Spotlight: Zara Nunn & John Cohen

December 9th, 2015

Zara Nunn

How long have you been a member of MMD?
I’ve only recently joined actually after getting to the final four for this year’s Cameron Mackintosh Resident Composer’s Scheme, but I have been on the periphery of the network for many, many years,  so it’s very nice to now be a part of it.

How and when did you start writing for Musical Theatre?
At school actually. I was lucky enough to go to a school that had quite a progressive Expressive Arts department which was a bit unique at the time considering it was not  too long after the O-levels had been phased out. There were lots of opportunities for us to write, perform and experiment with our own stuff in many different ways. Our big end-of term shows were sometimes compilation type things with brass band, orchestra, choir and individual performances, but there was also an enormous whole-school musical once a year, which definitely opened my ears and eyes to musical theatre in general I think. I remember a small group of us were in bands and groups of our own and were all into writing so I was really ensconced in that world of creating original material for performance from a very young age and I think my earliest attempt at orchestrating was when I was about 15 (although I’m not sure I knew the name for it then), when a friend and I were asked to transcribe and arrange a whole score for our rock version of ‘Oedipus’  that, at the time, only existed as live show recording from a performance that took place about 10 years earlier in the late 70’s. That was certainly an interesting learning curve!

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a couple of  ideas on the go at the moment, both in the relatively early stages, but I guess the main one is a song cycle that plays with the notion of identity. I’m having a musical delve into the assumptions we often make about people and what we might think their stories are, purely based on what they choose to say to us and how they say it. Within that I’m also interested in looking at the ideas around where our sense of identity comes from, as for some of us it isn’t necessarily as simple as where we were born, the culture/community we were born into or who our family are.  I think I’ve always been quite fascinated by this as a subject matter and it feels quite pertinent particularly in the current climate. The other piece is going to be for children. The story is about a group of children who use their synethesia as superpower. That will be a fun one I think.

Do you have a regular writing routine – a time of day when you write best?
I don’t have a regular routine as such – I think when you’re a freelancer it’s a pretty impossible thing to maintain, what with having so many different projects and work commitments of different lengths and schedules on the go. I suppose when I know I have a block of time free then I try to kind of micro-routine if that makes sense. And in terms of what that routine looks like, well I think it generally involves a continuous circuit between the piano, computer, kettle and fridge until I go bonkers and then I leave it until the next day. I think I write best either really early in the morning or late in the evening, although that changes too depending on the state and imminence of my deadlines!

When you have an idea for a new show, what is the first thing you do?
At the beginning I tend to do a mixture of research/reading and doodling around on the piano. I will often quite quickly have a couple of keywords or phrases and that often starts me off musically with a few bars or a feel for a song, but in terms of where it goes from there it really varies. One of the other things I might do is a big brain dump of any lyrics, phrases, rhymes, key words as a speed writing exercise and from that something will often jump out at me that I will start to find a sound for. More often than not that frequently ends up being the tagline for a particular song or part of the story and I sort of work backwards from there. So basically it starts off as a huge pile of snippets of musical phrases and sequences, odd words and bits of text and a general overview of the overall arc and I chip away at it until it becomes something that makes sense!

What aspect of the craft is most challenging for you?
Well writers’ block aside, I think for me my biggest challenges arise during those huge blocks of time I spend working on other shows, when I’m MD-ing etc, where I am totally immersed in someone else’s piece of work in the way that you kind of have to be in order to do the job. Also working on mainly new writing or new versions of things as I often do, I think that feeling is rather exacerbated because I’m part of the team that has the responsibility to collectively help shape the work in a way you don’t necessarily have to with an off the shelf piece. During these periods I struggle to think about anything else or hear anything else in my head, so as a result I find it really difficult to maintain any sort of consistent output in terms of my own writing, which means that trying to generate anything new is a bit of a pointless exercise until whatever I’m working on is finished. I’m definitely  hoping to find ways around it in the near future though.

What do you do when writers block strikes!?
Well I tend to wait until I’ve got to the point when I’m face down on the living room floor groaning, but then I have to just walk away and do something else, often for the rest of the day or sometimes longer. I used to find that really stressful, particularly when I was on a deadline, but these days I know that I will be able to fix what I’m trying to do in no time at all if I just remove my brain from the situation for an extended period of time. It happened quite recently actually – I was three days away from a big deadline and I had one piece still to write and I just couldn’t get my head around it. I ended up leaving it right to the last minute; and then I had it in half an hour, a couple of hours before it was due – it’s kind of like extreme composing.

What one piece of craft advice would you like to share?
I think it would be the age-old ‘trust your own voice and trust your own process’. It’s so difficult, as with anything, not to make comparisons and judge yourself based on how you think everyone else is doing what they do. But as someone who’s route into this business was anything but straightforward and orthodox I’ve had to learn that we all have our particular ways and means. So these days the only things I try to measure my writing  against are the things that I’ve written before, and whilst that still means I’m super critical I guess ultimately it only has a positive effect because as a result I’m constantly tightening  up my skills and improving…I hope.

