How and when did you start writing for Musical Theatre?
I started at University – I had a very traditional, classical musical background and also adored theatre as a young performer. I was in my second year at university when I realised these two passions could come together. I spotted an advert in the paper for a 10 minute musical competition at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge and it went from there really.
What are you working on at the moment?
Various things.… I am so excited to have recently won the Song from the Playground opportunity with Fairground Theatre and am currently working towards the first stage of that programme, which is a concert of songs from my musicals. I am also starting to develop a musical of The Selfish Giant which I hope to work on with Fairground in the course of the year.
Susannah Pearse and I are about to start working on a musical adaptation of Moondial which we’re very excited about. Along with Kate Ferguson we are also working on the most recent draft of The Devil’s Disciple (our musical adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play) and working towards a workshop and further development of that. I’m also working on the score for a new play called ‘Leaves on a Line’ with Forest Forge Theatre at the moment.
Do you have a regular writing routine – a time of day when you write best?
I don’t have a regular writing routine unfortunately – I say ‘unfortunately’ because I would love one, it’s something I aspire to! I am definitely at my most creative first thing in the morning (I’m useless in the evenings!) and would love to create a routine of getting up and doing something creative straight away every morning. I’ll get there one day!
When you have an idea for a new show, what is the first thing you do?
I would start with background research and then focus on the outline of the story and plot and how the story might be told. What is the theatrical language? What is the role of the music in the piece? I’m the kind of composer who needs to be immersed in the book and understanding the show before I can write any music. If I’m writing with Sue this usually involves lots of chats over lots of pots of tea, and sometimes an inspiring trip somewhere related to the piece. I then like to get inside the sound world of the piece and usually need to play with a palette of instruments, orchestrating from the start and then reducing back to a piano accompaniment as I find it hard to imagine everything at a piano alone.
What aspect of the craft is most challenging for you?
Comedy – I still find it really hard to write a funny song/funny music.
What do you do when writers block strikes!?
Ideally I go for a walk, and try and create in my head somewhere away from a computer or piano. I find being outside or in the countryside very inspiring.
What one piece of craft advice would you like to share?
I’m not sure if it’s advice really…but one of the things I’m always striving for is creating an accompaniment which gives as much information about suggesting character/plot detail as the rest of the song does.
Which Musical theatre writer has had the biggest influence on your career?
I am really inspired by Stiles and Drewe, and Sondheim – it would be their shows which would usually be on repeat on my ipod.
If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you would change in the sector?
Some kind of solution to the multiple funding cuts going on at the moment and the number of theatres and companies being deeply affected by that.
What are you listening to on your ipod at the moment?
The Secret Garden because I can’t believe I don’t know it, so I’m trying to rectify that!
What is the best thing about MMD membership?
The range of things going on. MMD is like a gateway to various opportunities as well as discussions about craft, the industry and critique opportunities which is such an important part of the writing process.
What were the circumstances behind you joining the MMD board?
The Board sent out a call to MMD writer members. I felt compelled to apply, because it’s a rough road, and I wanted to pass on some of the things I’d learned along the way. I was astonished and delighted to have been offered a seat at the round table.
How would you say your skills and experience compliment the other board members?
A writer once asked me if I felt intimidated by the other members of the board, who are incredibly successful people, but no, I never have. We all work in really different fields and compliment each other extremely well. I feel that my particular job is to speak up for writers, particularly book writers, and tell it how it is from our point of view. The wonderful thing is that the writers, lawyers, accountants, directors, agents and producers on the board all really listen to each other, so I’ve grown even more confidant as the writers’ mouthpiece, as time has gone on.
How has MMD changed since you joined the board?
Ever since I joined the board I’ve felt MMD growing from strength to strength. Neil Marcus was a great Executive Director and fundraiser and took the organisation to a new level. Now that the fabulous Victoria Saxton has joined I think things are going to change even more, in a very exciting way – watch this space!
What are your hopes for the organisation?
