Stiles and Drewe blog ‘n’ plug

The last day of my wonderful zombie-musical-writing retreat was clearly so intense that I didn’t get round to blogging about it.  I had a final few spurts of frazzled creativity –  with ever-patient support from my mentors –  and we went out for a glorious meal at a local restaurant where my hosts plied me with fine aperitifs.  I was then heading straight off to Austria for an also very intense week of music-making at the Grand Hotel in Kitzbuhel. This is the location of an annual jolly that has me devising acoustic arrangements of random chart hits with high-powered management consultants – in a five-star hotel with a free bar!  It’s an uncharacteristically well-paid gig and a pleasurable but also somewhat pressurized weekend.

So no time to think about zombies.

Then back to England where I managed a quick catch-up afternoon with Susie at our glamorous writing retreat,  known as Costa Coffee, Crouch End.  Things had settled a bit with the writing and we sketched out a plan of action for the next stages of the process.  However for the next few days I was then preparing for a small musical festival near Lewes which I help to run every year, The Festival of Jim (in memory of my friend Jim Marcovitch, klezmer accordionist extraordinaire).  So another massively intense long weekend, this time camping in a wood, playing, dancing, schlepping drum kits along rutted paths, compering, visiting compost loos..

And not thinking about zombies.

And on the Monday…I began rehearsals for my family puppet musical Book Story, which, for some hideous reason, I am directing myself.  We’ve just opened this at Little Angel Studios in Islington, so here comes the plug bit:

Book Story is a show all about books, in which the characters are…books.  A bit like Toy Story, but with books – and completely different.  It’s been a long journey to create this show and I’m very proud of the way it’s come out – and the brilliant cast that perform it.  It’s suitable for anyone over the age of 6; it’s a “family show” by which I mean a show that engages adults and children in tandem (this being the philosophy of my company MONSTRO theatre, the self-styled “Pinoneers of the Puppet Musical.”)  It’s playing in London at Little Angel this weekend.  Some shows are sold out but there is space in the Saturday 11 am show (tomorrow!) and a special £5 industry offer if you use the code “BriansBooks” at box office or online.

So, come.  There are more shows over the next 5 weeks around the UK and back in London at the Arts Depot on 29th October. Details on Monstro Theatre website

Lovely review just come out here:

Review of Book Story from Spy in the Stalls

Back to (blogging) business:

All this has left very little time to think about zombies…but…Susie and I have met up again AND had some new ideas AND got excited about things again.  And we now have dates for all the progress labs etc.  We’re going to see George and Ants again early in October, relay our progress and discuss the latest outline – and the song sketches I’ve begun.  And very excitingly, we are now in discussion with several directors who are interested in working with us on the progress labs.  We should have news about this very soon….




Stiles and Drewe blog 6

Day 5 (and 6)

I found Day 5 quite a challenge, hence not writing my blog until today, which is day 6. Considering it unlikely that anyone is keeping close track and hanging on my every word, I may decide to combine today and yesterday under the snappy title Days 5 and 6.

I think the essential trouble with yesterday, Day 5, Monday (call it what you will) was that time had run out with Susie and I was suffering minor abandonment issues.  The thing that I find hardest is writing (and controlling) stories and this was the job that Susie had been drafted in to oversee – and managed with considerable aplomb.  However, the honest truth is that her rapid and retentive mind was always racing some way ahead of mine and that I’d felt a little out of control of the story.  With my mind always wanting to move ahead to how I might develop songs for a given story beat, I wasn’t always getting sufficiently imaginatively immersed in the story to really get how it was working.  If that makes sense.

Equally, when we talked to George and Ants, the combination of their being so experienced as musical story-tellers and being sufficiently outside the project to see the wood for the trees meant that they seemed (to my self-doubting mind at least) sharper and surer about the story than I was.

