There’s a graph that maps confidence against experience which theorises that the most confident people are those who know almost nothing. This curve, called the Dunning-Kruger curve, then goes on to imply that the more you learn, the less confident you become until you eventually hit a deep plateau of profound unconfidence; An unsettling trough where despite knowing more, you lack certainty about what you are doing. Slowly but surely past this point you gain confidence but even when you reach a point of total knowledge, you will never be as confident as those with almost no knowledge at all.
This what the curve looks like
I have come to realise that this curve speaks to my experience of developing musical theatre in a profound way.
Firstly, those who know almost nothing are the most sure about what the form is - those unburdened with the understanding of the numerous interlocking difficulties of crafting a story that is woven with music. And worryingly, most of the people who know a lot about the form feel burdened with the pitfalls, challenges and options that face them as they draw disparate elements into a satisfying and well formed whole. As such there is a dangerous arrogance that comes from those who despite knowing nothing feel fully equipped to barge into a form carelessly and tell the world what they think it should be.
These people make shows with poorly thought out scene into song moments, songs that flatly emote and scenes that over-explain themselves alongside songs that repeat and restate rather than deepen and reframe. Shows full of archetypes and cliches that mock and undermine the form they are supposedly a part of. Next time you see a show I would ask you to wonder where those who make it are on this startling journey. And perhaps also wonder why somehow musical theatre allows those who know the most to be damned for their lack of swagger and confidence despite their skills, talents and passion. I have seen many brilliant and caring writers on a self esteem free-fall as their knowledge and passion is turned against them in a system that regularly promotes the careless due to their prior fame or status in other forms.
But the curve also speaks to the journey of developing a new show. A new show is full of confidence and promise. Of bright, exciting ideas. Of passion and shimmer. But as a show gets developed, it and those making it begin to understand just how hard a task it really is to fashion a decent musical. One where all the pieces fit. And as the journey of making a show progresses, the show becomes less confident.
I have come to realise that in the UK, the process of sharing and workshopping new work often comes as the piece enters the terrifying chasm of the trough of the Dunning-Kruger curve. That is the place where we mostly ask audiences to judge what we are making, where we ask investors and theatres what they think. Where we wonder most whether or not to keep going. And most people see a show lacking swagger and confidence and presume that the show is never going to work.
But I would say that this moment is precisely when the show needs to keep going. To ascend the curve towards expertise and towards the best and fullest version of itself. But often even that show feels less confident than the bright shiny idea of its embryonic self. The reality is, the idea is almost always better than the outcome. The perfect platonic musical has to be something real.
I suppose what I want to say is. Let musicals get to the other side of the curve. We have to stop seeing shows at the bottom of the curve and make the presumption that they don’t work.
Whether talking about ill equipped writers, or early stage shows, I think we should try our best to look past the level of confidence a show displays and start to consider the expertise too.
Since first being made aware of this curve. I see it everywhere. I find it funny that it looks like a smile. I find it less funny that I and so many live our creative lives in the middle. But every so often, shows get to the other side. They get there through belief and perseverance and love and expertise. Through respect and time and resource and passion.
Development isn’t a straight line. It’s a curve. And if you ever feel like you’re at the bottom, maybe that’s not the time to give up. Maybe it’s the time to keep going.
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In other news I wanted to draw your attention to a new theatre company I am starting with Lia Buddle. It is called Timelapse and we will make music theatre inspired by Identity, Technology and Catastrophe.
You can read all about what we are up to at timelapsetheatre.com and join our mailing list and find our various social media accounts. I would love it if you might consider giving us a follow. We have some exciting things lined up for 2023 and we can’t wait to share them.
Finally if you’re looking for a Christmas present then do consider buying a copy of my book BREAKING INTO SONG. It’s currently on sale if you buy it through the publisher so grab yourself a bargain.
Sorry for not publishing a newsletter in a while. I’ve been taking a bit of a break but I’m getting back into it, starting here.
See you all soon,
The curve is fascinating. I wonder if it works for any creative process, even on a personal level. What limited experience I've had as a creator is to go from confident enthusiasm ("Hey, this is a great idea!") to mild despair ("Ugh, this was the worst idea!") to somewhere inbetween ("Well, it's not completely awful and I suppose it'll have to do..."). There's a good Ben Folds song, "A Working Day", that describes it well. So, maybe even folks like him go through something similar.
As far as developing new musicals goes, I can't help wondering why the bottom of the curve comes at the workshop stage, the point at which more and more people are involved. I'm guessing that it would be easier to get through that stage with fewer people. I often hear writers say, "Well, we didn't know if it would work until it was on its feet". Ideally, what's needed is the kind of expertise that knows what works before a show gets on its feet, so that you can get through the bottom of the curve with the least number of people involved. I don't know if such expertise exists or is even possible. But it feels as if that early stage development is key.
Anyway, great article and best of luck with the new venture.
Superbly perceptive. As usual.