I hope MMD will develop and expand, with even more opportunities for writers to learn their craft and get their shows on. I want the public profile of MMD to become synonymous with quality, entrepreneurship and innovation and I also hope that we will increase our international reach. I want it to become somewhere that every writer working in musical theatre will want to be involved in and at any stage. MMD already has a lot of amazing opportunities for composers, like the Cameron Mackintosh residencies but nothing equivalent to this for book and lyric writers. I particularly hope that book writers will start to be nurtured a bit more by MMD. So often the idea for the show comes from the book writer and even when you are collaborating like mad with your composer and lyricist you really need that special time out of life to research and write. In the grant application for one of my shows I have included an element for a new writer to shadow the production. I would have given anything to have had the chance to do this when I began!
Who are your heroes and why?
Looking back, writing poetry was the first creative outlet I had. Lyrics aren’t the same as poetry but they feel like the same family. I was sent to bed too early as a child but luckily we had great books, and so I discovered TS Eliot. I loved his poems, the imagery and the rhythm, and at nine I began trying to write like him, about how I felt and the world I saw around me. I still have the first poem I wrote from my heart, trying out that new voice.
The first musical I was excited by was…
Salad Days – I was five and my parents took me to see it when we were on holiday in Lyme Regis. Apparently I was so transported by the whole thing that I spoke of nothing else but the magic piano for months, sang all the songs and drove them quite mad with it! They tell me I haven’t changed much!
What’s the most important craft advice you can give?
Listen to others but always remember to listen to your own voice and trust your instincts. Finding your own voice is often one of the most difficult things – Moliere really wanted to write tragic drama, but thank goodness he stuck to what he was best at in the end! Go and see other work, read it, listen to it and infuse your being with it – but when you sit down to write, try to forget it.
Who has had the biggest impact on your career?
Steven Edis my first musical theatre collaborator changed everything and now I can’t look back.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on two shows at the moment! One is a bit of a secret – I have just come back from a three month residency at the Hosking Houses Trust Cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon, on a book writing commission with funding from the Arts Council. We’ve now had an in camera reading of it at Hackney Empire with an amazing cast and I’m working on the next draft. The other is an adaptation of Dodie Smith’s wonderful novel I Capture the Castle, for Watford Palace Theatre, written with brilliant composer Steven Edis. This is to be directed by Brigid Larmour, the Artistic Director of the Palace.
If you hadn’t become a writer, what profession would you have chosen?
I’ve always needed to write, it wasn’t a choice. I’ve worked as an actor, publisher, literary agent, journalist and quite a lot of other things, but I always wrote.
What surprises, challenges or delights you when you first put a piece on it’s feet?
The show becomes a creature of its own, this isn’t always easy, but it can be magical.
I love the way actors breath life into a character, creating things I didn’t even realise I’d begun. I’ve stood back and thought, “oh god, is that what I was trying to say, I didn’t realise!” While working on Possessed (Steve Edis wrote the music and I wrote book and lyrics) I heard our songs played by a band for the first time and was moved to tears. What began as fledgling songs I had sung to myself in a deserted farmhouse in Italy had now grown into this huge sound that had the power to make an audience cry. And that is it really, being able to make people laugh and cry, being able to make them feel and think about life – that’s what it’s all about for me. When my play Grock was on at Chichester it was the thrill of hearing the laughter that excited me – it was like a drug. But you need an audience to hear that sound and so you‘ve got to get your work on somehow.
Why would you encourage writers to join MMD?
The question is why wouldn’t you join?!! MMD is a community, a place to learn and discuss and develop, all writers need a bit of that. I have made such great friends here! It’s also a relief for the other people in my life that I’ve got somewhere else to talk endlessly about musical theatre and go into minute detail about the changes I’m making in a scene!
I studied with MMD’s BML (Book, Music & Lyrics) for two years, honing my book and lyric skills, I learned so much and got the chance to work with new collaborators. I am now a member of the MMD Writing Lab, which really fits in well with my writing life, because I bring to it material I’m working on for shows, rather than have to produce special work for it. I’ve turned to MMD for support with so many things, including Arts Council applications, casting, agents, contracts, finding showcase space, rehearsal rooms and crowd funding and always got help and guidance.
I have also had the chance to learn from some incredible people at the MMD and BML workshops and masterclasses including Richard Stilgoe, Boublil and Schonberg, Adam Guettel, Conor Mitchell, Charles Hart, Willy Russell, Brad Carroll & Peter Sham, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.
MMD is a channel to some amazing opportunities and I feel lucky to have discovered it when I did.