Devising a new musical

I have spent the last few weeks working on a show called 'Notes to Self' with the 2nd year Musical Theatre students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The brief is simple in principle, create a show where the students generate all the material themselves. In practice this kind of work has a number of significant challenges but l have a lot of experience working on projects with multiple writers and, sometimes, hundreds of participants. I thought it may be helpful for anyone else who is looking to devise with large groups if I documented how we did it, the techniques used to create ideas and how modern technology can really make life easier.

We are transported back into the 1950's. Photo by Kevin Robertson

Generating Ideas

We started in traditional devised theatre territory. I asked everyone to bring in a photo and a object, these were then left together in a little pile. Another actor would look at these objects, some which made sense (e.g. a picture of a snow storm and some gloves) and others where the link wasn't quite so obvious. They would imagine that this picture and object were being sent in a package to A.N. Other. They wrote an accompanying letter that filled in the gaps as to why this was being sent, this creates at least two characters (the sender and the receiver) and normally a firm sense of place and time as well. Then, in groups, we read the letters and looked at the objects and we improvised scenes that either led up to the letter being written or were events that happened after the letter was written. There is something in the idea that levels of separation help the group to deal with the material in an objective way. The person who brought the material in is different to the person who wrote the letter who is then different to the group working on the scene. It also creates, right from the start, the feeling that being precious about your personal work isn't important, it's about serving the whole story. Fight for your ideas but be prepared to bin them if they aren't working.
The cast brought a photo and objects in, they then had to join the dots
We watched the scenes that the groups had created and various themes started to come out. Initially, of course, all the stories are quite different and disparate but, in my experience, it is remarkable how recurring themes always seems to come out. The idea of time was a very important theme in this process, there was talk of a watch being handed down through the ages which led us into thinking of a structure similar to the book Cloud Atlas, completely separate stories with an underlying link. This was a good starting point, ultimately we moved away from this idea but it fired off all kinds of interesting stories.

The cast reading a letter out to stimulate ideas
All the information was being written down and we started to bash heads together, discussing ideas, improvising around them and seeing what worked. I can't stress how important it is to have the cast open enough to try new things whilst also being able to receiving criticism at this early stage, it sets up an attitude to the work that will only serve to help you further on in the process. By the end of our first two days we had a fair idea where we were going, the idea of analogue and digital time was coming to the fore and it seemed like there was a great deal of purchase in this idea. Characters from the letters were mostly gone, but some were sticking and this was starting to help us move on.
As ideas were generated we were careful to write everything down
The process after getting these ideas is all about hard work and compromise. We rated the larger story ideas we had and decided what ones to bin and what ones to pursue. We then broke the story that was developing before us into scenes (we didn't think about the possibility of staging such scenes, the thinking is that if we can write it then we work out how to stage it). There are some really useful books and articles out there to help refine your understanding of how stories work and how they can be structured.  I highly recommend, 'Into the Wood' by John Yorke as a good breakdown of why certain structures work (rather than a dummies guide that tries to tell you how to write). I also try and keep Pixar's rules of storytelling in the back of my mind when doing this work. I couldn't agree with number 7 more - endings ARE hard. We definitely struggled with this and, with hindsight, I think getting our ending sooner than we did would have ironed out a number of problems we had earlier on with getting the script to work.

Breaking the story down into parts is the most cerebral part of the process and can quickly become exhausting when working in a large group. It's important to encourage people to offer ideas and, if those ideas then get knocked back by the rest of the group, to get them keep coming up with more. If somebody feels that they are being left out or their ideas are being entirely rejected then they will distance themselves from the process and it can be hard to get them back. So see how you can perhaps piggy-back onto an idea that's almost right but not quite there to keep that person engaged in the process. Vice-cersa, you need to cool the dominating forces without dismissing them so there is space for everyone to have ideas. As I say, it is exhausting but, by then end, you should have a big list of scenes that tell a coherent story that everybody has contributed to. As I was there as a director but in an educational environment I also felt it important to offer advice but to allow the students to really guide the work, so trying to keep your own ideas and impulses in check can be a challenge in itself!

As this is musical theatre we are dealing with, the next stage was to spot the songs. Once we had done this (and we knew that some would be in the wrong place and some dramatic moments would need a song that we had missed) I handed out scenes and songs to individuals or pairs (depending on their skill-set) and they all went home to write.  The document we had ended up with looked like this.