Which Musical theatre writer has had the biggest influence on your career?

Standard answer I imagine but it would have to be Sondheim. Only because when I moved to London to do my Masters in 1998 I’d had three years off after university and had begun, during that time,  playing around with ideas for new pieces and up until then I had had very little exposure to the ‘good stuff’ musical theatre-wise. So when I turned up for one of my first tutorials with a few songs I’d written for this warped version of Hansel & Gretl I was thinking of writing; I mentioned  how I’d become rather obsessed with fairy stories after writing a radio play at university where a bunch of stories got  mixed up; my tutor quietly asked me if I’d ever heard ‘Into the Woods’, which, quite shamefully as I look back, I hadn’t. It had literally just opened at the Donmar and so it was not only one of the first things I saw in London after moving here, but it was the first Sondheim show I’d seen ever. So I was immediately obsessed and read everything I could find that was written about him and listened to everything I could lay my hands on and rather predictably it radically changed everything about the way I approached my writing from that point on, particularly, I think in terms of how my lyric writing developed. Oh, and my Hansel & Gretl got quite quickly filed in the bin!

If you had a magic wand what would be the one thIng you would change / improve in the sector?
As both a writer and a theatre-goer I’ve always been frustrated by what I think a vast majority of people think of as ‘musical theatre’ such as all the completely middle-of-the road, yet premium ticket-priced stuff that has audiences continuously descending on it, en masse, often for repeat visits, and for decades it seems. What those particular shows are is probably a very subjective thing, but I’m sure most people can name at least one that they feel fits into that category. And yet there is all this exciting, contemporary, experimental, cutting edge work  being made all over the place that, I suppose as we all know, for economic and commercial reasons just doesn’t get the same exposure. So if I had a magic wand, I think I’d use it to entice even just a handful of people at a time away from the half-price ticket booth queue and send them to some quirky venue off the beaten track that would never have occurred to them as an option, just so they can see what else is going on and maybe in turn they’ll tell someone else about it. We’d get everyone eventually I’m sure!

What are you listening to on your ipod at the moment?
I’m travelling at the moment – I’ve been working in Switzerland and Thailand on some education projects and am now on holiday here in Bangkok  for a bit. It’s a little strange because I’ve noticed I tend not to listen to much music-wise when I’m away – and especially when I’m also beginning work on a new piece because I’m a bit preoccupied with thinking about new things and like to avoid any subliminal influences creeping in. So my iPod is currently stacked full of Radio 4 comedy ready for the flight home and that’s about it!

What is the best thing about MMD membership?
It has to be a having access to such a vibrant community of  like-minded writers and creatives, as I think we all relish that chance to truly be able to geek-out whenever possible and this gives us such a wonderful opportunity to do just that. My many other theatre colleagues who, granted, work in different specialities, do have a tendency to glaze over a bit as soon as they hear the words ‘musical theatre’, so honestly this is a delight. On top of which the many opportunities you provide for PD and networking are invaluable so I’m very grateful to have it and thanks for all you do!

John Cohen
What were the circumstances behind you joining the MMD board? And how long have you been a board member?
I joined the Board 20 years ago.  I was introduced to The Mercury Workshop (as it was then called) by Brenda Cooper.
How would you say your skills and experience compliment the other board members?
I am a practising theatre lawyer so hopefully I can bring to the Board and to the Members skills, and give advice as to how theatre works in all its legal, contractual and copyright aspects, as well as commercially.
How has MMD changed since you joined the board? 
MMD has become so much more active.  When Neil Marcus joined as Executive Director, he brought a breath of fresh air to the organisation and increased its activities many times over and this is now being continued by Victoria Saxton in the same role.  It really is now an exciting organisation and is truly fulfilling its objectives.
What are your hopes for the organisation?
My hopes are that the organisation will go on doing the same but more so.  In particular, mentoring writers and taking a show through a development process and then giving it a showcase to the world.  We need to do this for as many writers and as many shows as possible.
What was your most memorable theatrical experience as a child?
Playing the young King in “The King & I” at the age of 12 at The Sheffield Amateur Operatic Society at The Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield.
Who are your heroes and why?
Stephen Sondheim above all others, for the total joy he creates both intellectually and emotionally.
When you were growing up what did you want to be?
A theatre producer.What’s your favourite musical
This does vary from week to week but my shortlist is:
Sweeney Todd
West Side Story
and now I have to include Hamilton.If you had a magic wand what would be the one thing you would change / improve in the (musical theatre) sector?
The price of theatre tickets.  They are so high now that they do preclude many people from going.Why would you encourage writers to join MMD?
Because of the wide opportunities that MMD can give them, both in education, mentoring, experience and getting their works work-shopped.