Across the Pond: Working on a New British Piece (Diary of an Assistant Director)

Today I’m writing from the rehearsal studio of Red Ladder Theatre Company, where I’m currently working as Assistant Director on Boff Whalley’s new musical We’re Not Going Back.

Stacey Sampson, Victoria Brazier & Claire-Marie Seddon in 'We're Not Going Back' by Boff Whalley

Stacey Sampson, Victoria Brazier & Claire-Marie Seddon in ‘We’re Not Going Back’ by Boff Whalley

The show charts a year in the lives of three women during the miners strike of 1984/85 and incorporates a folk-influenced score, scheduled for a UK tour beginning September.

To my right sits the fully constructed set, a brilliant design by Ali Allen, which has been present since the first week of rehearsals, and although this is unusual practice it has turned out to be a necessary luxury. To my left, MD Beccy Owen is teaching the finale to the cast, a medley of every song from the show in true musical theatre style. However that’s probably where the similarities between traditional musical theatre and We’re Not Going Back end.

Incorporating small orchestration, actor-musicianship and a domestic setting, the show sits on the fringes of musical theatre, and is ultimately a perfect example of the new wave of British musicals which I discussed in my previous blog with Andy from Perfect Pitch. It’s a ‘play with music,’ and although there’s a lot of discrepancies about what that actually means, I suppose what we’re saying is that there isn’t a jazz hand or split leap in sight.

We're Not Going Back 2To give you an insight into the Red Ladder rehearsal room is to give a reflection of the politics of the company. Red Ladder is quite widely known as having its roots in agitprop (the radical socialist theatre movement of the 1960s), and is therefore unapologetically left-wing in the work produced. The rehearsal room is much the same: a non-hierarchical environment and extremely collaborative.

The atmosphere in the space is light and humorous, and there’s a great sense of equality and progress. These traits of the room are, unknowingly or otherwise, finding their way into the work, and it seems undeniable that what we are creating is of high quality, but is also completely necessary.

It seems to me that whilst the definition of musical theatre continues to blur, this show is part of a wave of new work which is contributing towards that ambivalence. There is no desire from the creative team or the actors to create a musical in the traditional sense, and being free of that mindset is allowing us to create something entirely fresh. As well as going to established theatres, We’re Not Going Back is touring directly into the mining fields and pit villages which make up it’s setting, and therefore it was always vitally important that we create something which those communities would identify with, and perhaps even see as their own.

The aim isn’t to create a musical, it’s to create good theatre, and that has probably been the most liberating part of working with Red Ladder.

We're Not Going Back 3Now as we approach our third week, the show is in remarkably good shape, and continues to be an absolute pleasure to work on. The ease of the process has to be down to the incredible talents of our cast – Victoria Brazier, Stacey Sampson and Claire-Marie Seddon, not only for their individual performances but also their contributions to the creative process in this very collaborative environment.

The truth is that although I set out with the aim of writing this blog post to provide some insight into the development of a new musical, We’re Not Going Back is somewhat of an anomaly. From the outset, we knew that we were creating a show for a mainly non-theatregoing audience, and that fact has informed a lot of the decisions that have been made on the rehearsal room floor. Secondly, Red Ladder itself is about far more than just creating good theatre, and therefore the work should hopefully reflect that. Of course it then goes without saying that working as Assistant Director to Artistic Director, Rod Dixon, is not the standard assisting experience.

Stacey Sampson, Victoria Brazier & Claire-Marie Seddon in 'We're Not Going Back' by Boff Whalley

Stacey Sampson, Victoria Brazier & Claire-Marie Seddon in ‘We’re Not Going Back’ by Boff Whalley

Rod’s experience and expertise are unique, and his style of directing has been completely different to the work of anyone I’ve ever observed – to magnificent effect. Although I’m not about to share the techniques of Rod’s practice, let me assure you that I’ve learned immeasurable amounts since the first auditions for this show back in March.

So whilst it would perhaps be more interesting or useful for me to give you a step-by-step ‘this is how you create a new British musical’ guide, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint. There are no right or wrong answers to this process, and I think the only way to approach that fact is to have a truly collaborative rehearsal room, such as Red Ladder do.

Catch ‘We’re Not Going Back’ as it goes on national tour later this year:

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