Given that it's Boxing Day I probably shouldn't have been working... but given that I'm me, I was. I think it's something that may be an attribute of those in the creative industries.. For me, a holiday is just a different place to do some work. In fact the ony difference between a 'Writing Retreat' and a 'Holiday' is that on one of them I should be working.
So what have we been doing with the Wicker Husband since the fateful day on the 18th May 2016 when we were fortunate enough to win the inaugural MTI Stiles & Drewe Mentorship Award. On that day, when Rhys and I stumbled up, in a slight state of shock to the stage of The Novello Theatre, we were completely unaware of exactly what we had won. In fact it turned out that our mentors weren't exactly sure either but the most encouraging thing about that day was when they said (and paraphrasing):
GEORGE AND ANTS: "We have no idea how this is all going to work but we're going to find out together and it's going to be brilliant."
The thing about the word inaugural is that it's one that is full of possibility. No one exactly knows what they are doing so what it becomes is an opportunity for everyone to make it what they WANT it to be...
We are now almost at the halfway point of our year of mentorship and I thought it would be useful (particularly with the deadline for next years award coming up) to look back at how it's been so far and what we have left to expect for the future.
After the competition event we got to speak to George and Ants at the reception which was lovely, I bought George a glass of wine. He initially offered to pay and I thought, "No, this is the perfect opportunity to start buying George Stiles friendship." Bear in mind that I would have attempted to buy Ants friendship as well but he seemed actively engaged in a real friendship with someone else... we had some very excited sentences about The Wicker Husband and the it's future and Rhys and I decamped to the pub with some fellow attendees (includng brilliant writers Tim Connor and Eamonn O'Dwyer) our partners and our director/dramaturg Charlie Westenra and just ate a massive pile of pie. The congratulations poured in on social media and and our egos were stuffed with external validation as our cheeks were filled with potato mash.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WICKER HUSBAND
Prior to the award, we had been working on The Wicker Husband for about two and a half years, aside from our epic writing meetings we had completed;
1. A workshop at the Unicorn Theatre
2. Two weeks workshopping Act 1 at the RWCMD in Cardiif
3. A writing retreat in The Forest of Dean
4. A successful crowdfunding campaign to help fund our future work on the project.
We had entered several awards including the MTI Stiles & Drewe Mentorship Award (winner), The Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Award (finalist), The Kevin Spacey Artist of Choice Award (finalist), The Jameson Bursary (shortlist), The Little Angel Incubate Programme (Winner) and had applied for the Dunedin Operatic Executive Trust Award (winner). The deadlines of which all helped us move the project a little further along...
So now that we had the support of MTI, Stiles & Drewe and Mercury Musical Developments what was going to happen next?
WORKSHOP AT GUILDHALL SCHOOL OF MUSIC & DRAMA (Not part of S&D Award)
Our director Charlie had already set up a week of workshops at the GSMD to work with their 3rd year actors on the 2nd act of the show and we went straight into those workshops the day after the award. It was great to get straight back into the work so quickly, helping to focus on the fact that we still had a hell of a lot of work to do to make this into the piece we all believed it could be. The week was brilliant, the students incredibly insightful and talented and in the evenings there would be emails from Victoria Saxton and Lettie Graham with congratulations and instructions on what we all needed to do to move forward. Availability checks for the writing retreat and for an initial meeting with Stiles & Drewe were all put in the diary and so it all began.
At our initial meeting with George, Ants and Lettie (they were in rehearsals for Wind in the Willows at Jerwood Space) we discussed many of the practicalities of the award including budgets, what was being funded and how and a reasonable timeline for the whole year based around everyone's availability. Together with this work shadowing opportunities were mentioned and of course none of us could help discussing the show itself. It was a very exciting and reassuring meeting, it was clear that George and Ants were going to use their considerable skill to help us make the show we wanted to make. We made some suggestions and they were very open to negotiations and flexibility in the award.We came away from the meeting with dates in the diary and hearts full of possibility. It was clear however, that if we wanted to make the most of this incredible opportunity we would have to put our noses to the grindstone and work like dogs.
