I cycled in to RADA studios from Crystal Palace for day 2 of the MMD Claude Michel Schonberg Masterclass on Wednesday having previously been absolutely convinced that it was Tuesday. It had been a mad couple of weeks working towards two new shows opening on the 24th September, but having broken the back of those I was hugely looking forward to another day in the workshop room listening to brand new musical theatre work and geeking out about it afterwards in the pub. Up in studio 3 at RADA the group of writers (most of whom were the same as the last group) met and enjoyed the snacks put on by the MMD team. It turns out that biscuits really are an essential part of the creative process. I was looking forward to meeting my talented colleagues and hearing their work. Colleagues who, over time were becoming friends.
One thing that CMS said to me after the workshop was that it was so great that everyone was there to work, "there is no ego in this room." It struck me that he was right, and it seemed that one of the things that was contributing to this atmosphere was that we had all started to get to know each other. It's easy to want to prove yourself and to become defensive of your work in front of strangers.
It's a perfectly natural reaction and one that every writer will struggle with because you are putting a part of yourself out there for judgement. What I hadn't considered before is the role that community and friendship plays in the gradual dissipation of ego.
To me it felt there was a palpable difference in the room from the first time we had gathered together six months ago. In that class, everyone was wonderful and friendly (as all are delightful people) but looking back at it there were these almost imperceptible barriers that existed. I had put up a big old wall myself. It's an important wall. It's a wall that is built to defend your very self from criticism. We have every reason in the world to want to build it, thick and strong and put nuclear weapons behind it, to guard ourselves from the slings and arrows of outrageous critique. It makes complete sense. But like many things that make complete sense it also prevents us from growing as individuals and artists. Because the sad thing about walls is that, while they are very good at keeping other people out, they are also excellent at keeping YOU in. If you are happy to limit yourself as an artist then be my guest, be Donald Trump and build your wall. Hell, maybe you can even get the Mexico to pay for it. But if you don't want limits then we've got to start dismantling our walls.
What is so horrible about the dismantling of your wall is it leaves you open to attack from your enemies. This is why the cultivation of community and friendship is such an important, dare I say VITAL part of becoming a good writer. It makes no sense to leave yourself open to attack from your enemies, so you build a wall. But once those enemies have become your allies it makes no sense to leave the wall in place. It no longer serves a function, so you have to take it down.
I think this is what I noticed yesterday. The walls had started coming down. Whether conciously or unconciously the people in the room had started bashing down their defences, one brick at a time and as a result we were not so much individuals there to have our songs judged. We were a collective of artists there to learn and support each other. It's funny how a single statement from CMS can seem to contain so much within it. But this seems to be one of the hallmarks of his style, he can say an awful lot with very little (probably what makes him a brilliant songwriter and storyteller).
This is why organisations like MMD and Book, Music, Lyrics (BML) and MTN are so vitally important. Not only do they allow writers to meet and provide support for each other, make friends who can then get drunk and geek out over musical theatre. They are the wall destroyers, the dambusters that, in cultivating community, provide one of the most vital things for the growth of any artist. Freedom. Freedom from the walls we have built to protect ourselves. For that, we should give these organisations a hearty standing ovation and many curtain calls.
But moving along. Having noticed this subtle shift in the group dynamic (but not being able to articulate what it was) the day began with a welcome from Victoria Saxton and CMS. CMS said he would like to concentrate this session on songs from our musical that could also potentially stand alone. In other words, he was going to look at and comment upon the structure of the songs we were presenting.
Several of the things that he commented upon were things like song length. It's an interesting one, and probably not one that we think about too often. As writers we think that a song should only be as long as it needs to be to say what it needs to say. It's important not to be indulgent and we are rightly taught that... however CMS said something interesting that he reiterated constantly throughout the day. You must see things from the audiences perspective and you must give them what they want. CMS told an interesting story about the ancient Greek people:
In ancient Greece it was customary for every Greek citizen to make a pilgrimage to a place called Delphi (originally the Oracle at Delphi was one of the wonders of the ancient world) where they would receive their fortune/fate from a mystic. The people would stay for three days and one of the most important parts of their visit was attendance at a drama. The purpose of drama in ancient greek times was so that an audience could recognise and solve problems within themselves in the process of watching. This was the original meaning of catharsis.
CMS said that an audience wants to recognise part of themselves on the stage, so that they can step outside themselves and see within for a moment, good drama can tell stories that heal us, that give us the means to solve our own problems and this is one of the reasons why we connect with good storytelling so deeply. Because in connecting with the story, we are actually connecting with ourselves. And in a world where we are so busy and have no time, I certainly find that I can quickly become a stranger to myself. Stories and songs are a way of reconnecting with what is true inside each of us.
So... a song does NOT need to be only as long as it needs to be in order to say what the writer needs it to say.
A song needs to be only as long as it needs to be in order for the audience to FEEL what they need to FEEL.
