So, this morning I woke up at about 6.30am thinking about the job I was fired from nearly six months ago. This is not an uncommon occurence. For those of you who have been following this blog, this was the post that I wrote shortly after the firing...
Looking at it, I was surprised how calm and reasonable my thoughts were. I suppose I had been in the middle of reading several self-help books at the time and somehow the positivity and reassurance that such books are renowned for was becoming part of my everyday vernacular (not a bad thing I suppose).
But I still woke up this morning feeling a little bit like a discarded morning poo. Sure it was a relief at the time, but it was also a pretty shitty experience and one that has had a lasting impact on me emotionally (whether or not it has had a lasting impact on my career remains to be seen). How have I felt about it? I've felt angry, livid, relieved, mildly upset, inadequate, worthless and terribly, terribly sad. Sometimes I've felt all these things at exactly the same time which makes for a rather upset stomach and for a rather confused mind.
Sometimes I have wallowed, like a pig in the mud of my own despair. Other times I have risen grandly above it all like a phoenix rising from the ashes of defeat, trumpeting a clarion call of acceptance and transcendence.
It's six months on and I haven't figured it out. It'll be six years before I do.
THINGS I NOW KNOW...
1. It still hurts. It probably always will. But it hurts less now than it did then.
2.Life goes on.
3. I'm still working, doing what I love.
4. It wasn't all my fault but I had a part to play in it.
GOOD THINGS HAVE COME OUT OF IT...
1. One of the demos I wrote for that show have attracted the attention of big producers who I have met as a result which may lead to future work.
2. Some of the musical themes were instrumental in discovering the heart of another song that I was having trouble writing for another project (that's The Wicker Husband for those of you who know about it).
3. I've learnt to ask more questions, to dig deeper into what people really want (or think they want!).
4. I've learnt to find out who is pulling the strings before getting involved in a project.
5. I got an agent. The ultimate blessing, who can take alot of these questions on themselves and who are there to promote my interests.
6. I met some lovely people who I consider to be good friends as a result.
BAD THINGS HAVE COME OUT OF IT....
I question my own ability to do my job far more often than I used to. There was always a voice in the back of my head at the start of every new show that used to say:
"Maybe you can't do this. Maybe this time you won't be able to come up with any good songs or music. But hey, you always have before, so try not to worry so much!"
Now this voice has been replaced by a louder voice which says:
"Maybe you can't do this. Maybe this time you won't be able to come up with any good songs or music. But hey, you always have before... oh wait. No you haven't. There was that one time, remember? REMEMBER??!"
I have to remind myself that actually the work was good, it just wasn't what they wanted.
BUT OUT OF THOSE BAD THINGS OTHER GOOD THINGS HAVE ALSO COME OUT...
For a while it affected my other collaborations.
I became obsessed with the idea that I needed to have feedback in person in order to avoid misunderstandings etc... problems arising from this obsession resulted in a meeting with two of my dearest collaborators (Rhys Jennings and Charlie Westenra) in which I discovered how deep my insecurities had wormed themselves into my psyche.
Essentially, our meeting turned into a tiny therapy session for me about how this particular experience had begun to colour all of my collaborations and that I shouldn't let it. Just because communication didn't work in that situation for whatever reason, it didn't mean that I was doing something wrong in my others (as a matter of fact ALL of my other collobrations have been incredibly successful so I must have been doing something right.)
It then turned into a conversation about how we each prefer to communicate in our daily lives.
It seems simple, but I would say that this is probably essential for all collaborations. How can you collaborate successfully with someone if you don't know how they like to communicate? Text? Email? In person? At what time? How quickly can you expect a response?
Everyone has different answers to these questions and you need to know the answers. For example, Charlie loves to chat through things on the phone. I can't stand the phone. What was happening was Charlie was calling and I wasn't answering and that leads to frustration.
Now I know that this is important to Charlie, I make more of an effort on the phone (sometimes I even phone her!). And she makes more of an effort to communicate by text and email. Interestingly I don't mind the phone as much as I used to... simply because the person on the other end of it knows that it isn't really my bag... simple understanding has led to a much happier collaboration.
It was a conversation that also made me think about my weaknesses as a collaborator...
MY NEMESIS: JASPER MOUNTBATTEN III
It turns out, that like most of us, I have a very fragile ego. My girlfriend calls him "Jasper Mountbatten III." He is very demanding and ill prepared to accept criticism. He is a wilful child, prone to tantrums and childish rages. His worth is tied directly to external validation and praise. He gets extreme gratification when he is praised, and he becomes extremely hostile when his work is dismissed.
The good thing that I have discovered about Jasper Mountbatten III is that he isn't very bright. Jasper can be tricked, led into the woods, led into a stick and box trap very easily and quickly. He's like a chimp, all instinct and no intelligence.
This means that I can control him and over the last few months, as a result of the beating that Jasper has received, I have had the opportunity to practice keeping him under control alot more. I'm much better at it now. I recognise when Jasper is in control or is reaching for the controls and I can stop him before he does any damage.