So, although we had a great, if time-pressured session with George and Ants looking at our last synopsis over lunch before Susie left to get her train, over the course of the rest of that very hot day (after a lovely walk and a cooling swim) I kind of froze up creatively.  I started trying to look at the bits of story that were most worrying me, where I didn’t know what the songs could or should really be, and when I couldn’t come up with anything I liked I went into a weird sort of panic.  I spent the main hours of panic in the hammock (not a bad place to panic, if panic you must) and eventually persuaded myself to stop trying and join the others for dinner.

I had at least managed a few lines of rhyming innuendo (for the newly emerging character of Alan the morgue technician).  Not the height of productivity, but not actually nothing. More importantly I’d decided to heed the wise advice of George to try and work through the piece from the top and start to see how each moment informs the next.

I got an early night (hopefully not overly disappointing any troubled blog-addicts who’d been waiting by their consoles for my latest offering) and this morning (Day 6), went for a run and started looking at the opening afresh.  We’d agreed that it would be really helpful to have the band sing and frame the piece, offering commentary and having a playful, teasing role with the audience.  This felt right up my street and I spent most of today developing lyrics for the band’s opening number and various incursions that they make into the show.  I presented this to G and A and Lettie along with some work I’d done on the opening scene and first song within the story proper.

I’m not going to go into much more detail about this because I may still have a bit of creative oomph in me to do some work now. But it has been a fun and productive day and my mentors have been wonderfully supportive and encouraging.








Stiles and Drewe blog number 5

Day 4


It’s getting progressively harder to recall the mornings from the increasingly distant-feeling vantage-point of their respective evenings.  It’s an intensive business this musical-writing retreat lark.  I know I went for a run this morning, which felt like a very good idea until the last few hundred years when I realised I was actually very tired and that whatever post-run perkiness I might attain was unlikely to last beyond breakfast.  Today was the day to flesh out the synopsis and fix as many holes as we could before my prodigious co-writer deserts me to return to London and her children. Children!  I ask you, of all the mundane concerns.  Here were are, sacrificing our souls at the altar of art, and she has to cut short our creative odyssey to fulfil mere maternal obligation.  What a fly-by-night, what a will-o-the-wisp!

I jest (largely).  Over the course of the day, with the pressure mounting for Susie to deliver the detailed synopsis she’d promised, our ever cordial and jovial relations were inevitably tested.  We sat by side by side on the sofa at Ants’ house as Susie tapped away at her laptop. I was half-trying to write about four different songs, while attempting simultaneously to keep an ear and eye on Susie’s progress – and all the while suffering from palpable mental exhaustion.  She pushed onwards against the clock, speaking aloud her words as she typed (grrrrr), while I frowned and muttered at her side, never less than two paragraphs behind her.  I sensed her beginning to lose patience with me when my suggestions and objections were met with “well, I disagree, but why don’t we put that in as a note – requiring further mentorship”.

By the time we staggered to the end of Act 2, we were freestyling, chucking in plot twists and thematic resolutions more or less at random, with suspiciously different conceptions of the piece we thought we were writing.  Or so I was beginning to feel, in my state of artistic burn-out.  Nonetheless, time was up and Susie emailed our glorious work-in-progress out to the team, whereupon (mere minutes later) I winced to hear it spitting out of Ants’ printer.

So be it.  We had more pressing concerns.  We’d offered to cook dinner for our stupendously hospitable hosts at our (relatively) humble Gite and now had to hurry down the hill to see what we could cobble from our small stock of lentils and potatoes hastily bought at the supermarket in the daze of our first arrival all those long days ago.

We bickered our way pleasantly down the hill, me trying to take revenge on Susie for her (wholly pragmatic) writerly bullying by tormenting her addled brain with new title suggestions for the show.  “How about Zombs Away,” I offered.  “Or Drop the Zombie?”  “Zombie Mind-fuck?”

