Sue Rynhart told David Hennessy about You, Me or the Wallpaper, her musical interpretation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 19th century feminist short story, The Yellow Wallpaper.
Revered Dublin singer and composer, Sue Rynhart, brings her show You, Me or the Wallpaper to the Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room this Thursday 1 February as part of Liverpool Irish Festival’s St Brigid’s Day celebrations.
You, Me or the Wallpaper is Rynhart’s response to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ground-breaking feminist short story The Yellow Wallpaper which is regarded as one of the earliest pieces of horror fiction.
Sue Rynhart told The Irish World: “This is a premiere performance.
“I love Gothic short stories, anything ghostly, anything spooky, and then one of my friends said, ‘You should really read The Yellow Wallpaper, I think you’ll love it’.
“The words were literally jumping off the page.
“In her own personal life, Charlotte suffered postpartum psychosis and was married to a doctor. Her doctor husband felt the best way to treat her was to give her the rest cure treatment.
“This is how women who were having postnatal complications were treated, and the idea was to alleviate any sort of pressures or responsibilities from the woman which, in a way, sounds nice: ‘Go to bed, have a rest’.
“But at the same time, there were parts of it that were really disempowering and really what irked me was that women were encouraged not to engage in their creativity.
“Alarm bells went off for me because I believe all people are creative.
“And certainly for somebody who’s not feeling well, creativity can be something that can really guide you and help you so really my heart went out to this woman.
“It’s a semi-autobiographical story.
“She wanted to write.
“She sneaks in her pen and her notebook and is writing away but on the sly, which isn’t nice.
“It should be part of her therapy, I would say.
“If she hadn’t have done that, there wouldn’t be the story.
“She describes herself, her family staying in this beautiful house but she’s been placed in this room that she doesn’t like and she’s asked, ‘Can she be moved?’ Her husband thinks it’s not a good idea.
“So slowly but surely, you start to see this woman who really is not empowered start to look at the room around her and she notices the wallpaper.
“And when she starts to describe it, you think she’s going on about this a little bit, ‘That’s a full paragraph of a description of a wallpaper pattern, a bit weird’.
“But as it goes on, she just becomes obsessed with this wallpaper and it’s so brilliant and so slow how her description changes, and how the wallpaper sort of becomes almost like a mirror of one layer, her mental health and how she is, but then there’s more layers to the wallpaper and that you can imagine she is talking about society in the 19th century for American women.
“I could hear the music in her descriptions of the wallpaper.
“I came up with the title because of the Oscar Wilde quote where he had said on his deathbed, ‘One or the other of us has to go: Me or the wallpaper’.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, what a man’.”
The me and you in the title are the protagonist and the women she sees in the wallpaper.
The Yellow Wallpaper predates the right to vote for women in the United States. In the USA, women were allowed to vote in 1920.
The themes are very suitable for St Brigid’s Day, aren’t they? “Absolutely, and not just for women.
“I really am an advocate for creativity for everybody, incorporating that into our daily life.
“Sometimes people say to me, ‘Oh, I can’t sing’, or, ‘Oh, I’m not artistic’, or, ‘I’m not imaginative’.
“And I just feel it’s part of everybody and if you want to access it, it’s there.
“I think it’s a very powerful tool for experiencing your best self and your best life and your best way of communicating with people.
“This piece has become something that I hope will awaken creativity in the audience.”
The performance will be followed by a Q and A. Although Sue could not perform it live when she wrote the show in 2022 to coincide with the 130 year anniversary of the Yellow Wallpaper, she could film a performance that was screened, then also with a Q and A.
“The questions from the audience were really as I’d hoped, most of the focus was on creativity, motherhood, parenthood.
“We did talk about Charlotte Perkins Gilman of course but more focusing on the creativity side of things which really opened some very interesting themes and questions.
“As part of this Q & A that we’re doing, after talking about the work I really would love to do a little workshop with any of the audience if they would like to, just to get up, sing if they feel like it.
“That’s what I envision but I quite like leaving things open to see what people want? What do they want to talk about? And what do they want to explore?
