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British artistic collective CARVE CoLab works with people with Parkinson’s on creative projects. Here, they tell the EPDA about how they work and their upcoming online project

CARVE CoLab is a British artistic collective that works with people with Parkinson’s (PwPs) on creative projects. As they begin a new set of online workshops for their latest project, HerStory: Turning the Tide, in October, the organisation’s founding directors, Nicola Wydenbach and Amy Mallett tell the EPDA how their work has continued to thrive after moving online during the pandemic. 

Nicola and Amy, please describe your background and what you do at CARVE CoLab.

Nicola: Amy and I are both freelance musicians who work predominantly within the realm of arts and health. I run three singing and Parkinson’s groups across London, as well as working in a number of other roles, including Director of Training for Sing to Beat Parkinson's. As part of that role, I develop and deliver programmes to train other singing leaders to work with the Parkinson’s community.

Amy: I met Nicola when I was a participant on one of her training courses; at the time I was working for English National Ballet delivering their Dance for Parkinson’s programme. We both shared an aspiration to extend our creative work with Parkinson’s into more ambitious projects, and so we got together with dance artists Danielle Teale and Sarah Lewis to establish CARVE CoLAB. HerStory is an opera we co-created with performers with Parkinson’s.

Tell us about HerStory and the projects you have created so far.

Nicola: Throughout 2019 we worked with 20 members of the Parkinson’s community in Suffolk to co-create a new operatic work; HerStory: The Catchpole Chronicles. HerStory combines dance, music, film and animation, and celebrates the exploits of historical Suffolk heroine, Margaret Catchpole. The piece was performed with a small cast in Suffolk in August 2019, and as a result the company was invited to further develop the work with an expanded cast for a public sharing at London's Royal Opera House in 2020. We were really looking forward to bringing together performers with Parkinson’s from Suffolk and London to further develop this work. Unfortunately, like so many others, our plans were scuppered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amy: Instead, we decided to get together virtually to create a short film featuring creative work on some of the themes of the opera: capture, letters and water. In online workshops, participants from the Parkinson’s community in Suffolk and London explored songs, dance, visual, written and spoken word to produce creative material for the film. We wove these elements together to create a film artwork: HerStory: The Covid Chronicles. Then, building on the success of the film, we completed a third digital project, HerStory: Ev’ry Stitch in the Quilt.

What have been the downsides of conducting projects digitally? Have there been any positive aspects?

Nicola: Obviously missing out on performing at the Royal Opera House has been a disappointment, but working creatively online has been liberating and eye-opening. We have been able to work with London and Suffolk participants concurrently, and even branch out into Essex, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. We have also been able to include those who would not have been well enough to travel to in-person rehearsals. We have been able to involve a wider variety of creative disciplines such as visual artwork and textiles. Through the power of digital media, we have developed the ability to capture and showcase our participants’ voices and contributions really effectively.

Amy: I think working digitally was initially quite a challenge. We all had to build up our confidence in doing things online and getting to grips with the technology. It’s not the same as being there in person, but it kept us connected and kept the creative juices flowing.


Suffolk participants during an opera workshop at Snape Maltings

What do PwPs get out of taking part in one of your projects?

Here is some feedback from some of our participants:

“It’s given me confidence and reduced isolation. It’s given me new friendships. It’s given me something to look forward to. It’s given me happiness and a sense of something achieved. It’s made me feel a little bit special in the fact that we all have something to give creatively.”

“I wrote a little poem, and I would not have written it if it had not been ‘commissioned’ by this group. I saw all these amazing things that people were doing. I’ve always been a critical person, but not a maker myself, so this was an opportunity to change that, and it’s been fantastic.”

“It gave me a lot of satisfaction to find out that I could contribute something… Even with the Parkinson’s limiting us in so many ways, you can still flower, and be a beautiful bloom.”

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It’s given me confidence and reduced isolation. It’s given me new friendships. It’s given me something to look forward to. It’s given me happiness and a sense of something achieved. It’s made me feel a little bit special in the fact that we all have something to give creatively.

HerStory participant
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Tell us about your new project for this autumn, Turning the Tide.

Amy: HerStory: Turning the Tide is inspired by an incredible journey our opera’s heroine Margaret Catchpole undertook in 1801. Margaret had become involved with smugglers and eventually was sentenced to transportation to Australia. She travelled to New South Wales on board the convict transport ship Nile in June 1801, along with 95 other female prisoners and a few free settlers and their families. We know all about her because (unusually for the time) she could read and write, and after being transported to Australia continued writing to her former employer, Mrs Cobbold, in Suffolk, and these letters still exist. In our projects so far we have not explored this journey, so with and alongside our participants the aim of our new project is to explore themes of journeys, transitions and transportation to create another film artwork.

What sort of activities would a person with Parkinson’s do in the creative workshops for Turning the Tide?

Nicola: What I think is unusual about our approach to this work is that we don’t have any demands or expectations. We encourage people to work in mediums or areas that they are comfortable with, whether that means trying something new, or sticking to existing interests. For example, one of our participants might decide to record themselves speaking a monologue of one of the characters in our story, another might video their daily walk which could add to the scene, another may create some textiles. We capture and use these creative inputs and work them into a film or a digital landscape depending on the project.

Amy: Tasks from previous projects have included writing a ‘postcard home’ from a sailor to his loved one, taking photographs of patterns found in nature, and exploring biro doodling as a way of creating ‘embroidery’ artworks. For this project, examples of creative tasks will include inviting participants to consider themes of water, waves and weather through photography, and creating their own criminal characters who could be sharing Margaret’s journey to a new life in Australia. There’s a fascinating heritage angle to this story that we’d also love people to explore.

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What is unusual about our approach to this work is that we don’t have any demands or expectations. We encourage people to work in mediums or areas that they are comfortable with

CARVE CoLab founding director Nicola Wydenbach
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How long are the online sessions?

Nicola: Each workshop is 60 minutes long, with time for creative work and also a chance for some social time.

How can people with Parkinson’s find out more about taking part?

Five weekly online creative workshops for Turning the Tide will take place on online platform Zoom on Tuesdays, starting at 13:15 BST on 5 October 2021. Find out more at www.carvecolab.com/herstory-turning-the-tide.

Further reading:

Do you take part in creative activities since your Parkinson’s diagnosis? What benefits have you found? Email info@epda.eu.com and tell us your stories.

The EPDA is sharing this article for information purposes only; it does not represent the EPDA’s views and is not an endorsement by the EPDA of any particular treatments, therapies or products.

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