Poster Damian Leverett plays composer Thomas Tallis.
Damian Leverett plays composer Thomas Tallis.
Orchard Theater Collective
Classical Minnesota Stories

Orchard Theater's 'Thomas Tallis' brings us back to the composer's politically tense world

Just as Shostakovich had to decide whether to bend to his Soviet government's rules, Thomas Tallis' delicate relationship with Tudor England changed his music — and history with it. The choral composer lived through the reign of alternating Catholic and Protestant monarchs, each one changing the laws surrounding how sacred music could be composed. This made Tallis question what Shostakovich and others might have throughout time: whether to make music for those in power or for the people.

In 2014, British playwright Jessica Swale dramatized Tallis' struggles in the first new play commissioned for the indoor stage at Shakespeare's Globe in London. And now, the Orchard Theater Collective is presenting the Twin Cities premiere of Thomas Tallis as originally intended, by candlelight, in the Calvary Baptist Church sanctuary in Minneapolis' Whittier neighborhood.

The play looks into how the composer and everyday people dealt with the polarized political climate, also following a Catholic priest being hunted by Protestant authorities. Show director and company co-founder Anna Leverett said that after first reading the play, she immediately drew parallels between the political climate Tallis lived in and our own.

"It's much easier to see with this play because it's so long ago, so there's this sense of distance to it where it's like, 'How could someone possibly do that to someone else for what they believe? How could they possibly ostracize them for such a thing?'" she said.

At the start of the play, during Henry VIII's rule in the 1530s, there was great debate about whether harmonies and interwoven parts should be part of church music at all. Having just split from the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Church of England, Henry invited Tallis to play in the esteemed Chapel Royal. There, Tallis composed in an elaborate Catholic style, writing innovative polyphony and harmonies. He worked in the private chapel for the rest of his life, but with each reign came new rules for how he could create. Henry's radical Protestant son, the boy king Edward VI, demanded a single phrase for a single line. Catholic Queen Mary I allowed the polyphony Tallis adored, but then Elizabeth I reinstated some Protestant restrictions.

"To him, writing music was very centered and connected to his own faith and spirituality and his sense of wanting to bring music to people," said company co-founder Damian Leverett, who is playing Tallis and is Anna Leverett's husband. "The play really looks into what is the cost on him, specifically, for switching between these different styles and these different political, religious groups and constantly having to change his life's mission."

There are few surviving details about Tallis' life, and the playwright connects many of the dots. Still, the best source on Tallis is his music. Damian Leverett grew up in a music household and knew about Tallis, but preparing for the role gave him a chance to look closely at how the composer lined up words and crescendos. What surprised him most about the music was how much joy there is in it.

"It's a style that we might not associate with joyfulness or exuberance, because to our modern ear I think it sounds really somber or it's in the dark part of the movie," he said. "But going into his music and looking at it, there's so much joy to be found."

The artists will underscore the play with live performances of Tallis' choral pieces. Anna Leverett chose the songs based on a mix of script suggestions and historical markers, such as when Tallis started writing in English. More than anything, she said, she chose the music based on her heart and the emotions it could elicit from the audience.

Formed in 2017 while the co-founders were seniors in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA actor training program, the Orchard Theater Collective focuses on finding new ways to tell old stories. Finding a space to complement the show was a challenge for Thomas Tallis because they wanted to perform it by candlelight. They lucked out in finding the Calvary Baptist Church sanctuary, which was built in the early 1900s. To help shape the drama, they also will use artificial candles and some stage lighting.

"The space itself brings you back in time a little bit," Damian Leverett said. "You're immediately brought into a different world that I think is a lot closer to where the play takes place."

The Orchard Theater Collective's production of Thomas Tallis, by Jessica Swale, runs April 20 through May 5 at Calvary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Tickets and information are available on the company's website.

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