Michael Bruce: How I became a theatre composer

Michael Bruce is a prolific theatre composer whose music has accompanied plays at the National Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway. He has written scores and songs for productions as varied as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Candide for the RSC, Strange Interlude and Man and Superman at the National Theatre, and Coriolanus, Privacy and The Physicists at the Donmar Warehouse, where he is Composer-in-Residence. The job is endlessly diverse and you can never rest on your laurels, as he explains in this extract from his new book, Writing Music for the Stage – published here with audio clips from several of his theatre scores.

When people ask me how I started to write music for plays, they are often surprised by the sheer extent of happenstance and luck that led me down this particular road. I don’t think I’m unusual in that I didn’t set out to write music for plays. After teaching myself the piano as a child, I longed for a career in songwriting: pop music primarily and then later musical theatre. I went to a performing arts college (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) to study music and for the first couple of years only occasionally participated in any theatre activities. Even when I did decide to concentrate my efforts on musical theatre it never occurred to me that there might be a world of plays out there that required composers. In fact, it took me a long time to even call myself a composer – I was a songwriter; the word ‘composer’ seemed far too hifalutin. In my secondary-school music class, composition was called ‘inventing’ (presumably because we couldn’t possibly declare the music we were sweating out as ‘composition’). No, that required formal music education in a building with a royal crest on the front of it – surely?

The truth is, concert works, musicals, films, albums all seem to be much more glamorous and financially rewarding (although they often aren’t) than writing music for plays. Composition in the ‘straight theatre’ can act as a training ground for any of those projects, but it is frequently wholly satisfying in itself. Plays, more than any other compositional work, demand a strong multi-purpose technique, openness for collaboration, an eclectic knowledge and a keen interest in storytelling. If you’re going to write music for plays, you need to be able to turn your hand to almost anything musically and because of that, the people who do compose music for the theatre get there by a myriad of different pathways and circumstances. Many Oscar-winning composers still write music for theatre in between film projects. As you might expect, there is no tried-and-tested route to becoming a theatre composer.

two-gentlemen-Simon Annand

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2014, directed by Simon Godwin (photo by Simon Annand)

 

As a young composer in London, having previously served as an assistant musical director, I was busy writing small-scale musical theatre and cabaret when I received a last-minute call to participate in a podcast discussion about new musical theatre. A contemporary of mine who was meant to be on the panel became unavailable at the last minute and for some reason (I can’t remember why now) they called me. On the panel was a representative from the Arts Council who was very intrigued by the mention of an idea for a ‘composer-in-residence’ scheme. He later asked me to carry on the discussion over coffee. From what seemed like out of nowhere he managed to procure me an invitation to visit the Bush Theatre with a view to becoming their first composer-in-residence.

The Bush Theatre is a world-leading new-writing powerhouse and it became my home for the next two years. Yes, I wrote a musical there, but even more fascinating was my introduction to a world of drama I had neglected to embrace. There has been a tendency amongst some musical-theatre writers (and I was one of them) to become engrossed in an insular musical-theatre world, when right next door there is an entire industry of playwrights and directors putting on world-class productions of plays. I think it’s exceedingly important that artists get as broad a spectrum of inspiration and education as possible, and one of the best places to get that is at the theatre.

After forming many friendships and professional relationships at the Bush I was offered a job as composer-in-residence at the Donmar Warehouse. It was my relationship with Josie Rourke, the artistic director of both of those institutions, that led me to writing music for plays in the first place. In doing that, I have been fortunate enough to work steadily with some of the leading directors and playwrights, in the leading theatres, with the leading actors, ever since. The capacity for learning whilst working on these kinds of jobs with these kinds of people is unparalleled. You can never rest on your laurels when scoring plays, because you never know what the next moment will call for. You can’t just churn out the same thing every time because you are being constantly challenged to respond to the specific needs of the production. This is the best training you could ask for.

strange-interlude-set

Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill, National Theatre, 2013, directed by Simon Godwin

 

Directors are the people who usually have the power to hire composers. A director will specify their preferred creative team to a producer or producing theatre who can, in turn, suggest their own ideas. Sometimes a producer might question the employment of someone who perhaps is untested in the theatrical forum, but mostly, if a director trusts in a composer to deliver, the producer will back him up. Meeting directors may seem like a tricky thing to set up, but your best bet is to start working on small projects either at school, in college or in your local community and invite people to see your work. If you’ve got the option to watch a lot of theatre, then do so. To some extent this is harder if you don’t live in London or don’t have lots of spare cash to burn, but there are great regional theatres around the country producing top-quality work. Also, don’t forget that cinema broadcasts of theatre productions make them far more accessible on a budget from wherever you are in the world. Absorb all the influences you can: get to know which directors’ work you enjoy and write to them. You could even send a director a demo or two. What’s the worst that could happen?

Joshua McGuire in Privacy Photo by Johan Persson 5

Privacy by James Graham, Donmar Warehouse 2014, directed by Josie Rourke (photo by Johan Persson)

 

The most important thing to do is to get some experience on your CV. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a town hall or on Broadway. If you can show some proclivity for hard work, directors are much more likely to take you seriously. Take every job going and turn your hand to as many styles of music as you can. Even after years of working I still have difficulty turning things down: I am constantly thrilled when someone decides they would like me to write the music for their show. Never take anything for granted. The number of weird and wonderful jobs I took on as a young composer and musical director is still staggering to me now. From the cramped and seedy nightclubs of Soho to commercials for car insurance, there’s something to learn from every experience, so no matter how far from your desired path a music job might seem, you should take it on, make the most of it and feel proud to be earning a pay cheque.

You will meet new people every time you take on a new project, and you never know where those relationships might lead. Always remember that the theatre industry is small: contacts are vital to keep your workload ticking over and you never know who might come to see your latest offering or what new opportunities lie right around the corner.


FormattedExtracted from Writing Music for the Stage: A Practical Guide for Theatremakers by Michael Bruce, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘A good score makes a world of difference to an actor. Read Michael Bruce’s book and you’ll understand why. He is a genius.’ Judi Dench

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), click here.

For more excerpts from Michael Bruce’s theatre scores, visit the Nick Hern Books SoundCloud page here.

Author photo by Steven McIntosh.

