Spotlight: Claire E Rivers & John Sparks

August 13th, 2015

Claire E Rivers

How long have you been a member of MMD?
I joined MMD in 2012, just after I finished uni.  So almost 3 years.

How and when did you start writing for Musical Theatre?
I started writing musical theatre at Goldsmiths, on the musical theatre MA (2011-12).  I hadn’t ever written musicals before, tending towards short stories, poetry, and the occasional play or monologue.  I had never written lyrics before in my life.  Since completing the course, I have had half a dozen shows produced, and it never stops being exciting.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a rewrite of a show I did while I was studying, with a new composer (Michael Lovelock).  The show is a coming-of-age teen musical, adapted from a novel called “Tall, Thin and Blonde” by Dyan Sheldon (writer of “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen”).

Do you have a regular writing routine – a time of day when you write best?
At the moment I’m so busy that I have to squeeze 45-60 minutes of writing into the middle of my day at work, writing on my lunch break.  If one of these sessions is particularly successful though, I occasionally manage to clear my schedule so I can carry on into the evening.  I used to like completely empty weekends to write solidly, but I soon found that if you put your life on hold to write, you end up with very little to write about.  Inspiration needs to be fed, ideally with a lot of interesting experiences.

When you have an idea for a new show, what is the first thing you do?
The first thing I do is decide whether the show is a play or a musical.  If I think it’s a musical, I talk to a composer.  If they agree that the show would work as a musical, I fling myself into it, feet-first.  (I say feet-first as opposed to head-first, because my methods are very structured – both feet on the ground and my nose in a notebook).  I generally try a synopsis first, then talk it through with the composer, at which point they veto some of my sillier/out-sized suggestions (I have a column in my notes that I label “NFC,” which means “Notes for Cameron” – ideas to hold back until Mackintosh is on board to produce).  I always start with a focus on plot and structure, knowing that, when I start writing, my focus will shift – as it always does – to the characters.  I research and compile a spreadsheet of story points, which I can add to and expand upon.  I know that’s literally the most unromantic answer to a creative process question ever – I guess you can take the girl out of arts admin, but you can’t take the arts admin out of the girl.  I also never stop redrafting – a minimum of three full drafts is relatively standard before any of my work sees daylight (or footlight, I guess?)  I do subscribe to the notion that a show is never really finished – rather, there is a point at which you just have to stop writing.  That’s a bit more romantic, isn’t it?  In a frustrating sort of way.

What aspect of the craft is most challenging for you?
The most challenging aspect of writing musical is collaboration, which is also once of the greatest aspects.  It is difficult enough to focus your own energy on putting a show together, let alone relying on someone else to be on board with the same project at the same time.  But it’s also wonderful to know that, if you do start to plummet a bit and your creativity dips, there is another person who cares as much about the project as you do, who will pick you up and set you back on track.

What do you do when writers block strikes!?
When writers block strikes, I drink too much, work overtime, go to yoga and aerobics classes, call my mum every day, blame my composer(s), throw out my possessions, cut my own hair, and generally become a menace to society at large.  None of these methods of “dealing” are in the least productive.  However, once I’ve made it past this stage, I go swimming.  Swimming is BRILLIANT for ideas, especially the “what-comes-next” kind of block, when you’re stuck on a scene and you’ve forgotten/not decided on the next step.  When you just have to float and keep moving, you free up your brain without trying too hard.  You can also buy waterproof notebooks, which you can just leave on the side of the pool, with your retractable pencil, next to your locker key.

What one piece of craft advice would you like to share?
Never throw anything away.  Digital or otherwise, never ball up the page and throw it out.  Chances are that the material you hate today might be what saves your arse around the corner, when you need a rhyme, an idea, or a reminder of something you forgot about.

Which Musical theatre writer has had the biggest influence on your career?
As a huge believer in the importance of collaboration, I would say Kander & Ebb.  I love their style, and the cultural significance of their work.  However, if I had to choose one writer in isolation, it would be Oscar Hammerstein.  He changed what musical theatre is with “Show Boat” and “Oklahoma!” creating a storytelling model that I try to emulate in my own work through the integration of book, lyrics and music.  I adore every tiny nuance in his words – he’s an absolute legend.  Also, he gave us Stephen Sondheim.

