On Friday the 15th March, having locked Jasper Mountbatten III (my Ego), Derek Bluebottom (my depression) and Colin Shitsmearer (my envy) in a cupboard in my flat in Crystal Palace, I left to attend the UK Musical Theatre Conference 2019 at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton.
What I’m going to do here is not so much a description of the event itself but instead a collection of my thoughts on the “Conundrum of New Musical Theatre in the UK” as they coalesced throughout the day.
As you may know, I spend the majority of my time writing new musicals, so the conference (organised by the extraordinary teams at Mercury Musical Developments and Musical Theatre Network) was an opportunity for me to step back and think more deeply about the practical problems and difficulties facing the industry today.
The day was full of provocations, questions, opinions, conversations and ideas about the ecology of UK musical theatre. It was an opportunity to hear thoughts and challenges facing venues, artistic directors, independent producers, writers and performers. For me, as a UK MT Conference virgin, it was one of the first times that I’ve really had the opportunity to see all these factions represented so strongly and speaking so passionately about the medium. I know for a fact that it was a surprise to others at the conference that the various factions were represented so well. At one point I spoke to an Artistic Director who expressed a good deal of surprise when I told him: “Oh, there’s lots of writers here!” As if on cue, a panellist then asked for a show of hands to indicate how many writers were in the room. At least half the people in the room swiftly raised their hands.
There is the possibility for conferences to be seen as paying lip service to change. They can often be a group of people from the same part of their particular industry wondering aloud in a vacuum about the things that must be done to change their industry. As a result they can often be ineffective and frustrating, enabling an industry to say that it is desirous of change without ever having to actually do anything about it.
What was so good about this event was the vital presence of so many different roles within the industry. This meant that conversations and events from this conference could potentially lead to ACTUAL change. And believe me, if there is one thing that came across loud and clear from the event it is that change is both desired and required. I heard this from venues, directors, producers, the leaders of consortia and writers that musical theatre is something that they are deeply passionate about creating and promoting. I was in the room when this was stated over and over again by various panellists.
In the revolutionary process, talk is very necessary, as is conversation and consultation. But it is also very easy to say that one is willing to change, quite another to actually change.
There are a lot of actions being taken already, MMD and MTN work extremely hard behind the scenes promoting writers informally and formally in order to forward the cause of new musical theatre in this country. Events, opportunities and competitions are being set up as we speak to give voice to the now undeniable musical theatre talent in the UK. Some regional venues and producing companies are investing in programmes to develop new musical theatre and bring it to their audiences. A number of independent producers and directors are dedicated to advocating new musical theatre and they are getting work seen and actual productions on.
These actions represent the beginnings of the long road to revolution…
RISK & OPPORTUNITY
One of the great things about the conference was that many writers I talked to throughout the day expressed a renewed appreciation for the difficulties that venues and producers face when it comes to creating new work. Being reminded of the challenges that venues face in the current economic climate is always sobering and important. As a writer who has been round the block a few times and has talked in depth with both independent producers and Artistic Directors this was not news to me nor many of my career artist colleagues, but it was great that a larger proportion of people were becoming aware of the challenges facing venues and producers.
However, I would like to take this opportunity to remind us all that risk is by no means a one way street. Career musical theatre writers take risks every single day of their working lives. We make considerable sacrifices in order to write, in order that there will be ideas and shows created for theatres and audiences. We often spend years working on a musical before we see any financial recompense for that work and then it is usually vastly inadequate compared to the amount of time we spent working on them. Yes, producers take financial risk when they commission an idea but they are not the only ones risking a huge amount. A decent wage, a stable career, relationships, family time and social events are constantly being risked by writers in order to write. Don’t get me wrong. We do this willingly. Because we LOVE what we do. And because we love it we are willing to risk to do it. This is not an attack, it doesn’t change the difficult financial challenges facing venues, but I hope it puts the word RISK into a more realistic and useful context. This is something we all face together.
