Stiles and Drewe blog number 2

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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.

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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…

News of Ben

The news is…it’s all fine.  I’ve had a cup of tea and it’s all fine.

Currently preparing the ground for next year’s national tour of BOOKSTORY to libraries and studio theatres.  Spring 2016. It’s going to be big.Cliff and Marge torch in mouth

Also preparing for a possible revival of a very special show.  Will keep that under my hat for now.

I’ll return when I have something to say.

Ben