A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be part of The Musical Theatre Dark Room. A new musical development programme run by China Plate, The Royal & Derngate, MMD and MTN. I was there as part of a project called On Hostile Ground, a new musical in development about the consequences of the Tory Government’s hostile environment policy which has had disastrous effects on the UK’s immigrant population. My collaborators (Juliet Gilkes Romero - book writer, Charlie Westenra - director/dramaturg and Mike Henry - Composer) were one of three projects selected for the Dark Room’s one week residency in Northampton and curated by two of New York’s musical theatre gurus (on the faculty at the famed Tisch School of the Arts) Fred Carl and Robert Lee.
Despite lots of lovely preparation emails and meetings with China Plate’s Rosie Kelly to discuss our project and it’s needs, I came up on the Monday morning train really not quite knowing what to expect, both from Fred and Carl and from my collaborators… You see this is a brand new collaboration team, we had only been in the same room once before for a meeting and had been working remotely since then so we weren’t entirely sure how the whole collaboration was going to work. I had worked with Charlie many times as we continue to develop The Wicker Husband together, and I had created a new piece of musical theatre for the RSC (The Day of the Living) with Juliet early in 2018, but I had never worked with Michael the composer before.
“What? Composer?” You say. “I thought you were a composer & lyricist.”
Well, dear reader, yes indeed, you would be right, I am such a one, but on this occasion I am only responsible for the lyrics. This will be my first full length project as solely lyricist. Was my ego bruised a little when I was asked to only do the lyrics? You might think so. But if it was, it was actually only for a tiny moment. What it actually did was give me a bit of a boost of confidence for my lyric writing. And I immediately was infused with a sense of freedom.
“Good Lord” I thought to myself, “This means I just get to write words without worrying about music right?”
And it was made all the better by working with Mike Henry whose approach to composing and indeed style and musical background was so vastly different from my own. Michael writes music I could never write, infused with Jazz and classical influences as well as wicked beats. And as such I find myself concerned only with the drama of the words, safe in the knowledge that Michael will do something unexpected and wonderful with it. I won’t lie. I have rhythms in my head when I write the lyrics, sometimes even tunes. But I have kept these entirely to myself throughout the process and every time Mike has set them in a way that I would never have thought of (apart from a couple of pleasing mini moments that he set exactly as I had imagined. Good laughs.) Needless to say it’s very exciting.
Aside from learning about MT from our New York gurus, we’ve spent the week learning how to collaborate with each other, as you will have noticed from my other blogs one of the greatest skills you can learn when it comes to creating musical theatre is how to collaborate. For some writers, they only write with one or two other people. And for good reason. When you find a writing partner that you can make good work with, you hold on to them for dear life. Fortunately for me, I have a few of these now, and each relationship is special, unique and completely unlike the others. With each one I learn something new about the art of communication. It’s different with every team.
So back to the actual substance of the week…
We applied as a foursome to be part of the Musical Theatre Dark Room and were fortunate enough, along with two other writing teams to be selected for the residency. We spent a full week up at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, our travel expenses, per diems and a writing stipend were all paid for. It was great to have the financial needs of writers recognised in this process. The residency put us up in lovely nearby apartments just a five minute walk from the venue, which after a couple of weeks of four hour rehearsal commutes was a welcome change. In the mornings we would gather in the foyer for conversation that (for me at least) ranged from lunch to the economic reality of being a creative in the UK, to in fact the very nature in which we as creatives relate to money and economics. Then we would have a three hour session led by Fred and Robert that looked at a different aspect of musical building every day as they related to the particular shows that we were all making. Day one was “Character and Appetite”, Day two was “Community and Environment”, Day three was “World Building” and Day four was “Score concept”.
The sessions all involved looking at key songs and musicals and deconstructing them with that the particular thereof the day in mind.
I’m not going to go through in detail what was said, instead I’m just going to sum up the key points that I took away from each session:
2. Community and Environment
3. World Building
PLEASE NOTE: By Day 4 my brain was completely overloading with information and my understanding of things began to get a little incoherent… therefore I can’t really remember what was said in Day 4’s session. Sorry about that!
The afternoons of each day of the week were writing time and we would sometimes be in a room together talking about what we wanted to do and other times we'd all disappear into the various nooks and crannies of the Royal & Derngate... I'd be somewhere writing a lyric, Charlie would be researching, Juliet would be writing a scene and Mike would be writing out music. Then we'd all come back together, mash it up and see what we had. It was thrilling to hear the work people were doing and how it might all speak together to make this piece of musical theatre.
The final day unfortunately I can't talk about because I wasn't there as I had to open a show in London. But I'm told there was a sharing of everyone's work which was utterly inspiring.
One of the biggest takeaways of the week for me was to trust your own process in building a musical.
There are many ways to do it and each is valid if it works for you. The most important thing however is that music is one hell of a wayward beast and it will take you in directions that you would never expect…
So sitting down and planning out a musical without making any music as part of that plan might be a costly adventure in terms of time. This is obviously not the case for everyone. But certainly for me, I will be letting the music take me a little way into the forest before I start cutting out a path. After all, it’s the unexpected that makes life a joy and if everything is planned out before you even begin… well…
Where’s the fun in that?
It just remains for me to thank China Plate, The Royal & Derngate, Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network and Fred Carl and Robert Lee from the Tisch School of the Arts in New York for giving us all an extraordinary week of insight. I'd also like to thank the fellow participants on the course. Thank you for making the week so interesting and inspiring, for the drinks, for the conversations, for the fellowship.
I've talked alot about how important community is in the building of a career. And now, the participants of the Dark Room have a Whatsapp group. Welcome to the future!