admiring and we’ve admired them for a while. In various ways, we all work towards similar aims with our own work, so we hoped we’d be a good fit.
For you, what does it mean to ‘wonder’?
To wonder is one of those pleasingly ambiguous verbs that often does several things at once. At root it conveys a sense of astonishment, of amazement of awe: that’s wonderful! But it’s just as often used to convey curiosity: I wonder what that is. One of the starting points of this project is the notion that the former wonder can lead to the latter: that’s wonderful! I wonder what it is? - and that this curiosity can provide fuel for further engagement with the collections of Manchester Museum - and by extension, with the natural world and the history of human culture. So not particularly lofty ambitions.
So, you’re over halfway of the commission now, how’s it going?
I think it’s going really well, but we’re near enough crunch time now for me to not want to tempt fate. It’s certainly been a real pleasure. In particular, the magic of writing some scattered words and having them come back a few days later in the form of a song, has been revelatory. Base metal turned into gold.
It's been an adventure! We're all totally out of our comfort zones, and often discovering that none of us really know how best to do something. Which is definitely educational. It's a total privilege to get to work with Boff and Dan. It's an extraordinary feeling to have a conversation and then a few hours / days / weeks later to listen to the gorgeous song that has come from that conversation.
It's going better than I might have expected. Not because I wasn't confident of the outcome, but because (along with Dan and Sarah) I simply didn't have an idea what the outcome was going to be. Now it's taking shape and I can see how it will work. The other thing of course is that, irrelevant of the outcome/performance, the process has been incredibly exciting and surprising. The not-knowing-where-we're-going-with-this. The rooms full of people doing vocal exercises, the wondering if anyone will turn up…
Have you learnt anything new about 'wonder'?
I don’t know the answer to this question exactly. I have learned something new, but I’m hard pressed to put it into words (an irony, given that’s my job in this project). It’s something about the connection between the wonder we all feel in the face of something extraordinary, the wonder of the insight about the world that object instills, the sense of how this object connects to everything else in the world, and the sense of how we, here, now, are a part of that. There ought to be a word for this. In German there probably is. Winzigangesichtuniversumskeit maybe. I just made that up.
I've learned that wonder means a lot of different things to people. My favourite answer was from an 89 year old member of Golden Voices, who when asked what wonder meant to her, said "Elvis Presley".
Getting to know the museum, firstly, was very educational for me – it completely changed my notion of 'science', it made those vital connections between environmental politics and the minutiae of insect collections, unearthed masks, inscriptions on mummy's tombs, etc. Drew it all together and fed right back into my pre-existing ideas about nature and politics. I always understood John Muir's fascination with nature and the outside living wild world, loved it with a passion, but I didn't have any interest in what Muir wrote about flower petals and lichen. Now I get it, so that's been great for me.
And by doing all the observing and writing about other peoples' reactions to the museum, I've come to understand a lot more about our fascination as humans for our past, for the things that connect us to history and to nature – about how to engage people in that connection.
Have you learnt anything new about yourself / your practice?
This show stretches every edge of everything I normally do. Collaborative songwriting is new. 100+ performers is new. Working with choirs is new. Working in museums is new. In every one of these cases there’s a point of connection with my other practice, but at every point it represents a massive expansion.
I have a tendency to volunteer for stuff and then work out whether it's possible. This may be a good thing, but I may need to balance it out a bit. I've learned that my practice with Dan (my husband!) is a little different to my practice with others - sometimes in a really useful way, but occasionally in not so good ways. It's awful but I seem to be less polite and accommodating with Dan than with other people! Need to think about this some more.....
I've also been brought up against how personally emotional this project is: I hadn't quite acknowledged that to myself, but working with song, and especially with choirs is a big deal for me, as my much-missed mum who died three years ago was a keen member of two local choirs.
Yes, working with the different choirs – 5, in all – has been really interesting, eye-opening, and instructive. Each bunch of people works differently, each choir leader has a different way of teaching and encouraging. Jules for instance who runs Golden Voices is just so inspiring to watch, she exudes enthusiasm and energy and I've had to start to learn that; this project has been so good for me to take songwriting that step further into the rehearsal room with strangers and get them involved, get them fired up and ready to be a part of the whole thing.
And the songwriting itself has been a joy to do. Having Dan's words as rough ideas has made the process relatively easy, he does the digging around and finding an idea to hang a song onto, I just have to make it sound nice! I've written a couple of things for choirs before but I hadn't really sorted out what 'style' I like to use for group singing. Now I have! The Wonderstruck project has given me license to have a go at an idea I've had in my head for ages which is to combine the rhythmic vocal pulse of the minimalists (Steve Reich, Philip Glass) with the melody-driven tunes of pop – trying to straddle the gap between weird and catchy. And I've enjoyed trying this out, and I think it works, and thank god none of it sounds like Andrew Lloyd Webber.
How would you describe 'Wonderstruck' in only three sentences?
SARAH ---------- Crazily ambitious. Enormously hard but hugely rewarding. Unexpectedly moving. BOFF ---------- It was stuffed full of the unexpected. I learnt so much from a process of working in situations I didn't know, and with people I didn't know, and felt that I got as much from it all personally as I felt the performers and audience got out of it. I thought it was a success for all the right reasons, in all the right ways – I have a problem with the word 'success' and how it's often measured, but 'Wonderstruck' just seemed full of the best kind of successes, from process to performance.
How did the commission meet (or not meet) your expectations?
SARAH ---------- See above! Plus masses of encouragement, support, and hands-on practical assistance at crucial moments. BOFF ---------- It surpassed them, definitely. There were times when I wondered (ha!) if we'd aimed a bit high, tried to create something a little too big and ambitious for the time and circumstances, but as the first performance began I realised that it was all ending up better than I imagined.
How do you think working with People United and Manchester Museum will inform your future practice as an artist?
SARAH ----------- I will collaborate with musicians and singers more, more confidently. It's crumbled some unhelpful divisions in my mind between "community" and "professional" work, which will definitely have unforeseen consequences further down the line! BOFF ---------- Well it will inform in a very practical way – the whole concept of making art not just 'for social change' which is what I'd always relied on as my own personal touchstone, but making art 'to increase the amount of kindness in the world' is such a great thing to hold onto.
Working with Manchester Museum will remind me that the staff and support in institutions like museums can be lively, welcoming, creative and enthusiastic.
And working with People United will hopefully inform and strengthen my commitment to make art that can talk about the world, that can be part of our ongoing debate about changing the world.