‘A Field of Dreams’: Joyce McMillan on Theatre in Scotland

Joyce McMillan, lead drama critic at The Scotsman, is an unrivalled authority on modern Scottish theatre and a leading thinker and writer about Scotland. Her new book, Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams, is a collection of more than three decades of her writings about theatre, selected by theatre director Philip Howard. Here, in his introduction to the book, Howard explores the connections between McMillan’s career and the recent cultural and political renaissance in Scotland, as well as her unfailing ability to detect a great new play. And, below, we present some choice excerpts from her writings, ranging from her review of the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe, to the launch show of the National Theatre of Scotland…

Philip Howard: Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams traces Joyce McMillan’s journey from self-taught, passionate contributing writer to the short-lived Sunday Standard (1981-1983), to her current life as the chief theatre critic of The Scotsman. No other critic in Scotland covers as much ground as she does in her working week, or has done for so many years. And so the premise of the book is simple: gather all of the most insightful material from over the past three decades, add new essays by McMillan herself to underscore the narrative – and what you have is a history of modern Scottish theatre, reported from the frontline. The volume is not a hit parade. While the vast majority of landmark theatre productions in Scotland have been covered, it was important also to acknowledge McMillan’s footfall across the whole country and celebrate the truly national portrait that emerges.

McMillan’s first reviewing jobs were for BBC Radio Scotland in the 1970s, talking about Edinburgh Festival shows for Festival View, presented by Neville Garden – and she credits the inspiration of this annual cultural spectacle as a determining factor in her ambition to write about theatre. In 1978 the great Allen Wright at The Scotsman commissioned her to cover a production of The Good Person of Szechwan for him in St Andrews, and she soon became his second-string reviewer. When the Sunday Standard was founded in 1981, McMillan set her sights on becoming their principal theatre critic, and, despite the newspaper lasting only two years, it is here that she begins to find her voice, or, as she puts it, ‘This is where the dialogue with myself really starts.’ There followed ten distinguished years as the Guardian’s Scotland theatre critic (1984-1994) and three at Scotland on Sunday (1994-1997), where for the first time she was writing a longer weekly column, essay-style, covering all the week’s theatre openings, and exploiting her skill in detecting wider cultural resonances and thematic links between the work. After a lightning-quick spell as an arts writer for The Herald in 1997, she started in 1998 at The Scotsman, and it is in this current incarnation as a critic and political commentator that she has become defined as a leading thinker and writer about Scotland.

She wasn’t born to it. There were visits to the theatre as a child – her first memory is of a Kenneth McKellar Christmas show at the Alhambra, Glasgow – but she was never an enthusiastic amateur audience member, or certainly not for very long. A half-completed PhD at the University of Edinburgh on the tragedies of Ben Jonson crystallised for her the indivisibility of theatre and politics, and she talks interestingly about her new passion for theatre at that time stemming from her disenchantment with the direction of British politics, i.e. towards the right, and a conviction that theatre is one place where you might find ‘an alternative truth about what it means to be human’. And perhaps it is this wide-angle lens on theatre and parallel enquiry as a political writer which explain her tenacity and longevity. Of course, she’s not the only theatre writer to apply herself to political writing – think of Fintan O’Toole, for many years political columnist and chief theatre critic of The Irish Times – but McMillan’s career is coinciding with the very period where Scotland is remaking itself more energetically than ever before. The ground is fertile.

It is surely the goal of any critic, certainly in terms of legacy, to contribute in some way to the evolution of the art form itself, Kenneth Tynan in England and America in the 1950s and ’60s being the iconic example of this. McMillan has far too long a working life left for it to be possible to make this kind of retrospective analysis, but certain themes do emerge from her critical writing which arguably have tuned with the times, if not influenced them: for example, an obstinate insistence that the director of a classic revival must know very precisely why they are reviving an old play rather than making a new one – her sympathy for directors who also have to run monolithic theatre buildings does not extend to them programming plays just because they feature in compendia of ‘the 100 greatest plays’. Predictably, as a leading political commentator, she will despise an unthinkingly or lazily apolitical interpretation of a play, reserving her greatest spleen for the ‘Loamshire’ play (as Tynan did before her), or self-absorbed new writing that makes no attempt to connect with the public sphere. But then – in a wonderfully contradictory way – she will often surprise us by enthusing about something shamelessly sentimental, entertaining or romantic, as long as it’s beautifully executed. Most importantly of all, she has, to my knowledge, an almost unblemished record in never having failed to spot a great new play; and, rare among critics, she has the ability to watch an unsuccessful new play and detect whether it’s the playwright or director at fault. This can make for uncomfortable reading. (‘Philip Howard’s Traverse production seems to fall stillborn on to the stage’ on Grace in America by Antoine Ó Flatharta, Scotland on Sunday, 1 May 1994 – sticks in the mind.)

She isn’t shy of skewering some sacred cows: the empty heart of the RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1990); the reactionary flippancy (Travesties, 1987) and bourgeois self-satisfaction (Rough Crossing, 1996) of Tom Stoppard. And occasionally she deploys a devastating ability to take hold of a superficially successful production – think Bill Bryden’s The Big Picnic (1994) or the Brian Cox The Master Builder (1993) – and then, like a drone or laser, zero in on its fatal flaw. But McMillan is also bold in finding something to commend even in work of mixed success, and stick her neck out to champion unfashionable work which she suspects her colleagues might dismiss. Perhaps this is because she knows it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one, intellectually easier to puncture than to validate. And so there are plenty of roses among the barbed wire – and an unswerving commitment to shout praise from the rooftops where it is due, and celebrate the art form in all its mad messy glory (Macbeth on the Isle of Inchcolm, 1989).

The book works chronologically rather than thematically, and yet is divided, unevenly, into three parts telling three essential stories of how Scottish theatre has grown in confidence over the decades: the road to 1990, the year of Glasgow’s reign as European Capital of Culture, which marked a generational change in how that great city viewed itself and was viewed by the world; the 1990s and early years of the new millennium, which witnessed an extraordinary explosion in self-confidence among both new and older Scottish playwrights, leading to, finally: the birth and hegemony of the National Theatre of Scotland, bringing the role of our theatre culture as close as it has ever got to the heart of the nation. The vast majority of entries in the book are reviews; the rest are feature articles or programme notes. New linking pieces by McMillan range throughout the volume, providing additional context.

Students of theatre criticism may enjoy the underlying portrait of a critic teaching herself to be the best, from the passionate newcomer at the Sunday Standard in the early 1980s, trying to find her style but never missing a political beat, through mounting confidence, occasional fierceness of judgement and an increasingly fine writing style, to the older, authoritative and interestingly more mellow critic that we have today. She testifies to the collegiate atmosphere of theatre criticism in Scotland, where being part of that ‘public conversation’ helps ensure that the genre faces outward – and guards against the lonesomeness of the profession.

