On Friday the 15th March, having locked Jasper Mountbatten III (my Ego), Derek Bluebottom (my depression) and Colin Shitsmearer (my envy) in a cupboard in my flat in Crystal Palace, I left to attend the UK Musical Theatre Conference 2019 at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton.
What I’m going to do here is not so much a description of the event itself but instead a collection of my thoughts on the “Conundrum of New Musical Theatre in the UK” as they coalesced throughout the day.
As you may know, I spend the majority of my time writing new musicals, so the conference (organised by the extraordinary teams at Mercury Musical Developments and Musical Theatre Network) was an opportunity for me to step back and think more deeply about the practical problems and difficulties facing the industry today.
The day was full of provocations, questions, opinions, conversations and ideas about the ecology of UK musical theatre. It was an opportunity to hear thoughts and challenges facing venues, artistic directors, independent producers, writers and performers. For me, as a UK MT Conference virgin, it was one of the first times that I’ve really had the opportunity to see all these factions represented so strongly and speaking so passionately about the medium. I know for a fact that it was a surprise to others at the conference that the various factions were represented so well. At one point I spoke to an Artistic Director who expressed a good deal of surprise when I told him: “Oh, there’s lots of writers here!” As if on cue, a panellist then asked for a show of hands to indicate how many writers were in the room. At least half the people in the room swiftly raised their hands.
There is the possibility for conferences to be seen as paying lip service to change. They can often be a group of people from the same part of their particular industry wondering aloud in a vacuum about the things that must be done to change their industry. As a result they can often be ineffective and frustrating, enabling an industry to say that it is desirous of change without ever having to actually do anything about it.
What was so good about this event was the vital presence of so many different roles within the industry. This meant that conversations and events from this conference could potentially lead to ACTUAL change. And believe me, if there is one thing that came across loud and clear from the event it is that change is both desired and required. I heard this from venues, directors, producers, the leaders of consortia and writers that musical theatre is something that they are deeply passionate about creating and promoting. I was in the room when this was stated over and over again by various panellists.
In the revolutionary process, talk is very necessary, as is conversation and consultation. But it is also very easy to say that one is willing to change, quite another to actually change.
There are a lot of actions being taken already, MMD and MTN work extremely hard behind the scenes promoting writers informally and formally in order to forward the cause of new musical theatre in this country. Events, opportunities and competitions are being set up as we speak to give voice to the now undeniable musical theatre talent in the UK. Some regional venues and producing companies are investing in programmes to develop new musical theatre and bring it to their audiences. A number of independent producers and directors are dedicated to advocating new musical theatre and they are getting work seen and actual productions on.
These actions represent the beginnings of the long road to revolution…
RISK & OPPORTUNITY
One of the great things about the conference was that many writers I talked to throughout the day expressed a renewed appreciation for the difficulties that venues and producers face when it comes to creating new work. Being reminded of the challenges that venues face in the current economic climate is always sobering and important. As a writer who has been round the block a few times and has talked in depth with both independent producers and Artistic Directors this was not news to me nor many of my career artist colleagues, but it was great that a larger proportion of people were becoming aware of the challenges facing venues and producers.
However, I would like to take this opportunity to remind us all that risk is by no means a one way street. Career musical theatre writers take risks every single day of their working lives. We make considerable sacrifices in order to write, in order that there will be ideas and shows created for theatres and audiences. We often spend years working on a musical before we see any financial recompense for that work and then it is usually vastly inadequate compared to the amount of time we spent working on them. Yes, producers take financial risk when they commission an idea but they are not the only ones risking a huge amount. A decent wage, a stable career, relationships, family time and social events are constantly being risked by writers in order to write. Don’t get me wrong. We do this willingly. Because we LOVE what we do. And because we love it we are willing to risk to do it. This is not an attack, it doesn’t change the difficult financial challenges facing venues, but I hope it puts the word RISK into a more realistic and useful context. This is something we all face together.
So, back to the financials… Yes, there is indeed high risk in new musical theatre, this is well known. It’s an expensive business and sometimes it doesn’t pay off…
But it’s my belief that the size of this risk is directly proportional to an outdated lack of TRANSPARENCY in our industry.
TRANSPARENCY & EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT
It is my belief that producer risk is connected deeply to audience development. If an audience doesn’t come to a show you will lose your investment. If it does come, you may make a small loss, you may break even, you may make some money, you may have a mega hit and never have to work again for the rest of your life.
The point I want to make is that the long term development of high quality, meaningful & commercially viable musical theatre doesn’t HAVE to be as risky as everyone is making it out to be…
If risk is connected to audience and risk is the crucial factor holding venues and producers back from developing more musical theatre (as would seem to be the case from panel discussions) then crucially we ALL need to think more about our audience.
As a writer, I usually hear that phrase in relation to the subject matter of my work. We as writers constantly hear the phrase: “Think about your audience. Why are they going to want to come and see a musical about this?”
I posit that in asking that question (and I’ve asked it several times myself) we are thinking about our audience in a naive, presumptuous and condescending manner.
I would say that we don’t necessarily have to worry about whether our idea is going to appeal to an audience. Yes, that might be a part of it, but it’s not everything. I would argue that more important for developing audiences for new work is connecting those audiences in a meaningful way to the artists who are making it.
