I woke up early again. Seems to be becoming a habit that I’m not entirely sure I approve of. But it seems to be getting more work done at least! Rhys and I had agreed to get up at about 8.00am in order to start the walk up to the villa at 8.45am. As I was already up and showered by 8.15am I thought I would pop into the garden to write my lovely neglected girlfriend an email which I could later send with the wifi up at the villa. Email finished I wrote out the previous days blog post and then started to work on some lyrical ideas for the moments we had been discussing the previous day. At around 8.45am Rhys crept sheepishly into the garden and offered to make some tea and coffee. It was fairly clear at that point that we weren’t going anywhere soon, this became transparent when Rhys mentioned that he would like to tidy up the synopsis before sending it through to Ants and George. Now, the delightful Rhys is not only a wonderful writer and actor and general good guy, there is a dark side to this man of many talents. Essentially he is very ill. It’s a little known disease that experts refer to as a “Format-oholic”. Common symptoms of the disease include an inability to send anything to anyone without first turning names of characters into “small caps” making song titles “bold” and “italic” and generally obsessing over the minute detail of paragraph spacing. I don’t blame Rhys, as I said it’s an illness and can’t be helped. I just hope that he can get the help he needs to move past this terrible affliction. Call 0800 RHYS BRAIN to donate to Darren’s sanity fund.
To be honest though, once he’d finished the document, it looked pretty sweet.
At 9.45am, after an hour of formatting. Rhys and I set off at a powerful stride through the woods, up the hill towards the villa. After an elevation of about 200 feet* our powerful stride slowed to a leisurely lope. After 400 feet* the leisurely lope slowed further still to a lazy shuffle. At an elevation of 800 feet*, sweat pouring down our backs, the lazy shuffle came to a complete stand still. Cursing our inappropriate choice of footwear (flip flops). We gradually found the strength to continue and finally arrived at the villa with T shirts a considerably darker shade than when we set out. We were greeted once again by a very excited dog, Ants and George and with a breakfast laid out on the patio, fresh local fruit, yoghurt and croissant. Lovely. Whilst George popped off in the car to pick something up from town Rhys suggested that once we had finished, he should do a storytelling and read our new synopsis to our mentors to see what they thought of the changes we had made.
*Elevations may be enormously exaggerated or completely made up due to altitude delirium.
When George returned, we all gathered on the patio. Ants and George had copies of the new synopsis printed in front of them and Rhys began to read. As he progressed through the story it was encouraging to see both George and Ants nodding approvingly at the various changes that we had made from the previous day. I even saw George putting ticks next to several paragraphs. When Rhys had finished it was brilliant to hear that they thought the new work was a vast improvement on the previous days work. We had decluttered, simplified whilst still maintaining and in fact strengthening the three dimensional character and story arcs that we had worked so hard to complicate. Essentially the feedback was extremely positive, with only a few more minor (but still extremely helpful and pertinent) suggestions regarding certain crucial moments. Inside my head, my brain breathed a sigh of relief. It really felt like we had made a huge improvement the previous day, but it was great to hear that George and Ants agreed. Following further discussion over the final story points that we needed to clarify and bring out, Rhys and I jumped back into the synopsis to clean it up and add the suggested changes. As we worked through it we came across a couple of other moments that we realised had become extremely important and that had been skirted over, so in addition to the other changes we came up with some detail about those in particular.
One interesting part of this process has been that very early on in the writing process we actually had a synopsis that looked similar to this one we had finally created two years later. Over the years we had tried desperately to make the characters come to life and bring out the themes in such a way that we overcomplicated it until it became a beast. It was, however a very necessary part of the process for us as now we have finally come full circle to a synopsis that maintains the simple storytelling but reveals fully realised and detailed major and minor character arcs within that simplicity. Ants said that good actors will work with a good story arc and create moving stories from very few lines. He also said that it is always good to go back to your first instincts in storytelling and in this instance, having strayed from the path for so long, it felt brilliant to return, but to return changed. Oddly enough we, as writers, had gone on our own miniature “Hero’s Journey” without even realising it. We started off as naive fools believing we had a handle on this story, blindly we headed deep into the woods and got horrifically lost, we met the mentors, learned some truths, we conquered the beast and returned to the beginning, as changed writers.
