#15 - What If?
Why I made a solo show at 36
I have always loved multidisciplinary theatre. Shows where there are multiple simultaneous layers being used to tell a story and creating a full sensory experience. It is one of the main reasons I gravitated towards a career in musical theatre. Musicals use music, text, lighting, video, scenic wizardry, movement all at the same time to share an experience. A part of the way they work is via overwhelm; by stacking simultaneous information on top of the same moment, the key parts of a story are told in many ways at the same time. I always liked the way this made my brain feel. Like it was shining the story through a stained glass window to create many different colours of story out of the same dramatic material.
But I quickly noticed that there were many different types of multidisciplinary work that used related skills to make but were made by different parts of the theatrical spectrum. Musicals were often made by different people to those who made opera. Movement pieces were often made by different people to those making innovative multimedia theatre. Devised maker led work was created by a different group to those making complex multi disciplinary plays in the west end. But they were all using the same tools, only in different ways.
I always used to feel like these people were at similar parties with similar music playing, with similar snacks, in similar rooms, with similar guests. But they were all in separate rooms at their own parties.
Every so often, someone would travel between rooms. A movement director like Steven Hoggett known for making complex movement based devised work at Frantic Assembly would find his way over to the West End to craft the movement for Harry Potter. A choreographer like Katie Prince known for making dance theatre would find herself choreographing a West end musical. Katie Mitchell made text based revivals for years before moving over to Opera and Devised work. But the transit of creatives from one room to the other is rare. People like to stay in their rooms. Or perhaps the industry prefers people to remain where they are. Imagining them only to be what they have always been.
A lot of my friends make devised theatre. A lot of people I met in my first years in theatre and some of those I went to university with made work by occupying rooms with groups of collaborators to slowly craft new work based on fragments of stories both real and fictional. They went to drama schools to study devised theatre and use movement, music, multimedia and accumulated text formulated among non hierarchical groups to craft shows over a number of years that would tour a different circuit of theatres to the ones I spent time in. They toured festivals with their 60-75 minute shows that although crafted differently, felt tonally and aesthetically related to the work I wanted to make. But they were at a different party. With different training, discourse, awards and guests. They often called themselves theatre makers, they took on the roles of other types of theatre but in less rigid ways. They wore multiple hats, they switched hats all the time.
I always used to say that musical theatre and devised theatre had a lot in common. They required the collaboration of a group to form a piece that was intrinsically multidisciplinary. It felt like they could learn a lot from each other. But they rarely found themselves in the same room. I often found myself aspiring to use devised processes in my rehearsal rooms. Ones where everyone had a voice no matter their perceived role to help curate and craft the overall experience. But time and again I also found that the heights of musical theatre aspired towards a more rigid sense of hierarchy. Of roles. Of me doing my job and you doing yours. The sense was that the best pieces get made by writing them first, then rehearsing them.
I had always wanted to make a piece of theatre in this other way but it felt clear that I had picked my path and that I should remain at the party I had decided to attend when I was 22. I would make musical theatre in the way it is made, for the venues it is traditionally made. I would grow up to expand and elevate this practice until I found myself on bigger stages. That was how careers worked. So I went to my friends' shows, I went to theatre festivals. I admired other types of multidisciplinary work from afar. But every so often I would think “I would like to make a show like that”. But I never did.
Then in 2019 I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I was told there was a chance I might die and suddenly time ceased to move in a straight line. I found it folding back on itself. At 34 years old I suddenly wondered if it was time to start again. I remembered myself at 5 and 15 and 22. I thought about the slow road I was walking down in the same direction I was walking and wondered if it wasn’t time to try some new paths. I wondered if it might be time to make a show like that.
My oncologist, my therapist and my surgeon all told me they had never met a patient who talked about cancer like me. They said that as an artist, I might well be able to make something useful out of my diagnosis. My oncologist added “Very few people manage to make something useful out of cancer”.