So, back to the financials… Yes, there is indeed high risk in new musical theatre, this is well known. It’s an expensive business and sometimes it doesn’t pay off…
But it’s my belief that the size of this risk is directly proportional to an outdated lack of TRANSPARENCY in our industry.
TRANSPARENCY & EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT
It is my belief that producer risk is connected deeply to audience development. If an audience doesn’t come to a show you will lose your investment. If it does come, you may make a small loss, you may break even, you may make some money, you may have a mega hit and never have to work again for the rest of your life.
The point I want to make is that the long term development of high quality, meaningful & commercially viable musical theatre doesn’t HAVE to be as risky as everyone is making it out to be…
If risk is connected to audience and risk is the crucial factor holding venues and producers back from developing more musical theatre (as would seem to be the case from panel discussions) then crucially we ALL need to think more about our audience.
As a writer, I usually hear that phrase in relation to the subject matter of my work. We as writers constantly hear the phrase: “Think about your audience. Why are they going to want to come and see a musical about this?”
I posit that in asking that question (and I’ve asked it several times myself) we are thinking about our audience in a naive, presumptuous and condescending manner.
I would say that we don’t necessarily have to worry about whether our idea is going to appeal to an audience. Yes, that might be a part of it, but it’s not everything. I would argue that more important for developing audiences for new work is connecting those audiences in a meaningful way to the artists who are making it.
You only have to look at XFactor or Britain’s Got Talent to see this system at work. Whilst talent plays a part, it is an audiences connection to a particular singer, it is the audiences emotional INVESTMENT in their story and their development that really drives that connection. When there is connection between artist development and audience then there is interest, opportunity and crucially, lowered RISK.
A lot was said at the conference about musical theatre career artists being sidelined in favour of well known pop stars or playwrights. This is something we have been complaining about for years and the conference brought it into stark relief. Regardless of the argument about bringing fresh blood into the musical theatre writing pot, I seriously doubt that is the principal reason why they are commissioning well known pop writers to write their next musical. Otherwise, they would surely be happy to bring in new musical theatre writers. We are after all, fresh blood as well.
We think that pop stars are given these opportunities because they are famous and successful. But actually the truth lies a bit deeper than that. Really they are famous and successful because they have cultivated a strong audience connection over time, their songs and careers have made their way into the fabric of the audience’s lives. The audience is invested in them. That is why their audiences go in droves to the work they are involved in. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pop concert or an autobiography or a musical. The audience are invested in the artist.
As a result of this emotional investment by audiences, these writers bring with them considerably lowered risk. Lowered risk because of higher guaranteed AUDIENCE numbers. It’s simple economics.
So the key question is this…
How do we develop that same audience investment, that emotional attachment to the life and work of career musical theatre artists? After all, they are the ones driven by passion for the form. The ones who have dedicated their time and sacrificed so much to do it. The ones who know what they’re doing. The ones who have spent their lives devoted to this most collaborative of art forms and who are constantly being sidelined in favour of those with no experience in the medium.
So who must we turn to?
Who out of all of the representatives at the conference has access to an audience?
Now, there seems to be this idea amongst the new musical theatre community that in order to help our industry to thrive in this country the first step is to produce more new musicals.
I think that this is wrong.
“What?!” I hear you shout. “String ‘em up boys!”
Before you hang me out to dry, let me tell you why…
There is one word (again used many times at the conference) which goes to the heart of the problem…
A lot was said at the conference about TRUST regarding collaboration partners for co-productions. But more importantly, to effect real change in our industry the first and principal focus must be on the development of trust between venues, their audiences and crucially, WRITERS.
Panellists talked articulately about how to build trust between collaborators, many examples were talked of about how trust was built, the conversation related mainly to how co-production relationships are cultivated. They are not leapt into blindly, they are tentative cautious affairs.
And so surely the same principle must apply when it comes to building trust between venues, audiences and writers.
If trust is built in small steps. Then surely that’s how we must approach it for the development of audiences for new musicals. In a relationship you don’t go straight to marriage. You go on a date. Prior to going on a date you might talk or message, it begins with a single word, or a glance. It begins so very very small.