After having congratulated ourselves suitably, we were fed more delicious local bread and cheese. In the afternoon, we decided to continue working through the proposed structures of some of the new songs that the synopsis demanded. We spent an hour or so at the piano working on The Basketmakers song, bashing our brains together to discover the angle, perspective and the journey of the song which fortunately we think we found and, having sketched out a rough version of it including a tune and very basic lyrics we put that aside and moved on.
It was still lovely outside so we took the guitar, sat out on the patio and attempted to crack the structure of one of The Ugly Girl’s most important song moments, called Have You Seen My Husband. This is one of the darkest and most desperate moments in the story and we really wanted to find that desperation in the structure. Again, through discussion and me playing through bits and pieces on the guitar we eventually bashed out a rough structure including The Ugly Girls emotional beats that she had to hit in the song. We were working quickly because Rhys would be leaving at about 6pm and we wanted to create as much stuff in a loose form that I could then work on for the rest of the week with George, Ants and our director Charlie when she arrives on Wednesday.
By about 5pm we had moved onto another big change, which involved the removal of an entire character from the story and the rewriting of an essential song moment as a result of that change. We discussed the new function that the song had to fulfil and that it’s current lyric was not entirely reacting to that function and it would require substantial rewriting. Again, we talked though what the song needed to do and how it might say it and I came up with a few draft lyrics that started to fit the bill. Then suddenly it was 6.00pm and Rhys had to go to the train station to go home.
It was a real shame that he was unable to stay longer, especially as it felt like we had achieved so much in so short a space of time. I can only imagine how much more we could have done together. However, it does mean that for the next few days I can focus on the specifics of these songs and ask for guidance from Ants and George regarding the function, drama and structuring of some other numbers. I’m sure there will be a lot that will be acheived. Indeed, without Rhys attempting to format everything, I might get even more done…
I worked for a little while longer on lyrics whilst George cooked yet another amazing meal. Then I threw the ball for sixpence which she was often reluctant to let go (Arethra Franklin popped into my head once again: “You just try and take my ball you muther*$%&. See what happens!”) We ate and talked, conversation ranging widely once again and I finally tried a red wine that I liked. Apparently it has to “breathe”. Who knew? After dinner I popped back to the piano to continue working on The Basketmakers song which I worked on until about 9.00pm whereupon I thought it would be a good idea to pop back to the Gite for an early night. I also thought it would be a good idea to go back down the path through the wood in the dark. Ants very wisely supplied me with a torch whilst giving me a look that said: “I’m not entirely sure this is a good idea, but you are a grown man, you can make your own decisions and if you get eaten by a bear at least it will have been in the pursuit of art.” Ants is a sophisticated guy. He can totally convey all that with a look.
It turns out he was right. It wasn’t a particularly good idea, it was pitch black and I was rather on edge as I stumbled down the path. I did however, eventually stumble into the light of the village where I swear there was a man on a balcony who gave me a look that said: “That guy is a little bit nuts, I hope he’s not staying anywhere near me, perhaps I should bolt the door tonight.” (This guy was clearly sophisticated as well.)
So I made it home, watched a little french TV in which sexy couples touched each other erotically, had a blazing argument and then continued to touch each other with increased erotic ferocity. I later discovered I was watching Euro News.
Another brilliant day with great strides made. I’m looking forward to sleeping and to more work tomorrow.
Woke up again somewhat earlier than usual today at about 5.30am. The Gite is incredibly comfortable… I just couldn’t sleep for the excitement. So I read up on some Nazi war crime trials for a while and, finding that wasn’t getting me back to sleep, I just got up and went and worked on some new lyrics for the opening of The Wicker Husband in the garden.
Ants and George picked me up at about 9am and we went for a trip to the local market town where myself and George were deployed to get some fresh things from the farmers market while Ants went along to the Ol’ Supermarche to get some bits. Unlike a Tesco tomato you could smell the veg from half a mile away. George very ably navigated the stalls speaking in what appeared to be rather good French, although (to my untrained ears) he could have been faking and the stall holders might just be used to his gibberish. I took French at high school in an attempt to impress girls. Tragically I never really got past how to understand directions, so even if a girl had shown a flirty interest I probably would have just directed her to the local biblioteque. I was also introduced to the local Boulangerie where croissants and bread were collected. Apparently the French are quite good at baking stuff. Who knew? This particular bakery is the heart of the village and quite famed through the region. They even have special licenses to produce special kinds of bread.
