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One Yellow Rabbit’s Nightingale Alley revisits period of social upheaval, with relevance to today

When Nightingale Alley takes to the One Yellow Rabbit’s Big Secret Theatre stage this month, it’ll be the culmination of nearly 20 years of work for composer David Rhymer.

It marks the return of some works of poetry and story that have been largely unheard for over 200 years.

Featuring the talents of some of Calgary’s top female performers, Nightingale Alley takes audiences to the turn of the industrial revolution where burgeoning capitalism and the rise of the middle class transformed the sexual politics of the day.

The production focuses on the lives of women who were part of the demimonde: The half-world of courtesans and prostitutes who were showered with wealth by societal elites.

“People were flocking into the cities… and the traditional male and female societies were now being re-imagined because, and what was emerging was a really very complex kind of street doggerel,” said Rhymer.

“The sort of prosaic Shakespearean world was now over, and people were trying to try to figure out their way in the world. And when I say people, I really mean women because it affected them drastically.”

Director Blake Brooker described the production as one-of-a-kind for the theatre.

“Prepare for an unforgettable evening of music, laughter, and pure, unadulterated classic OYR,” he said.

Nightingale Alley runs from April 12 to 23, and tickets are available now at www.oyr.org.

The cast for the production includes Order of Canada recipient and permanent OYR ensemble member Denise Clarke, OYR’s Andy Curtis, who has toured internationally with the company, Grace Fedorchuk who has appeared on many Calgary stages and productions, Jamie Konchak who previously appeared in the salon version of Songs from Nightingale Alley, and award-winning, singer-songwriter Allison Lynch who also appeared in the previous salon version.

Delving into the demimonde

Over the past two decades, Rhymer has worked on Nightingale Alley—first as a collection of songs that were performed at a salon, and now as a full-scale theatre production that weaves a narrative throughout.

“It’s had a lot of appeal, and they seem to really speak to a female audience. Then we, a year or two ago, we thought well, maybe we should be building this up into a more full-fledged piece,” Rhymer said.

Rhymer took the largely anonymous work of poets and minstrels and brought that biting and often bawdy commentary back into the 21st Century with the help of Brooker.

“What was really interesting for me is that the lyrics that we’re coming out… even though it is from a from another time, it did speak in a voice that seemed extremely modern,” Rhymer said.

He said that much of the music has been updated for modern audiences, owing to the lyrics and poetry surviving without the original compositions.

“They might be a kind of verse, and it would be set to the tune of Tommy Piper—but I don’t know what tune is. So I just restructured them from a modern musical sensibility,” Rhymer said.

Some of those songs from the salon version are available to be heard on Rhymer’s website at www.rhymermusic.com/songs-from-nightingale-alley.

He said that diving into the history of the demimonde has been a satisfying one, and has served to highlight the universality of the stories that were told in that era of history.

“Their concerns are not quite what our concerns are, but the larger concerns are universal. So it gives a kind of fresh air to situations that are universal,” Rhymer said.

Yet, in many ways, the society of the industrial revolution was a very different one to today, he said.

The inability of women to fully express themselves as individuals, and being highly confined to rigid class and social structures meant that many were essentially forced into servitude for men of higher social status.

Relevance to the modern era of gender politics

Not being able to own property meant that large numbers of women turned to some form of prostitution.

“The statistic that’s often quoted in London at the time, one in five women would have had some relationship with prostitution, which is an extraordinary number,” Rhymer said.

He used the example of a chambermaid who could earn £10 a year in that profession, or considerably more by engaging in some form of prostitution.

“So prostitution became kind of above ground, and it didn’t have the stigma that it then it perhaps had in the Victorian age,” Rhymer said.

“It would be similar to how in our pop culture right now, women can—like Rihanna—can trade in the erotic and not be considered a ‘fallen woman.'”

He said that as society is currently being transformed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that same sort of fluidity in the roles that women can play in society and the way they can express themselves is changing.

“When we talk about male and female, it tends to be highly politicized at the moment, and there’s this sort of stratification between gender perceptions,” Rhymer said.

“These people were not concerned with that. They were concerned with the injustice of, of male-female dynamics, and they give a fresh approach and a deeper understanding of the sexual terrain that we’re all having to navigate.”

For more information on Nightingale Alley, see www.artscommons.ca/whats-on/nightingale-alley.