So… venues. I don’t want you to produce my musicals. Not yet.
I want you to invite me and people like me to develop our ideas in one of your rooms, inside your venue and the most important thing here:
PLEASE DON’T HIDE US AWAY FROM YOUR AUDIENCES!
Here’s a three step suggestion to get us all started:
1. Venues, invite a writing team in for a day or a week to work on a musical theatre idea we’re all interested in. No commitment from you to produce the thing to its final production. It doesn’t have to be a workshop or an R&D. It could just be a room with a piano in it where two or three writers will bash ideas out. The important thing is that it doesn’t have to be a big commitment from you.
2. TELL your audiences that we are there. Tweet, facebook, mail out. It won’t take much. Maybe one of the days is an open rehearsal room where audiences can visit, maybe there is a showing, maybe there is a talk. But it must be visible, publicised and prominent.
3. Writers, the burden cannot all be on the venues and producers. Unfortunately, beyond writing excellent work there is no escaping the fact that we live in a world which requires us to tell people about what we are doing. It may go against our nature to do it, but do it we must if we expect our audiences to come with us on the journey.
When you are doing a new musical, it is so often the case that producers and venues wait until the season announcement before the public and audiences hear anything about it.
By then it’s too late. Risk is already sky high. We have given the potential audience no time to get emotionally invested in the journey of the artists or the project, or the venue. We have given them no time to witness the struggles and defeats. Therefore how can we expect them to want to come along to this secret new musical?
This is how it’s been done in the past but it is time to change the way in which venues, producers, artists and audiences relate to one another in UK Musical Theatre.
We are living in a new age and we must adapt.
The most powerful tool we have is our storytelling. And the skills of storytelling must be applied not only to the story of our shows but to the very act of creating new musical theatre itself.
THE LONG TERM
I’m talking a thirty year game changer here.
Small investment now in artists and audiences will reap huge benefits in the future. Attach writers to venues, let them engage with your audiences, let the writers take their rightful place in the ecology of theatre, let them into your building. They are it’s beating heart, they are the lifeblood that fuels the entire industry and like a badly watered plant it will only take a little water for them to perk up once more and start filling the theatres with vibrant new musical theatre.
Build trust between venues and writers and you will end up with strong work.
Build trust between writers and audiences and you will end up with lowered risk.
STRONGER WORK + LOWERED RISK = A healthier new musical theatre ecology for the UK.
At the conference everybody made it clear that they want that. So lets do it.
A huge thank you to all who attended the conference and especially to the wonderful teams at MMD and MTN without whom none of us would have a clue what we were doing.
I try not to complain, I leave that to other facets of my personality: Derek Bluebottom (my depression), Jasper Mountbatter III (my ego) and Colin Shitsmearer (my envy). This frees me up to be a more positive influence on the world around me. Whilst the other bits of my personality are:
1. Wondering what the point of it all is (Derek)
2. Shouting incredibly loudly about how brilliant I am (Jasper)
3. On their way around to fellow composers/lyricists houses to break their fingers (Colin)
I am able to spend some time alone in my flat wondering how I can contribute in a small way to the new musical theatre community in the UK.
So today, whilst the rest of my personality is out and about, I thought I'd talk about something that goes right to the heart of one of the great challenges that UK Musical Theatre faces. Namely this:
HOW ARE WE ABLE TO GET MORE MUSICAL THEATRE BY UK MUSICAL THEATRE WRITERS PRODUCED?
"What a fascinating question!" I hear you say.
"Why thank you!" I reply.
Well in order to answer my question, I've done a little research...
In 2019, The population of West End Musical Theatre looks like this:
9 x duke box musicals (built from a catalogue of pre-written songs)
1 x Sondheim (written by an American musical theatre legend)
10 x US Broadway musical theatre career artists (artists who've made their name through MT)
2 x Disney shows (who doesn't love Disney?)
