I'd like to start this blog with a little story of mine... I promise you that it's relevant to being in the creative industries!
Once upon a time there was a rabbit who lived in a small hole on a hill in a wood. He lived in this particular area not out of choice, but because he could not afford the extortionate rents that greedy landmoles were charging in the lusher, more affluent part of the wood which had better schools and was closer to the local train station. But the rabbit did not complain, he had all the necessities including a small upright piano with midi technology and a small Macbook for making recordings (Did I mention that the rabbit was a composer?).
Well, one day the rabbit was working on a new composition of which he was particularly proud. He was so proud of it that he fired up the wifi (newly installed in that part of the wood) and set out to email an MP3 to his girlfriend who he thought would enjoy it.
Happily, he logged on to his email when he noticed a newsletter from another rabbit composer who he had heard of. Absent mindedly, he clicked with his rabbit paw and opened the email. He read through the various things that were happening for this other rabbit. As he did so, an outside observer would have started to notice the following things (though the rabbit himself did not).
1. The rabbit's left eye began to twitch.
2. The rabbit's smile gradually turned into a frown.
3. The rabbit's foot started pounding the ground beneath him so heavily, that before he knew what was happening, he had pounded 15 feet down through the floor of his rabbit hutch.
A friend of the rabbit, a spritely otter who was especially good at paintball had been due to visit that afternoon. When the otter arrived with his paintball guns and a spare pair of safety goggles, he was surprised to find his friend at the bottom of a fifteen foot hole surfing the internet.
The spritely otter shouted down to his friend. "Hey, dude! What are you doing down there? You ready for some serious paintball action?" No reply came from the depths of the hole, just the sound of sporadic mouse clicking and snippets of music as the rabbit played clips on soundcloud and youtube over and over again. "Seriously!" shouted the otter. "What's up?"
"I'm useless." came the reply from the rabbit. The otter recognised that tone of voice in his friend. It was the voice of self pity, the voice of defeat. "Have you been googling other composers again?"shouted the otter down.
"Maybe." replied the rabbit from deep in the hole.
"Don't worry. I know the cure for this." said the otter, who had known the rabbit to be in this sort of situation before. The otter attached a special triple fire rapid clip to his paintball gun, pointed it at the rabbit and shot him repeatedly until he climbed out of the hole.
"Thanks." said the rabbit. "I needed that."
A couple of years ago I went to a counsellor to help me to recognise certain problems I had begun to see in my life and work. In particular I had noticed that I was regularly entering periods of depression where the only answer to my problems would be to go to sleep and not think about them anymore. The problem being that of course, as soon as I woke in the morning it happened again. It was becoming debilitating. I couldn't work effectively and it was damaging my relationships with those closest to me.
The first step of course was noticing that this was happening on a regular basis, what I didn't know was why. So, as hard as it was I began to try and analyse the root cause of these bouts of depression. Upon looking at them for a while (and experiencing them several times more) it became clear prior to one of these bouts I would engage in accidental internet browsing of fellow composers/lyricists and theatre makers. By accidental, I mean one click leading to another that leads to another until eventually I'd be lost in a rabbit warren of worry and despair that I was not achieving (nor would ever achieve) as much as my peers in the industry.
Once I recognised this my friends and I dubbed them "Rabbit Holes" and we all started to look out for the signs. I started to try and do things that meant I would fall down them less often, or at least not fall as far. Things such as limiting my time on social media and the internet in general. I also learnt that this professional envy seemed to occur less if I actually knew the people personally, because inevitably I would discover that they were struggling just as much as I was. So I started to make an active effort to get to know my colleagues in the industry. This had an unexpected although not entirely foreseeable bonus...
I started making friends who were facing the same difficulties as I was, people who could talk about how it related to their professional work.
Mental health is an often overlooked part of anyone in the creative industries. And yet it is vitally important to talk about it. The pressure on creatives to do well at their job can often be overwhelming and the competition within the industry is often seen as intense. As much as competition can sometimes be a healthy thing, driving us to excel and get better at what we do, a healthy community of theatre makers that shares their difficulties as well as their triumphs can be equally if not more inspiring than the sense of competition that the industry engenders.
We named them rabbit holes because that's what they are... pits of despair of our own making and the more people there are out there who know rabbit holes are about, then the more people there'll be to help us out of one if we get stuck.
I'm sure I'll get into this more at a later date but for now... if anyone is stuck down a rabbit hole... feel free to share it with the rest of us. We might be able to help you out (and not by shooting you with paintballs!!)
By the way, just in case you do see someone in a rabbit hole, don't shout at them from the top, climb down in there with them and sit with them a while til you understand how they feel and then you can both climb out together.