As it turned out, cooking our humble veggie meal turned out to make a delightful break from the life creative – and brought our team-working skills pleasingly to the fore.  I tackled the potatoes (par-boiled by yours truly that same morning – what forethought!) and Susie the lentils.  I freely confess that cooking George and Ants a meal felt like a genuine challenge.  They’d been providing us with exquisite culinary abundance on a daily basis and now it was our turn.  Two brain-fried vegetarians with rudimentary ingredients and the haziest of plans.  As Susie put it, it felt a bit like we were on some sort of bizarre reality TV show: first write a musical in three days and present it to a highly-respected professional musical-writing team (who are also, as it happens highly skilled chefs); next, create a three-course meal for them using only dried pulses, purloined condiments and a three-day-old quarter loaf of bread.

Having encouraged our guests to drink heavily before arriving, to help “manage expectations,” all turned out for the best.  Praise was heaped upon Susie’s lentils and George kindly put in a word for my potatoes when he realised I might start crying. We had a lovely evening – Sixpence came along too and frolicked around the garden before draping herself over the green settee.  Conversation flowed freely and was kept mercifully away from zombies and musicals.

Tomorrow we can return, refreshed, to the matter in hand. I’m sure Susanna and I will resolve our artistic differences and be on excellent speaking terms, as long as she isn’t eaten by the extremely large spider that visited her room last night.

A demain, blog-spotters!

Stiles and Drew blog number 4


france pic sweet

Day 3

Worked at the Gite today in the morning.  Happy to be plinking away on the guitar at last and knocked off most of a new song with the fetching title “I want to kiss a rat.”  In won’t go into detail explaining the origins and purpose of this song, but – trust me – it is required by the plot.

Lots of yesterday’s ideas are already bubbling into song possibilities.  We walked up to the house in noonday heat and were very impressed by the insect life: floods of butterflies, praying mantises, some sort of copper coloured bee and a blue-black moth decorated with what looked like bright red love hearts.  Which made a neat as escape while Susie and I were fumbling for our phones.

The next couple of hours were a bit of a social whirl.  A troupe of theatrical friends are staying in a house very near George and Ants and dropped in for lunch: two directors (Lottie and Luke), a lighting designer (Howard) and a sound designer (Andy), as well as A and G’s producer assistant, Lettie, who was coming to join us for a few days.  We had enough of a theatrical production team to make a show right there.  But instead we played some spectacularly inexpert water volleyball and drank Rose in the sun.  Another delicious lunch of two quiches and some splendid theatrical chit-chat.

I was keen to get back into my songs and leave Susie elaborating the synopsis some more.  From time to time she issued a crackle of insight from the next door room (or the pool) and I’d have a go at incorporating the latest thinking into the lyrics I was working on.  I explored writing some fairly straight and (by my standards) “on the nose” lyrics for our protagonist in the opening song, just to see what that would feel like, bearing in mind the oft-touted merits of a boldly stated “I Want” sung moment in a musical.  I was keen to try and mark out the tonal parameters of the piece (look at me with my tonal parameters), hence having a go at writing both an Intense Power Ballad and a Ridiculous Rat-Kissing Interlude.  I’m hoping to get a sense of how far we can go in each direction with the centre still holding, so to speak.

We presented the developed synopsis again to George and Ants (this time with a few new song snatches thrown in) and also – very helpfully – to Lettie’s entirely fresh pair of ears.  This read-through prompted a lot of really useful discussion and input from all.  I apologise if anyone who’s read this far is getting a sense of déjà vu. We write, we discuss, we re-write, we re-discuss: and so it goes on a musical mentorship scheme.  Which is constantly illuminating and utterly invaluable for us, but only so thrilling to read about in a blog.

Tomorrow is Susie’s last day and we need to inject the latest insights into our storyline so it’s in as clear and believable a shape as it can be for me to build on with lyrics and music.  So we need a good night’s sleep and thus I bid you goodnight, gentle bloggee.

Stiles and Drewe blog number 3

Day 2

Those gentle readers who may have detected a faint note of desperation beneath the surface ebullience of yesterday’s blog will be reassured to know that today has seen progress of a most decided character. (I can’t fully explain why I have suddenly started trying to write like Charles Dickens, but the hour is late, the wine has flowed and I have been in almost continuous conversation with Susie whose ever-fulsome use of the English language may perhaps be rubbing off on me).  I woke around 8 and was getting ready for a run to clear my head, when Susie popped out of her room in her nightie and proffered the latest synopsis which she’d bashed out the night before, feeling (I think) that the pressure was mounting for someone – most likely her – to start finding the plot.