3 x Andrew Lloyd Webber Shows (Unsurprising given that he owns a bunch of the theatres)
2 x Cameron Mackintosh Mega Hit (Les Miserables continues to run and Mary Poppins returns)
Book of Mormon (I couldn't categorise this, written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone with Bobby Lopez - writer of Avenue Q)
Only Fools and Horses: The Musical (by British writers who as far as I can tell are not career musical theatre writers)
2 x British Musicals written by pop stars/comedians/playwrights (Matilda and Everybody's Talking About Jamie)
2 British Musicals written by UK musical theatre career artists (SIX and Where is Peter Rabbit)
PHEW! Very good work. What does any of that mean for us? Let's do some calculations shall we?
Out of a total of 33 West End Musicals:
33% of West End Musicals are written by UK or European Writers
67% of West End Musicals are written by American or Canadian Writers
6% are by UK Musical Theatre Career Artists
30% are by Broadway Musical Theatre Career Artists
So what's the headline? What's the big takeaway here... it's something I've long suspected...
A mere 6% of West End Musicals in 2019 are by UK artists who have chosen the art of writing musical theatre as their career.
As I mentioned I'm not here to complain about it, that's not the point of this post. The point is that clearly something needs to change. And I want to help make that change happen.
First I suppose we need to understand why this has happened? Why are Broadway's career artists dominating the musical scene on our home turf. There are numerous reasons for this, historical, individual and difficult that I'm not going to go into as that's a much larger, longer and in-depth post and I don't have time before Derek, Jasper and Colin come back and start shouting at me...
Suffice to say that Broadway producers regularly take risks on new musical theatre, audiences in New York embrace new musical theatre and there are a large number of highly lucrative financial awards that support career artists and help them develop their shows. The landscape of the West End is vastly different when it comes to new musical theatre, it has essentially become a home for Broadway transfers and Juke Box musicals (if you're looking for West End musical transfers to Broadway keep looking...)
So how is the UK supposed to compete with the high quality shows that are coming from Broadway writers?
The simple answer is... we can't. Unless we begin to change our game.
There is one person who lies at the heart of this change... a single solitary soul...
That person is... you guessed it... It's YOU you lucky ol' thing you!
If you're reading this you're probably a fan of musical theatre, so you probably know about the big transfers coming into The West End this year, Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Waitress etc. You might be less aware of the fact that there is actually a decent amount of new musical theatre being written by UK musical theatre writers, it's just that you won't see them on the West End stage. You'll have to look a little harder, to dig a little deeper, but they are there. London's fringe and the UK's regional theatre's are regularly producing new musical theatre by British artists. We are fortunate in that we have wonderful support communities for new writers such as the fantastic MMD Mercury Musical Developments and BML Book Music & Lyrics. Events like BEAM 2018 and the SIGNAL New Musical Theatre evenings curated by Adam Lenson at The Hospital Club prove beyond a doubt that there is huge talent lurking beneath the surface...
But to make a show viable for the West End is an entirely different matter and it really comes down to audiences. If you can sell out a West End theatre then your show is a viable West End transfer. It's as simple as that. But it's difficult enough to sell out a small fringe venue for a three week run, let alone generate the audience power needed to sustain a West End commercial venue for six months. So to be perfectly frank, it's not really up to the producers, it's not up to the theatre's or the marketers...
It's up to us as audience members.
If we want a West End that is going to have more original British musical theatre on it's stages then we have to do everything we can to support the work of those writers whenever their work is produced on the Fringe.
I recently announced a new production of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at The Southwark Playhouse. This is not based on the movie, but the original short story by F.Scott Fitzgerald. About 150 people liked that post (thanks guys!) And if all of those people came along to the show they'd sell out the theatre for an evening...
So what would happen if each of those 150 people, brought 10 of their friends with them? Does that sound like an impossible task? I went to Wasted (a new musical by Chris Ash and Carl Miller) at Southwark last year and I brought 11 of my friends with me that night. It's not impossible, it takes a little bit of organisation but it's not difficult and we ended up having a brilliant evening with a brilliant show and hanging with out as mates.
That would be more than a thousand people watching a new British musical for less than half the price that you would pay at a West End theatre with a far better view of the action. What's not to like?