You only have to look at XFactor or Britain’s Got Talent to see this system at work. Whilst talent plays a part, it is an audiences connection to a particular singer, it is the audiences emotional INVESTMENT in their story and their development that really drives that connection. When there is connection between artist development and audience then there is interest, opportunity and crucially, lowered RISK.
A lot was said at the conference about musical theatre career artists being sidelined in favour of well known pop stars or playwrights. This is something we have been complaining about for years and the conference brought it into stark relief. Regardless of the argument about bringing fresh blood into the musical theatre writing pot, I seriously doubt that is the principal reason why they are commissioning well known pop writers to write their next musical. Otherwise, they would surely be happy to bring in new musical theatre writers. We are after all, fresh blood as well.
We think that pop stars are given these opportunities because they are famous and successful. But actually the truth lies a bit deeper than that. Really they are famous and successful because they have cultivated a strong audience connection over time, their songs and careers have made their way into the fabric of the audience’s lives. The audience is invested in them. That is why their audiences go in droves to the work they are involved in. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pop concert or an autobiography or a musical. The audience are invested in the artist.
As a result of this emotional investment by audiences, these writers bring with them considerably lowered risk. Lowered risk because of higher guaranteed AUDIENCE numbers. It’s simple economics.
So the key question is this…
How do we develop that same audience investment, that emotional attachment to the life and work of career musical theatre artists? After all, they are the ones driven by passion for the form. The ones who have dedicated their time and sacrificed so much to do it. The ones who know what they’re doing. The ones who have spent their lives devoted to this most collaborative of art forms and who are constantly being sidelined in favour of those with no experience in the medium.
So who must we turn to?
Who out of all of the representatives at the conference has access to an audience?
Now, there seems to be this idea amongst the new musical theatre community that in order to help our industry to thrive in this country the first step is to produce more new musicals.
I think that this is wrong.
“What?!” I hear you shout. “String ‘em up boys!”
Before you hang me out to dry, let me tell you why…
There is one word (again used many times at the conference) which goes to the heart of the problem…
A lot was said at the conference about TRUST regarding collaboration partners for co-productions. But more importantly, to effect real change in our industry the first and principal focus must be on the development of trust between venues, their audiences and crucially, WRITERS.
Panellists talked articulately about how to build trust between collaborators, many examples were talked of about how trust was built, the conversation related mainly to how co-production relationships are cultivated. They are not leapt into blindly, they are tentative cautious affairs.
And so surely the same principle must apply when it comes to building trust between venues, audiences and writers.
If trust is built in small steps. Then surely that’s how we must approach it for the development of audiences for new musicals. In a relationship you don’t go straight to marriage. You go on a date. Prior to going on a date you might talk or message, it begins with a single word, or a glance. It begins so very very small.
So… venues. I don’t want you to produce my musicals. Not yet.
I want you to invite me and people like me to develop our ideas in one of your rooms, inside your venue and the most important thing here:
PLEASE DON’T HIDE US AWAY FROM YOUR AUDIENCES!
Here’s a three step suggestion to get us all started:
1. Venues, invite a writing team in for a day or a week to work on a musical theatre idea we’re all interested in. No commitment from you to produce the thing to its final production. It doesn’t have to be a workshop or an R&D. It could just be a room with a piano in it where two or three writers will bash ideas out. The important thing is that it doesn’t have to be a big commitment from you.
2. TELL your audiences that we are there. Tweet, facebook, mail out. It won’t take much. Maybe one of the days is an open rehearsal room where audiences can visit, maybe there is a showing, maybe there is a talk. But it must be visible, publicised and prominent.
3. Writers, the burden cannot all be on the venues and producers. Unfortunately, beyond writing excellent work there is no escaping the fact that we live in a world which requires us to tell people about what we are doing. It may go against our nature to do it, but do it we must if we expect our audiences to come with us on the journey.
When you are doing a new musical, it is so often the case that producers and venues wait until the season announcement before the public and audiences hear anything about it.
By then it’s too late. Risk is already sky high. We have given the potential audience no time to get emotionally invested in the journey of the artists or the project, or the venue. We have given them no time to witness the struggles and defeats. Therefore how can we expect them to want to come along to this secret new musical?
This is how it’s been done in the past but it is time to change the way in which venues, producers, artists and audiences relate to one another in UK Musical Theatre.
We are living in a new age and we must adapt.
The most powerful tool we have is our storytelling. And the skills of storytelling must be applied not only to the story of our shows but to the very act of creating new musical theatre itself.
THE LONG TERM
I’m talking a thirty year game changer here.
Small investment now in artists and audiences will reap huge benefits in the future. Attach writers to venues, let them engage with your audiences, let the writers take their rightful place in the ecology of theatre, let them into your building. They are it’s beating heart, they are the lifeblood that fuels the entire industry and like a badly watered plant it will only take a little water for them to perk up once more and start filling the theatres with vibrant new musical theatre.
Build trust between venues and writers and you will end up with strong work.
Build trust between writers and audiences and you will end up with lowered risk.
STRONGER WORK + LOWERED RISK = A healthier new musical theatre ecology for the UK.
At the conference everybody made it clear that they want that. So lets do it.
A huge thank you to all who attended the conference and especially to the wonderful teams at MMD and MTN without whom none of us would have a clue what we were doing.