I like to imagine them being pulled over on the road by the Gendarmerie and asked for their license to bake.
Breakfast achieved. We returned to the villa on the hill where they prepared a delicious breakfast and I was introduced to a honey dispenser that (in Ants words) looked like it had dysentery. Fortunately the honey tasted far better than dysentery. After a brief battle, Ants and I on one side, the paper jammed printer on the other we managed to print copies of the latest synopsis for Ants and George to go over. I left them to go through the synopsis in the kitchen whilst I brutalised the grand piano in the other room, where the beginnings of a couple of songs including the new opening I had been working on began to take shape. The other song I began was for a moment in The Old Basketmakers workshop, a crucial turning moment that we had overlooked until this point. I was happier with the opening work, it turns out the tune that I was working on for the basketmakers shop was actually Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose”. At one point George shouted his approval from the other room of a particular chord progression I was playing with. To be honest I had wondered whether I would be able to work effectively with two brilliant practitioners within hearing distance. But they have made me feel so welcome that it was just as if I was on my own and there were no problems in that department. I worked until about 1pm whilst Ants and George dissected the synopsis for feedback later on. Then we went to pick up an excited Rhys from the train station, regaled on the way with excellent tales of how Ants and George got started on their career nearly 33 years ago.
We returned to a beautiful lunch that George had set out and Sixpence was delighted to find a new friend in Rhys. We had lunch outside and then got down to business.
Our mentors put on very serious faces and I can’t help but think that our faces were equally serious as we faced each other across the table. Rhys with notebook, me with laptop and George and Ants with printed and hand written notes on the synopsis and our original submitted script. They prefaced this feedback session with the fact that “They are just writers- albeit writers who’ve been doing this for a long time.” They made it clear that their feedback was just that, their thoughts and advice which we could take or leave as we liked. With that out of the way they proceeded to give us their thoughts on the larger shape, the bigger picture and the themes that had jumped out at them. They had both read the source material (Ursula’s original short story) that morning and as a result their thoughts put an incredibly fresh perspective on what we had done. Whilst we had created some beautiful moments, in our attempts to make the characters far more three dimensional our new synopsis had gone too far. Simply put we had made what was quite a simple story (although not without its twists and interests) far too complicated. Their suggestions immediately opened up new passages for us. They suggested new, simpler ways of showing the same development. And while our intentions and instincts were good we needed to de-clutter by about 40%. Over the period of a couple of hours they dissected the story with us, asked us questions, listened to our answers, gave us thoughts and then gave us the rest of the day to mull things over and work on things together.
It was obvious that Rhys and I agreed with the vast majority that Ants and George had said. The work would involve some big changes but all for the better and we felt like we had a much stronger street map to work from. Having done the story work with George and Ants we then went to the piano and I showed Rhys the new material that I had been working on… as suspected Rhys loved the first one and thought that whilst good, the second one sounded a bit like a song by Seal called “Kiss from the Rose.” I attempted pathetically to defend my originality as we tried out different key changes and odd bits but after a short while it became obvious this wasn’t the right song for that moment (although to Seal’s credit it was incredibly popular in the 90’s and remains a karaoke staple in the trendier parts of Shoreditch and Plymouth). So we talked about what that moment needed to be and I twiddled at the piano, we talked back and forth until the moment became clear and an accompaniment figure popped into my brain from another song that I had written a while ago for a different project but had not made it into the final show for dramaturgical reasons. That key unlocked that moment for us and we decided to quit while we were ahead and go to the garden with the guitar to discuss the story dramaturgy that Ants and George had provided us with.
We spent the rest of the afternoon working through the story and playing the various musical themes as we went through. Occasionally we would hear shouts from Ants in the kitchen “That’s an exciting one!” Which was very encouraging. When our brains got tired we went and threw the ball around with sixpence. There has been research done to show that concentrated physical activity stimulates the subconscious (the part of your brain that makes interesting connections between seemingly unrelated things - so essential to poets, lyricists and writers in creating original imagery) and indeed it freshened our perspective when we returned to work and things started to fall into place quite easily.
