Archive for the ‘ Writing ’ Category

The Emperor’s Clothes and a mother’s pride

The Emperor’s Clothes is back on the stage this week. During the lockdown periods, composer Phil and I worked hard to refine and polish the show, and then Phil spent countless hours working on the musical landscape of the piece. We were then approached by Canterbury Operatic Society who asked if they could produce the show, and would we like to direct and musical direct it. We said yes, and many months later, we will be opening tonight at the King’s Hall in Herne Bay. Tickets from Ticketsource or on the door.

The logo for The Emperor’s Clothes – a purple wardrobe on a bright yellow background.

I am so incredibly excited about this production. Seeing our work come alive again, with a bigger cast and bigger stage, is thrilling. And I have been able to put my own spin on how this musical world looks and feels. One of my favourite moments was seeing a coat stand be transformed into a lamppost, retaining the essence of both identities and looking incredible.

My one sadness is that my mum won’t be there to see it. My family and many of my friends and colleagues are incredibly supportive of what I do on stage, and have seen countless productions over the years. My mum became well known to front of house staff as well. She would always get a programme and make a point of turning to the page where I was featured to tell them “that’s my son!” It did not matter whether they would be people who would know me or not, they got told anyway. Other family members and housemates have told me that this would continue once she took her seat. Whoever she was sitting next to, or behind, or in front of, would know that her son was in the show. And a great many people in my home town who had never met me knew exactly who I was due to being shown the programmes by a very proud mother.

When Legacy Performers produced the show in 2020, my mum and dad were not able to attend. Mum was too unwell to travel and by this time Dad was her full-time carer. She did get to see me as Henry Higgins in Spring 2019, definitely a good last show to see! Due to a combination of deafness and the early symptoms of dementia, I am not even sure to what extent Mum even knew I had co-written a show. She never forgot that I do theatre, but the details became hazy.

And now she is no longer with us. In a strange twist of fate, I learned that the Society were definitely going ahead with the show within 24 hours of my mum’d death. She was given an incredible send-off, where I met some of the people who only knew me as “Barbara’s son who does the shows”. My dad and my sister are both coming down to support the show, as are many friends and colleagues. But mum’s absence will be felt.

However… I don’t know how the afterlife works, and I assume that all depictions in art, music, literature and film are very wrong. But if any of our notions of our loved ones watching what we get up to are true, I know my mum will be very busy right now. Somewhere, whether it is up there or out there, a group of souls or angels or both will be gathering. They will be assuring Mum that their eyes are glued to the King’s Hall. And every one of them will smile when she says, no doubt many times, “that’s my son. He write this. That’s my son!”

This one’s for you, Mum. If you are somehow able to watch this, I hope you enjoy.

Hero of the café – a (very) short story

It was a typically dull morning in the café when Les’ shift started. It may as well have been copied and pasted from the day before and the day before that. Arnold the chef told Les that the usual crowd were there, doing their usual thing and having their usual breakfast. Gary was reading the Sun and enjoying the vegan special. Occasionally he’d comment on some news story or other, never minding the deafening silence each comment received. Matilda was people-watching, or rather she would have been people-watching if anyone was actually doing anything. Just the cup of coffee for her, which she would eke out as long as possible, not saying a single word. Amal was catching up on emails over his toast. The only thing that distracted him from the screen was adding just that little bit more butter to the slice. And Elizabeth, as always, was tucking in to a full English. No distractions for her – the food occupied every ounce of her attention.

Perhaps it was the sense of banal repetition which caused it. Perhaps Arnold wasn’t paying attention. Or perhaps Les had put things away in the wrong place. Whatever it was, the oil caught fire, and the flames soon began to spread. It took a while for Les to notice, despite there being literally nothing else to capture their attention. But the flames were there, visible through the glass window in the kitchen door, and Les raised the alarm. Les’ cry drew everyone’s attention away from what they were doing. Amal was set to calling 999 – his phone was already on the table – and Les made sure that everyone else cleared out. Almost everyone, that is. Nobody noticed one customer as they grabbed a handy item and headed towards the kitchen…

Later, when the smoke had cleared, Les sat with Arnold as he explained to the fire fighters why they hadn’t, in the end, had any fire to fight. Drawing a foil blanket around himself to calm his shivers, Arnold told then how he had been rescued from the blazing kitchen by a mysterious person with a bucket over their head. They had burst through the kitchen door, held out their hands and suddenly there was a chill.  The temperature dropped and the flames were doused.

Les glanced over at the café patrons, assuming they would be swapping theories about who could have been under that bucket. But it was not so. Gary seemed despondent that he couldn’t return to his newspaper just yet. Matilda, as ever, was watching everyone else for their reactions rather than offering one of her own. And Elizabeth was sympathising with Amal, who had rather hoped that his swift action in summoning the emergency services would be the most heroic thing to happen that morning.

A strange lack of curiosity, Les thought. Whoever had been under that bucket, Arnold owed them his life. However, none of the regulars really talked about anything important – this wasn’t a secret they would learn easily. But looking over once more, Les thought they could see a flicker of an amused smile on Matilda’s face. Could it be?

The end. Or the beginning.

Why this story?