At this point we started to think about the award as the backbone upon which we would base the next year of our work. Lettie and Victoria made it clear that they were happy to support us in applications for other funding which would enhance our ability to produce the best work possible. We used the prestige of the award to attract brilliant actors and musicians to the project, we also used the name and the budget to apply for an Arts Council Grant that would allow us to involve more people in the Progress Labs and the final Showcase. At the time of writing we have yet to hear from the Arts Council about the grant... we are hopeful...
WORK SHADOW OPPORTUNITIES
I asked George and Ants if there were any rehearsals for Wind in the WIllows that I might be able to attend, George came straight back with an offer to sit in on the orchestra trials at Mark Knopflers recording studio in Hammersmith. I jumped at the chance and arrived on the day, greeted outside by Lettie who saw me wandering off in the wrong direction and pointed me in the right one. Inside, George said a big hello and introduced me to all the incredible people working on the project including the two orchestrators, the fixer, the conductor and recording engineers. Desperate not to be a nuisance I plopped myself on the sofa in the live room and watched as George wandered around introducing himself to the musicians that he hadn't met in turn, humbly saying 'Hello, I'm George, I wrote the tunes.'
I was given a score to follow as they worked their way through 'Spring' an incredibly thrilling piece of work, beautifully orchestrated. Every now and again they would stop and one of the orchestrators or George would make a small suggestion or change that would completely change the feeling of a bar. The attention to detail was outstanding and I learnt an awful lot about the difference orchestration can make to your show. I won't go on, but it was a pretty special day.
For those of you who have been following this blog, the next part of it was the writing retreat, which you can read all about in detail in earlier August/September entries. If you are considering applying for the award this year, do have a look. But for now, suffice to say that the experience was life changing and at the end of it I genuinely felt that I could add George and Ants as friends on the facebook machine in the safe knowledge that we had actually become friends and I no longer needed to buy that friendship with alcohol. That's certainly something that I didn't expect and is a tribute to the warmth of character of both George and Ants. They welcomed us into their home (including our director Charlie) and they made us feel like part of their theatrical family. The writing retreat is absolutely what you make it. There was no timetable aside from the one you decide for yourself. At the start of the week, the one thing that Ants said he would love would be to know that a new song for the show had been begun on the retreat. As it happened I wrote four new songs that week, but for everyone it will be different and they will be happy either way. You set your timetable, you work as much as you want and they will be there on hand to help you when you want it.
As a general rule I worked down at my gite from 8 - 9.30am most mornings, walked up to Ants' house for breakfast for 10am, ate and chatted til about 10.45am then worked through til 1pm, had lunch for an hour, worked through until 7pm, had some dinner, some nights dinner went on until bed time and other nights I went back to work for a couple of hours, when Rhys was out there with me, we even continued working back at the gite til about 12.30am. All in all I'd say I did at least 10 hour of work a day. At the end of it I was exhausted but the show had improved exponentially, we had transformed some key song moments and I personally felt like I had greatly improved my knowledge of my craft.
I definitely urge next years award winners to keep a diary of the week as it goes by really quick and the knowledge and advice comes thick and fast... plus I'd really like to learn everything that you learn!
MERCURY MUSICALS DEVELOPMENT LAB
This could easily be overlooked as a part of the Award, as it appears to be less grand than the grandness of the other things that the award brings with it, but I urge future winners to get stuck in to it. The opportunity to regularly present work to professional writing colleagues on a regular basis is such an important part of this award. Working with this generous group of professional writers has helped immensely in the development of the show, in a way it's like having a whole team of mentors, not just Stiles & Drewe who will help you come to understand your show. Once a month we have had the opportunity to present a piece of the show and get valuable feedback on it. Sometimes we present a song/scene, sometimes just a song and sometimes just a selection of scenes. We have also learnt an awful amount in listening and feeding back on our colleagues work which has been brilliant and a huge learning experience as well.
