Along with Claire Edwardes and seven canny composers, the playwright explains how she created a musical Everywoman.

“We’re after seven stories that can work in any order with music which may not have been written yet – oh, and the words shouldn’t pull focus…”. A tricky brief, but one that composer Amanda Brown and percussionist Claire Edwardes threw in playwright Hilary Bell’s direction for a new show premiering at Vivid Sydney. Seven Stories mixes music – by seven leading Australian female composers – storytelling and visuals in a co-presentation by City Recital Hall, Ensemble Offspring and the Creative Music Fund.

Fortunately, Bell and Brown go way back to high school days, a useful background for such an intensive and potentially delicate collaboration. “I think they quite wisely decided early on that they needed a writer, but when I came on board, we didn’t know what the project was going to look like,” Bell tells me. “All we knew was that the music was going to be at the forefront, and the job of the text, whatever form it was going to take, was to make something cohesive out of these seven pieces of music. I didn’t really have a precedent for what it might look like, and I needed to consider that we didn’t know the order of the pieces, so I had to write something quite modular. I couldn’t write a narrative, even if I wanted to. I needed to write something that was abstract enough to be able to service each of the seven pieces, but cohesive enough for the audience to feel like we were actually being propelled forward.”

Seven Stories explores the popular idea that all the world’s rich tapestry of myths, legends and tales can be reduced to seven quintessential stories – The Quest, Overcoming the Darkness, Rags to Riches, The Fatal Flaw, Comedy of Errors, The Journey and Transformation. “The Quest is going after something very specific, so it might be a quest to find your lost love who’s hidden and buried underground in Hades,” Bell explains, “whereas The Journey was more kind of like a road trip. You don’t have a destination in mind, it’s about the adventures you have on your way.”

After bringing Bell onboard, the team of composers – indie scene musicians Amanda Brown (The Go-Betweens), Jodi Phillis (The Clouds) and Bree van Reyk (the drummer for Holly Throsby), film composers Kyls Burtland and Caitlin Yeo, and classical composers Sally Whitwell (also an ARIA-winning solo pianist) and Jane Sheldon (also contemporary music soprano extraordinaire) – approached Ensemble Offspring’s Claire Edwardes to help realise the music. “What is remarkable is that every single composer has approached their story in different way,” says Edwardes. “The process has been a true collaborative process between the composers, Hilary and the musicians of Ensemble Offspring.”

With much of the music coming before the text, Bell had several conversations with each of the composers to arrive at what exactly they wanted to talk about. “They all had very clear and specific ideas,” says Bell. “For example, Amanda – who was writing Rags to Riches wanted not just to tell the Cinderella story, but also explore the more ruthless version – not only virtue, but the heartlessness that sometimes is an important part of the Rags to Riches story. The writer doing The Quest, Caitlin Yeo, felt like sacrifice was an inherent part of getting what you want. Having spoken to each of them about what they wanted to elicit or evoke, I came up with the idea of fairy tales, or stories that transcend time and place and that every culture has in some form or another.”

Not wanting to simply go down the Grimms’ fairy tale route, Bell has created an ‘Everywoman’ character. “She doesn’t have a name, she’s just a ‘she’,” she explains, “which is also supposed to stand for a ‘he’. It’s as if you were flipping through a book of stories and at various moments your eye lights upon a particular sentence or paragraph. By stringing them out, an audience member can infer what happens between each moment. They’re the highlights of some story, I suppose, and the rest of it is left to the listener to invent really.”

As many writers admit, it was the comedies that proved the hardest to get a handle on. “I needed to keep the tone consistent with the others,” Bell explains, “but treating them with too much romance and poetry wasn’t going to work. For Comedy of Errors, the first thing I tried was a bit arch – it kind of worked in and of itself, but it didn’t really work with the music. I know that Bree van Reyk, the composer, was looking at slapstick and commedia dell’arte and screwball comedies, and how she could replicate those ideas musically. I certainly looked at Shakespeare, but there are strands of comedy in Greek myths as well. I guess I was playing on the idea of mistaken identity, dressing up to pretend, women pretending to be men or men pretending to be women. These are often quite serious methods adopted to survive in a brutal society.”

The next step was to marry Bell’s ideas with van Reyk’s composition, which was intended to be embody the comedy in the performance of the musicians. “She’s written them playing silly instruments and there are a lot of classical music jokes in it – page turning, portentous beginnings, long pauses,” says Bell. “I had a few different goes. I tried doing a Dadaist poetry thing where I took the paragraph, cut out the phrases and put them in different order, and it got me a little bit closer but it didn’t really make any sense. So I finally went with what Bree was doing, but I found kind of back door entries – ways that subverted what you would expect but still played along with the rest of it.”

Seven Stories will be performed by Edwardes’ award-winning contemporary chamber music group, Ensemble Offspring alongside a visual element created by Melbourne-based video artist Sarah-Jane Woulahan. “This work is incredibly special and very powerful – it crosses the gamut of emotional and creative terrain,” says Edwardes. “Audiences should come with an open mind, ears and heart – let yourselves go and join us on this very special ride”.

Seven Stories is at City Recital Hall as part of Vivid on June 3