If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you would change / improve in the sector?
I would like the musical theatre industry to be more about quality and less about money, in more than one way.  Firstly, I think a bad show that brings in money from day-trippers perpetuates a negative image of musical theatre that puts off genuine fans.  Secondly, it would be nice for shows of genuine quality to have a better chance of being produced.  Money seems to hold back theatre makers at the absolute most basic level – finding the time to write around working 50 hour weeks, for example.  There are plenty of shows out there that deserve to be put on, but they don’t have the start up capital or the platform to get their work seen.  It’s then a culture of privilege, when a company manages to get their show on – by hook or by crook, beg, borrow, or steal – and suddenly they are viewed as superior artists to those who have not acquired the funds.  It’s ridiculous, everyone buys into it, and it generates bitterness within groups that, in reality, need each others support.

What are you listening to on your ipod at the moment?
I’m listening to a band called “Chasing Blue” who are playing at my friends’ wedding in August – I’ll be the only Brit at the wedding in Vermont, so I at least want to give myself a chance to fit in, by knowing a couple of songs.  I’m also listening to every version of “Sweeney Todd” I can find at the moment – not sure what has prompted this, as it’s not exactly seasonal, but it’s in my head constantly.  When I get a show in my head like that, I have to listen to it, otherwise it will weasel it’s way out of my mouth.  Loudly.  At work.

What is the best thing about MMD membership?
The best thing about MMD membership is being part of a community in a fairly niche industry.  Sometimes it’s easy to feel isolated or useless when you’re trying to make theatre happen, so at MMD events – when a big group of us are all together – it’s a kind of vindication that what you’re doing is valid and worthwhile.  Basically, reassurance that you haven’t gone completely mad.  Yet.

John Sparks

What were the circumstances behind you joining the MMD board? And how long have you been a board member?
I met Georgina Bexon while she was visiting the US, after being introduced via phone and mail by Ruth Higgins, then Founder and Executive Director of Theatre Building Chicago.  We arranged a visit to London, during which I would speak to a gathering of Mercury members, and offer a basic “Fundamentals of Musical Theatre Writing” lecture.  As I recall it was a two-day affair.  From that experience I was invited to join the board, and did so in order to provide some synergy between both my US workshops (in Los Angeles and Chicago) and the Mercury organization.

How would you say your skills and experience compliment the other board members?

I think I may have been able to help in two specific ways:

  1.  As a principal in two organizations with similar goals but perhaps longer history than MMD, I can sometimes offer advice from my experience when changes in the structure of the organization were contemplated.  As Mercury has matured, this is less useful, I think.
  2. Over the years I have been able to connect some of Mercury’s members with one or both of my workshops in the US.  This has resulted in several shows by Mercury writers finding performance opportunities in the US, and several International collaborations, one of which led to a main stage production in Chicago.

Beyond those contributions, I have tried to help by offering services in the form of master classes or one-on-one dramaturgical consultations with Mercury members.  At times, Members paid a small fee for the services which perhaps helped cover some administrative expenses.  But even without fees, I hope the consultations have a value for the members.  They definitely have a value for me, and I hope the future will continue to see Mercury writers on US stages in the kind of developmental programs I work with.

How has MMD changed since you joined the board?
MMD has matured to the point that the organization is able to maintain a permanent (albeit part-time) executive director and adjunct staff assistants.  Arts Management staffing is the bugbear of the creative arts because artists are not well suited to management tasks.  However, many arts institutions are founded and driven by artists who then have to take on the management roles because they can’t afford to pay someone to do it.  From the very beginning, Mercury has existed to serve its artist members.  I think MMD has been able to do that well, especially for those members who are further along in the development of their various crafts – writing book, music and lyrics.  Now I see (and applaud) the effort to provide more educational and training experiences for writers who are newer to the form and need more guidance.  Most important will be the development of a system of tools:  dramaturgy (for words and music), followed by actors, directors, music directors, choreographers, stage managers, and most important of all, audiences, for MMD members to use while perfecting their skills.  The ability to collaborate, in the writing and presentation of new works is the most important skill a writer of musical theatre needs, and it is impossible to develop that skill without the tools needed to practice.  It is encouraging to see MMD moving in this direction, collaborating with other organizations, providing opportunities for workshops, showcases and competitions for the membership.

