Spies in our skies: the making of The Beauty Parade

Anne-Marie Piazza and Georgina White in ‘The Beauty Parade.’

The Beauty Parade, secret moon squadron, has finally landed, opening at Wales Millennium Centre to full houses and (I am so happy to say) emotional and enthusiastic audiences. I hope to write a full blog post about the process and reactions once I’ve caught my breath – so until then, here’s the programme notes  and an interview in The Guardian newspaper….

 

Kaite O’Reilly
Writer / Concept / Co-Director

“I first heard of ‘The Beauty Parade’ more than twenty years ago, when interviewing former Second World War Codebreaker Molly Schuesselle, who became a close friend. Molly worked with a pilot who dropped hastily trained British female agents behind enemy lines into occupied France between 1941-44 – codename ‘The Beauty Parade.’ Molly kept this information to herself for fifty years, having signed the Official Secrets Act. I was the first person she spoke to in depth about this.

For decades I have wanted to explore the stories of the ‘ordinary women’, nameless in war, who fell between the cracks, who perhaps did not return: women whose exploits even now languish in classified files owing to the clandestine nature of their war work.

An opportunity came thanks to the Arts Council of Wales who gave me a Creative Wales Major Award to experiment with form. Building on my thirty years of working with Deaf theatre practitioners, I set out to explore the creative potential of interweaving spoken, sung, projected, musical and visual languages into a performance, working with long term collaborators Sophie Stone and composer Rebecca Applin. Our process was unusual. I would write the material, select some for Sophie to transform into visual language, we would meet, polish the visual material, video it, then share with Becky, who composed following the tempo-rhythms of Sophie’s visual language. The process and outcome are unusual: the music follows the performer, and not the more usual way around.

I am immensely grateful to Wales Millennium Centre and our producer, Emma Evans, who understood the potential of this project, and who, despite my dogged insistence on the unusual process, still gave us a home.”

Graeme Farrow
Artistic Director, Wales Millennium Centre

Artistic director Graeme Farrow outside Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay

The Beauty Parade tells the stories of incredible women who played a vital, dangerous yet secret role in the Second World War. It’s a privilege to uncover these histories and to honour the invisible women who have, until now, been removed from history.

It has been a delight to co-produce this piece with ground-breaking theatre-maker Kaite O’Reilly. As an artist who has pioneered inclusive practice, her knowledge, experience and flair were integral for bringing these stories to life. She creates work that is thought provoking, creative and accessible.

Together with Kaite, we have explored new and innovative ways of working, and it has been hugely exciting to make work with visual language, music and text. The result is a multi-layered piece, that we hope will be seen and enjoyed by a wide audience.

With this co-production we continue our work that celebrates the voice in all its forms, and the responsibility we have to give a voice to those who have been forgotten or erased from history. We’re delighted to be celebrating these incredible women. It’s a thrill and a great responsibility to play our part in telling one of the most extraordinary stories of the 20th century.

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Spies in the skies: the extraordinary story of The Beauty Parade

Sophie Stone stars in Kaite O’Reilly’s show which celebrates the forgotten women of the second world war with a powerful visual language.

Gareth Llŷr Evans interviews the performer/visual language expert Sophie Stone and the writer, lyricist and co-director Kaite O’Reilly for The Guardian.

Different languages echo, augment and collide … Anne-Marie Piazza, Sophie Stone and Kaite O’Reilly during rehearsals for The Beauty Parade. Photograph: Rhys Cozens

 

Sophie Stone extends her right arm and lets her hand float downwards while moving her fore and middle fingers back and forth. With this gesture, the actor transports us from a lunchtime bar at the Wales Millennium Centre to a moonlit night in occupied France, where women parachute through the sky.

These are the women of The Beauty Parade, written and co-directed by Kaite O’Reilly. The title comes from a codename for a project established by the Special Operations Executive during the second world war. Fluent French-speaking women from England and Wales were recruited and trained as spies and saboteurs, before being flown across the Channel to join the resistance.

Based on O’Reilly’s text and lyrics, Sophie Stone has created a visual language to be performed as part of the work. Describing her process, Stone says: “It’s taking from a language anything that is visually iconic, and can be understood by either deaf or hearing audiences, then morphing it into a different image, led by an emotional context.” Images of war become tactile, modulated by gravity, speed and intensity. But this is not mere translation; it is deaf-led.

Stone identifies as Deaf with a capital D, which asserts deafness as a culture – rich with its own history, arts, languages and organisations – as opposed to solely the audiological condition, marginalised by a hearing world. “It’s not that I can’t hear,” she says. “I don’t hear. It’s self-empowering. It’s important to say.” She would film her sequences – a combination of elements of British Sign Language, with signed poetry and hand shapes – which were then used by composer Rebecca Applin for the show’s music and songs.

“I love the fact that you Google ‘beauty parade’ and you just get all these women in swimming costumes lining up,” O’Reilly says. But the show’s title also hints at a darker irony. These were women who had to use “their homespun beauty, appearing like the girl next door, to slip beneath the radar of surveillance”. These were extraordinary but ultimately invisible performances, undertaken in extraordinary circumstances.

It is, O’Reilly continues, a mostly forgotten history. “Because they were already using aliases, using their noms de guerre, these women fell between the cracks. Because they were often treated as criminals, they weren’t given POW status.” The war came to an end, and these women simply disappeared.

O’Reilly’s text allows for these stories to take centre stage. As a leading figure in disability arts and culture in the UK, foregrounding often marginalised bodies and voices is central to her work. Acclaimed for her writing specifically for deaf and disabled performers, her work invites audiences to interrogate our preconceptions of the centre and the periphery. The Beauty Parade is the first time that music has been central in the development of one of her plays.

On stage, Stone’s visual language, performed alongside actor-musicians Georgina White and Anne-Marie Piazza, is interwoven with O’Reilly’s text and Applin’s music. Sometimes these different languages echo and augment each other; sometimes they collide. But the effect, even when glimpsed early in their rehearsal period, feels viscerally theatrical. By necessity, according to the specific needs of the three performers, they breathe as one: setting the pace, shaping its rhythms and guiding each other.

In our separate conversations, both O’Reilly and Stone playfully suggest that the recent increased visibility of deaf and disabled stage performers was due to it being “fashionable”. But now, as a result of what might have initially been tick-box exercises, it is starting to bear real change. It is an exciting time, particularly for deaf actors, who are empowered beyond doing “lovely things with their hands,” as Stone jokes. “From being let into a room, people have realised that we’re worth so much more than that. It’s more than just fashion. It’s more than just box-ticking. We actually have something that makes the work richer.”

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