If we as audiences support the new work that is being made by UK career artists now then the producers will begin to notice it as well.
So, if you want to see a change in the landscape of new musicals on the West End as much as I do, then there's now something you can do about it. Get your youth theatre together, get your amateur operatic society together, get your family and friends together and go and see a new British musical on the fringe or in the regional theatres. Let's start selling these bad boys out. I regularly tweet about the new shows that are appearing on the fringe and in the regions so look out for them and get yourself a posse.
Ah, dear I can see Derek at the door looking incredibly miserable, the rest of my personalities are coming home so I better get the dinner on. I'll leave you to it Sunday!
Disclaimer: Obviously not all shows are meant for the West End stage nor should they be, but some most certainly are and the only way we're going to get them there is by going to see them and bringing everybody we know with us.
We've all been to a show and thought to ourselves. "Good lord. What a load of self-indulgent twaddle. Someone needs to take a chainsaw to that script."
Self Indulgence is often thought of as a terrible thing, and surely that is very true. It often refers to a scene or a song which reveals that a writer is trying a bit too hard. It’s a show off, it patronises it’s audience and it outstays it’s welcome.
But I’d like to make a case for the importance of self-indulgence in the life and craft of a writer. I would like to propose that there are (at least) three areas of your work where you can't over indulge... indeed it's almost essential to improvement in the craft of writing and I’m going to talk about them all over myself right on my very important and indulgent blog.
Being a professional writer means dedicating yourself to it. It doesn’t mean starving yourself, or going on a bender to get “life experience”, it doesn’t mean driving yourself or those around you mad with insane habits, it doesn’t mean indulging in childish or prickish behaviour. You don’t have to be a dick to be good. The two things are completely unrelated to one another. If it so happens that there have been amazing writers who were also amazing knob ends, that’s by the by. The one does not preclude the other. In fact in many ways, we would probably find that the amazing knob ends became amazing writers in spite of (not because of) their total prickishness.
What I mean by dedication is spending time learning about your craft, which basically means DOING it. Even if this is just ten minutes a day that still counts as dedication. I think dedication is demonstrated more by consistency and regularity than by quantity. It is possible to work full time in an unrelated field and still be dedicated to the art of writing, you still get to call yourself a writer as long as you can demonstrate consistent dedication to the art of writing. So indulge in the art of writing, be dedicated to it, that can only be a good thing.
To write a real character you have to practise the art of empathy. People may disagree with me that empathy is something that you can practice, and I completely empathise with their disagreement. I think of empathy as basically putting yourself in someone else's shoes for a time, trying to see and feel all the things they might be feeling in a particular moment so that you can better understand their emotional situation and (if needs be) help them through it.
I think it’s true that some people have a natural empathic inclination and that others have less natural ability, but I also think that (no matter where on the empathy scale you fall) if you want to be a writer, then you would do well to practise empathy whenever you can. Essentially, a writer needs to empathise with every single one of their characters. Especially when their characters have a personal history/views/opinions that are completely alien to that of the writer. The ability to step inside another persons heart and mind is the most important tool of the writer and is probably the least taught.
Personally, I think the teaching of it is fairly simple. In that all you have to do is practice. To do it regularly until it becomes a habit. The best thing about empathy is that it’s one of those things that you can literally practise ALL the time. It doesn’t take time away from your other chores or passions, indeed you can even do it whilst on a date with your significant other and they need ever know your secret… the practice of empathy involves using your imagination to a large degree. Whenever you see someone in a particular emotional state, try and spend some time imagining yourself in their position.
One thing’s for sure, it is empathy which gives us perspective. It shows us how our characters see the world, it teaches us how they interact with it. As a writer you can never be too empathetic. You’ll probably find that it improves other aspects of your life as well.
To make our lives a little easier we surround ourselves with the familiar. We have friends who share our basic values and beliefs, we live in places that feel like home and we surround ourselves with things we know and understand. But it’s only when our values and beliefs are challenged that we really start to think about why we have them in the first place. Why are the things that are important to us actually important to us? Is it because they were important to our parents? Is it because it’s what our society says is right?