What are your hopes for the organisation?
I would like to see a future that includes a formal process of evaluating individuals in order to determine how to best devote the resources needed to develop new works and bring them to the attention of producers (commercial and non-profit) who can then move those works into the repertoire.  I believe that it is possible for writers to earn a living writing musical theatre (as opposed to striking it big in the West End or on Broadway or both).  In order for that to happen, however, audiences everywhere need to be developed and trained to anticipate and enjoy new works.  Of course, when a new show opens at a major theatre in London, people are excited to see it based on the names of the authors and performers or the titles in the case of popular adaptations.  But in lesser theatres, audiences are not so interested in the new unless they have been educated to the joys of discovery that accompany seeing and hearing new musicals.
Above all, such a system needs to accommodate writers of all ages and abilities.  It is the diversity of the group that causes the synergy and creates the excitement needed to motivate people.  It can take years for musical theatre writers to develop.  And those of us who have been doing it for decades can attest that it is not always possible to predict where the success will occur – which individual will suddenly “get it” and blossom into a major voice in the field.  A lot of energy is spent concentrating on young writers, and that is appropriate – because they might not be so young by the time they are able to really do it well!

Who are your heroes and why?
I have many heroes, beginning with Oscar Hammerstein, who had the vision to demand a more fully integrated kind of musical, and with the help of Jerome Kern (Showboat) and Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma and all the others) provided a template for us all.  The most contemporary hit owes more to Hammerstein than any other individual I can think of.  I miss the melodic and character-driven songs of the past (by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers, Kern, etc.) which have been replaced by the obligatory pop “power ballad” that is ruining voices all over the world.  However, there are contemporary composers who are working to make their own voices heard: Jeanine Tesori, Jason Robert Brown, Michael John La Chiusa, Andrew Lippa.  And there are  younger, rising lights right behind them.  I think there are many fascinating new shows ahead of us.
Other heroes are the producers who use their own creative imagination to bring shows to the world.  We don’t always remember their names, but we should at least acknowledge their contribution.  As I write this, the names that come to mind are David Merrick, Cameron Mackintosh and Kevin McCollum.   And if I went to my CD racks I would find a dozen others who belong in this category.

What’s the most important craft advice you can give?
Staple this question above your computer screen or instrumental keyboard:  Is this word, this syllable, this note true for this character at this moment in the world of the play?  If the answer is “yes” you are on the right track.

Who has had the biggest impact on your career?
Teachers who gave me the basics include Lehman Engel and Michael Gordon.  Producers who gave me opportunities include Byron Schaffer, Ruth Higgins and Joan Mazzonelli.  Finally, the hundreds of members of my workshops in Los Angeles and Chicago over the years and the MMD writers I have met and consulted with – they have unselfishly shared their work with me and I have learned from each and every one of them.

What are you currently working on?
I am polishing a draft of the book of a musical adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie.  The musical version, Wanting Miss Julie, with music by Jake Anthony and lyrics by Patricia Zehentmayr, will have a reading at the Loft Ensemble Theatre in Los Angeles in preparation for a production in their 2016 season.  I have just completed the first draft of the book for a musical based on Chekov’s The Seagull, (music and lyrics by Jake Anthony) planned as a chamber musical with 5 characters, set against the background of a televised vocal performance competition like American Idol.  I am about to begin work on the book (and possibly the lyrics) for a rock opera based on Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

If you hadn’t become a writer / composer, what profession would you have chosen?
I would have found a way to live in the theatre – maybe as a publicist, a critic, or even as a janitor, truly any work that would have kept me close to a place where people play all the time at being serious, seriously funny, seriously sad, seriously cruel, etc.  The theatre is my church.

What surprises, challenges or delights you when you first put a piece on it’s feet.
As an author, I am astonished that the work isn’t nearly as good as I thought it was.  As a director, I am astonished to find how many riches are hidden in the material and just waiting for the actors to find them and explore them.  As a producer, I am too tired to be astonished by anything and have to be content with gratitude that it is happening at all.

Why would you encourage writers to join MMD?
Musical theatre is a highly collaborative medium, perhaps the most highly collaborative of all the narrative arts.  Writers need community because the writing itself is a rather lonely business.  Join MMD and hang out with others like yourself.  We need each other.  We really do.