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.
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.