For me, a value or belief is absolutely meaningless unless it is questioned. If it is worthwhile it will be able to withstand the rigours of interrogation, if it is not, it will fall by the wayside where it belongs.
And there is nothing, absolutely nothing like travel to test your preconceptions and assumptions about the way the world should be. When we travel, we have the opportunity to practice cultural empathy on an epic scale. We have the opportunity to meet people who believe in something completely different to us, something completely alien.
When our fundamental beliefs and core values are questioned we often feel like we are under personal attack and we put up defences to keep ourselves safe. But the walls that we erect are not keeping us safe from anything. Much like Mr-Donald-Fuck-Trump’s-Mexico-Will-Pay-For-It-Wall we are defending ourselves from an imaginary enemy. Our minds are fear-mongering.
But the questioning is not there to destroy you. It’s there to make you stronger. So travel, question, allow yourself to be questions. Indulge yourself in that.
The word ‘emerging’ is one that is full of hope and promise, full of potential and expectation for the future. It implies that one is leaving one state of being and entering another. When one thinks of ‘emerging’, one may be prone to think of the butterfly emerging from it’s cocoon, transformed from the earthbound caterpillar into a multi-hued winged beauty, ready to soar into the skies...
But I’m not sure if many of us are entirely aware of what exactly happens inside the cocoon in order for this miracle to occur…
Well, first the caterpillar digests itself. It literally eats itself alive. Pleasant experience? Well, I’m not a caterpillar so I can’t claim to know for sure, but apparently were you to cut open the cocoon at the right moment, then a tasty caterpillar soup would ooze out and fall onto your shoe. Nice.
Then, once the caterpillar has disintegrated all of it’s tissue, it uses the protein rich soup to fuel the advanced cell development required to form all the various parts of the butterfly… the wings, antennae, eyes, genitals, beer belly, the whole shebang.
In other words, a caterpillar basically destroys itself in order to become a butterfly.
So, why the shit am I talking about caterpillars and butterflies? I suspect you can all guess. It’s that word, that vague, nebulous word:
This word is often placed just in front of another fun, rather vague and nebulous word:
Thus the two words combine to create the increasingly vague and nebulous term:
Now, When one thinks of an ‘Emerging Artist’, there is I suppose, a not entirely unexpected notion that they will one day ‘emerge’ from the chrysalis of their training and burst forth onto the theatrical scene, their beautiful butterfly wings shimmering in the glow of the footlights.
However, there seems to be a problem...
The cocoon in which a person transforms into a theatrical artist in the UK doesn’t seem to contain all of the necessary protein-rich resources available to our dear friend the butterfly.
To become a writer (and I’m still working on it, believe me) you have to do what the caterpillar does. Yes. Basically, you have to eat yourself. In order to master anything you need to spend a huge amount of time actually doing it. And time is a limited resource. You have to eat, you have to sleep, you have to pay rent. And whilst your earning the money to do those things you also have to find the time, the inclination, the motivation and the energy to actually write. You live on friends couches, you shower in hostels, you drink Asda brand lager and you write. You do this for years. It ain’t no holiday but it’s all in the service of a hope that one day, the sacrifice will pay off and you will emerge from your cocoon as a fully formed, skilled writer, able to afford Heinz baked beans and Sainsbury’s Finest Brand Ginger Biscuits or even the occasional shopping trip to Waitrose.
This hope, assumes that the cocoon will provide the protein necessary to build your soupy dreams into something of a writers career, but unfortunately such resources, so abundant in nature are not so readily available to the theatrical wannabe in the UK.
In the UK theatrical world there are a number of schemes that are focussed upon ‘Emerging Artists.’ This is great, it’s really good that our industry wants to build new voices, there’s clearly an intention there, what’s a little disheartening is that while the industry wants to develop new voices it doesn’t seem to have any real idea of how to do that.
It’s not good enough to say to someone relatively new to the craft:
“Here, you look like you’re working pretty hard, you have some talent, have an opportunity.”