At dinner time we were given another lovely meal and all manner of everything was discussed and at about 11pm we were driven back down to the Gite where we had decided we would write up a new synopsis based on the feedback and all of our work that day. We finished the synopsis (vastly improved and less complicated in our opinion) at about midnight and then stumbled into our respective beds exhausted but delighted with our progress on the show.
I spent yesterday being a fly on the wall at the orchestration trials for Stiles & Drewe’s new show Wind in the Willows. I’ve been on a couple of orchestration & arrangement courses in the past as it’s something that really fascinates me but unfortunately the teaching has always ultimately been disappointing. To have someone talk you through the finer points of orchestration without experiencing the sound is a bit like Dumbledore taking you through the finer points of an awesome spell without ever showing you the magic. This was so different. I spent my time either sitting in the studio listening to Simon Lee conducting the live orchestra or in the control room listening to George discussing the arrangements with his two orchestrators, Chris and David. The attention to detail in the textures of the music was the thing that jumped out at me the most and the incredibly varied colours that certain instruments could produce. The difference that a quaver rest could make and the fact that these guys could all hear that it would make a difference was really eye opening. The music was spine tinglingly thrilling and audiences will be in for a real treat come October.
I probably learnt more in those three hours just sitting in that room than I did on all of my orchestration courses.
So today we flew out from Stansted Airport to Brive in the South West of France. Fortunately I double checked my ticket before I left otherwise I would have been flying out from Luton Airport to absolutely nowhere. I did not, however, double check that I had packed any underwear. It’s one of the only times I’ve been thankful for an extended security check (they always stop me because they think my guitar capo might be some sort of brutal instrument of death - which some would say it is). On repacking my stuff, it turned out that I had left undergarments off my list. A quick phone call with my lovely lady and I just had time to pop to NEXT to purchase some exciting boxer shorts before hurrying off to the plane where I found George just in front of me in the queue.
After a short and uneventful flight, during which we spent a large proportion of the time delving into the depths of the human psyche and insulting each others work, we were met at the airport in stifling heat by Ants and his beautiful dog Sixpence. We drove through the countryside, over the gorgeous Dordogne river, eventually arriving at a tiny village in a wooded valley.
It was surreal seeing the village of The Wicker Husband pop vividly into life in front of my eyes. Suddenly I was driving past the old stone houses of our characters; the brutish cobbler and his beautiful but unsatisfied wife, the slothful innkeeper and his hard working, long suffering partner. The Ugly Girl’s shack on the outskirts. We drove down the small lanes and over streams, the darkness of the wood ever close by on all sides. The location couldn’t have been more perfect. Ants and George (with their brilliant assistant Lettie) had booked us into a Gite. Basically a small holiday chalet in the village within walking distance of Ants’ place. It’s a beautiful old stone cottage, with gorgeous exposed timbers, shutters and fireplaces and plenty of room to relax and spread out my new underwear. It also has a lovely garden with some creaky swings and outdoor furniture with beautiful views. The Stiles & Drewe Award certainly knows how to put you up in style!(s)
We dropped off my stuff and we drove off through the village (stopping to meet several of the villagers on the way) and then up through the wooded hillside right to the top of the hill where I was greeted by one of the most stunning views I’ve seen in a long time. I won’t gush but basically Ant’s house is incredibly beautiful. It’s the kind of house that my mum is always looking at in her Gardening magazines. The kind of house my girlfriend would love to live in. We ate some fruit picked straight up off the ground and five minutes later, Ants was preparing his signature Toulouse Sausage dish (delicious) and I was floating in the hilltop pool surrounded by silence until George turned up on his hot pink inflatable and ruined it. We talked about various things as we floated in the sun including the art of critique, the orchestration from the day before and what exactly is inside a Toulouse Sausage.
When dinner was ready, we sat outside with some wine and ate the fruits of Ants’ labour. I’m not entirely sure but I think I might have eaten approximately half of everything that was available. To their credit no one said anything about this. Although I’m sure that Sixpence eyed my waistline as I reached for another helping of potatoes. In my mind she was saying “You really think you need that?” For some reason, in my head she sounds a bit like Arethra Franklin.
