Why are new musical theatre works so important to develop?

15 Oct 2018
Hannah in rehearsal for Flower Cutters with MD Sam Cable and composer Josh Bird

My name is Hannah Thomas, and I’ll be giving you an insight into the New Musical Theatre project. Coming into second year, I was most excited for this project. Having watched the second years performing when I was in first year, I knew it would not be something to take for granted. The process allows us as students to collaborate with industry professionals and writers of new musicals. We are given the chance to workshop and present excerpts from their new works. It is such a great opportunity and it benefits us as students by giving us valuable time working alongside professionals and industry workers. For the writers involved, it gives them the opportunity to see their pieces on their feet and work out what looks good and what doesn’t. As students, we discuss our ideas with the writers and are seen as contributors to these ‘works-in-progress’, taken seriously as performers by people who come from the ‘real world’ with first-hand experience of the harsh reality of the performance industry. It’s such an exciting module to be involved in and is completely different to anything I’d ever been involved in before.

Throughout the year, we are offered the chance to work on two separate projects. Both are rehearsed over 3 intensive weeks; if you’re given a script or a song in one rehearsal, you’re expected to go home and learn it in preparation for the next rehearsal. One thing I learnt the hard way about the professional practise is you rely on yourself to know what you’re doing and do it, no spoon-feeding! This year, due to the sheer size of our cohort, five new works of theatre were presented. Some works were fresh off the press, never before seen; some had been commissioned by theatres to be written; and others had dates booked in theatres waiting for the finished piece! I was given the opportunity to work on Flower Cutters by Rachel Bellman and Josh Bird; and Pinocch1.0 by Dougal Irvine.

In Musical Theatre, we are used to performing printed works. There are cast recordings to practise alongside to, completed scripts to read, and previous performances to refer back to. This project gave me the chance to work on pieces that aren’t finished. It gave me an insight into the various stages of development. It is really interesting to be able to witness the creation process first hand as it is something often taken for granted – it’s much harder than you’d expect! Working with a piece that has limited printed material available to you gives a different rehearsal experience. If you’re reading this in preparation for the projects then get used to recording the song on your phone in rehearsal, and always come with a pencil for changing lyrics last minute. This was my favourite thing about the experience, working on completely new material and being a part of the development of it. During the process for Flower Cutters, I was given a chance to sing a song written specifically for my character the day before our third rehearsal; I recorded it and learnt it for the next rehearsal and they had changed the song already! It’s such a fast-paced environment in the industry and this module gave us a real insight into how it works and what is expected of us as performers.

This process gave me valuable time to work on professionalism, rehearsal etiquette and it severely stressed the importance of being prepared. I was able to utilise everything I had learnt in first year and in modules surrounding the project, so I had techniques and processes available to help me. Being able to implement a practise you’ve studied in class in a fresh environment is especially useful in helping develop knowledge about yourself as a performer. I was able to work out what worked for me and what didn’t, how can I characterise this with the theories I’ve been taught?

This project not only gave me valuable time to hone my skillset and teachings, but it made me think about the value of British musical theatre and the importance of supporting new works. So many writers are out there are trying to get their scripts found and their music heard; what this course offers is not only valuable for our students but for these writers who need a platform to work with performers and to see their pieces being performed. So many musicals exist outside of the well-known West End canon, and they’re all lovingly crafted; why not help them craft it and support their efforts! Working with budding writers, experienced directors, and learning the tricks of the industry was a really beneficial outcome from this module!

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