Students of theatre literature may read the book as a collection of essays on English language playwriting, from the twentieth-century greats (Coward, Osborne, Pinter, etc.) to all the leading Scottish playwrights, from John Byrne and Liz Lochhead to David Greig and David Harrower. And ultimately, it is as a writer about Scotland and about what the art form of theatre can tell us about Scotland that distinguishes McMillan’s work: her piece ‘Theatre and Nationhood’ (1991), written for Tramway’s Theatres and Nations season which heralded the permanent opening of Glasgow’s key Capital of Culture venue from 1990, is a defining essay on Scottishness, written against the backdrop of the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Sometimes it’s in the critique of a theatre production which would not be taken as seriously by the rest of the Scottish theatre community (even if they had seen it), that she writes most flawlessly about the culture of the nation – for example, Accounts in Town Yetholm (1991) or Bright Water on Easdale Island (2007). The combination of this panoramic view, political acuity, and the ability to marry the head and the heart, has sealed her reputation far beyond Scotland’s borders.

Joyce McMillan: By chance – or perhaps for reasons I barely understood at the time – it was at an important moment of transition in Scottish politics and cultural identity, at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, that I felt myself drawn, perhaps almost driven, to become a theatre critic in Scotland. I was already almost thirty, I had no history of interest in theatre beyond an academic one, and like many people who grew up in the 1960s, I saw theatre as an old-fashioned art form, already half-dead on its feet.

Yet in the late 1970s, I was suddenly gripped by the power of the shared experience of theatre, by the idea of it as a place where ideas could be made flesh, and could be tested against the real reactions of the audience. Perhaps it was a reaction to the repetitiveness, and frequent intellectual rigidity, of the left-wing and feminist politics in which I was vaguely involved. Perhaps it was an unconscious response to the coming of Thatcherism: an insistence that somewhere, even if only in a series of small darkened rooms, a serious collective life would continue through this age of individualism. Or perhaps it was something in Scottish theatre itself, evolving fast and freely after a long age of quiescence and marginalisation. If Scotland’s professional theatre tradition had been limited and interrupted by centuries of official Presbyterianism, that very history – or rather the lack of it – meant that it entered the late twentieth century with relatively little baggage, and an exhilarating freedom to reinvent itself, in forms that were both popular and experimental.

So, at the beginning of 1982, I began to set out my stall as the Sunday Standard’s main theatre critic. In the big world beyond theatre, there were three huge arguments in progress. There was one about the future of the British left, after Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979; in theatre, that was often articulated through my arguments with, and about, John McGrath’s 7:84 Company, and its sister company Wildcat Stage Productions. There was an argument about feminism, a fraught coming-to-terms with the huge revolution in consciousness that had taken place during the 1970s. And, of course, there was the argument about Scotland: rousing itself after the failed home-rule referendum of 1979, and once again setting out to redefine and reshape itself. At the time, the Scottish Arts Council was funding around fifteen major professional companies in Scotland, including the building-based ones in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Perth and Pitlochry; and, in 1981, it had also decided to fund an initiative by the actor Ewan Hooper to launch a new Scottish Theatre Company, dedicated to creating Scottish-made shows for mainstage theatres, and – in some respects at least – to pursuing a more traditional Scottish repertoire than could be found at the Traverse or the Citizens’. It was through the work of the STC, and my often sceptical reactions to it, that I began to evolve my own ideas about what the word ‘Scottish’ could and should mean, in the late twentieth century; and about our evolving relationship with the standard repertoire of English-language theatre.


Extracts from reviews collected in Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off
Little Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Guardian, 13 August 1987

Like the official Festival, this year’s Fringe seems to be all about Scots and Russians, with a generous sprinkling of Americans and other, more exotic visitors; the English Fringe – as represented by shows like Hull Truck’s Teechers, playing at the George Square Theatre to large crowds of off-duty educational face-workers, or by the charming It’s a Girl from the Duke’s Playhouse, Lancaster, or even by an oddly laid-back and giggly Jenny Lecoat at the Assembly Rooms – seems in strangely subdued mood. Perhaps, like the Labour Party, English alternative theatre has reached a point where it must rethink its entire politics; at any rate, these soft-centred, well-staged, witty, humanistic and utterly predictable shows look like the last gasp of a Fringe culture that’s reached the end of its line.

MQS2.inddIn Scotland, though, things seem slightly different – rougher, harsher, more colourful and cosmopolitan, shot through with a kind of brash, nothing-to-lose energy. In the official Festival, the energy blisters through the strange, heightened, ritualistically foul-mouthed new-speak of Iain Heggie’s A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, and shouts from the canvases at the Vigorous Imagination exhibition of new Scottish painting at the Modern Art Gallery. And it’s reflected with terrific, show-stopping force in Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, a ferociously iconoclastic re-examination of Mary Stuart’s life and its significance – in sixteenth-century Scots and standard English, fierce poetic monologue, stylised movement and sharp, almost improvised dialogue – that’s been one of the brilliant high points of this first Fringe week. Specially commissioned by the young Edinburgh-based touring company Communicado, performed at the Lyceum Studio in the very shadow of Mary’s castle, it simply blasts to smithereens the heavy, obscuring deposit of romantic claptrap that has gathered around the story down the centuries, and instead draws the most dramatic and uncomfortable parallels between the sacrifice of Mary in her day, and the myriad sexual, political and religious deformities that still plague the Scottish psyche now.

The Guid Sisters
Tron, Glasgow
The Guardian, 3 May 1989

It’s one of the myths of our civilisation that, whereas middle-class culture is international and universal, working-class culture is somehow local and parochial, a matter of ‘Cockney slang’ or ‘Glasgow humour’. It’s a comforting idea, in that it reduces the common experience of the millions of human beings who were drawn into the cities in the industrial age – their courage, their humour, their resilience in the face of unrelenting poverty and drastic overcrowding – to a matter of ‘local character’; it makes a private civic joke of an experience that was, in fact, central to the development of industrial capitalism everywhere from Chicago to Kraków.

guidsisters&othersOne of Mayfest’s most striking achievements, as a festival dedicated to presenting the best of Scottish ‘popular’ theatre alongside similar work from Europe and overseas, has been the consistency with which it has blasted that myth that the Glasgow experience is somehow unique, idiosyncratic. And now, in that tradition, the Tron Theatre’s Mayfest production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-sœurs – a play born in the turbulent Québec of the 1960s, and now translated into a pithy, fierce, foul-mouthed urban Scots by Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman – offers us a portrait of a bunch of worn-out housewives in a Montréal tenement that matches the experience of generations of Glasgow women in almost uncanny detail.

