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Emily Levy on Me Without You

Me Without You, a new co-production by Composer Emily Levy and Writer-Director Mella Faye, comes to the Howard Assembly Room on Saturday 22 June. Bringing together music, dance, movement and acting – all interwoven with personal stories of love and loss – Me Without You is a profound and intimate meditation on what it means to lose someone whose absence changes everything.

Ahead of the show, Emily Levy took some time out from her busy rehearsal schedule to tell us more about this extraordinary piece and what it means to her.

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Can you tell us about Me Without You? What is it and what should audiences expect?

It’s an 80-85 minute show with music as kind of the driving force, but there’s also movement, dance, acting and visuals that are both live and filmed in advance. And it’s a combination of lots of people’s thoughts and stories about people that they love and that they’ve lost in their lives – so it’s people’s responses, people sharing what that is like for them. We went around the country filming and recording lots of different people’s experiences, and then they formed the basis of the piece.

How did you reach out to those people?

Well, we’ve been really lucky to be co-commissioned by three brilliant arts organisations – Opera North being one! – so we tapped into the different kinds of projects that each of those places were running as part of their ongoing work, places that they already had relationships with, and we went and talked to individuals within those groups. So in Leeds we talked to a gardening group and other outdoor groups; that worked really well for us because we were very conscious of not taking advantage of people, or delving into things that would then make people feel vulnerable or wobbled by the conversation. So because of the way we did it, we had two kinds of buffers; one was the organisation that people come to on a weekly basis, so people they know well and trust. Then there was also the arts organisation – Opera North, for example – so if there were any kind of issues, we felt that people would have lots of levels of support.

Could you tell us about your inspiration for the piece?

It was kind of twofold. The main driving force is my experience of loss and particularly the loss of my brother, who died when I was 29 and he was 31. We were incredibly close and it had a massive impact on my life – who I was before and who I am now. So he’s always in my mind when I write anything, but it’s kind of been secret. For years I’ve been building, I guess, towards doing something that’s a bit more explicitly about him and about that process.

But then the other strand of inspiration is also that as a composer, I’ve had a long-time fascination with using voice and speech in my work; responding in very close detail to people’s voices, how they speak, the words they choose and the way they say them. I’ve done loads of different smaller projects incorporating speech into my composition, so this piece is about combining my personal story with other people’s stories and then using the way they tell them and what they say to enhance their meaning.

Me Without You brings together music, dance, acting and visual art. Why did you feel it was important to include all of those elements?

I think it’s linked to being interested in other people’s voices and speech and stories. We – the director and writer, Mella Faye and myself – really wanted to amplify those stories in the most creative way we could do it. I think it’s also because I feel like I sit within quite a few different musical worlds – I have worked quite a lot with dancers in the past but not in this particular way. And Mella’s work also straddles dance and theatre and music worlds, so we’ve really worked a lot together over the last few years developing this project from something that did combine music and speech and visuals, but as we built it we really wanted to have some more movement, as an additional dynamic layer to the piece. And we’re so lucky because our cast is just a beautiful combination of people. We’ve got everyone from pure musicians through to really strong dancers, so we’re a bit of a melting pot of skills.

Emily Levy, Composer of Me Without You © Amanda Benson

The piece is incredibly personal to you and brings in other people’s very personal experiences as well; how does it feel to compose and perform it with that in mind? And how do you want your audience to feel watching it?

For me, responding to other people’s stories within it is fine, and feels really right. My own personal part of it is awkward and exposing and full on, but working with Mella – she’s definitely pushed me willingly into that zone. So I feel nervous, but also like it’s the right thing to be doing. And I feel really excited, I think it’s going to be great.

What we really want other people to get from it is just a real mixture of sorrow and joy. It is packed full of joy, which maybe sounds a bit surprising, but I think it’s about grief and love being two sides of the same coin and bereavement being twinned with the full appreciation of life and living. So by entering into both those spaces at once you can have the intensity of happiness and the intensity of sadness together. And there’s a kind of vitality and mischievousness and fun in the writing and acting as well, so hopefully the audience enjoys that.

And lastly, do you have a favourite part of the piece that you can share with us? (without giving any spoilers away!)

It’s still in the late devising stages so I don’t really have a full overview yet, but I think at this point my favourite thing about it is that everyone’s got many roles so there are some surprises and things that you think are going to go one way that end up going another. That’s all I’ll say for now!

As part of this project, Emily and Mella have created a Catalogue of Connection – a space to connect with each other whilst honouring the people we’ve lost by sharing thoughts and memories of them in any format (photographs, artwork, videos, poems, written reflections, etc.) If you have a story you’d like to share or a loved one you’d like to pay tribute to, you can do so at the Catalogue of Connection.  

Me Without You is a co-commission by Britten Pears Arts, Opera North and Spitalfields Music. It takes place in the Howard Assembly Room on Saturday 22 June at 7.45pm.

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