Workshopping new musicals – top tips

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Here are a few recommendations from some of those who contributed to the discussion hosted by FTG Productions and Musical Theatre Network on Monday 25th April 2016. (For those who attended as writer members of MMD, a reminder that as this was an MTN event, the focus was/is weighted towards the concerns/advice of producers/directors/venues in approaching workshops – although these are all relevant insights for writers too.)

We often use the term ‘workshop’ to refer to a variety of different events and processes – including research & development time, a finite period of creative collaboration/experimentation, a work-in-development sharing, or an industry showcase or ‘backers’ audition’ seeking potential investment or development/partnership support. It’s important to clarify your aims/ideal outcomes as early as possible, and ensure there’s shared understanding of them among everyone involved.  Similarly, the expectations of people’s roles can vary considerably based on the aims of the workshop, so it’s important to clarify these in advance too. Sometimes a rehearsal pianist is also expected to be the musical director, sometimes a director will also operate as a dramaturge. Sometimes these four roles are all best served by separate individuals. Wherever possible it’s advisable to put these expectations in writing, so at least you have some shared understanding in print that can be referred back to (the same goes for clarity in advance about what everyone’s to be paid). We’re not giving legal advice here about intellectual property, but it’s a good idea to clarify in writing who owns what in advance, especially if there is any sort of collaborative/devised approach to the writing process. As noted below, workshopping may often involve revising content – if so it’s important to agree authorship in advance, and ensure those agreed authors of the piece are the ones deciding on whether a suggested change to written content is kept or discarded, before work in development is shared with any audience.

The Writer’s Guild of Great Britain include some relevant sections on workshops (section 7) and rehearsed readings (section 8) in its guide ‘The Working Playwright – Engaging with Theatres’ : https://writersguild.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/WGGB_booklet_nov12_engaging_i.pdf Although this relates to plays rather than musicals, the advice is relevant – and producers, directors and other collaborators are well advised to be aware of this best practice advice when negotiating with writers around the aims and creative outcomes of a workshop. Similarly relevant is WGGB’s guide: ‘Writing Musical Theatre’ – https://writersguild.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/WGGB-Musical-Theatre.pdf which includes a model collaboration agreement template, such as would be agreed between the composer, lyricist and bookwriter at the start of their collaboration.

Top tips from some of the speakers/attendees (these are individuals views/observations – this is not intended as an exhaustive guide to best practice in workshopping new musicals, and there are many points raised which will no doubt be explored further in future events hosted by MTN and/or MMD) :

 

From Joel Fisher, FTG Productions :

– Know your audience, write for your audience, workshop with your audience in mind.

– Have very clear and precise goals before a workshop.  Every workshop is different and unique and it is your job to set the tasks and goals and then to achieve them.  Expect the unexpected and allow for development of goals over the course of the workshops but always go back to your pre-set tasks and goals and make sure you are achieving them.

 

From Tori Allen-Martin, Interval Productions :

  1. No-one is going to help you if you won’t help yourself. My advice is to get it on its feet and workshop it in the room until it’s in the best shape possible. Then get audiences and as many important people down to see it as you can- watch the reactions and listen to the feedback. Something bigger might come as a direct result, but even if it doesn’t, you’ll be a in a far better position for next time, and able to go back to the drawing board on whatever didn’t work.
  2. Build your social media presence. Get a fan base for your piece. It’s so easy now – to get videos and mp3s online etc, as well as review quotes. You can even upload examples of script to websites like HIIVE. Start creating a buzz and a demand for your show, as it’s the product after all. It’ll make it easier to sell when you do get it on its feet, and more of a sure fire bet for other creatives/investors to get on board.

 

From Jamie Clarke & Paul Tyrer, The Booking Office :

– Understand exactly what the “end game” is – where does this musical work?  What stage?  Regional or London, or International?  What are you doing before you invest in a room/actors (etc) to lead to a likely business model…  Passion alone is not the only relevant driving-force – it should be a given really.  As commercial producers, we don’t want to have dead money sat in a project for years.  That’s not fulfilling the “business” side of show-business – sadly – so a clear, unemotional eye on why this should work, where, and how you are “loading the gun” to make sure the workshop is genuinely helping you get to that model for us is key…  In that sense, we think it is key to understand at point zero whether you are doing a workshop or a showcase, and we’ll always be clear with all concerned what the parameters are.

– This is a dark one – but I also think at some stage (and this to both producers and writers), it is always worth adding in “when to let go”…  Or “exit strategy” as we often call it.  We have started adding this rather dark term onto all our meeting agendas when we start talking about a project.  If nothing else, it helps ensure that the passion doesn’t overtake common sense – it should help inform from day one a sense of making realistic choices, making it producible, and accessible to your chosen audience model.

 

From Sarah Crook, Musical Theatre Network/Mercury Musical Developments :

Leave your audience wanting more – I saw a workshop showcase of ‘Flowers for Mrs Harris’, by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, about 3 years ago, presented by Vicky Graham Productions. It was about 10-15 minutes long and I remember thinking how brave it was to present just that first section of work, as it was only the very beginning of the show that was shared. It left us wanting more, and that was a brilliant strategy. It was a great intro to the central character and themes. I have never forgotten that workshop, it worked on every level.

 

From Andrew Keates, Arion Productions :

– Structure. It’s everything when it comes to making a new musical. Read about things such as ‘The Hero’s Journey’ as well as why some musicals work so well because of their structure.

– Is it a story worth telling? When a new musical is submitted to me or any of the organisations I’m attached to, I will not listen to the music unless the story and book is good.