Macbeth
Inchcolm Island, Firth of Forth
The Guardian, 15 August 1989

The rain drove, the wind blustered, the witches heaved up from the bowels of the ship as if they had risen from the water itself, to screech and whirl across the decks with their knowledge of evil and doom in the offing; never in my life will I forget the sound of the words ‘Though his bark shall not be lost | Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d!’ snatched from the mouth of the chief witch by the wind and echoing away across the steel-grey waves. […] See Macbeth on Inchcolm – the wind whipping, the gulls screeching, the old capital across the stormy firth climbing grey and smoky towards its skyline – and you’ll never want to see it anywhere else.

Theatre and Nationhood
for Tramway, Glasgow
25 August 1991

It seems strange to be writing about theatre and nationhood on a weekend when one of the two greatest nations on earth is disappearing before our eyes. Nations are like Tinkerbell in Barrie’s Peter Pan: they only exist so long as we believe in them. For reasons too complex to explore here, people have been withdrawing their belief from the idea of the Soviet Union for decades now; and this weekend, that unbelief reached a critical mass. In that sense, nations are fictions, man-made communities conjured up and defined, on the shifting human surface of the earth, within the minds of men and women. If we feel Scottish, then Scotland is, despite 284 years of union; if people no longer feel like Soviet citizens, then the combined power of the party, the KGB and the army command cannot keep the USSR together. And it’s because nationhood is this kind of thing – an intangible sense of community, subject to change and flux – that theatre often plays such a vital part in expressing and defining it. Theatre is, at its best, a forum where people come together to discover, through their live response to the same event, the feelings and experiences they share with other people; and a sense of national identity is a shared feeling, or it is nothing.

Rough Crossing
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Scotland on Sunday, 16 June 1996

Kenny Ireland’s Royal Lyceum production of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing is the kind of show that makes me feel vaguely ashamed of having any connection with theatre at all. Freely adapted from a Hungarian comedy by Ferenc Molnár, Rough Crossing is a coy little spoof on the genre of 1930s musical comedy, set on an ocean liner crossing from London to New York, and featuring all the usual clichés, from a slightly ageing diva of a leading lady to a scene-stealing drunken steward. Since the plot concerns the tribulations of a pair of musical-comedy writers trying to finish off their latest Broadway opus, the text is also stuffed with self-referring witticisms about the playwright’s art, obviously fascinating to Stoppard, less so to the rest of us.

[…] The trouble is that Stoppard, like many who have embraced Britishness as an adopted nationality, knows only one element of British culture, namely the manners, language, and style of the English upper-middle class; and in this play, he does not even attempt to achieve the moral seriousness and philosophical depth that make that narrow social focus relatively unimportant in most of his work. The result is a sad little joke of a show that sprays messages of class and cultural exclusion around the auditorium like some kind of theatrical bird-scarer.

Home
National Theatre of Scotland
The Scotsman, 27 February 2006

It’s half-past six on a chill February evening in Aberdeen, and a new era in Scottish theatre begins, not with a bang, but with the familiar rattle of a small hopper bus, carrying an audience of excited theatregoers out to the edge of the city. Waiting for us in the Middlefield estate are twenty actors, young and old, professional and community; and six unoccupied flats on the same low-rise staircase, each with a nameplate on the door featuring the word ‘Home’.

For ‘home’ was the theme chosen by the National Theatre of Scotland for its unique launch event, featuring ten site-specific shows in ten locations all over Scotland. […] The new company has achieved a dazzling geographical reach, and a real sense of connection with local communities that has both enabled those communities to re-examine their own story, and given them a new voice on the national stage. It’s been a start, in other words; and, taken as a whole, a brave and imaginative one, designed to smash and rearrange many hostile Scottish preconceptions about theatre. But there are still many miles to travel before Scotland can begin to take this long-neglected art form back into its heart, and into its sense of what home is, and what it might become.


FormattedThe above extracts are taken from Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams by Joyce McMillan, edited by Philip Howard.

The book is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99) click here.

Join the author and a distinguished panel of critics and theatre makers at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, to discuss the remarkable journey of modern Scottish theatre, and to explore the directions it might take in the years to come. Theatre in Scotland: Reflecting the Nation is at the Traverse, 29 June, 7.30pm. Tickets available here.

Photo of Joyce McMillan by Chris Hill.

‘A voice for life’: Max Hafler on teaching voice to young people

For director and voice teacher Max Hafler, good vocal training is vital for young people – and not just for those preparing for a career in the performing arts. Here he explains the benefits of a holistic approach, and how his new book, Teaching Voice:  Workshops for Young Performers, can help teachers and facilitators with little formal experience of voice work to bring out the best in their young people…

 

Our voices are vital components of our lives. We use our voices ­– naturally and instinctively – to express ourselves and to relate to others. We’re also amazingly sensitive to other people’s voices, able to pick up on what a speaker is feeling from the slightest inflection. Our own voice is a source of great power – something we learn almost as soon as we start using it. And it quickly becomes as much a part of our identity as our face or body.

Yet despite this, voice is given very little attention in our schools. Often it is just ignored or dealt with only through the limited pathways of ‘speech and drama’. As so often in education these days, the onus is on a skill being ‘useful’ for prospective employment. Voice is certainly that, of course: we have only to make a list of the jobs that require good clear speech and communication skills to realise how essential it is. But it goes beyond that. Anyone who works in this field knows that the impact of encouraging a young person to explore their voice in a positive, imaginative way is more than just improving their job prospects. Immeasurably more. By doing voice work with a young person, you are literally giving them a ‘voice’. It ought to be part of the social and educational remit of any school, youth theatre or liberal arts course.

I have always felt that whilst the technical element of voice work is important, a holistic approach is essential for the health of our young people. For their voices to become fully expressive, we have to help them connect voice, body, feelings and imagination. Right now I feel that young people are being increasingly denied the opportunity to develop their imaginations by the finished, ready-made images presented to them by mainstream media. I often use an analogy with the way the imagination works when reading a book, as opposed to watching a filmed version of that book. The images created by the filmmakers are never the same as those created by our own imagination, and they never have the same power. When you watch the film of a book you know well, it’s almost always a disappointment. Our imagination is a deeply personal place, and a place of absolute power.

The need to connect up the physical, emotional and imaginative components of our creative selves is at the very core of the acting technique developed by the Russian-American actor, director and teacher Michael Chekhov, a pupil of Stanislavsky. While his technique is used primarily in actor training, I have found it an immensely useful way to awaken and enliven the voice, and reconnect it with our bodies. If we want the sounds we make and the words we speak to really come to life, we have to find a strong impulse for them. And we can do that most effectively through the body and imagination.