Over dinner, looking out over the gorgeous countryside we talked about many things relating to the business side of musical theatre that were really eye opening. Phrases I had not heard like “secondary rights” and other professional sounding things were used. It was great. I felt a tiny bit like that girl in The Secret Garden. Except instead of being scolded by a hunchback uncle, I was being invited in by these two delightful fellows. And I’m not a girl I kept reminding myself. I’m a man.
The conversation soon turned to The Wicker Husband and the journey that we were about to embark on. It was really lovely to hear both of them speak with such passion and insight about the story and the characters. And already on the first evening I could feel some light beginning to penetrate the murky wood of our musical adventure.
Ants’ drove me back to the Gite about 11pm, apparently we can see the International Space Station as it flies by. The stars are incredible. I went to bed and then woke up at 4am too excited to sleep. That’s where I’m writing this… at 4am in an ancient cottage in the South West of France… Isn’t life funny sometimes?
So I went to my little studio this morning and started work at 7am. This was partly an attempt to avoid the stifling heat in the hellish sauna that is my current place of work. About 12pm it becomes completely unbearable so I thought I'd beat the heat. It was lovely cycling along at 6am, sun rising over Crystal Palace Hill. It turns out I'm a morning person... all these years and who knew. Anyway, As a result of starting at 7am I finished up at 2pm when the sweat dripping out of my eyes was making the piano keys too moist to play and I feared an electrical incident. I got back and worked on replying to emails and then I was looking through my hard drive for a particular old song that I needed to send to a colleague of mine for an application and I found myself tumbling back through the history of my songwriting.
As I listened to old recordings of finished/half finished work I thought it might be an interesting little project to post one of my old songs up on soundcloud. One every day for as many of them as I can find and see what people think. I'm not going to go in historical order or anything like that. All of these songs are at least three years old. Some are from old shows, some are from shows that never made it to the stage and some are just my brain rambling away.
So I shall post them on my soundcloud each day. Feel free to listen and wander through my old brain... I hereby dub this "THE OLD SONG PROJECT".
This first one is called Invisible and it's sung by an evil super villain whose secret power is the ability to be invisible... from Paper Balloon's one off show called Bob Jitsu is a Thingy-ma-Doo... Enjoy! For anyone who ever thought being invisible would be awesome.
8Over the last few years I have had the privilege of working with and becoming friends with the lovely folks at How It Ended Productions. The delightful co-artistic directors Eva Sampson (firebrand director) and Teresa Burns (deepwater writer and dramaturg) are a perfect foil for each other and they make work which can be quirky, a bit dark, but ultimately always with a strong heart. I met them when I answered one of the (admittedly very few) 'Composer Wanted" ads on Artsjobs about four years ago. I had just started out on my professional career (I call it professional because that was my intention of what it would become, rather than what it was at the time...) and I was delighted to find out that they wanted to interview me for the role of composer on their new piece of theatre for The Edinburgh Fringe. I remember meeting them out at The Hat Factory in Luton (my first time) and enjoying meeting them and talking about the show.
A few days later I received an email from them thanking me very much for meeting them but that they would be going with someone else. It was clearly a personal email written with a great deal of thought and care, referencing my work in detail. It was my first official Composer rejection letter and I remember it stinging, but I also remember the difference that personal touch made. It softened the blow, it made it feel like my work and time was appreciated and it felt like I wasn't wasting my time. As a result of this I thought 'Well that's a shame, but it's encouraging none-the-less and given how nice they are, I would defintely want to work with them on something in the future."
At the time I didn't know that the future was just around the corner and about a month later I received an email from them saying that the current collaboration with their composer wasn't working out and was I still interested. I was and that's that. Since that time I have collaborated with the folks at How It Ended (and their contacts Scamp Theatre) on three projects and we are making plans for a fourth. It's the third one that I'd like to talk about today:
Emily Hughes wrote and illustrated a book called The Little Gardener about a tiny fellow who loved his garden but was just too small to make it grow. How It Ended won an outdoor play commission to adapt the book based on a brilliant greenhouse concept and they commissioned me to write the music for it.