ORCHESTRATION DAY (Not part of S&D Award)
This was not an official part of the award but it was certainly influenced by it. George wrote to us with some brilliant advice before the day which I will publish on this blog (with his permission). We got a free space to use in Pimlico, organised by our wonderful percussionist Ruairi Glasheen who also arranged for some other players to come along (Jon - Dulcimer and Hedi - Bass), we also had a trio of fiddlers Philippa, Hannah and Loren and Josh on the accordion. We spent the day playing around with a few of the songs trying out different ideas. Then we had a couple of my singer friends come in and do some singing for us (Anne Marie and Laura). It was a great day, made all the better with George's words ringing in my ears, which, when distilled essentially said: "Keep the storytelling at the heart of your arrangements." Golden advice. As a result of everyone's generosity I came away with what felt like the authentic beginnings of the sound of the wicker husband.
PROGRESS LAB 1
Some of you may have come along to this event at the Jerwood Space. We spent a good deal of time in the lead up to this casting the lab and getting a musical director for the day on board. On the day itself we had about 3 hours to put together the first 25 minutes of the musical... this was our choice. We consulted with George and Ants about what would be useful for other writers to see and what would be useful for us and we thought this section would be a good place to start. We really wanted to see how the narrative and songs were hanging together. With the help of George, Ants, Lettie and Victoria, Charlie did an incredible job of casting the lab for us and we managed to pull in some really high calibre performers including several West End leads which was a rea boost of confidence for us.
But... it turns out that we bit off slightly more than we could chew! This section included five songs, two of which were massive ensemble numbers ('The Ugly Girl' and 'Will Ye Lend Me a Suit', two huge solo/duet songs 'My Wicker Man' and 'The Heart of the Weave' and an opening number for the Basketmaker 'Once Upon a Withy.') All in all about 20 minutes worth of music and three hours in which our brilliant musical director Theo Jamieson had to teach everybody some (as it turns out!) pretty complicated stuff. Add to that the fact that there were several scenes in between the songs and it really was a bit much to have attempted. I'm glad we pushed at it though as it means that we have a much better idea of what is realistically achievable for the 2nd lab which will take place on the 7th February and that we are working towards now.
The lab had a panel of wonderful experts and of course the group in the audience were the Mercury Musical Developments writer community. It was so great to see a packed room and I was very happy to see a number of my writer and actor friends in the audience, with their friendly beaming faces there. In particular I was extremely happy to see two of my oldest friends (Angie and Charley) who wanted to come along and see the thing that I had been working on for so long. I would advise any writers to get at least a couple of your nearest and dearest along to this event as they provide the sort of reassurance that only ancient and deep friendship can give you. They remind you to believe in yourself and that no matter what happens, whether you fall on your face in the mud or get thrown up among the stars, they will still be there for you regardless and that's what is really important.
SO... that's where we are now. Writing, rewriting, consulting, rewriting again. Working towards the next parts of the award.
We have set our goals in place for the remaining aspects of the award.
In Progress Lab 2 we will aim to present the new opening number along with the crucial and problematic end of Act 1 which will be very useful. Based on the feedback we received from the first lab (which was in general very positive) we have been working hard on rewriting the opening scene to make sure that the problems we are going to be tackling in the show are very clear for all to see, as well as making the song better (I have never been entirely happy with it). Of all the songs in the show this one has had the longest genesis. It was the first song I wrote three and a half years ago and looking at it now, it has transformed completely (a couple of musical sections remain but the lyrics have undergone a total rework).
And we are aiming to do a full reading of the entire show at the showcase in April with a band of folk musicians playing along. It's going to be a hell of a lot of work but we are excited by the possibility...
Who knows what the future of The Wicker Husband will be following this incredible year of mentorship... but I do know that whatever happens it will remain the highlight of my career to date.
So if you are thinking about applying but haven't quite finished your 1st draft, then I urge you (and your writing partner(s) to get your skates on... Rhys and I were working right up until the midnight deadline to get our application materials together, and we sent it in with a minute to spare.
What a difference a minute can make.
Apply for the award here:
You can follow the progress of The Wicker Husband by clicking on social media links below: