FOREST BOY in NYC
Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie met as students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The pair now run award-winning writing partnership, Noisemaker and work across the UK and internationally creating innovative, original musical theatre.
Most recently Scott and Claire’s show Forest Boy was chosen from over 900 applicants to be presented at this years New York Musical Festival.
Scott: Forest Boy first came about when Claire and I were approached by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and asked to write a new piece for their MA Musical Theatre Programme. We’d seen this story trending on Facebook about a kid that had appeared in Berlin claiming to have lived in the forest for the past five years and decided to use it as the basis for the show.
Claire: Musically I used a lot of folk and choral influences to build the magic of the forest and then contrasted this with a starker, more electronic sound for reality. The initial development week in 2012 was a bit of a whirlwind but by the Friday we had created a really, rough version of what Forest Boy would be. The show went on to be developed for the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 where it subsequently won the S&S Award for Best New Musical in Development through MMD. This gave Forest Boy another life.
Scott: We developed the show over a year through the S&S Award with the help of a team of mentors including Laurie Sansom, recent Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, musical director Mike Dixon and director/choreographer Jonathon Butterball with the Arcola Theatre. In 2015 we presented the show at the St. James Theatre. We were all set to head back up to Scotland when we got a message through saying that Forest Boy had been chosen as a Next Link Award winner by the New York Musical Festival.
Claire: As Noisemaker we have had some experiences co-producing with other theatres before; Most recently our piece Little Red and the Wolf was commissioned and developed through Dundee Rep. Scott and I are used to this way of working but we’d never produced anything from scratch before. It was a little daunting finally making the decision to go ahead with the project, but in the end we realised we couldn’t turn down a chance to have our work premiere in New York.
Scott: The producing side of things was a new challenge for us both. We immediately had to get good at spreadsheets and had to dust off our long forgotten high school maths. We had to budget, hire our creative team, design, cast and market the show all from 3000 miles away. We basically spent two months on Skype and had to trust the success of our show to a bunch of strangers with lots of funny voices. It wasn’t the most relaxed we’ve ever been as a partnership, but I think it might have been the most excited.
Claire: We raised most of our budget in the UK through grants and funds available to us. It was a slog but about a week before we flew out, we secured almost the entire budget. Rehearsals had already begun in NYC and we were set to join at the beginning of the second week. However, two days before we left, Scott and I were packing everything up and had the Referendum Result on the TV. We watched as the UK made it’s decision to leave the EU. We went to bed, disappointed with the result but in no way ready for what was waiting for us the next morning.
Scott: The fall in the value of the pound was so dramatic that in the time it took me to get up, have a shower and turn on the TV, Claire and I had lost almost $8000 of our budget. We had one of the most concerned breakfasts we’ve ever had that morning. But we couldn’t turn back. The show was going ahead, one way or another. We just had to get on a plane and think of something before we landed in NYC.
Claire: Bar myself, Scott and our movement director, EJ Boyle, our entire team were American. It wasn’t until the readthrough that we realised how important the casting process had been. Our director, Robert McQueen, had pieced together an amazing team of Broadway-standard actors, all of who totally brought the new script and score alive in a way we’d not felt before. Despite all the stress surrounding budgeting etc. it was one of the most exciting days we’ve ever spent in a rehearsal room. It already felt like this could be a really special show.
Scott: We actually arrived in the States on Independence Day so, after the readthrough, we watched the fireworks and heard the American national anthem sung more times, with more riffs, than we thought possible. We were officially in New York! The support and interest we had from the press and the Festival as the first Scottish writing team to bring work to NYMF was pretty overwhelming. On our second day of rehearsals we had a tiny army of reporters and journalists come into the rehearsal room to meet the cast and the team. It was mad!
Claire: Working with Robert, EJ and our Musical Director Wiley de Weese (incredible name!) was wonderful. Because of it’s development through the S&S Award, Forest Boy was already in the strongest state it had ever been in as a piece and with the continual input of the cast and the team, this only got stronger. The show still felt original and unique alongside the other shows at NYMF and was named one of the Top 5 shows to see at NYMF by Time Out Magazine. We were both proud that a little idea we’d had back in Scotland was holding it’s own in the competitive world of Off- Broadway.
