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November 14, 2007

Writing process (my goodness!)

I am mid-way through a writing "commission" for the MTW review, and I have suddenly noticed that I am working with a strange sense of "process" - on some bizarre level, I have become aware that I have approahced the project in a certain manner, that I am continuing in a certain other manner, and that by the end of it I will know exactly how I would do it if I ever had to do it again, and I would be able to do it better. Now, since ICW is at least half about "Process", it seems only fair that I should share that with you.

But allow me to rewind the tape a little. I jumped in at the start of this little ramble talking about "a writing commisssion for the MTW review". Some of you might now be hammering "WTF?" into your keyboard in surprise and derision. Allow me to explain. This year, the Music Theatre Warwick review show is being headed up by a pair of (clearly insane) visionaries; Genevieve Raghu and Natasha haven't-learnt-her-surname-yet-whoops. Their mission? To take what is traditionally a paper-thin excuse to produce a collection of unrelated songs from different musicals, and increase the thicknes of the paper. That's my job - I've got to get it up to cardboard strength.

I'm aware I sound quite off-hand there, but don't think I have anything other than absolute faith in the project. It's a good idea - a review is traditionally just a series of unrelated songs, and Jenny and Tash made the decision very early that by theming the songs around a location (in this case, a cabaret night-club), they could produce a show with considerably more substance - and established sense of place, world, identity and so on.

It happened that, one night in the art's centre, I bumped into Jenny. She attempted to court me into auditioning but, aware that I have the singing voice of a folk musician (somewhere between a broken violin and a bobcat), I declined. But I volunteered my services as a scrivener; I could create joining segments of dialogue that would tie the songs together. And just like that, I slipped into the gravity well of the show and was caught.

What does it consist of? At present, I'm doing just what I volunteered for, writing up the dialogue that stitches the scenes together. That's the easiest part so far (ignoring the deadline, of course - tomorow). But actually working out the interactions that need to happen between characters, and even the order of the songs, has been insanely difficult.

The songs contain pre-existing character relations and interactions. So, certain things have to happen. But, the songs must also be spaced out to maintain energy - five ballads in a row is not allowed, the big chorus numbers can only go start / middle / end of an act. Then there must be justifications for why certain people are in a certain relation to someone else, ie why he is singing a song to her about being not the right man for him. This little doozy is predicated by the actors chosen to sing the various songs, as their vocal limits and personas affect what it is they can sing...

Here's an attempt at a schema, showing all the different restrictions I found on potential character interactions;

  1. The singers voices. These affect who is singing which songs. The decisions have already been made by the directors. This sn't too much of a problem in most cases - singers are allowed to double up on characters. But, suppose a female lead is set up for a tearful goodbye at the end of one song, and then immediately has a minor (but named part) as someone utterly different in the next? Tricky.
  2. The type of song. This constricts which songs can go one after the other, and consequently which of the blocks of unchangeable narative can happen one after the other. So what if the ballad a) (he loves me) feeds brilliantly into ballad b) (I can't admit to loving her) and then into ballad c) (we must wave a tearful goodbye) - it doesn't matter if its the same singers, and the plot makes sene - thats three ballads in a row, and thats a no-no.
  3. The content of the songs. Lets call this weird phenomena "unchangeable block narrative". Imagine cutting out sections from twenty love novels - say, half a chapter from each. You can change character names (luckily, you can even have different characters), but they have to stay in the same setting. One set of characters is scuba diving and the other lot are ski-ing? Tough tomatoes, they're in the same setting.

Now, song order and the possible stories affect one another recursively - that is, ideas about possible stories affect song order, constrictions on song order affect possible stories, etc. And without knowing the songs, it is almost impossible to plan possible narative arcs. Before the song list was set, I had some "good ideas" (hah!) - but being presented with the songs was like coming to the table fresh.

So, there you go. That's what I've been up to and what I've been thinking about it. Turns out I didn't write anything about process at all, but rather about the constrictions placed upon me by writing for a certain sort of commission. Still, it was interesting to write it out and see what was actually going on inside my head. If you're very good, I'll tell you what it's like writing for a devised-horror-comedy-political commentary-physical theatre-puppet show-play.

Til next time!

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