Great, you’ve been given an opportunity. That opportunity will develop you, it’ll help you grow as a writer, you’ll learn things you never even dreamed of, you might work with some great people and make some great connections. But that opportunity will come to an end. What do you do next?
Well you look for the next opportunity, the next award… only it seems that in having had the first opportunity it disqualifies you from having another one. Are you now considered to have emerged? Are you ready to fly boldly into the theatrical world, your wings unfurled, blinding all who see you with your unique and powerful artistic vision?
No, of course you bloody aren't. One opportunity does not make a writer. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to have close to 30 professional shows produced in the UK and internationally. I’m still considered to be a new, emerging artist, but many of the opportunities that are available to emerging artists are now closed to people like me. And I am by no means the exception to the rule. I have known writers who have been ‘emerging’ for over ten years.
Make no mistake... We are the rule.
There is a huge amount of luck, hard graft and good timing that goes into a writers career. You also have a responsibility to build an infrastructure for yourself (people and theatres and venues who will believe in you and produce your work).
But beyond this, I believe there should be an industry infrastructure that goes beyond single awards and opportunities, or even, two or three or ten. It’s simply no good to put a couple of stepping stones into a huge swamp and say:
“There you go, we’ve done our bit! Good luck me old mucker!!”
I accept that writers must do their part to help their own careers but if the industry doesn’t step up to put down a couple more stepping stones then our best writers are going to fall into the swamp. They’ll be overwhelmed by life’s financial responsibilities and the wonderful work they might have produced will be lost at the bottom of a bog.
Someone once asked a really smart CEO the following question:
INTERVIEWER: "What do you invest in? An idea or the person who had that idea."
CEO: "The person of course. They could have a million ideas just as good or better, especially if I give them the chance to think of them."
This is a serious question that needs to be asked of the gatekeepers of the theatrical industry in the UK both for the sake of the artists and for the artistic future of the industry.
Fortunately there are wonderful organisations that do incredible work specifically to support the writers of new musicals at every step in their careers such as Mercury Musical Developments, but there is only so much they can do to help. We really need the larger theatres, commercial theatres and national institutions to start following their lead and provide more investment for writers to support them as they build their careers. The future of the industry depends on it.
We need more resources in the cocoon so we can build more butterflies.
Wouldn't that make the world a more beautiful place?
So today, I'm very excited! Today you won't be hearing about Jasper Mountbatten III coke fuelled trip to Monte Carlo, you won't be hearing about Derek Bluebottom's bed sores or 1000 mile stare, you won't be hearing about the rage and violence boiling inside Colin Shitsmearer and you certainly won't be hearing a whisper out of Timothy...
Today I am hosting my very first GUEST BLOG!!! Sound the trumpets, bring out the monkeys, carry forth the golden elephants and bang your sausage filled bellies. Amy Draper (genre busting Director/Maker of These Trees Are Made of Blood and the RSC's Day of the Living) was bored so I suggested she write a blog.
I'll let Amy speak for herself, but needless to say, in her own Amy way she went about producing something that was completely NOT what I suggested and is ever the more wonderful for it. If I want my blog to be anything, I want it to be a place for humour, honesty and truth in an industry that is absolutely drenched in facade. Amy has done exactly that.
Just a little bit about Amy before you hear from her. Amy and I have known each other and worked together for about six years now. She hired me to write songs for a little show she was working on called These Trees Are Made of Blood. She is a unique, special, brilliant and honest collaborator. I have seen her at her highest and at her lowest. We have shared and solved more theatrical conundrums than I can remember. We have argued passionately and intensely about many a thing and we have laughed so much that the rehearsal room has been fit to burst with it. Today I get to count her as not only one of the finest new theatre makers in the UK but as one of my dear friends.
