East Suffolk Skylarks is a fun and friendly singing group for people living with Parkinson’s and their companions. Skylarks groups use techniques based on years of research to help those with Parkinson’s to maintain or improve their psychological and physical wellbeing through taking part in regular singing activity.

Recently both groups from Snape and Ipswich united with other Parkinson's singing and dance groups from around the UK to take part in ‘HerStory’, an opera film by Cohere Arts celebrating the artistic talent of people living with Parkinson’s.

Here is composer and Cohere Arts artistic director Amy Mallett on the story of Margaret Catchpole and how this has inspired so many members of the Parkinson's community.

As a child, much of my summer holidays were spent at Holywells Park in Ipswich, once the home of the Cobbold family, who used the land’s natural springs to start brewing beer in the 19th century. Each time we visited to feed the ducks or play in the murky paddling pool we would pass by an austere public house called ‘The Margaret Catchpole', that lurked at the entrance to the park. The pub, named after one of the family’s servants, is still there today, and seeing the faded golden letters of her name still invokes the thrill and excitement I felt when hearing for the first time about its namesake’s adventures.

A working-class domestic from Nacton, Margaret achieved notoriety in 1797 when she stole a horse and rode it from Ipswich to London, allegedly to visit her smuggler boyfriend who had been apprehended by the law. She was imprisoned but later escaped, was recaptured, and eventually sentenced to transportation to Australia in 1801. There she led a useful and honest life, applying her midwifery skills in the local community. We know about her story largely due to the letters she continued to exchange with her former employer, Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold, back in England. Some of these letters still exist and are held in the State Library of New South Wales.

As I developed an artistic practice as a composer and theatre-maker inspired by contemporary and historical stories, I always remained fascinated by Margaret. By 2018 I was working on a variety of projects designed to provide health and wellbeing benefits through engagement with the arts and creativity. Through this work I met dance artists Danielle Teale and Sarah Lewis, and fellow musician Nicola Wydenbach from the charity Sing to Beat Parkinson’s. We were all delivering weekly singing or dance classes for the Parkinson’s community, but shared an aspiration to take this work further – to celebrate the artistry and quality of art created by and for people living with Parkinson’s. With its themes of resilience and overcoming great odds; Margaret Catchpole’s life story seemed an ideal narrative to explore in a new performance work with this community.

Beginning in 2019 we worked throughout the year with 20 members of the Parkinson’s community in Suffolk and London to co-create HerStory – a multi-disciplinary operatic work featuring libretto and choreography devised with the company. The piece was showcased in a workshop performance at Snape Maltings, and as a result the company was invited to further develop the work with an expanded cast for a public sharing at the Royal Opera House in 2020.

A group of people in chairs singing and holding their arms out.

Filming of HerStory at Snape Maltings

I thought I might not be able to take in some of the challenges ahead but with the rest of the group working together, we all embraced what we were asked to do. It gave me a feeling of wonder, my anxieties diminished and I felt so proud of our group successes.

East Suffolk Skylarks Participant

Our cast were ecstatic at their achievements, and we all felt the power of the project and its wider impacts – as a participant said: ‘It’s given me confidence and reduced isolation. It’s given me new friendships. It’s given me something to look forward to. It’s given me happiness and a sense of something achieved. It’s made me feel a little bit special in the fact that we all have something to give creatively”. Alas, our plans were scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic as the entire world shut down. We were gutted, but like many artistic collectives, soon regrouped online and collaborated virtually with members of the Parkinson’s community from across the UK in three lockdown projects that explored themes from the opera. We made two short films and a ‘digital quilt’ – an online art exhibition showcasing visual, written, audio and video artworks. These lockdown projects also allowed us to expand our reach across the UK, uniting a virtual community of people living with Parkinson’s who continued to grow in number and ambition.

A group of people with headphones on singing from sheet music.

Filming of HerStory at Snape Maltings

By 2022 we were able to set about making HerStory into a film. Specialist Parkinson’s practitioners led a series of singing, dance and art workshops in Suffolk, London, Sussex, Oxford and online, enabling around 120 participants to learn the repertoire and create visual art for animation. Throughout the autumn members of our project team, led by film-maker John Fensom, visited each region to film and record sections of the opera. The finished 32-minute film features the voices, performances and artworks of 85 members of the Parkinson’s community. Our aim, and the aim of our talented performers, is to use the film to ‘show the world what people with Parkinson’s can do”.

The HerStory film will be screened at Snape Maltings on 21st June as part of the 2023 Aldeburgh Festival. For information and to buy your tickets, click here.

HerStory Credits: Supported by Arts Council England, Britten Pears Arts, English National Opera, Trinity Laban and Mumo Creative

East Suffolk Skylarks Credits: Supported by: Arts Council, Chapman Charitable Trust, The Linbury Trust, The Vernon Ellis Foundation

My world is a better place for being involved in Skylarks.

East Suffolk Skylarks Participant