After last week's rather serious musings upon failure and success, I thought I might turn my attention to the lighter side of the craft...
When setting out to write this little blog I thought... what makes me the expert on funny things? But if you've been reading my blog lately you will discover that I am not proclaiming to be an expert on anything. I read somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours before you become a master at something, and by that reckoning that makes me a master of the following:
1. Sitting on my couch watching box sets.
2. Sleeping and walking.
But what I'm attempting to do with this blog is start conversation and thoughts amongst the theatrical song-writing community. To create a dialogue that will benefit those making musical theatre at the moment. So here goes... feel free to disagree and shout things at me if anything jumps out as being ludicrous.
In my (admittedly limited experience) I have discovered some things that I think are worth sharing. Alan Ayckbourne said something very intelligent once (more than once probably), I can't remember what it was, but it went something along these lines:
If your story is inherently dark, throw as much light as you can on it. If it is inherently light, throw as much dark as you can on it. The light will highlight the dark and vice versa.
Basically what I think he meant was that if your story is serious, bring out the humour in it. If your story is humorous, bring out the seriousness. And what he is doing is using "irony" in it's most holistic sense.
In my experience this word can be misleading. People often have very different thoughts on what makes something ironic. For my generation, most of these misunderstandings can be blamed directly on Alanis Morrisette and her song 'Ironic'.
"It's like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife." (lyric from Ironic)
This is not an example of irony. This is an example of extreme inconvenience, general misfortune or an unfortunate choice of catering company.
"It's like rain on your wedding day."
This is not an example of irony. This is an example of unluckiness, or in the case of a winter wedding, bad planning.
For clarity and for everyone who has ever used the word and then immediately wondered whether they've used it correctly... this is what irony is:
An event or statement that deliberately confounds our usual expectations (often with humorous implications).
When I talk about irony in theatre song writing I use two different versions of this:
When a character confounds us by acting/speaking/singing in a manner that is contrary to our expectation of that character's behaviour.
eg. A character who has been portrayed as a brutal, murdering beast reveals that he absolutely adores tiny fragile flowers. We would not expect this to be the case from a savage and therefore our expectations are confouded.
When a lyric is set to the opposite sort of music that it's content would initially imply and vice versa.
eg. When a lyric that sings about torture and rape is set to a delightful, upbeat tune. We would normally expect such heavy topics to be dealt with seriously and with the appropriate gravity. We are confounded by the sound of someone singing of such deplorable acts in a seemingly delighted way.
Depending on the situation of your song, one or the other of these types of irony might be useful to you, it's even possible to combine the two.
So what Ayckbourne has expressed with all of his wisdom is a manner of ironic playwriting. Whereby the whole manner in which we intend to tell our story (be it a musical or a play) is intended to confound our audience's expectations of it.
90% of the humour of a song will come from the set-up. Or in other words if the situation or perspective is inherently amusing then it's likely that the song will be too. In these cases, a line taken out of context of the song would not be amusing at all, but in the situation to which it refers a perfectly banal and plain sounding lyric can make an audience cry with laughter. And working against that, if the set up or perspective is not handled correctly then the funniest joke in the world will fall flat.
When writing songs we should be aware that lyric is not the only thing that is important in making a joke land. Music itself can be amusing without lyric so it stands to reason that when combined with a funny lyric the music has an important role to play in whether something comes off or falls flat. Irony comes into play heavily in both lyric and music when writing funny songs. Confounding an audiences expectation so that they cannot see a joke coming (perhaps throwing in an unexpected rhyme or non-rhyme or a 2/4 bar in a 3/4 song) will defy your audience's expectation. An actor is not the only one with comic timing. The writer must use all the tools at their disposal to ensure timing works to their advantage.
A good comedian will build to the funniest bit of their joke, they won't blow it straight away. Because a good comedian knows that a good proportion of an audience's enjoyment will come from the build-up or anticipation of something really great. Think of it like foreplay. You can't just go straight for the goal, you're audience won't be ready for it and will only lead to a disappointing experience for all of you. The longer you can keep your joke ticking along but always holding the best bit back the more fun everyone will have. For those of you old enough to remember, whenever the littlest of the Two Ronnies did his "joke telling" at the end of the show, he spent at least 5 minutes digressing, being distracted etc from the actual joke. This meant that when the punchline of the joke finally came, his audience would roar with laughter. When you actually listen to the basic joke itself, it really isn't very funny. It's all in the preparation and delivery of the joke that it becomes funny.
We should remember this when we are writing songs that are intended to be funny. Anticipation and build up is key.