“It’s going to be a really safe environment, and beautiful.
“I love a good chinwag.
“And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Having a chat, having the craic, connecting with people, making new friends.
“No better day for it.”
Sue will be accompanied by musicians Lina Andonovska and Mike Nielsen.
“In Dublin, you’re just spoiled for choice.
“There are so many stunning musicians.
“I’m saying Dublin only because I’m here, I mean the whole of Ireland.
“But I’ve been really lucky to work with Lina Andonovska. She’s the leading performer in her generation of flute. She’s performed with some of the world’s most important voices in art music and with the four time Grammy Award-winning ensemble The Eighth Blackbird.
“She’s just so so talented, has beautiful stage presence so I’m really excited.
“I feel the audience are going to absolutely love her.
“And then there’s going to be Mike Nielsen who is an absolutely stunning guitarist.
“He’s a PhD in microtonal improvisation and in microtonal guitar design, and he’s the coordinator of the master’s in jazz performance programme at TU in Dublin and he’s played with Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, Kenny Wheeler and Dave Liebman.
“These two musicians are just golden. They’re beautiful people. They’re so creative, and they’re just going to bring some really interesting energy and sounds to the project.
“It’s gonna be awesome.”
Was it easy to write if you were so inspired by the text? “I love that question because, to be honest, I think this structurally was possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.
“Because there’s so much information going on and it’s so layered.
“There’s a very clear beginning, middle, end story being told.
“Yet within that, there’s so much detail in her environment, in her imagination, in the wallpaper, in the patterns that she’s seeing and there’s so many things that are hinted at that aren’t made very clear.
“So you’re working with trying to recreate a really strong atmosphere with really strong undercurrent but through sound.
“When she’s in the room in her bed, I was imagining that her window might be a little bit open and that you could hear the wind whistling through the window.
“So my first draft of that was me with a tin whistle making these sounds and making little scratchy noises on the guitar because there’s someone trying to get out of the wallpaper.
“So from there, because I have these beautiful musicians, they were able to bring these sounds alive and I was able to say at this point, ‘Please can you make it sound as if there’s wind whistling through the chink of the glass?’
“And Lina totally gets it.
“And you feel like you’re in the room with the woman, you know?
“And then with Mike the same thing, I want to hear those patterns come alive but from tiny to huge, and we want to build that expanse, ‘No problem’.
“I’m eternally grateful to them for being able to bring what I’m imagining alive.
“As I was developing the work, I had also been learning a lot of beautiful Irish songs and folk songs, so I started to bring those songs into the piece.
“And that has made it even more layered because there’s songs in the Irish language that are songs of women at different stages in their lives.
“And so what I imagine is that for the audience, as they’re listening and seeing the piece, that they have a visitation from a woman from the wallpaper, from the patterns that women fall into, through the ages, back hundreds and hundreds of years, in different languages.
“I’m so excited. I can’t wait to share it with you all.”
What do you think Charlotte would make of it herself? “I would like to think that she would be happy with it.
“It’s a difficult one though.
“I would hope that she would be happy that her story is so important, still relevant today 130 years later.
“That’s quite something. Aesthetically, and artistically. I’m not sure, we all have our tastes.”
Are there further plans for the show?
“Yeah, we were talking about it.
“And it’s a very easy show to tour.
“It’s very lightweight with a very clear message, and I love the fact that it can be inclusive to everybody.
“It has a healthy message about creativity.
“Although we’re dealing with a very heavy topic, I am coming at it from the perspective as a mother, as a creative with huge compassion and huge love for the arts.
“And that’s what I want people to go home with. I want them to go home feeling, ‘Wow, I’m going to paint, I’m going to do something, I’m going to go out in the garden and plant a few seeds’, or something that makes them feel really good.
“That’s my mission and I think that’s a really lovely thing, a really important thing to tour.”
Sue Rynhart performs You, Me or the Wallpaper at Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room 8pm on Thursday 1 February as part of Liverpool Irish Festival St Brigid’s Day celebrations.
For more information about Sue, click here.