SO HOW DO I FEEL NOW?
I'd like to say, I feel great. But I don't. I still feel upset, relieved, angry and terribly, terribly sad at the thought of what happened... but I've begun to wonder, actually... is it me who is feeling these things?
...or is it Jasper Mountbatten III?
And anyway, Jasper needs to get in his box.
I've got a score to write.
It might seem like a baffling statement, but it's something that you hear fairly regularly of late in the stage press. I have read several instances over the last few years of writers who have principally made their names in other genres of theatre or music, starting an interview with this prophetic phrase.
In a sense it's as absurd as saying "I absolutely despise the taste of brussel sprouts. That's why I'm making brussel sprouts for dinner." I think there is a disconnect here. The people who say such things are not phrasing their feelings in an appropriate way.
I wonder if this is what they actually mean...
"I have never seen a piece of musical theatre I have enjoyed, but I am fascinated by the idea of what a musical could be, so I am setting out to break the traditional form and write a new type of musical theatre for people like me to enjoy."
Is this what you mean? Because "I hate musicals" doesn't really articulate that thought... and breaking the 'traditional form' has been done a thousand times over.
It is extremely frustrating that people who have never written a piece of musical theatre (and profess in public to hate the form - or at least demonstate a profound ignorance about it) are being offered the opportunity to have their debut musical theatre work produced on a huge scale.
They are given the support of enormous national organisations, huge budgets and years of development and yet after all of this generosity they still begin an interview with "I hate musicals.." To me, a dedicated musical theatre composer & lyricist, and when I say dedicated I mean the study and writing of it occupies the majority of my waking (and dreaming) hours, it feels like a real slap in the face from the theatre industry. It also demonstrates a dangerous,ignorant, slapdash approach to the production of such work from people who should know better.
In what world would you give a chef who has only ever made deserts the opportunity to cook the main course in a michelin starred restaurant, when indeed, their opinion of 'The main course" is that it doesn't interest them, in fact that they hate it.
It seems insane but this is what is happening right in front of our eyes.
I understand the point of what these producers are trying to do and that is to be applauded. They are trying to innovate in the musical theatre form and inject it with new creative blood, blood that is not "tainted" with the history of Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and such. They are trying to create something fresh. That's great.
But they ignore the lessons of history at their great peril. It is very possible to study, listen to and reference the incredible canon of musical theatre history and still create something ground breaking and new. Just look across the pond at Hamilton. There is absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel every time a musical is born. And people who think that is what they are doing, just need to look back a few years to find out that actually it has been done before, and it's been done better by people who really took the time to learn, study and love the pure craft of this most collaborative, exciting and versatile of art forms.
I've said this before and I'll say it again. Innovation doesn't happen in leaps and bounds. It happens in tiny steps and just because we haven't bothered to look down at the steps, it doesn't mean that we aren't standing on them..
I think it's brilliant that artists from other genres are attempting to move into musical theatre because they are excited by its potential as an art form (I started out as a folk singer songwriter). I just wish those same people wouldn't jump out and say that fateful phrase "I hate musicals" before they have any idea of what they're talking about. Musicals are one of the most diverse of theatrical forms available to any artist (if you want to say there is only one type of musical, meet me for a pint and I will happily prove you wrong a hundred times over).
To be able to say "I Hate Musicals" with any ring of truth to it, you would have to have seen every musical ever written. And I know you haven't. Because some of them are just being written now. Indeed, apparently one is being written by you... what will you say when it is finished? Will you still say "I Hate Musicals?" If so, then it sounds like you hate your own work and if that's the case... maybe stop?
So please, whoever you are (and you know who you are) do yourself and the entire musical theatre industry a favour and stop saying it. All you are doing is denegrating the reputation of the art form, perpetuating a common misconception about musicals and proving yourself profoundly ignorant about the craft of something you are attempting to make.
Go away. Study musical theatre with the kind of dedication it deserves if you plan to make it, and then, if you still hate it be my guest, tell the world. Shout it from the rooftops of Broadway. Let your hatred for musicals shine in your eyes with the power of the footlights! But once you've said it, don't you dare go away and try to write one. You are just insulting the rest of us.
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.
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!
A while back before I started working professionally as a theatre maker, some circumstances led to me wanting to be the master of my own universe. I had experienced something that alot of people in the industry have experienced at some point in their career, if they've stuck at it long enough. It was this:
A Difficult Collaboration... DUN, DUN, DAH!!!
I won't go in to the details of it here, suffice to say the experience led to my decision to write a novel. Something that I would have complete control over. I am a control freak in many ways, as I suspect alot of creatives are, it almost goes with the territory. And I thought that writing a novel, alone, with just me, my brain, my laptop and several gallons of diet coke for company would be the perfect antidote to the difficulties that I had experienced in the theatre. And so I set about it, working on my novel Raven Boy, every day writing away by myself. I enjoyed this for a time, no one demanding anything of me, no one telling me what to do, no one critiquing my ideas... and then it happened... I started to miss it.
