Lab 2 : A Reanimated opening

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Susie found this in a Doctor’s waiting room.  In fact the research it describes is very crucial to our plot….

So.  REANIMATOR, a zombie musical.  Remember that?  We had our bold opening salvo at Progress Lab 1 in December.  Huge excitement to hear wonderful singers singing my songs under the formidable musical direction of Tim Sutton.  And people really liked the whole concept and the material…

…but…

Constructing a musical is a fearsome business.  It’s always about the Book, it seems.  A great story with some okay material might fly but even with the best material in the world, a dodgy story won’t.  Not that our story is or was dodgy.  But the clear message from our insightful Lab 1 panellists and MMD attendees was that it just didn’t get it going quick enough.

Jeremy Sams, who knows a thing or two about quite a lot, kicked off the discussion boldly and made the point that story is a “hungry monster” that needs constant feeding: until the story has kicked in and got its hooks into an audience any amount of sumptuous harmony and witty lyricism is only going to get in the way.   We want to know who we’re following, where it’s going and what’s at stake first  – and only then can we enjoy its being heightened and celebrated through well-wrought songs.  Without this clarity and muscular story and character action taking place within the first ten minutes what we had created was effectively (in a phrase that will haunt me for years to come I fear) “all tinsel and no tree”!

So our feelings were very mixed after Lab 1.  There was the thrill of hearing the songs done well and a clear endorsement of the project and the writing from pretty much everyone – but the challenge was a biggie.  I’d already been back to the drawing board several times with this project and what was being forcefully argued meant just such another return.

So the last few months have been fairly tortured.  Always asking the same damn questions: who are these people (the protagonists) and what do they want?  And cutting away, cutting away till you have only what you need to get that story rolling.  My co-writer Susanna and I met and thrashed it out repeatedly.  We’d get to a point of consensus and then one of us (generally me) would have qualms and undo the whole structure again.  It reached a point where we seemed to take quite different roads with the story and Susie said to me: “well, if you want to write it that way, that’s fine, you do it”.  As in, so long partner.  Not in a mean way, just making the point that having started the whole thing off on my own I was free to take back ownership of it.  But I wasn’t having any of that.  The last thing I wanted was to lose my collaborator.  So I got back on the same page and we thrashed it out some more.

The story seemed at last to take on some better shape and I consoled myself for the loss of several of my favourite songs by writing some new ones to fit the redeveloped story-line.

We took our work to show our mentors at George’s stylish Clerkenwell pad in mid February and had a cheery sing-through round his dining table.  This turned into a great story session with bold suggestions from the mentors that really got us fired up…

But of course that meant bold changes to make – and now with only short weeks to go until we put it in front of our Lab 2 audience.  I feel I have to share with the world, Ancient Mariner-like, the tale of woe that probably only a fellow-writer will give the slightest monkey’s about: I have now cut from this show an estimated 30 songs (a further 5 songs remain in the show).  Killing your darlings, they call it, and it’s not pretty or pleasant.  Ultimately it feels great. But when you’re not sure if you’re even making anything better it is merely torture.  So three of the new songs got the chop.  But one remained and seemed to promise well…

These last couple of weeks have been hard work, unsurprisingly, and required the kind of tunnel vision that has never been my most noted characteristic.  But having got the new script written and the new scores out to the singers before the weekend I’ve felt an enormous sense of release.  And talking through the script with our director Adam Lenson on Sunday I started to get quite excited….

So, who knows? Here it comes: REANIMATOR at the Stiles and Drewe Progress Lab 2 at the Umbrella Rooms 4pm on Friday 16th March (narrowly missing the Ides, note).  I had hoped we could show the next bits of the story, up to our THRILLING Act 1 climax.  But it will be, once again, the opening scenes that we perform, albeit in a totally revised form.  We also have some new cast members, mainly as the two lead characters changed quite radically in the course of the re-writing. So, once again, it’s a top-notch cast and, having put in the work, I’m cautiously hopeful…

 

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Moving mentorship moments

An update on things zombie-musical for you all.  It’s very exciting.  Moving, even (although that bit’s not till the bottom of the page…)

  1. We found our director, the new musical supremo and unabashed nerd Adam Lenson, whose impeccable credentials for the project include an unfinished degree in medicine (the show is set in a medical school) and a boundless enthusiasm for lo-fi sci-fi.

Here we are at our upgraded-from-Costa slightly fancy French cafe in up-and-coming Finsbury Park, joyfully hacking up the latest draft of the script.  IMG-20171203-WA0006_resized

2. We have found our MD for Progress Lab 1 (and I hope beyond), the prodigiously talented and wonderfully generous Tim Sutton, who’s been tutoring me on my first year on BML.

3. We have confirmed that the title of the musical is indeed to be “REANIMATOR – a zombie musical”.  Our show was originally inspired by an old H.P. Lovecraft novella called “Herbert West: Reanimator” but the story has now changed so much from that original that we were to-ing and fro-ing about whether to give it a new name.  The book’s out of copyright, as Lovecraft died in 1937 – but we just wanted to mark out the show as our own, new thing.  But dammit, it’s a good title, so we’re sticking with it.  Just look at it: REANIMATOR.  Not convinced?  Try this:

REANIMATOR

(a zombie musical)

See what I did there?

4. We have done a LOT of work.  The first bit of the show is shaping up.  And Adam, along with Tim and Lettie (the mastermind at Stiles and Drewe HQ) have done a LOT of work, finding us a fairly gobsmacking cast for Progress Lab no 1 on the 12th December.  Details of that will be tweeted and the rest.  For now, I just wanted to share what has been (for me) the moving bit.  On Friday we arranged a little pre-rehearsal, as there’s a lot of material for the cast to get on top of for Monday week.  So I turned up at 130 at Mousetrap’s rehearsal room in Shaftesbury Ave to meet the cast and hear them have a crack at the stuff.  I was nervous.  All this dreaming and imagining and doubting and wondering.  Would it make sense?  Would it sound any good?

So when Tim took masterfully to the keys and led our seven singers (with staggering efficiency) through the songs and I finally heard these gorgeous voices breathing life into my ridiculous zombie tunes, I was  – almost  – overcome. Tears stood tentatively in my eyes, before being blinked Britishly back into their ducts.

Here’s a picture of the moment. Which conveys absolutely none of the emotion.

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More soon….

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….

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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

butterfly

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.