Several times throughout the day we saw this in action, we as writers were diligently writing songs that were not indulgent, we had all seen too many indulgent songs and shows written that we knew what a cardinal sin that was. But in doing so we were selling ourselves and our audiences short. There were moments where we could take more time, give more, repeat more, really let something land and hit home for an audience. It's the difference of an inch, and that inch can make all the difference between an audience sitting forward and an audience leaning back.
And again, recognising this relies on a community of people watching our work develop, our writing community is also an audience (albeit a highly knowledgeable one) and they can tell us when they need more. We should listen when they do.
For me these were the two big revelations that came out of the day:
1. In the words of Lin-Manuel Mirand "Put yourself back in the narrative". Being part of a community and getting to know your fellow writers is hugely important to growth as an individual artist. Break down the walls.
2. Put yourself in your audiences shoes and give them what you want to say AND what they need to feel, both are immensely important.
The day was filled with wonderful new material, wonderful insights, brilliant performances from invited guests, my particular thanks go to the delightfully talented Philippa Hogg and Alex Young who sang material from The Wicker Husband. The day ended with a delightful evening with fellow writers and performers getting drunk in a pub and talking about everything from life to love to theatre. Glorious. My bicycle is still in Goodge Street.
With immense thanks to MMD for being such a champion of the artistic process and (along with BML and MTN) for providing us with the tools, sledge hammers and jack hammers with which to dismantle our walls.
I’m writing this two days hence since I didn’t have time to work on it prior to it. It’s about 9am in the morning on the Saturday. We are due to fly back to London this evening so have only one more day to squeeze as much as we can out of Stiles & Drewe’s brains before we go back. I intend to wring every last drop of wisdom out of them. They shall be dry as a bone when I am done.
I’ve just made a little video thank you down by the river near my Gite. And rather than give you a blow by blow account of what I’ve done over the last couple of days, I thought I’d use this last blog to try and sum up the things that I’ve learned out here that might be of assistance to other writers in the future. Some of these were summed up (very usefully) by Ants and George as we ate dinner outside at a beautiful restaurant in the local town, so I’ll do my best and I hope you find them useful.
I’m sure there are many other things that I have learnt this week, but right now my brain appears to be full. So I will finish up there. It just remains to say thank you to Ants and George for having us this week, for their incredible hospitality, their humour, for all the laughs and the wisdom, for utterly transforming our show and for being such a lovely pair of top blokes who invited us into their home and made us feel like it was ours.
Thank you to MMD who administered the award in the first place and also to Lettie Graham who administered our flights and all of the practical aspects.
Onward to the next stage of the award!!
Up earlier this morning, George and Ants have organised a game of tennis doubles with their artist friend Hillary. So they picked me up and we drove out to a field in the middle of nowhere and there, sure enough was a tennis court. George “Damn it George!” Stiles, and I, Darren “Tiny Racket” Clark, made up one team and, though we played with gusto and a huge helping of incompetence, we were gamely beaten by Ants’ “The Spin King” Drewe and Hillary “Serve Queen” ‘s serve. I also learned that George had a gift of making his own name sound like a swear word. They told me how during the summer they would often come down and start a writing day with an early game of tennis. Lots of studies have shown that physical activity can lead to enhanced creativity, so apart from the fun, I can see why they do it. Both of them have a huge amount of energy.
Back to the village market to pick up some fresh mussels for dinner then up to the villa to get back to work. We set up at the kitchen table and I prepared to play them the new version of “The Wicker Maid” that they had helped me with the previous day. It was pretty clear that the structural changes were a big improvement. Then they delved deeper into the detail. There were some lyrics telling a story that was problematic and potentially going down the wrong track (away from the story), there were a couple of lines that didn’t scan as well as they could, there were little variations that could be made in the music that could really add to the excitement. Again, all excellent, knowledgeable notes that made complete sense. So I went away and got back to work on it for another couple of hours before lunch. Again, because of the clarity of the notes the writing came relatively quickly and I will play them the revised version again tomorrow for further feedback when Charlie is here.
After lunch I stayed at the villa continuing to work whilst George and Ants drove to the airport to pick up our director Charlie Westenra. Charlie arrived and was shown around and I had to pick her jaw up from the floor several times as we went round the place. It turns out that she has found love out here. The object of her affections, seems to reciprocate her feelings. I’m so happy for them both. But I fear their romance is doomed to end in sadness, the London based director and the France based cocker poodle puppy. Long distance and inter species love would always be difficult.
We went out by the pool to start working through the revised synopsis in detail, I was very happy to know that she also thought it was an immense improvement on the previous one. But as we went through she asked excellent questions, not letting a single moment pass without explanation and examination. In doing so I had to explain our reasons for making certain decisions and as a result my understanding of our show including the visual and atmospheric staging aspects of it became much stronger. It’s becoming clear that this sort of forensic analysis is so necessary to my practice as a theatre maker. You really need to be able to defend yourself with strong reasons when writing because when the work is in front of an audience, the work needs to be able to defend itself.