MaxHafler2

I have been working with young people on voice and acting for decades in a whole range of settings (youth theatre, university, drama schools, non-vocational courses and special interest groups), and I have long been aware that there are a great many facilitators and teachers who want to employ voice work in their classrooms and studios without necessarily embarking on full-time training. My book, Teaching Voice, is intended to fill that gap. It will serve those with experience in voice teaching, and also those with very little formal experience. As well as offering workshop plans, it provides the reader with a programme of work to develop their own skills. While I fully recognise that approved training courses are invaluable for those who have the time and resources to devote to them, my aim has been to be as helpful as I can to as wide a range of people as possible: anyone who might say ‘I want to teach voice to my young people’. I wanted to address the issues of assessing the needs and desires of any particular group, and the time constraints which exist when we work in youth theatre or school drama clubs. I wanted to give the book a structure that made it flexible enough to be used by new teachers just as readily as by more experienced ones.

MaxHafler1Anyone who has worked with me knows that I am far from being a theorist!  Whilst I wanted to share my ethos throughout the book, above all I wanted it to serve as a solid bedrock for a practical and grounded approach to the work. At the centre of the book is a set of workshop plans which focus on particular areas such as rhythm, projection, realism and Shakespeare, supplemented by micro sessions and a chapter on incorporating voice in productions, both scripted and devised. My approach is to combine traditional vocal training exercises with those that work with the imagination and body. Energetic and visceral exercises such as Consonant Characters and Verbing the Body are included alongside more conventional drills and floor work. Radiating and Receiving, a principle I’ve adopted from Michael Chekhov Technique, is used in tandem with familiar exercises in projection.

This combination of traditional and holistic approaches makes the work much more energetic and engaging – so important, particularly when working with young people. Underlying it all is my belief that voice training is not only for acting, but for life.


FormattedMax Hafler teaches Voice and Chekhov Technique on the BA and MA programmes at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has taught voice in youth theatres all over Ireland for the National Association of Youth Drama. He discusses his work extensively in his own blog: www.maxhafler.wordpress.com.

His book, Teaching Voice: Workshops for Young Performers, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

The photos accompanying this article were taken by Sean O’Meallaigh at a workshop run by Max Hafler with members of Dublin Youth Theatre.

‘Wonder tales’: Philip Pullman and Philip Wilson on staging the Grimm Tales

For Philip Pullman, working on a new version of the Grimm Tales was a ‘dream job’.  Here, he explains why they work so well on the stage, while below, theatre director Philip Wilson describes how he adapted and staged the Tales, and what to consider when staging them yourself…

Philip Pullman: When Penguin Classics asked me if I was interested in writing a fresh version of some of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, I had to suppress a whoop of delight. Actually, I’m not sure that I did suppress it. I’ve always relished folk tales, and the famous Grimm collection is one of the richest of all. It was a dream of a job.

Reading them through carefully and making notes, I was struck again by the freshness, the swiftness, the sheer strangeness of the best of them. I was being asked to choose fifty or so out of the more than two hundred, and there were certainly at least that many that deserved a new outing. The most interesting thing, perhaps, from a dramatic point of view, is that they consist entirely of events: there’s no character development, because the characters are not fully developed three-dimensional human beings so much as fixed, flat types like those of the commedia dell’arte, or like the little cardboard actors (a penny plain, tuppence-coloured) we find in the toy theatre. If we’re looking for psychological depth, we won’t find it in the fairy tale.

Nor is there anything in the way of poetic description or rich and musical language. Princesses are beautiful, forests are dark, witches are wicked, things are as red as blood or as white as snow: it’s all very perfunctory.

What we find instead of these literary qualities is a wonderful freedom and zest, entirely unencumbered by likelihood. The most marvellous or preposterous or hilarious or terrifying events happen with all the swiftness of dreams. They work splendidly for oral telling, and the very best of them have a quality that C.S. Lewis ascribed to myths: we remember them instantly after only one hearing, and we never forget them. The job of anyone telling them again is to do so as clearly as possible, and not let their own personality get in the way.

They can be told, of course, and they can be dramatised, in any of a thousand different ways. They have been many times, and they will be many more. This particular version was very enjoyable for me to read and to watch because Philip Wilson is so faithful to the clarity and the force of the events, just as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were faithful to the talents of the various storytellers whose words they listened to and transcribed two hundred years ago. And they still work.


Wilson, PhilipPhilip Wilson: The Brothers Grimm’s stories have been retold countless times over the past two centuries. Katharine Mary Briggs, Italo Calvino and Marina Warner included versions in their classic collections of fairy tales, and writers such as Angela Carter, Terry Pratchett and Carol Ann Duffy have revelled in inventive variations. In recent years, two films of Snow White appeared, Maleficent re-imagined the story of Sleeping Beauty, Sondheim’s Into the Woods was filmed, and Terry Gilliam gave the lives of the brothers themselves a high-spirited storybook twist in The Brothers Grimm. Moreover, the latest anthropological research indicates that the origins of folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast can be traced back millennia.

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Annabel Betts as Little Red Riding Hood in the 2014 production of Grimm Tales at Shoreditch Town Hall

In 2012, Philip Pullman selected fifty of his favourite Grimm Tales to retell. His intention in doing this, he declared, was ‘to produce a version that was as clear as water’. In the same way, my dramatisations seek to retain the limpid and beautifully crafted character of the original stories. The telling of the Tales is shared between an ensemble of performers, who play husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, princes and princesses, wise kings and wicked witches, snakes and birds.

The original productions, drawing on puppetry, movement and music, were a theatrical celebration of live storytelling. At Shoreditch Town Hall, we brought to life the adventures of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, The Three Snake Leaves, Hans-my-Hedgehog and The Juniper Tree. At Bargehouse, meanwhile, we retold the Tales of The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich, The Three Little Men in the Woods, Thousandfurs, The Goose Girl at the Spring, Hansel and Gretel and Faithful Johannes. Also included in the published volume is my adaptation of The Donkey Cabbage, a story we didn’t find a home for, but is too good to forgo.

This was a deliberately eclectic selection, which embraced a variety of classic story plots – quests and voyages, rags to riches and overcoming monsters – within the core genres of comedy, tragedy, romance… and, sometimes, surrealist farce! Their appeal lay also in how they have echoes of Shakespeare and Ancient Greek tragedy, incorporating as they do rites of passage, ghosts of fathers, animal transformations. And how they embody the themes of human life: births, marriages and deaths; sibling support (or rivalry); parental cruelty; the hardships of poverty; jealousy and desire.