She’d written a very strictly pared-down version of Act One, with simple, clear story beats and no attempt to elaborate on the wit or tone or detail of the thing.   A smart move. With a few insights from our previous evening’s hill-walk and the advice of our mentors to keep things simple and remember our source material ringing in her ears, she’d got down something that felt fresh and good.  Act Two tailed off after about three paragraphs, but Act Twos are always where the trouble lies.  I went for my run and came back with new thoughts and doubts which by the time we’d walked back up to the house Susie had seen off with a notable confidence.  She clearly felt she was onto something.

After breakfast I think we spent an hour finishing the storyline together (a long day – events are blurring) and then presented it to George and Ants.  It felt good. They clearly bought where we were going with this.  Ants beamed, told us we’d “cracked it” and bounced off to walk Sixpence.

We spent up until lunch fleshing out the outline and now – at last – I was able to start thinking about songs with some confidence of what they needed to do to serve the scenes.  And joy of joys: it seemed that this version of the story was going to allow me to use a good few of the songs I’d so far come up with!  As we discussed the big clinching moment at the end of Act One, I was even moved to start sketching a power ballad.  God knows I’ve never felt the need to write a power ballad before, but this moment seemed to be calling for one, so dammit, I thought, (reaching at last for George’s guitar) I’m going to supply it!

By the time we repaired in doors out of the sun for the post-lunch Act Two fleshing-out, we were clearly on a roll and coming up with ludicrous song suggestions at a rate of knots.  This was where I’d been dreaming of getting to for so long now. The road beginning to rise up ahead of us; the immense amount of work implied by all fanciful ideas now of course looming incontrovertibly into view – but with a proper sense of map and destination.  We could build this; it could be good.

Inevitably, as we tried to get the last couple of scenes mapped out, things began to unravel a bit.  Susanna was flagging and demanded a break for a swim and we mulled the story’s epilogue and aftermath in the calm of the pool.  There were no obvious answers, but we felt that the real ending of the story was clear; and the tying up of all the threads something that would likely be achieved better when the characters and tone were better worked out.

Anyway, Pastis and Noilly Prat on ice were (for better or worse) applied to the process and the last couple of paragraphs were typed up by Susie in a looser, more golden-hued style than hitherto employed.  We’d done a good day’s work.  Ants had made a chick-pea curry, not too hot, just hot enough to “open the pores” and the work that we read our mentors over the embers of a fine dinner fell on wine-loosened and receptive ears.

Let’s hope it still feels good in the morning.

Stiles and Drewe blog number 2


Talking serious Zombie business over pea risotto

Day 1 (technically you could call it day 2, but since we only arrived in the late afternoon yesterday, I think we can reasonably regard everything up until this morning as “settling in” and thereby manage expectations).

But if yesterday was only a picturesque low-stakes introduction, today was the real thing.  I woke up quite early (I still haven’t quite adjusted to French time, not helped by the lack of mobile phone signal at our Gite  – and a lack of watch on my wrist – so it may have been 630 or 730) and felt I ought to try and achieve something immediately if at all possible.  I went into the garden and walked around purposefully in the early morning mist.  Nothing.  I sat down with my new green notebook on the green leatherette couch, with a couple of ideas for a lyric I had penned optimistically on the plane.  Nothing.

No matter. When Susanna woke up my muse would surely arrive yawning on her heels.  But no, Susie and I just yawned together and wondered where we’d left our brains.  By the time Ants arrived to pick us up on his return from the croissant run, we’d worked it out: our Gite, while well-appointed, as yet contained no coffee.