In the summer of 2020 (doesn’t that seem like an age ago?), I took part in NODA’s first ever online theatre summer school. For most of the week, I was learning about backstage roles in the theatre, mostly stage management and costume. But one of the optional workshops I attended for this revolved around storytelling, run by Sarah Osborne. In this workshop, we were given a random genre, setting, item and twist, and had a short time to write a story. No time for second-guessing ourselves, just put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and go. My random items were:

  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: A café
  • Item: A bucket
  • Twist: Someone has a super-power

What you have read here is the result, edited very lightly since.

Reflecting on The Emperor’s Clothes

So, it has been a week since we closed the wardrobe doors for the time being, and stowed a tremendous variety of clothing items away after the final performance of the debut production of The Emperor’s Clothes. I have come back down to Earth after a tremendous post-production high, and therefore I feel I can write about the experience.

A blue wardrobe with a yellow interior. The clothes inside show the title The Emperor's Clothes.

It was magical. Absolutely magical. No theatrical experience I have had can compare to experiencing an audience reacting to something you have created. Hearing people laugh at jokes or funny moments I dreamed up, or hearing the (sometimes incredibly sustained) applause following my friend and colleague Phil Hornsey’s songs was thrilling. Seeing the characters take three-dimensional form and continue to grow over the five performances, and experiencing the amazing company spirit from everyone involved was heart-warming as well.

The audience reaction was phenomenal, beyond anything I could have expected, and we are quite determined to take this show (and specifically Legacy Performers’ production of it) further.

But first, we need to reflect. The saying “Plays are not written, they’re rewritten” is attributed to 19th-century actor/playwright Dion Boucicault. And it is certainly true of The Emperor’s Clothes. The script that was performed was at least the third complete draft, and won’t be the last. We now have a much better idea of what plays well and what doesn’t, which moments land with an audience, which don’t, and which could if they were set up differently. So the rewrite pencils need to come out. Thankfully, we don’t think we need to do major surgery, just a few nips and tucks. Mostly because the show needs to run a bit shorter, so we need to shave off 10 or 15 minutes. We know the songs all work, though we may trim one or two reprises. The majority of the editing needs to be from the book.

So how will I go about that. In a few ways.

First, repetition – experiencing the show with an audience made me spot areas of repetition which read throughs and rehearsals simply didn’t highlight. There are a few things which we get told twice. So my job is to work out which telling is funnier or more essential to the characters. The other one will need to go.

Second – unnecessary utterances. Looking back over the script, I can now see lines which really serve no purpose. They don’t advance the plot, set up a laugh or expand the characters. So they can go.

Third, pace. We can review the recording we made of the show (for our own purposes) and see where the pace flags. The director and performers did an excellent job of maintaining energy, so any flagging in pace is likely to indicate that the script could be tightened.

Finally, being brutal and asking the question of “do we really need this?” Some exchanges are there because they’ve always been there, but do they still need to be? Or they were written to serve a particular purpose in drawing the characters, but that purpose may now have been answered somewhere else. For example, during the first act we make sure that the audience really doesn’t like one particular character – he is consistently unpleasant to other characters (other than the Emperor) and even if he doesn’t do anything technically villainous, he makes himself very easy to dislike. But do we need every instance of this? Are some of them overkill, or have we got just the right amount of nasty?

Editing is going to be tricky, but ultimately rewarding if we can make this piece (described to me by one enthusiastic audience member as “a gem”) eve better. I would not have missed the Emperor’s experience for anything, which was as much to do with the talented and lovely group of people who came together for it, and it is certainly not going to be the last time my work gets performed.

Onwards and upwards!

Weaving the Emperor’s clothes

I don’t have words to describe how exciting today is. I will soon be leaving the house to go and help get the set and costumes in to the theatre for a show. Not exactly unusual for me, you might think. But this time, it’s a new show which will debut on 28th February at the Arden Theatre in Faversham. And I wrote it!

A blue wardrobe with a yellow interior. The clothes inside show the title The Emperor's Clothes.

Back in 2017, my good friend Phil Hornsey (composer, choir master, musical director and all-round excellent person) asked me to be involved with workshopping some songs for a new show he was working on, based on the fairy tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A few months later, he asked if I could help him with the book (musical theatre-speak for the script), and eventually the book became my thing. I was (and am) so honoured to be asked – the score for this show is, if I may say so, amazing. “A Thousand Footsteps” in particular needs to be heard by as many people as possible – it’s a real stunner.

Now, three years later, we are fast approaching opening night. We held a workshop of a few scenes in the summer of 2017. We then deleted two characters (one was particularly sad to lose as they had some funny lines which we had no way to give to anyone else), and developed it as a show for seven performers, each playing a main role and doubling as a member of the Emperor’s court. We lost the New from the title of the show, as it really is about all of the Emperor’s clothes, not just his new ones. We held a road-through which helped us get to grips with the trickiest characters. And now here we are. With five performances this coming weekend, our show is being brought to life by ten amazing performers, plus the usual small army of musicians, backstage crew, technical wizards and front of house staff.

As I write, about 250 people have booked their tickets to come and see the show, and we’ve had a great reaction to the teaser videos we have put out, even with my very basic video creation skills!

Teaser video 3: “Everyone Knows” (Music & Lyrics by Phil Hornsey).

Seeing these characters come to life, having spent years developing them, is a very special feeling. Which is why I am brimming with excitement (with grace notes of terror) to start getting the set in place. Some brilliant people have helped us out by designing and constructing a centre-piece wardrobe, and our poor producer has tracked down what feels like every possible item of yellow clothing (there’s a reason for that).

I plain to write more about this experience over the next week or so, but for now here are some links:

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