// The Politics of Collaborative Writing by CJ Simon

Three’s A Crowd in Musical Theatre

For those freelance theatre-makers following the project it may be peculiar to read about a piece of new collaborative musical theatre. Musical theatre is a form which often produces famous visionary artists singularly toiling over a masterpiece for years. Lin Manuel-Miranda, Jonathan Larson, and Stephen Sondheim all come to mind in this canon of musical theatre icons lauded for being driven and talented. In some famous instances collaboration might be found between a composer and lyricist, or a book writer and a librettist. Where would we be without Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Gershwin and Gershwin? Yet there appears to be a distinct lack of collaborative musical theatre companies.

This is made more surprising when we consider how common collaborative approaches to theatre-making are in the world of straight-plays, comedy, and physical theatre. Just look at the works of Frantic Assembly, Forced Entertainment, and Complicite. These are groups celebrated for producing work devised and performed by their companies; often making dynamic and interesting pieces. Why then are there so few companies like this in the world of musical theatre?
Description: A monochrome photo of Stu Barker writing on a flash-card with a pen in hand, Rachel Bellman is sat to the right of Stu writing into a notebook. The table they are sat at is strewn with some water bottles, coffee cups, and flashcards both used and fresh.
The Problems of Collaboration

Ninety Seconds to Midnight team member, Darren Clarke once argued in his ‘composer blog’, that, as a creative, it is hard to relinquish control of one's work to others. This is to say that it can be difficult to convince composers, lyricists, book writers, or librettists to forfeit control over their singular vision and let other hands shape the final piece. For Darren this is especially true because every creative’s secret is that they aren’t always sure of what they're doing and admitting that would be, he says, like Superman rolling on the floor with his belly exposed to the sky saying “Hey this is me. There's some kryptonite just over there. Use it against me." This reasoning seems especially true in a world of “great men”, and unfortunately we do mostly celebrate men, who appear unphased by the challenges of ‘ordinary writers’.

Beyond the mindset of those creatives doing the collaborating, it might also be hard to convince producers and funders to support pieces of collaborative musical theatre when the process is already incredibly expensive. The more creatives, the larger the room, the more insured instruments have to be acquired; ultimately, the more profitable the end product has to be. With shrinking government support for the arts, it begins to be clear why there may be fewer and fewer avenues for taking on such an uncommon practice.
Van Gogh’s ‘A Starry Night’ which uses a variety of blues to illustrate the night sky
Why Try In The First Place?

Thinking about the above, there’s a clear benefit of collaboration in musical theatre. This process disrupts the traditional canon of “great men” in a very significant way. By shifting the focus onto a diverse collective of people, we begin to resist the very male, very white, and very rose-tinted approaches of musical theatre making. It’s unquestionable that the musical theatre canon has previously had a very narrow space for difference which the collaborative approach resists. As highlighted in the forthcoming interviews with the NSTM team, this is a company of people with varying experiences and differing lives.

Now, this is more than mere diversity for the sake of diversity but is instead a process that enriches the content too. As noted in our introductory blog post, the timelapse team was inspired by the collaborative approaches of TV writers rooms and musical theatre troops like The TEAM and The Civilians who are at their best when they “erase the fingerprints of any one artist” and speak to a more collective human experience. Having watched great works like Succession, Mr Burns, and Particularly in the heartland, Adam Lenson saw how the research-led, collaboratively produced pieces of work that could tackle large, intangible, political topics. Thus, with a project as large as Ninety Seconds to Midnight, a piece of music theatre exploring the intersections of technology, identity, and man-made atrocities, it feels necessary to adopt a new process of theatre-making. The timelapse team have then taken their very culturally specific experiences at school, raising kids, working, and living and begun to mould them into one coherent narrative. The value of diversity then becomes a more precise and universal story about the end of the world.
Van Gogh’s ‘A Starry Night’ which uses a variety of blues to illustrate the night sky
The Knots of Collaboration

It is, however, easier to preach about the praises of collaboration than it is to achieve it. Who runs the room? How do you decide what goes into the final piece and what doesn’t? How do you ensure everyone has a voice? The NSTM team, intent on producing a piece of work which stood independent of any one creator, doesn't really have a lead facilitator. Whilst Adam and Lia are both important cogs in the creative machine, neither exerts their control or influence over the other artists. This, after all, wouldn’t be in the spirit of true collaboration. Instead, the rehearsal room could be described as a naturally evolving organism. One that takes effort, time, and patience to cultivate.

Much of the first few NSTM workshops were spent figuring out how best to work together. The most frequently spoken phrase: So what should we do next? Most of the initial disagreements stemmed from differences in working style. In its inaugural moments hours might’ve passed without a tune being hummed. In moments like these, with time passing quickly, anxieties rise as the project feels further and further away from being complete. Suddenly, as Darren mentioned in his blog, all your vulnerabilities rise to the surface without any clear way to resolve them.

How does one escape these difficult waters intact? I imagine that most collaborative efforts sink or swim in moments like these; moments where anxious and vulnerable creatives knock heads. The NSTM team have nonetheless found ways to swim with the tensions rather than against them. Accept a lack of control rather than force it. Moments when two members of the team with different perspectives on what the project might look like - how the piece might take shape - decide to have lengthy difficult conversations and find middle ground. From accepting that, swimming through the waters of collaboration became very easy.
Van Gogh’s ‘A Starry Night’ which uses a variety of blues to illustrate the night sky
The Successes of Working Together

After successfully negotiating the best way to work together, the process of collaboration became very different. On some days different members might decide to work together or independently. A meeting might end with someone suggesting the agenda for the next meeting. Someone might turn up to a workshop to present new ideas to the group for another person to take a nugget from the presentation and re-work it into something else. This is where we are now. A living creative organism working to the same aim, skilled at negotiating obstacles as and when they arrive.

The benefits of collaboration, of turning one's belly to the sky, is the freedom to make for the sake of it; without fully knowing what or how this cog might fit into the larger piece. Adam might write a lyric for Stu to add a tune. A melody written by Shaye or Annabelle might underscore a monologue written by Rachel. This has had an incredible effect on the amount of content generated in any one workshop session. Where at the beginning of the process we might walk away with two or three fragments, seven sessions into the process nearly a dozen pieces might make their way into the drive. Of course many hands make light work but as noted by Stu in our recently published interview, there’s a great amount of inspiration and liberation that comes from this process.

A quick peek into the rehearsal room reveals the creative energy buzzing from this collaborative process. Still, like most musical theatre processes, the fruits of this work will take some time to dance into the ears of the public. I can only hope that when that time comes, the emotional, cultural, and political precision of the work speaks loudly and clearly. What this blog hopes to make clear is the extent to which the brilliance of whatever the final product is - for we are still searching for it - will come from this collaboration of creatives. Whilst the process may not have been easy to adopt and has come with its challenges, everyone involved has seemingly been liberated to make bold and innovative pieces of music theatre. Something to hopefully challenge the prevailing canon of “great men” and unlock new ways of producing art.

back to the 90 seconds to midnight archive