The first step was to read the book, then talk about the concept with Eva and Teresa about how music could help the storytelling. We considered the possibility of using recorded narration to narrate the events of the book, we considered using lyric as well to make some songs and we considered using just music and sound to tell the whole story. We chatted and I noted down in my brain the phrases that Eva was using to describe her take on the story to see if they might provide an entrance to the musical world. The general theme that came out of everything is that anything is possible with a little bit of love.
With these considerations in mind and having talked about what sort of feel we wanted the music to have, including instrumentation (we really wanted some violin in there). I went away and started writing sketches.
The first song I wrote was called "A Little Bit of Love" it had lyrics and a wishful melodic theme. Because we had very little time, I sent off my first draft. It's always a nervous moment. You don't know whether what you have done has wandered off track or whether it's going to make them wonder why they hired you in the first place. I've come to accept that this is part of my role in the industry and how you react to that feeling is vital to whether or not you are able to carry on.
Fortunately in this case, the piece was liked very much and whilst adjustments would be made to the structure, tune and yrics, it was clear that the basis for the musical language of the piece had been unearthed. It's always the hardest part of any production, your instincts will inevitably lead you down a natural path and if those instincts marry up to the directors vision then you are away laughing. If however, they do not, that is when the really hard work begins.
In those cases you have to work for your inspiration.
That may seem like a contradiction in terms. But like most things in life that appear to be contradictions, it is also true. What I mean when I say "Work" for your inspiration is that if your initial musical instincts aren't solving the problem then you will have to go digging for something else. It might mean immersing yourself in completely different types of music, or different environments, it might even mean writing music that you don't like or don't believe is right for the piece. But if you remember that these imperfect writings are only stepping stones towards the final product rather than the final product itself it will give you the drive to carry on.
I have been rather unfortunate in that my instincts have been pretty good and I've rarely come up against these larger sort of problems. "Unfortunate?" I hear you cry. "What does the ass mean? Unfortunate? Surely it's a good thing and he's been lucky!"
Let me wander off down a metaphor to show what I mean: A singing student has a naturally good voice, one day her teacher gives her a musical passage that (despite her ability) the student cannot sing. The student cannot understand why she is having difficulty. She becomes frustrated and tense. As a result her singing becomes worse and the solution to the problem slips further and further from her grasp. At this point she has a choice:
1. She can give up on that particular passage and go back to singing those things that come naturally to her. It's possible she will have a good career (although limited in its scope).
2. She can make the harder choice and explore why she cannot sing it. Through research and a deepening knowledge of vocal anatomy she can discover what is physically occurring in her body that is resulting in this difficulty. And once she has found out what it is, she can painstakingly train herself to overcome it. She will still have her naturally brilliant voice, but she will also be armed with the knowledge and technique to overcome other problems she may face in the future.
The more often we are presented with these challenges, the more likely it is that we will be able to overcome them. Of course, it would not be good for them to become the rule, as our confidence to create would be shattered, but a little misfortune in the life of any creative can only be a good thing.
As readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, I have recently been on the receiving end of this "misfortune" and whilst I must say it has not been a particularly pleasant time, the whole experience has led me to write and achieve things that I did not think I was capable of (regardless of whether they ended up being right for that particular job). Misfortune is the door to possibility if you choose to make it so. Easier to see in hindsight than at the time...
Anyway... I was talking about The Little Gardener, where my instincts served me very well (or badly depending on how you look at it). Once the musical language was discovered, it was simply a matter of being in the rehearsal room for four days and recording in the studio for one day with a couple of very talented musicians (Anne Marie Piazza and Hannah Morgan). There is no subsitute for being in the room and making music with those whose piece you are working on. Your music will grow and react to the collective vision and will be unable to help being right eventually. If you can get in the room. Do! And if people don't want you in the room explain why you should be. If they still don't want you in the room after your explanation, perhaps steel yourself for a good old learning experience and know that it will serve you well in the long run.
I'm very pleased to say that after a short tour The Little Gardener will be playing today 8th August 2016 at The Royal National Theatre on the London Southbank's River Stage. It's on at 3.45pm. It's free! Please do come down and say hello, bring your small ones to watch, it's a beautiful day for some theatre!