– Getting the most out of a development process. 1) Has everything been written so it is ready for actors to play? 2) Have a director and actors workshop what you have written to find any holes, unnecessary content and to gain an objective perspective on how the piece can be bettered. Remember, these suggestions need not be permanent, but there’s a good chance they will find things that don’t work, even if you’re attached to them. 3) Once the piece has been explored, perhaps consider a reading or semi-staged sharing for investors/theatres etc to come and see. 4) Once the production is mounted, further development may occur, but remember if it’s not on the page, it won’t be translated onto the stage.  5) Previews – here we can discover how audiences are reacting; trust your director to fix any problems in regards to the audience and action relationship. 6) After the production has opened or finished, make sure you have all book changes that have occurred throughout rehearsals and the run, there is a good chance your piece could be licensed or published, this information is vital for future productions.

 

From Christine Denniston, MMD Writers’ Lab Co-Ordinator / Dramaturge

– As we all know, Musical Theatre is the most collaborative of all the arts.  For any collaboration to be successful, each member of it must respect every other member and allow them the physical, emotional and creative space to do their specific job.  That includes the writers.  Treat writers as though their contribution to the process is as important as everyone else’s.  (It’s amazing how often that does not happen.)

– We live in a world where people think it’s OK to download stuff from the internet without going through the correct channels, to upload stuff to youtube without checking with the creators of the material, or to make a mashup of existing works and pass it off as your own.  In this world it is easy to forget that the words and music are the intellectual property of the writers.  It is not appropriate to make changes without the writers’ consent, and it is never appropriate to share a presentation of work that includes changes the writers did not approve.

– Yes, all artists need good feedback to thrive, and writers need to learn how to accept feedback and respond in the most constructive manner.  But that is also true of directors and producers.  Occasionally it may happen that the writers are right, and the director or producer has insisted on a change that is actually a change for the worse.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming that this is a one-way street.

– Remember that producers and directors are gatekeepers, and writers feel a great deal of pressure to please them, so may feel forced to make changes that they are not comfortable with, and which in the long run are not in the best interests of the piece.  When a piece clearly needs a lot of work, consider bringing in a dramaturge, rather than asking the director to do two jobs.  Notes from a director can feel like instructions rather than suggestions, no matter how supportive the director is trying to be.  Let the director direct, and let the dramaturge coax out of the writers their best work.

Finally (and this is way too long for a top tip, but seemed important), in terms of the overall philosophy of workshopping, I’d like to quote from a speech given in 2007 by Richard Nelson, the then-chairman of the Yale playwriting programme, as quoted in “Outrageous Fortune”, the report from a huge study of new play development in the USA carried out by the Theatre Development Fund.  I see this as a warning of an emerging culture there which we should be careful not to copy:

“The profession of playwright, the role of the  playwright in today’s American theatre, I believe, is under attack… perhaps the greatest threat to the playwright in today’s theatre comes not from those greedy and ignorant, but rather those who want to help. ‘Playwrights are in need of help.’ This is now almost a maxim in our theatre today.  Unquestioned.  A given.  But where does this mindset – for that is what it is, a mindset – come from?  Of course playwrights need things – money, productions, support, encouragement.  So do actors, directors, designers, artistic directors.  But THIS mindset is different, because what is meant here is: ‘Playwrights are in need of help – to write their plays.  They are in need of help – to do their work.”  They can’t do their work themselves…. [T]he given now in the American theatre is that what a playwright writes, no matter how much he or she works on it, rewrites it at his or her desk, the play will ALWAYS not be right, WILL ALWAYS need ‘help’.  In other words, writing a play is too big a job for just the playwright to achieve.  This, I believe, is now a prevalent attitude in American theatre.  And this mindset is devastating.”

He goes on to describe playwrights keeping the final draft of their play in a drawer and intentionally including passages of bad writing in the draft they submit, so that they can go through the developmental process the theatre insists on before submitting the play they originally wrote.  Only then do they feel that the play will be judged on its own merits.

This is a terrible state of affairs!  It is a path we must be very careful not to follow.

When we discuss the workshop process it is natural to focus on examples where huge changes were necessary, and where the writers could not have made those changes without the help of the directors and producers who are now discussing the process.  But if talking about workshops in that way becomes a habit, and peoples’ expectations become that that extreme is actually the norm, we may wander into very dangerous territory.

 

From James Hadley, Musical Theatre Network:

Workshops are often all too short a period of collaboration, so it’s important to think carefully about intended aims/ideal outcomes when deciding whether to have some kind of work-in-progress sharing. Often a week is intended to be primarily about exploring and reworking material, but runs out of time to do that effectively as director and performers shifts gear into preparation of material to be shared with an invited audience at a Friday afternoon sharing (then or Friday lunchtime seems to be the best time to schedule one). If there is to be a sharing, and it’s intended to gain interest from potential development partners/funders, I have often experienced that less is more, and sharing a continual section of a show (ideally the beginning), with no cuts, is far more useful to attendees to get a sense of how both book and songs work in relation to each other, and how strongly the characters, their world, and whatever’s driving the plot forward is established.

Including some element of public engagement – like a development sharing, with an invited audience including some of the show’s future target audience – will usually strengthen an application for Arts Council funding for a workshop. But there are other ways to generate funds for a workshop. Alongside crowdfunding, I’ve admired those who take an entrepreneurial approach to fundraising: using the creative abilities and profiles of those in their networks – for instance, holding a ticketed talk by a supportive celebrity, a skills development opportunity or masterclass which participants will pay to attend, or a concert/party/auction/garage sale to raise funds. Sometimes a fundraising event becomes an inspiring artistic event in its own right, and can massively deepen the sense of a wider community being interested in supporting the project happening.

 

 

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