Back up at Ants’ house the coffee-shaped hole in our mornings was warmly filled (along with some fig-jam-shaped holes I hadn’t even been aware of) and the day began to dawn in earnest.  With the breakfast things cleared, we took out our fresh synopsis for a read-through.  George and Ants had only received this a day or two before and until that point the only ideas they’d had in writing were the synopsis and first draft from my original competition submission.  Since the new story and characters bore only the slenderest relation to the old, they understandably were a little unsure about the directions we had taken and we could see we were going to do some serious work to convince them of the merits of the new ideas.  We read the new plot-line taking it in turns to read a paragraph each and had much energetic discussion about it all.  One of the main sticking points was that we’d turned one of the main characters into an egregious poseur who (while offering comic opportunities in abundance) wasn’t really convincing our mentors in the way that Lovecraft’s original Herbert West had.  And nor was the chest of Ancient Tibetan magic scrolls he had acquired from somewhere.  One option was to re-cast this character as properly dark and dangerous, possessing real scientific knowledge and a woman.

After much discussion Susie and I decided to give ourselves a strictly limited hour to come up with a new story-line based around this newly conceived character, who at some point Ants had dubbed “Nicole Kidman.”

After an hour’s intense work (and a quick dip in the swimming pool) we presented our latest synopsis to George and Ants.  It was a version of the story with no more ancient magic, but instead a lot of cutting-edge technology which seemed to cunningly allow us to create classic human-flesh-eating zombies but by purely technologically explicable means.  Brilliant, I thought.  No need for magic or radiation or far-fetched viruses, I thought.

But another hour’s intense discussion made apparent that we might be opening more cans of worms than the Doctor of musical theatre would readily prescribe.

Soon after this, it became apparent that all of our brains had now melted and we needed a break.  We went into town to buy a few necessaries and George dropped us at our Gite where we tried valiantly to get enough phone signal to informed our loved ones of our continued (if questionable) existence.  We then poured ourselves two half-glasses of our Gite host’s redoubtable peach wine and began afresh. Hair was torn, patience was tested and circles were walked around in for another hour, after which we set off up the hill again.

This stiff walk was (I felt at the time at least) one of our most creative and productive yet.  We arrived at Ants place feeling a bit less stupid and a bit more hopeful – and ready for risotto.  As we sat down to eat I made noises about telling them the latest version of our story, but was wisely overruled by all present.  Instead we ate, drank and talked into the night.  The stars came out, we shared some of the utterly extraordinary stories of our friends, families (and indeed selves) and reflected on how much we all carry  – and let go of – in our long life journeys.

So where does this leave me and my great ambitions?  I must have written about 27 songs so far for this alleged Zombie Musical, of which about one (or maybe half) is potentially still included in this current (117th?) storyline.   Am I confused and frustrated?  Yes.  Do I remain hopeful? Yes.  Ants and George are wonderful mentors: sharp, probing, utterly generous and warm.  Susanna is a brilliant and unique sparring partner.  I am in the hands of these gifted and faithful human beings.  Eventually, it’s got to work.

Stiles and Drewe blog number 1

Ben and Susie pic

Setting off from Finsbury Park

Somehow I’ve found myself in a dream-come-true scenario.  At the beginning of the year I entered a competition (in a spirit of why-not) and now here I am in an idyllic corner of South West France sipping Rosé with music theatre luminaries George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and about to embark on a week of untrammelled music theatre creativity, hosted by said luminaries, in this splendid setting.  As my grandmother used to say, I’ve fallen with my bum in the butter.

As some of you may know I’m writing a Zombie Musical, having won the MTI Stiles and Drewe mentorship award in June, which means a year of support in creating a full-length musical to be shown in stages of work-in-progress and ultimately in a full rehearsed reading with a professional cast and MD in Spring 2018.  I learned about the opportunity last year when I was working with last year’s winner Darren Clark on an education project for Mousetrap Theatre.  Darren seemed a lovely and talented chap indeed and when I heard he’d won a prize I was jealous but not entirely surprised.  I thought it would be only decent to show up at one of the “progress lab” performances of work in progress at the Jerwood space and what I saw there really fired me up (and stoked the fires of my jealousy): the 10 singers plus dulcimer-driven folk band that performed Darren and his collaborator Rhys Jennings’ work on their folk musical The Wicker Husband delivered something thrillingly fresh and potent.  I found myself enthusing about it for weeks to all and sundry (including my general non-musical-theatre friends who obviously weren’t going to get that excited).  It was wonderful to hear something of real quality that was hugely distinctive (a “folk musical” sounded in theory so wrong, but what they did sounded so right) and to feel that the audience of music theatre professionals and hopefuls who’d turned out to see it so much wanted it to succeed.  It felt like we were really being shown something that could be part of a new future for the British musical.