Metaphor and simile are often used to great effect in amusing songs. They are often ironic in their usage as well. We see a romantic young tenor lead on stage, he has just been left alone by his love to soliloquise a while... If we were to hear him sing the phrase:
"Love is like..."
We might expect it to be concluded by something soppy and romantic such as:
"Love is like a bunch of roses in bloom. It seems as if it will never fade."
"Love is like the sound of a nightingale singing in a tree. It's song lives in my memory."
We might NOT expect to hear:
"Love is like a Dyson vacuum cleaner. It really sucks."
"Love is like a pair of flip flops. It's only appropriate on holiday."
"Love is like diabetic chocolate. Tasty but too much of it will make you shit yourself."
I'm not saying that these are necessarily funny, but depending on what character is saying them they might confound our audience's expectations.
Also, some words are just naturally funny, I'm not going to tell you which ones.
One final thing to say is that I think humour is one of the greatest assets of any theatre maker in allowing your audience to care about your story. If a character makes you laugh, you will cry all the more when they die. Just watch "The Fault in Our Stars" if you don't believe me.
I'm going to leave it there for the moment, since it's a Sunday and my brain is slowly dissolving into a pool unwatched box sets, which are pleading at me desperately to watch them while eating Ben & Jerry's. After all I'm a master of it. Just in case you were wondering, that isn't an example of irony. That's an example of awesome. I'd love to hear other songwriters thoughts on what makes things funny in songs... post in the comments so we can all learn about funny shit.
I read somewhere that “You aren’t a real composer until you’ve failed and failed big.”
Very recently I failed. I failed big time. And so I did what most people do when they fail... I went looking for reassurance that I wasn't the only one who had. And I went looking for it in the place where everyone looks things at 3am in the morning when they are worried about something. Google. What I googled was “Composer Replaced.” A couple of chat room links came up that were basically people comparing their knowledge on what film composers had been replaced by other film composers for iconic movies. But there was nothing I could find that told me how to deal with it. I felt I was on the verge of being replaced for a project that I had poured my heart and soul into and the work (whilst good work) was just not the work that those in control wanted to hear. As it turns out my feelings were 100% correct and I received an email about a week later thanking me for my hard work but that they needed to go in another direction.
That made me feel a bit sick.
My first instinct was to do my best to make sure that no one found out about it. The sheer embarrasment of having to tell colleagues, friends and family was terrifying. I felt like burrowing away and hibernating until everyone who knew me was dead or in a coma. Then I could continue my career in safety. Obviously this first instinct was insane. It was my prehistoric brain doing its best to protect me against something that it considered to be dangerous. If Prehistoric Darren came home from the hunt without a good chunk of mammoth for the wife, then the wife would potentially start looking lustfully at Prehistoric Pete in the cave down the road, who everyone knew always brought home the mammoth bacon. But as many of us have discovered our Prehistoric brains can often work against us in the modern world.
When 'Fight or Flight' kicks in, reason goes out the window. The difficulty with today's society is that the 'Fight or Flight' reflex kicks in at inappropriate moments that have nothing to do with survival. I recognise that this is what happened when I received the news of replacement and I also recognise that this would be the worst response to the situation concerned.
So I thought I would tell some people. I told my girlfriend, some of my close friends, my mum and then some colleagues I was working with. I immediately felt better. I'm not sure precisely why. Perhaps it was their kind reactions, perhaps it was just sharing it with them. Regardless of what the reason was, for me it is another part of the musical theatre industry (and generally in life) that is less talked about than it should be. But it should be talked about, and it should be celebrated just as much as success.
In a way, someone who tries to do something and fails should be admired more than the one who succeeds, after all they are the ones who will have to go through the pain and embarrassment of seeing their failure made public.
Failure is a vital part of success. In my experience, this is greatly apparent in the musical theatre industry. There is a saying that goes 'Musicals aren't written. They are rewritten." This is about as true a thing as I have heard about the craft. But it doesn't just apply to the craft of writing a musical. It applies to the process of becoming a musical theatre writer.
Our careers are not written. They are rewritten.
We make mistakes. We have a little success. We experience even bigger failure. And each will leave a mark on us. But this should not be seen as a bad thing. There are larger lessons to be learned from failure than there are from success. If there was any justice in the world you'd get a royalty on failure, as it's much harder to take and you experience it alot more.
From my own recent failure, I will take several important lessons away with me and believe me they are not ones I am going to forget in a hurry. I can almost see the positive outcomes coming from implementing new processes in the future to my own work.
So... go out and mess it up! And then tell people about it. I know I'd appreciate it!