Writing the script

First off, Google Docs is the best tool I have come across to work on a project like this. It's free, you can set it so that you can invite people who don't have google accounts (which is rare as Youtube accounts are the same thing, but still...) who can still read the document or edit it. I had a group of ten, all of whom would be writing different scenes and songs. We set up a rule that you could only write on your own scene and you could leave comments on other people's work but only myself and the writer of that scene could actually change it.

Google Docs is a great resource for working with multiple writers

Having one document that everyone works on together is a brilliant bonus. People can see what direction the characters/story is heading in, they can get a feel for the other scenes and can make sure that their scene fits into the style that everyone else is using. My initially impulse is a fear that a particular writer loses their individual voice, but in this kind of process you are trying to get the whole group to be on the same page, and therefore the writing should be the voice of the group and not the individuals.  This takes a great deal of re-writing to achieve. We found once we started rehearsal that the scene consistently changed to make sure the voice and tone of the piece was the same throughout.

We set up a facebook page where people could chat, ask questions, put up photos or music that inspired them - all whilst adding text to the main script. I would look at the scenes and leave comments, students who were struggling with scenes would enter some sort of text but with a note to say they were finding it hard and we would team them up with others in the group to help so the whole thing was ticking along.

One thing that I feel is useful is to make sure everyone uses the same formatting, for stage directions, song lyrics etc. This may seem petty but in the end I wanted a cohesive script that felt like it was created by one entity. We didn't fully succeed in this and I spent a lot of time tabbing text and putting stage direction into italics and the like, but it's worth it so that by the end it's a cohesive whole and not a collection of disparate scenes.  We then moved into rehearsal which, to start with, involved hearing and learning some of the brilliant songs that the cast had prepared. Our musical director, Gavin Whitworth, would then work with the actors to make the songs achieve their full potential. Here's day one of the opening number 'Stuck':

We started to move through the play, looking at the songs and the scenes as they came. This is where Google Docs moves into it's own league. A number of the actors had an ipad or a smartphone, I could sit with the Google Doc in front of me, if we wanted to change the script I could type it as the actors were improvising and the document would change in real-time on their smart devices. This not only saves huge amounts of paper it allows us to move on quicker and ensures everyone's script is the same. Of course there comes a point in the process where this virtual document becomes real so that actors can do whatever work they normally do (such as finding their objectives and actioning), but in creating material with multiple writers I can't recommend this approach enough. We used ipads and phones well into the rehearsal process and everybody was contributing towards the content of each scene, so by the end the line between who wrote what was blurred as it was a collective effort.

The Final Stage

This is my good self with the cast discussing something about the set...
As we progressed through the play there were various issues that we encountered. A song missing here, an out of place scene there... This sometimes required the cast to work very quickly in filling the gaps. There was one song in particular that, by the last day of tech, we still did not have, so we created it on the stage as a group - and as we were writing it the lighting designer was lighting it! This sounds like it could be very stressful but actually I find it to be the exact opposite, it's about not worrying about having a fixed point - a place where the show is perfect and can't be touched. We can always add, we can always cut. So long as your entire team from stage management to the actors is up for it then it's an exciting way to work.
From a directors point of view you need to be careful to make sure all the actors have enough time to embody the new material. There are some actors who will learn material and change things no bother at all, and there are some who take a bit longer. There is nothing worse (for all involved) than putting an unprepared actor in front of an audience, so you have to make sure you do your best to give people a reasonable amount of time to get comfortable with the new scene/song/line/dance/whatever, this amount of time will be different for each individual.

So the piece is made, and we are into week three or so of our process. This is show week! We then spend our time doing the kind of stuff that we would have done on week one in a traditional play. Looking at objectives and actions whilst always refining the script. I made sure the actors objectives were pinned up behind them off-stage so that they could reference them before they entered the scene. You can have a look at the document we made here.

We ended up with a musical play that is fun, coherent and extremely warm. The cast clearly have ownership of the work and are excited to show it to the public, that feeling of wanting to share is palpable, they are not running away from the material. Of course there are bits that work better than others (a number of them decisions that I have made) but this is theatre, to make a perfect show is impossible! Throughout the process there has been risk taking and openness, attempting to create the best show that we can.

I hope that writing about how I set about creating this work may inspire others to do the same or to try a new approach next time around. You can visit our google docs page here to read the final version of the script. Below are a number of production shots taken by Kevin Robertson and Emily Rowan.


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