One other important thing was that I was nearly a doctor. I studied medicine for three years based on the idea that I loved science and I loved people. But in the end I realised it wasn’t for me. But 15 years later I realised that knowing a little about medicine, a little about cancer and a lot about theatre, that maybe I could make something useful out of this all.
Camden People's Theatre is a place I admire. It is one of London’s most prestigious homes for maker-led devised work. I had been to a lot of shows there. I had admired a lot of shows there. I had often wondered if I could make a show like that in a place like that. I had those skills, I had those collaborators, but I had never made a show like that.
In 2019 they advertised for their Starting Blocks scheme. A weekly funded residency for artists making their first devised show. It was primarily an opportunity for young artists taking their first steps into the industry, but there was no age limit for applications, so I applied. I pitched a show about my cancer journey. About what it taught me and was teaching me about myself, about the world, about medicine, about people. A show about scans, and music, and fear, and courage, and faith, and family, and healing. I could use everything I knew about technology, music, storytelling, and movement to make theatre in a new way. Theatre about something sad, and funny, and inevitable and empowering. Much to my surprise I was accepted to the group.
I have spent three years alongside my usual party in my usual room of musical theatre devising a show. Camden People's Theatre supported me through Starting Blocks, they then commissioned a Digital work in progress streamed from my flat during Covid. They then supported me through a work in progress sharing of the piece from their rehearsal room and finally they commissioned a full version of the piece which premieres next month. I am making a show. I am working on the show as a writer, performer, composer and director with a brilliant team of collaborative artists and friends.
After a lifetime of making art that is largely judged successful by its commercial viability I was given my first ever Arts Council grant to fund this piece. The piece is the first I have ever made that is funded so it doesn’t need to be constrained by the immediate need to make money. Everyone on the team can be paid to make the best thing that we can make. Perhaps it is a sign that this is the first piece of work that has truly dug deep into the trials and experiences of my actual life. My life as a Jewish man who was nearly a doctor, but who loved music and stories enough to choose a different path.
The piece is called ‘But What If You Die?’. It is part gig, part lecture, part storytelling piece and is about parallel universes, multiple versions of me and the way the different moments of our lives all exist at the same time during big moments of change. It is about the versions of us that live alongside us. The me that was nearly a doctor, the me that makes theatre, the me that never had cancer, the me that did. It is about learning to live with the baggage that we all live with.
Unlike musical theatre it is written as it is rehearsed and rehearsed as it is written. It is devised. I make the piece in fits and starts; I do some writing and I do some improvising. Slowly fragments magnetise to the piece, and to me. The piece forms itself out of a blur of theme, tone, narrative and aesthetic. It is about me but made by a group of many people. It is mostly the truth but also some of it is guessed or imagined too.
It is weird and scary to be at a new party at 36. The natural introvert in me wonders if I should have stayed in the surroundings I already knew. But something big happened to me and it made me want to reflect on where I have been all these years and find a new place to belong at the same time.
If you’d like to see what I’ve been making then you can come to the Camden People's Theatre from 10th-14th May. For those who can’t get there in person I will also be livestreaming and recording the piece. We all spend a lot of time wondering ‘What if?’. I know I do. So I made a new choice. Standing on my own on a stage is probably one of the weirdest and scariest things I’ve ever done. But it’s better than asking What If?
I recently wrote a book about musical theatre called Breaking Into Song. It is 200 pages of manifestos, theories and hopes for musical theatre and is written to get anyone and everyone thinking about musical theatre in a new way no matter their preconceptions.
Lyn Gardner called it 'A passionate and cogently argued call to arms and a very enjoyable read.' and Alan Cumming said ‘This book is a fascinating cri de coeur and made me question everything I think about musicals.'
Here is an actual photo of it on the table at Foyles this week!
If you fancy picking up a copy you can get it at Foyles but the best place to buy it online is from my amazing Publisher Salamander Street.
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