Another part of my excitement was just to hear the power of the performance of those professional singers.  I couldn’t help thinking “imagine if I could get some of my material delivered like that – how exciting that would be…”

Well, the vision clearly lit a bit of a fire in me and I found myself applying for the award myself, despite having only two months to go until the deadline and no collaborator to work with.  A year back, a producer friend had suggested to me the idea of writing a Zombie Musical and I’d come up with a passable synopsis and a few fun songs based on the H.P. Lovecraft story “Herbert West: Reanimator”.  Now I had to turn that into a full script and a complete set of songs – if I wanted to enter the competition and have the chance of having my show developed in this way.

I honestly had no expectation of getting anywhere in the competition.  I just thought it was a worthwhile exercise (since I hadn’t been able to find a collaborator for the piece) to have a go at writing it myself and see what I learned from that.  To my surprise, I got short-listed.  Then I was asked to go and meet George and Anthony to discuss it further: somehow, I was down to the last few!

At that meeting, I laid my cards on the table.  Although I’d had fun writing the material so far, I didn’t honestly think it would make sense for me to try and write Book, Music and Lyrics all alone: I would far rather involve another writer and would be open to them radically re-developing the story, as I didn’t feel it could work well in its current form.

Well, they clearly saw something they really liked in my work and respected my self-critical approach because they awarded me the prize and set me on my current course: Zombie Musical or die!

My first job was to either convince myself I could write the piece alone or find myself the right collaborator.  It didn’t take me long to confirm my doubts about the former and so the collaborator hunt soon began in earnest.  I won’t go into the lengthy process of emails, conversations and meetings that ensued, except to say that it wasn’t easy and that it took six weeks before I could get to the point of confidently signing someone up to share my Zombie Odyssey.

Quite unexpectedly, the person who turned out to be just who I needed was a very old friend indeed: Susanna Kleeman, a writer and old college friend with whom I’d last collaborated an unmentionable number of years ago on a bizarre and somewhat contentious musical called “Disgusting” that we took to the Edinburgh Fringe as university students.

As the weeks until our writing retreat with George and Ants in France slipped by, Susie and I got frantically writing.  The story and characters shifted about, scenes and song ideas bubbled up and we started to find a shape that we liked.  It looked as though just about all the songs I’d written up until now (some thirteen of them) would fall by the wayside, no longer fitting this newly developed story. But this didn’t worry me.  I knew that the story had to come first.  When that really started to settle, when the characters came alive and we knew what they wanted and what they feared, then new song possibilities would flow from that – and I would just have to write those new songs instead!

Anyway, today we left a humid, white-skied Stansted and dropped down into this heavenly bit of France, where our utterly charming hosts have made us as welcome as we could possibly hope to be.  We are staying in a little Gite down in the village and have just been up the hill to Ants’ beautiful house for a dinner of goat’s cheese tart and blackberry crumble.   After a good couple of hours of talk about village life and this and that, George turned the conversation to work: tomorrow we begin in earnest. Once Ants has picked up the croissants from town he’ll scoop us up from our Gite and take us back to his place where, over a fine bit of French breakfast, we will discuss our new synopsis.  Questions will be asked.  Opinions will be aired.  Work will be done.  Somehow, Susie and I have to turn a heap of delightfully silly ideas into a living, breathing musical that can delight and move an audience.  With George and Anthony’s expert help we look forward to the challenge…