You can read all about Amy's credentials and her work here:
But enough of all that. Amy has written a blog and that's why you're all here so listen up. She's got some important shit to say:
Kintsugi (Or how not to write a blog about devising)
By Amy Draper
"There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
- Leonard Cohen
Hello. I’m a director and long-term collaborator of Darren’s. Together we have been through the highs, the lows, rehearsals, production politics, late night celebratory beers and early morning creative crisis meetings. He’s seen me at my buoyant, intuitive best mid-rehearsals, and my gloomiest, rejection-receiving lowest. I’ve seen him eat a lot of McDonalds (and, ya know, create
musical magic during a tea break). It’s been a journey. Our latest project was a gift of a project at the RSC. But right now you need to picture me sitting at home mid-week, about 7 weeks in to an unemployed stretch that, at current prediction, will last until the start of February. Darren suggested I write a guest blog for his website to help keep myself occupied. He suggested I write one about the devising process, a real passion we share. I thought about this for a week or so and then decided… not to. Which is a little presumptuous on a blog that isn’t even mine. But you’ve got to write about what’s getting you fired up, and, currently, what’s getting me out of bed is… the issue of not having anything to get out of bed for. Theatre at its beautiful best can bring people together, facilitate empathy through storytelling and therefore, I really believe, effect change. What I wanted to muse on is how we, as theatre makers, can not just survive, but thrive during the “off periods”, when creative connection is limited and often the greatest change you’re pondering is of the underwear variety. In fact, even the language I’ve been using doesn’t help. Off period. Unemployed. Not working. Between jobs.
Off. Un. Not. Between.
For the purpose of this blog I’m not going to talk about money or day jobs (as covered by Darren). Money worries are obviously a thing, but I want to talk about wellbeing. Like many of us, I struggle in these times. It’s not that I can’t think of lots of things to do – emails, coffee meetings, reading or research (not to mention “fun life stuff”, which is equally if not more important) – but somehow, as the days trickle by and your inbox remains empty, it’s not enough. Directing is, fundamentally, a
team sport. It’s a collaboration and there’s only so long I can collaborate with myself, in my pyjamas at 2pm. When people ask, “so what are you working on?”, I stammer. I could, legitimately, tell them in glorious detail all about the projects that are maybes. The sparks, the ideas. But instead, I just kind of go “um…”
Off. Un. Not. Between.
Negative space. This is not healthy. In fact, even for a high-profile-super-woman-director who had upcoming productions all the time, I’d say 4-5 a year is the maximum possible. Which means that even then you’d only be in a rehearsal room for about half the year. Which leaves a heck of a lot of this troubling negative space. What I lack during these times is connection. I mean the kind of creative empathy that comes when rehearsing exciting work in a room full of artists, experts in their respective fields. The kind of
empathy that makes me a bit softer, a bit kinder and a bit more open to other people and their experiences. In the negative space I simultaneously become a bit woolly and also harder edged. Less patient, more self-centred, less empathetic. Which I think is a problem, not only for my work but for how I interact with people close to me and react to the world at large. See there I go, “me, me, me”. Of course, by “I” I really mean “we”. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that every freelancer knows this place.
This blog could also potentially have been about useful activities and coping mechanisms for the lower moments. Fresh air, exercise, reading, seeing friends. These are all as obvious as they are important.
So, this is where I’ve got to instead.
In Japan there is an artform called Kintsugi, which is when broken pottery is mended using precious metal. The cracks suddenly gleam gold or silver. The pieces are reconnected, and the break becomes the most beautiful thing. Traditionally this is seen as a poetic comment on embracing your unique imperfections. But I wonder whether it could also be applied to perceived imperfections of work schedule – time that feels empty.
Could we try to reimagine these seams of time as golden rather than grey? As vital, positive space that is full of possibility – personally and professionally – to grow a little. Above, I described the RSC job as a gift. Is it possible to see the spaces between in the same way? After all, what could be more valuable than the gift of time. What will you do with yours?
END OF BLOG
Thanks for that Amy, you're a blooming legend for sharing your experience of a difficult and little talked about aspect of the career of the freelance theatremaker. You can read all about Amy's credentials and her work here:
Also, producers and venues reading this. As wonderful as it is, let's fill some of that downtime huh? Check her out. She's fricking awesome.