It was like 'Being Alive' for those of you who know Sondheim. The very thing that we believe we don't want are the very things that perhaps we need.
I missed people demanding things of me. I missed being able to solve problems that came up. I missed no one telling me what to do as I'm notoriously lazy. I missed people critiquing my ideas because inevitably their critique made my ideas better. So what happened? A lovely director friend of mine approached me about adapting my book into a theatre show... I said of course she could do it. As long as I could write the music.
So much for getting away from collaboration. It turns out, that for me, as much as I want to run away from it and that it terrifies me. It is also one of the things that I love most about my job. The magic that happens in the meeting of minds.
It's not easy this collaboration malarkey. I think some people really take it for granted. Because essentially what you and everyone else has to do is put aside your ego. And basically that's like telling the T-Rex from Jurassic Park to "Just please get back in your cage." It's difficult. It requires a honed armoury of emotional weaponry. And when you add your T-Rex to everyone else's meat-eating lizards, you get a hell of a play-time. And it's not going to end well...
Essentially, the one thing that makes collaboration impossible is the illusion of control.
We are all desperate to have some measure of control over our lives and our work, we believe that this is in our best interests. Sometimes we believe that we know best at the expense of others. We can't help it, after all, we are human. But the cool thing about being human is our intrinsic longing for connection and communication...
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
Well, I can only say what I've learnt from my own experience and for me, it's all about letting go.
That's not easy. It's about as easy as someone telling you "Why you can't you just decide to be happy, and then be it." It is at once, the simplest thing and the most difficult thing in the world. It's one thing to say it, it's a whole other thing to actually do it. To be an effective collaborator, you have to relinquish control. Here are some points that I have in favour of this letting go business:
1. Any control you think you have in a collaboration between equals is an illusion. Therefore holding onto such an illusion is taking a step away from reality and that can only end in pain.
2. if you let go, you can feel the shift in energy in the room. It's liberating and exciting and others (maybe not all) will hopefully begin to follow suit.
What's the old adage? "Everyone's faking it, no one really knows what they're doing." I think there is real truth in this. I have had a little success with my work now and I still definitely don't know what I'm doing. The trick is to really own it.
In my experience the best collaborators have been the ones who are able to just let go. They relinquish their control of a situation. They put their hands in the air and say "Look I don't have all the answers. But with your help I think we'll find them." And that's a brave thing for someone whose standing in front of a bunch of hungry T-Rex's to do.
Relinquishing that control is one of the most challenging and important aspects of making theatre. And sadly it is one of the most rarely talked about. How to be vulnerable in a rehearsal room and in the writing process should be embedded in the musical theatre community, and unfortunately it isn't.
WHY IS IT SO HARD?
It's basically like being Superman, then rolling on the floor with your belly exposed to the sky and saying, "Hey this is me. There's some kryptonite just over there. Use it against me." So that's difficult because you're giving someone the means with which to destroy you. If for example, you stand up at the beginning of a rehearsal period and say "Hey guys I'm not really sure what I'm doing. But I'm going to try and figure it out." Then any person in that room can turn to the producer later down the line and say "I knew they weren't any good. They admitted it to all of us. And look the show is shit!"
That's why it's hard. You're giving a stranger a loaded gun and you are trusting them not to use it on you. That's terrifying.
HOW DO WE DO IT?
Someone clever said something about love once. That love is not something that you feel. It's something that you do. And you have to decide to do it every day.
I think the same is true of letting go. It might sound like a passive release. It's not, it's the opposite. Letting go and relinquishing control is an active state. If you think of it like a mountain, then "Letting Go" is balanced delicately right at the peak and gravity is constantly trying to slip you up and send you screaming down the slate escarpment into the valley where the meat eating dinosaurs (Your Ego) roam.
Letting go is a decision you have to make in every aspect of collaboration every day and in every minute of the rehearsal room and writing process.
We put up walls around us and hire guards to stand watch protectively. All to keep us safe. But they can't keep us safe, not really. All they can do is give us the illusion of control and stop us from achieving our potential. Fortunately for us, when we take down the walls and retire the guards, our fear begins to go away and we are a more open, generous and creative version of ourselves. Just think, if we put all that energy that we spend protecting ourselves into the work instead... think what we might achieve...
TRAITS OF GOOD COLLABORATORS
The best collaborators I have known have the following traits:
1. They are happy to admit when they are wrong
2. They are happy to try anything
3. They will not try to force or coerce
Note that I don't mention "talent" here at all. All the talent in the world can't save you if you can't learn the art of collaboration. You're better off writing a novel (although, indeed, turns out that's pretty collborative too, friends, readers, editors, publishers... you can't escape!!)
For those of you interested in the science behind all of this, there are brilliant people out there called Vulnerability Researchers. Brene Brown, in particular sums things up pretty well in her TED TALK here:
Enjoy and happy collaborating!