Leda Hodgson and Nessa Matthews in The Goose Girl At The Spring in the 2015 production at Bargehouse on the South Bank

While it is eminently possible to stage these stories in traditional theatre environments, ours was an immersive approach: the audience were divided into groups, and took different journeys through the various parts of the venue. After each Tale, this group was guided by the performers to another space. On their way, they glimpsed images evoking hints of other Tales untold, as they passed through rooms from which other characters seemed to have only just departed – leaving Cinderella’s pile of lentils by an iron stove; Snow White’s glass coffin, along with seven identical small beds; Rumpelstiltskin’s spinning wheel in a shaft of light, in a room with straw on one side and a cloud of gold objects on the other. And so on…

The world of the play was ‘scruffy salvage’: an elemental world of rough-hewn wood, tarnished metal, unrefined cloth. The costumes were tattered, puppets were constructed from found objects, and everyday items were often used in place of the thing described. All were transfomed by the Storytellers’ investment in them. Wooden scrubbing brushes were sewn onto a duffle coat for Hans-my-Hedgehog’s prickly skin; thick rope stood in for Rapunzel’s hair; an enamel coffee pot became a white duck. This approach both ensured that these dark Tales were not prettified, and gave a sense that the performers had drawn on what might lie around them, to supplement and enhance the storytelling. We invited the audience to complete the picture with their imagination.

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The Three Little Men In The Woods, in the Bargehouse production of Grimm Tales

But that is just one approach. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories themselves. You only have to look at how the Tales have been illustrated: a brief internet search will reveal endless depictions in different styles, to offer inspiration. A very brief list might include: Elenore Abbott, Angela Barrett, Edward Burne-Jones, Katharine Cameron, Walter Crane, George Cruikshank, Gustave Doré, Edmund Dulac, David Hockney, Franz Jüttner, Margaret Pocock, Evans Price, Arthur Rackham… In recent years, fairy tales have also been drawn upon by a range of artists, from Paula Rego to the fashion photographer Tim Walker.

Although the stories are uncluttered in language and spare in detail, nonetheless they resonate with all manner of human experience. Philip Pullman is right that on the page, the characters appear flat: these are archetypes, defined by their class, profession or role in society. In fairy tales, people are what they do. This does not mean, though, that there is no room for dramatic characterisation. The stories certainly include tension and conflict. And they deal with universal situations, in which the drama often springs from family ties: the characters could be us.

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Simon Wegrzyn as The Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, in the Shoreditch production of Grimm Tales

In German, fairy tales are known as wonder tales, a term that encourages us to celebrate these fantastic characters and episodes in all their eccentric glory, from the picturesque to the grotesque, and from the magical to the mundane – free, above all, from the sanitisation and lavish naturalism of later versions, not least Disney films.

Although the Tales were written down, shaped and curated by the Brothers Grimm, these stories emerged from oral traditions: they have always been intended to be spoken aloud. There is an innate human desire to gather together and listen to a storyteller, or to witness a group reenacting a tale. My approach has been to divide up the voices among a group of Storytellers. Each Tale starts with some variation on ‘Once…’ (the universally agreed way of starting a story), followed by a brief introduction to the key figures and situation – along with their voices. Thereafter, the words are shared in three modes of speech: dialogue, narration and ‘thinking aloud’. Viewpoint and attitude is crucial throughout. Also, you’ll note how characters move from retelling to reliving events: the intention is always to ensure that the story is immediate, is happening right now – not comfortably in the past.

Philip Pullman compares storytelling to jazz, observing that, ‘the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for a jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can.’ That sense of working in tandem with other players, while retaining an improvisatory quality, is key to staging these Tales. It’s all about the ensemble.

Although any number of these Tales can be told, and in any order, in the original productions more familiar stories were performed first, before the audience was led into darker, less-well-known territories: deeper into the forest. Most importantly, these Tales live most when they are imbued with the imaginations of those who are telling them: so it is not only right but crucial that you find your own path through the text.

Whichever route you take, what’s important is what happens next. Philip Pullman has observed that, ‘Swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.’

My intention has been to tell these Tales with a similar economy, clarity and passion.


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern: I’m delighted to announce that amateur performing rights for Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales are now available on application. Like the very popular Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke, this version of the Tales is a simple but effective adaptation that harnesses the power of storytelling to take audiences into a magical world.

It also offers you great flexibility: there are twelve Tales included in the published playtext, enough for two complete productions, and companies can choose any number and combination to suit their own requirements (the performing rights fee will reflect the number of Tales to be performed). There is also great flexibility in casting. There are more than a hundred potential roles for very large casts, or the play can be staged with just 4f 4m and lots of doubling.

The Tales themselves range from the familiar ones beloved by children everywhere, to the unexpected and yet-to-be-discovered. So there really is something for everyone.

To enquire about performing rights, contact me by email, phone (020 8749 4953) or via the form on our Plays to Perform website.


FormattedPhilip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, adapted for the stage by Philip Wilson, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £8.79 (RRP £10.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Production photographs by Tom Medwell.

‘Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it’: Paul Clayton on being a Working Actor

Clayton, PaulPaul Clayton has been an actor for almost forty years, a career spanning roles in Peep Show, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Hollyoaks and more. As his new book The Working Actor is published, he reflects on how it all started, what it takes to keep going, and how you can make it, too…

In my role as Chairman of the Board of the Actors Centre, I’ve hosted a series of lunchtime interviews with actors at various stages of their careers, helping them share their experience and expertise with others. Partly out of laziness, and partly out of a desire to achieve some sort of commonality in the framework for the interviews, I begin each one with the question: ‘How did it all start? When was that moment that you knew that this was what you wanted to do?’ The answers proved revealing. For Juliet Stevenson, it was reading a poem at school. For Josie Lawrence, it was finding out that she could entertain members of her family. For Douglas Hodge, it was a natural step from being a teenage impressionist. Mark Rylance recalled helping to build the scenery for a high-school play in America. Sir Derek Jacobi remembered a particular feeling as he ran down the street wearing his mother’s wedding veil.

For all of the interviewees, however, one thing was the same. There had been one moment when they knew the only thing they wanted to be was an actor. I think my own particular Damascene conversion happened in Miss Woodcock’s class, late on a Thursday afternoon, in an infant school nestling in the foothills and slag heaps of the Soviet Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Having press-ganged Susan Clarke and Christine Evans into sharing the stage with me, I played the role of a heroic soldier battling for his loved one against the forces of an evil witch. Imaginatively titled Evil Spirits, and with its envelope-pushing casting of myself as the heroic, and no doubt heterosexual, soldier, it entertained the other members of our class for nearly ten minutes. I remember the applause, and I remember thinking: ‘I like this.’ From that moment on, I can honestly say that I knew what I wanted to be. An actor. I was seven.

Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it, is what my new book The Working Actor is about. I’ve managed to do that now for nearly forty years, something of which I am proud. I’ve spent a great deal of time unemployed. There have been weeks when seven imaginative ways with a baked potato has been my diet. Approaching sixty, I’d like to think I can call myself ‘a Working Actor’. It says ‘actor’ on my passport, and it says ‘actor’ on my tax return. I make a living out of it, and I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I always wanted and that I still enjoy.

No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor.

Luck is obviously a great part of success, and that has to be acknowledged. Luck can be helped along, though, and working hard at your career will bring its own rewards. Understanding the business, how it works, and your place in it, is crucial. How to look at the work that is out there, the jobs, the opportunities, and how to talk to people who have the power to give you those jobs, and to give you those opportunities. To find out how they make their choices. To find out what you can do to maximise the chance of their choice being you. That’s what the book aims to do. To help you manage your day-to-day life as an actor. No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor. A Working Actor.

One of the most important pieces of advice I think I’ve ever been given was from a fabulous old tutor called John McGregor at my drama school. He’d been a young hopeful at the RSC in the mid-fifties, alongside Olivier and Ian Holm. It hadn’t worked for John in terms of stardom, but it had worked for him in terms of being a Working Actor. When he was our technique tutor at Manchester Polytechnic in the mid-seventies, he was still regularly appearing in television dramas and making a good living out of his acting. His mantra was one I have tried to follow ever since:

‘Every day do at least one thing that might lead to work, and then get on with living your life.’

I think what he was trying to say was don’t let the whole of your life be consumed by being an out-of-work actor. Don’t forget to be a person. People buy people. So often in audition situations, sitting on the other side of the table, I have seen people come in absolutely desperate for the job to the point where I have had no chance to get to know them as a person. As a result, there is no hook with which I have been able to engage with them. They haven’t got the job.

The Working Actor consists of twenty-six subjects. An eclectic mix, and made as a result of my own individual choice. At the end of each article is a work task. So, on the basis of Mr McGregor’s mantra, my book gives you at least five weeks of one thing to do each day before getting on with your life. Assuming you take the weekend off! Not all of them may apply to everyone, but if just one of them leads to something, then I have done my job.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is.

There may be a lucky few who, after leaving drama school, will jump from job to job, but for the vast majority it will be a constant fight, a struggle, to keep that employment as continuous as possible. It will require huge reserves of energy and focus to cope with unemployment, and it will rely on a constant input of imagination and creativity to maximise the opportunities that come along.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is, and that’s how you have to treat it and behave in it if you are to succeed.

I sincerely hope that The Working Actor helps. Helps you on a day-to-day basis. Helps you to manage your career as a business, and to maximise your potential. Above all, I hope it helps you realise those childhood dreams.


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The Working Actor by Paul Clayton is published this week by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit our website here.

Join the author in conversation with Miss L (Twitter’s @ProResting) to discover the essential steps to building a successful career. A Samuel French event at Camden People’s Theatre, Monday 9 May, 8-9pm, booking required.

Victoria Wood: ‘Giving Notes’

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We were saddened by the death of Victoria Wood this week – she was a gleeful, mischievous presence on our screens for so many years, and will be sorely missed. Here’s a reminder of her talent in her sketch included in the RSC’s The Shakespeare Revue – appropriately enough as we commemorate the death of William Shakespeare 400 years ago. In this sketch, ‘Giving Notes’, the director of an amateur production of Hamlet offers the cast some priceless advice…

Right. Bit of hush please. Connie! Thank you. Now that was quite a good rehearsal; I was quite pleased. There were a few raised eyebrows when we let it slip the Piecrust Players were having a bash at Shakespeare but I think we’re getting there. But I can’t say this too often: it may be Hamlet but it’s got to be Fun Fun Fun!

Now we’re still very loose on lines. Where’s Gertrude? I’m not so worried about you – if you ‘dry’ just give us a bit of business with the shower cap. But Barbara – you will have to buckle down. I mean, Ophelia’s mad scene, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remem­brance’ – it’s no good just bunging a few herbs about and saying, ‘Don’t mind me, I’m a loony’. Yes?

Right, Act One Scene One, on the ramparts. Now I know the whist table is a bit wobbly, but until Stan works out how to adapt the Beanstalk it’ll have to do. What’s this? Atmosphere? Yes – now what did we work on, Philip? Yes, it’s midnight, it’s jolly cold. What do we do when it’s cold? We go ‘Brrr’, and we do this (slaps hands on arms). Right, well don’t forget again, please. And cut the hot-water bottle, it’s not working.

Where’s my ghost of Hamlet’s father? Oh yes, what went wrong tonight, Betty? He’s on nights still, is he? OK. Well, it’s not really on for you to play that particular part, Betty – you’re already doing the Player Queen and the back legs of Hamlet’s donkey. Well, we don’t know he didn’t have one, do we? Why waste a good cossy?

Hamlet – drop the Geordie, David, it’s not coming over. Your characterisation’s reasonably good, David, but it’s just far too gloomy. Fair enough, make him a little bit depressed at the beginning, but start lightening it from Scene Two, say from the hokey-cokey onwards.

Polonius, try and show the age of the man in your voice and in your bearing, rather than waving the bus-pass. I think you’ll find it easier when we get the walking frame. Is that coming, Connie? OK.

The Players’ scene: did any of you feel it had stretched a bit too . . . ? Yes. I think we’ll go back to the tumbling on the entrance, rather than the extract from Barnum. You see, we’re running at six hours twenty now, and if we’re going to put those soliloquies back in . . .

Gravediggers? Oh yes, gravediggers. The problem here is that Shakespeare hasn’t given us a lot to play with – I feel we’re a little short on laughs, so Harold, you do your dribbling, and Arthur, just put in anything you can remember from the Ayckbourn, yes?

The mad scene: apart from lines, much better, Barbara – I can tell you’re getting more used to the straitjacket. Oh – any news on the skull, Connie? I’m just thinking, if your little dog pulls through, we’ll have to fall back on papier mâché. All right, Connie, as long as it’s dead by the dress . . .

That’s it for tonight then; thank you. I shall expect you all to be word-perfect by the next rehearsal. Have any of you realised what date we’re up to? Yes, April the twenty-seventh! And when do we open? August! It’s not long!