We worked through half of act 1 then popped in the pool for a swim to clear our heads a bit and to brush the dust off the days travel for Charlie. We then continued working through act 1, then went to the piano and I played Charlie some of the new material I had written, which she was very excited about and also had some more great notes about. we finished up just as dinner (Moules Frites) was put on the table and of course we toasted the fact that our mentors Stiles & Drewe’s hit show “Half a Sixpence” would be transferring to the west end at the end of October. We are hugely excited for them, and hugely deserved as it’s such a great show.
After dinner, we went back to the piano and played through a few more ideas then had a nice desert before skyping Rhys and filling him in on the various ideas that had been developed since he had headed back to London.
I was then driven back to my Gite and fell, exhausted into bed. Another amazing day.
Up at a more civilised 8am this morning. Decided to do some further work on one of the songs “Have You Seen My Husband” down at the Gite before heading up to the villa. I started off at one place, tried out a whole bunch of other ideas and eventually realised that my first idea was the strongest with the other ideas gently informing it’s structure. It’s still nowhere near done yet, but the structure is starting to come together.
I set off up the hill to the villa about 9.45am and arrived once more covered in sweat and breathing like I’d been chased by a bull through the streets of Pamplona. Ants and George had prepared breakfast again and we decided on a loose plan for the day. From my previous days work with Rhys I had a shed load of new writing to be getting on with and since I’ve learned that my creative brain works best in the morning, we decided I would work on new things until lunchtime, then after lunch I would play them one of the larger set pieces that I was struggling with to see if they could help me make it stronger.
So after breakfast, whilst Ants and George were making important sounding international Skype calls all over the world with their various collaborators, I set myself up outside and set to work. Fortunately it is such an inspiring place to work that I was soon ripping through the new songs. Of course they were very rough, but by lunchtime I had written 1st drafts of “Heart of the Weave” “Have You Seen My Husband” “The Fishing Ditty” and “Come Sit By The Fireside” which is probably the fastest I’ve ever worked in my life. As a result when it came to lunchtime I was practically catatonic, my brain having fried itself to within an inch of its creative life. Before lunch I went for a walk around the perimeter of the property mindlessly throwing a ball in the air over and over again. Put me in a bumless gown and I may have looked like a patient in a very special hospital.
After lunch we gathered in the kitchen to go through one of the big song moments (“The Wicker Maid”). We read through the song/scene with me playing and singing and everyone joining in the dialogue with amusing west country accents. Upon finishing, I was very relieved to hear that they really loved the song. Having said that, they then gave me all of their notes. And once again, they were insightful notes that led the way towards clarity in the storytelling and the overarching structure. They suggested moving certain parts of the song to different areas, starting much more slowly and with gravitas, and building to a huge climax at an extremely important moment that I had completely skipped over. George suggested tempo and meter changes that would add hugely to the build of the song and Ants gave suggestions to the direction of the lyric that would add to the clarity of the piece. Again, the feedback was brilliant and I could see how it would transform the song and turn it into a real centrepiece for Act 2.
So they left me to it, and I went away and started implementing changes including a couple of small revelations I had on my own along the way. Then at 5pm I skyped home to Manda. It was lovely to hear her voice from home and I showed her round the place and introduced her to Sixpence whom she was extremely excited by. Seriously cute dog. With my brain almost completely dead by about 7pm, I put the work aside and went for a swim in the pool. I say, swim, but it was more of a flotation experience as my limbs didn’t really move. Just sort of floated about the place and stared up at the sky, watched very carefully by Sixpence, who followed me around the pool as I drifted from side to side. It was a nice opportunity to just turn the brain off. In the distance I could hear George trying out the guitar.
When I came in George was excitedly talking about the joys of the capo for the guitar and also the alternative folk tunings that I use a lot when writing for The Wicker Husband. All of which basically make it a lot easier for the guitar to sound great… “Ah” he said, “So that’s how you do it. You cheat.” He showed me a couple of lovely patterns he had figured out and said it was quite inspiring to hear guitar played out here and expressed a desire to dedicate some time to learning guitar in the future. Ants shouted from inside, “Didn’t you know that’s how the mentorship works? You come out here and mentor us.”
George had made a lovely dinner of Steak Ashe and once again we sat outside and talked a lot about the current state of musical theatre in Britain, it was a fascinating insight into the industry from two guys who had been there and done it and were still in there and doing it. We talked about how much of a success the BEAM festival organised by MMD and MTN had been earlier this year and how it seemed to represented a bit of a sea change in the musical theatre building community of the UK. The British invasion of the 80’s and 90’s on Broadway was down to such a small community of people (basically Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice and Cameron Mackintosh’s super shows) that there wasn’t a community they were coming out of. It feels like this is changing and the next generation of writers will have a community of up and coming writers to inspire and support them. Good news indeed.
Exhausted, I was driven down the hill at about 11pm, (George and Ants had read my previous days blog and refused to let me stumble down the path again - given I was clearly incapable of the art of walking) and stumbled once more into bed, looking forward to another days work.