Teresa Howard: Advanced Writers’ Lab

September 7th, 2016

“MMD Writers Lab has been a godsend for me, especially since my writing partner Steven Edis was invited to join as well.  Musical theatre is far more collaborative than most writing forms, but you can still spend a lot of time writing alone.  Other people have absolutely no idea what you do either, and so you can’t talk about it much.  When I’ve told people what I do (as a bookwriter and lyricist) I have had to contend with some very surprising retorts like: “Oh you write the bits in between” or, “I suppose people do cry at the cheap music” and the eternal question: ”so what comes first the music or the lyrics?” And so to belong to a group of writers who meet once a month, know exactly what you do, and all the joy and agony surrounding it, is amazing!

The sessions, which usually last about two hours, are devoted to giving each other feedback on our work at any stage of development, from initial idea to finished product.  It can be incredibly exciting to finish a song or a scene and take it that day to a feedback session, hear some great thoughts from the team, and go back home, desperate to experiment with everything you learned that day.

The sessions are informal, we don’t invite performers to sing songs or play instruments for us, we always do this ourselves (and I am completely rubbish at singing!). This helps to make Lab a safe space, where everyone can trust each other. Sessions are run by a facilitator, who is a member of Lab, and mostly this has been the wonderful Christine Denniston, but everyone gives feedback on each others work.

We have recently been experimenting with new forms of feedback, based on the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process, which has been so useful and interesting and makes you really think about what feedback can inspire, especially in response to writers’ early raw material.  Sometimes sessions can be simply pitching an idea to the group or a “how do I deal with this situation?”, nothing is wrong, as long as it is about our work.

But after the sessions we often go off for drinks and supper and this is also a precious time to talk about our more personal experiences and our writing lives. Over food and wine your tongue grows looser and it is wonderful to have writer friends who are always there for you. I think of everyone of the group as a friend and am looking forward to getting to know our two new members Darren and Rhys, as well.

Everyone in Lab is a professional writer, some have been working in the theatre for a really long time, some members are also academics and others teach musical theatre, some have worked in TV and radio and on straight plays – there is so much eclectic talent and everyone gives so much to the group.  There is quite a bit of collaborative mingling as well with writing partners working with others within the group. The members are: Christine Denniston, Victoria Saxton, Steven Edis, Susannah Pearse, Tim Connor, Carl Miller, Chris Ash, Andrew Brinded, Rebecca Applin, Michael Conley, Alex Loveless, James Lovelock, Marc Folan, and our two new members Rhys Jennings and Darren Clark  – who won a place on Lab along with their prize, as part of the Stiles and Drew Mentorship Award. To see what members are up to, click here for links to everyone’s pages on the MMD Website.

I will never forget the time when Steven came to a Lab Session with me and I sang the same lyrics (dreadfully!) to two very different pieces of music he’d written, to find out which worked better, and discovered how much the music changed what the lyrics meant. You know that will happen, but until you hear it you don’t realise how powerful the presence of the music is.

I feel really honoured to be a member of Lab.  I always learn something, I always feel valued and invigorated after a session and my writing life has been enormously enriched by it.”

Teresa Howard is a librettist lyricist and playwright. She is also a member of the MMD Board and Writers Lab. Her new musical, based on Dodie Smith’s iconic novel I Capture the Castle, written with composer Steven Edis, opens at Watford Palace Theatre next spring (further info here)

Later this year we will be trialing a new Open Writers Lab – so watch this space.