Here’s a version of the sketch performed by Julie Walters:


Shakespeare RevueThe above is an extract from The Shakespeare Revue compiled by Christopher Luscombe and Malcolm McKee, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘Hockey sticks and navy knicks’: Kath Gotts on Crush: The Musical

Gotts, Kath 2015-2_croppedWhen Kath Gotts and Maureen Chadwick started writing a musical about the pupils at an all-girls school rebelling against their tyrannical headmistress, they didn’t know it would take decades to reach the stage. But when it finally opened in 2015,  Crush was acclaimed as a hilarious blend of Malory Towers and St Trinian’s – a family-friendly hit with a touch of subversiveness. Here, as the script is published for others to perform, composer-lyricist Kath Gotts explains the appeal of schoolgirl fiction, and why it’s perfect for a musical…

Crush has a short title, but it took a long time – possibly a record-breakingly long time – to reach the stage.

Maureen Chadwick 2015

Maureen Chadwick

The show was first conceived when I was not that long out of school uniform myself, when the tragi-comic emotional territory of first love and adolescent angst was sadly rather fresh in my memory. Maureen [Chadwick, who wrote the book for the musical] and I decided we wanted to write a musical together and with our shared delight in Fred and Ginger movies we had a mission to write our own version of a romantic comedy in classic book musical form. Inspired by our love of the British tradition of schoolgirl fiction – from Malory Towers to St Trinian’s, and the old Girl’s Own annuals – we thought it would be great fun to write a musical set in that world. In fact, we were amazed that nobody else had got there before us and that here was this whole rich genre as yet unpilfered by musical-theatre writers, with its own distinctive milieu and lingo, and the schoolgirl crush providing new love-story material for musical-comedy treatment.

We entered the very embryonic Crush (then called Sugar and Spice) for the 1989 Vivian Ellis Prize for New Musicals – three songs and a synopsis. We were thrilled to find we’d made it into the televised final. When asked to describe the show I cheerfully explained that it was a traditional romantic musical – just a simple case of ‘girl meets girl, girl loses girl, one girl finds a boy and the other one finds another girl’. We’d heard that Cameron Mackintosh was rooting for us, but on the big day itself he unfortunately wasn’t there in person and the rest of the panel seemed altogether perplexed by a love song from one schoolgirl to another – one suggested that he could imagine the show appealing to the ‘old men in macs’ brigade. Naturally, we didn’t win.

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Catherine Hayworth, Eleanor Brown, Georgia Oldman and Emma Harrold in Crush. Photo by Robert Day.

Crush isn’t so much a musical of its time as a musical that has had to wait its time. Back in the late eighties and nineties the very notion of celebrating a romance between schoolgirls was seen as radically subversive. Most of the cast of the 2015 premiere at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry weren’t even born in 1988 when Section 28 came into force. Finally, however, the new Crush has emerged into a world where a light, frothy, show featuring a schoolgirl romance can be seen as what we always wanted it to be – a big-hearted show for all the family.

The love story in Crush is innocently played out – it represents a quest for self-expression and the claiming of one’s own true identity. Our story is set in a hitherto idealistic and liberal girls’ boarding school – Dame Dorothea Dosserdale School for Girls – which has recently been taken over by the tyrannical and repressive headmistress, Miss Bleacher (who has a couple of great belter numbers to help make her point). The first targets for her new moral crusade are two girls accused of ‘indecent and unnatural behaviour’ in the art room after hours, and the race is on to identify and expel them.

Sara Crowe, Georgia Oldman, James Meunier, Rosemary Ashe and Kirsty Malpass. Photo by Robert Day.

Like Elle Woods – the not-so-dumb blonde in Legally Blonde – or Tracy Turnblad – the not-so-slim girl with a beehive in Hairspray – our heroine Susan Smart is an outsider, a clever scholarship girl who loves another girl. Only it’s the wrong one. Susan has to navigate her way through her first lessons in love and learn to stand up for herself and her right to love whomever she chooses. And everyone else has to stand up and be counted too in order to save the school and everything it stands for. The girls are aided in this by the trusty Deputy Head, Miss Austin, and by a mysterious new games mistress, Miss Givings – who rallies their team spirit in the tap-dancing hockey number ‘Navy Knicks’. There’s also Benny the oddjob boy, who is not at all who he seems and is set to throw a romantic cat among the pigeons in Act Two when we run away to London…

The musical style has a nod to Irving Berlin and Julian Slade mixed with early sixties pop and some jazzy overtones. I like to think there’s a flavour of innocent sophistication to the songs! Steven Edis has done some wonderful arrangements for a band of seven players and it’s a thoroughly joyful musical – plenty of laughs, smiles and a few tears along the way.

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Georgia Oldman, Charlotte Miranda-Smith and Stephanie Clift. Photo by Robert Day.

Like our previous musical, Bad Girls The Musical [which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2006, before transferring to the West End in 2007), Crush is written for a predominantly female cast. Both shows are set in all-female environments – Bad Girls is set in a women’s prison – where the action and stories are driven by the female characters. If you apply the Bechdel test to either of these shows – does it (1) feature at least two roles for women who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man – they pass with flying colours! Professor Rosemary Auchmuty – who wrote a piece for the Crush programme, reproduced in the published playtext – has written extensively about how the all-female worlds of schoolgirl fiction have been so empowering to the young women who have devoured those books since they first started appearing as early as the eighteenth century. They showed that girls and women could be the protagonists in their own stories, and that whatever derring-do was required, they too could fulfil those roles.

The world of schoolgirl fiction is ripe for musical comedy, but it also has great heart and integrity. A lot of people assume that Daisy Pulls It Off was a musical – but it actually only included the school song.  Crush takes on some of that same flavour but is less of a direct parody. We always used to say that we wanted our artistic style to be ‘subversion by seduction’. In other words, make whatever you’re doing thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable and get your message across with a smile. Crush is an idealistic show – but it’s not simplistic. Like a good pint of Guinness, there are creamy bubbles on top but a deeply delicious pint underneath.

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Brianna Ogunbawo, Charlotte Miranda-Smith, Eleanor Brown, Sara Crowe, Stephanie Clift, Catherine Hayworth, Emma Harrold and Jennifer Potts. Photo by Robert Day.

We were really thrilled when Nick Hern approached us about publishing Crush. Not only is it a wonderful culmination of its long journey to the stage, but more importantly it also represents the possibility of new beginnings for the show, with potential productions by amateur theatre companies, schools and youth groups. We know from our workshops and from our first production that Crush is a really fun show to perform, and we can’t wait for others to have a crack at it.

So ‘Put on your navy knicks, Pick up your hockey sticks’ and let’s all say ‘Bully Off’ for Crush!


Watch the trailer for the 2015 touring production of Crush:


FormattedCrush: The Musical, the complete book and lyrics by Maureen Chadwick and Kath Gotts, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.