Scott: Working in the States is really different from the UK for lots of reasons, but the main one for us is where musical theatre sits in their culture. It sounds cliché but Americans LOVE musicals. They really do. And nowhere loves them more than New York City. It’s in their blood which immediately changes how you’re viewed as a writer and creative. We’re so used to negotiating funding applications, or convincing a theatre to take a chance on a show that has singing as part of it’s storytelling, that we were a bit shocked at how open everyone was to the idea of producing a brand new musical. About halfway through rehearsals we’d already been approached about potential next stages for Forest Boy, and even some of our other shows, because it is all about the next step over there. How do we make this grow? Where should it go next? And how can it make the most money possible? These were the kind of questions that we were being asked constantly and it started to make us feel the difference in how our work is made in the UK and the pros and cons of that. It’s too early in our development to say which model works best for us as writers, but it’s been an incredible education to see how musical theatre is being made and supported elsewhere.
Claire: We were all set to go into tech and we still hadn’t recovered the money we lost during Brexit. Despite all the excitement of the city and the growing interest surrounding Forest Boy, we were still hunting for a big chunk of our budget. Forest Boy was in the Pearl Theatre on 42nd Street; a really, lovely, modern 200 seater right in the middle of the theatre district. The atmosphere surrounding that part of town really is electric. There are so many people and so many shows all fighting to be seen. We were a few blocks away from The Colour Purple and Hamilton which was slightly daunting but so inspiring. Tech was almost done and our stress about the missing funding had reached breaking point when we received an email.
Scott: Claire and I had done a number of articles and interviews surrounding the immediate effect Brexit had had on us. We were contacted by an anonymous donor who had read an article on us in the Sunday Times back home in Scotland. They felt our story was one worth helping and they agreed to underwrite all the money we’d lost because of Brexit. It was the Slightly Less Exciting Miracle on 42nd Street! We couldn’t believe it. They even flew out to see the opening night of Forest Boy. We still can’t believe it happened in the way it did but, needless to say, we remain so grateful and humbled that someone would read about our work and our situation and feel the urge to help in such an incredible way.
Claire: Forest Boy sold out nearly every performance which meant a great deal to us both. The cast really worked tirelessly to bring the heart of the story to life whilst giving polished and beautiful performances. Audiences commented that they hadn’t seen anything like this at NYMF before. The narrative, structure and music were new to them and it felt like something bold and different.
Forest Boy was picked up by a producer we really trust and goes into a final stage of development early next year before we prepare it’s next US production. We couldn’t be happier with this as an outcome and look forward to telling you about what happens with the show next.
Scott: Claire and I are back in the States with another piece of ours, The Girl Who, in December with the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in New York. It then goes out on tour in January through to March next year. NYMF has been an amazing learning curve to allow us to prepare for this. The shows are very different but we feel we have a better understanding of the world we’re going into this time.
Claire: Writing and producing Forest Boy has probably been the biggest challenge for either of us so far in our careers. It made Scott and I think, not just about our craft as writers, but also about theatre as a product: Who is it for and why is it worth the audiences time and effort to come and hear your story? I don’t think we could have hoped for a more inspiring, overwhelming, stressful, enjoyable and memorable experience than the one we’ve taken from NYMF. It’s something I don’t think either of us will ever forget.
Scott: As young writers, I think one of the biggest questions that everyone asks of you, not least of all yourself, is what is your voice? What are you trying to say and why should we listen? Doing NYMF has allowed us to get a step closer to answering that for us. Musical theatre is a complicated little puzzle at times, but when you crack it, when music and storytelling collide at the right moment and everything just sings, it can affect in ways no other live experience can. It’s something Claire and I will keep striving to find in all of our work.
Claire: Now we’re back, and have started work on our next project, NYMF already feels like a long time ago. However, the impact it has had on us as a partnership is something neither of us would change. We’re ready for the next challenge, the next risk and the next story. If you’re unsure about applying to NYMF, or to any new work organisation, we would both say go for it! It’s a baptism of fire but it’s one we wouldn’t have traded for anything.
Check out the Forest Boy website
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