Category Archives: Musicals
A new form of drama is about to entertain the audiences of the world. The Mumble caught up with the man behind it all
Hello Damo. So you are here to talk about your new project, the Conchordia Folio – what’s it all about?
Hello Mumble. Well, in essence the folio is a collection of dramatic scripts, per se, rather like the Shakespearean folio. The only difference is I’m assembling it myself, whereas the Bard’s was collated by his pals a few years after his death. It should be ready in book & audio form by the Spring. There’ also an element of competition here – why not, you only get one life. As a poet I’ve written a better epic than Milton, but Shakespeare seems untouchable. But so were Liverpool FC before Fergie got the Man U job, & after declaring he wanted to ‘knock them off their fuc£king perch’ he went on to do so. I know I’m definitely a better bass-payer than Shakespeare, so I knew had to incorporate music into my scripts, play to my strengths kinda thing. Its worth a pop, right, to try & knock Shakespeare off his feffin perch!
So how exactly do you intend to ‘Knock Shakespeare off his feffin perch?’
I mean look, if a guy can run a marathon in less than two hours, another guy can outdo Shakespeare. Its the whole point of being human right, to better ourselves. Methodwise, its simple really. I’ve tried to outdo his sonnets already, creating a sequence of 154 which if you put against Shakespeare’s 154, I think I’ve got the edge. So it’ll be the same idea with the plays. I need to create a canonical 37 which when placed next to Shakepseare’s own 37, lets leave it to posterity to decide. My edge, I think, is going to be more penetrable language, shorter pieces & some proper banging tunes.
Thirty Seven plays – thats an awful lot to create in a single sitting – how long do you think will it take to achieve?
Well, I’ve written/been writing an epic poem, Axis & Allies, since 2001, so I can handle large projects no problemo. But I have set myself a time limit. With Shakespeare writing his last play, The Tempest, over the winter of 1610-1611, then he was 46 years old, approaching 47. For an even playing field, then, I need to be finishing my 37th play about the same time. I turn 47 in June 2024, so I’ve got just under four years to finish them all. Its totally doable, by the way, & watching that guy run a sub-two-hour marathon thro sheer hard work & dedication inspired me. I guess its a bit like if you got an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, or whatever it was, one of them would randomly recreate the works of William Shakespeare OR you get one very determined bard from Burnley on an emulation mission creating something rather like the complete works of William Shaksepeare.
So what exactly is Conchordia?
Well. Its essentially the artform I’m inventing. Stripped down to its most basic level the term can be interpreted as ‘with chords’ – the idea is that one can witness a piece of drama accompanied by a single acoustic guitar. That’s the core. Then, I realised that guitar could be played by a performer, which reminded me of the very funny Flight of the Conchords duo. They are like proper multi-taskers – acting, singing, dancing, playing guitars – that’s what I want ‘Conchordian’ to be able to do. Act, sing, dance & playing instruments when they’re not on stage – even if its just percussive. Also, since Concord the airplane is now defunct, the name is up for grabs these days & I like idea of people going for a ride in one of my conchords.
What other musical instruments are used in Conchordia, apart from the percussion?
Well, to be honest, there’s no limit. I’m going off the old edict that for a song to be a good song it needs to sound good sung on its own with only an acoustic guitar. But any producer of a conchord may use that basis to add an orchestra, or a rock & roll band, anything they like really. Each text also has a few ‘set’ pointers, which may also be interpreted as the company sees fit.
What other traits & attributes sets Conchordia apart from the other arts?
Each of the Conchordia has different DNA – there’s some that are just rock opera with barely any dialogue, & some that are simply musicals with an acoustic guitar. My later creations, however, are definitely realising a vision of theatre I have been developing. As a poet I have a gift for blank verse – its the most artistic way of expressing human speech. Shakespeare used it, so it can’t be that bad right? The English also have a genius for songwriting, while the Americans have mastered the musical. So if we blend all these together – Shakespearean blank verse, English songwriting, plus a wee splash of Broadway, you get Conchordia.
Have you performed any of your conchords yet?
I have actually – last year I put on a piece called Alibi at the Haddington Corn Exchange & also at the Eden Festival. It was fun – everyone enjoyed performing it & watching it. Doing Alibi made me realise I was onto something & began to look at my past pieces.
Your past pieces, what do you mean?
Alibi was the first slice of musical theatre I ever did – in 2007 & 2008. I was wintering in Sicily & got an acoustic guitar for Christmas, 2006. I then started looking at my old songs, connecting the common threads & adding a story. Bingo, my first conchord! I performed a it a few times in Edinburgh, Sheffield & Leeds. Next was a piece called Charlie, about the Jacobite rebellion, which I made into a film. About that period, & ever since, I’ve created a few others, but all in sketch form, in various states of completion. The Conchordio Folio is the moment I get them all nailed – a line in the sand, so to speak.
What Conchords are to be included in the Folio?
Like I said before, 37. The first five come together in a quintology called Leithology. There’s Alibi, Gangstaland, one I haven’t given a title to, a time-travelling one called Timewarpin’ & Tinky Disco. The idea is that they all interlink through characters, who each get a main musical to strut their stuff in. Like the X-Men franchise. Tinky Disco is based loosely upon The Tinky Disco Show, & will see the return of DJ Brooklyn – like a 21st century Falstaff. There are quite a number of histories – Charlie, Finnesburgh – based on a story in Beowulf – Malmaison, which tells the story of Napoleon on his return to Paris after Waterloo, one about Princess Diana, & Gods of The Ring, about the Foreman, Ali, Frazier fights in the 70s. There’s also a trilogy called The Rock & Roll Wars, its essentially a battle of the bands on a cosmic level. There’s Exes & Axes, a 19th century tale of romantic betrayal set in 19th century France – it doesn’t quite fit with any of the others, but its really funny. Here’s the full list of 37 conchords;
No Nay Never
The Budapest Cup
Fredrick & Wilhemina
Gods of the Ring
In A Child’s Garden
In A Man’s Garden
Manson & Morrisson
The Siege of Etain
The Indian Mutiny
The Medicines of Doctor Morrell
The People’s Princess
Genghiz & Jamukha
Exes & Axes
The Sleepers of Ephesus
Danny Brown, the Boy Detective
Rock & Roll Apocalypse
Little Black Book
Verity – ditched at her wedding, nagged by her mum, hates her job … and it’s only Monday. Nia Williams is bringing her new musical to the Fringe
Hello Nia, so where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Nia: Hello! I’m originally from Cardiff and grew up in a Welsh-and-English world, with a bilingual family and education. I left Wales to study at Exeter University and have lived in a few places since, but I’m now based in Oxford.
Hello Saffi, so you’re playing the lead in Nia’s new musical, Verity – can you tell us a little about your training?
Saffi: Hello! Yes, I have just spent the last academic year training at Guildford School of Acting on their musical theatre foundation course. Prior to that I was at Abingdon and Witney College, studying Performing Arts, and have been a part of different theatre schools since the age of 6.
What is at about Musical Theatre that makes you tick?
Saffi: It’s everything! There is really nothing that can compare to the feeling of being on stage and performing. The butterflies as the house lights go down, the adrenaline as the curtain rises, and the feeling of pride and pure elation as you take your bow and see your family, friends and complete strangers in a standing ovation. But I think the thing that really makes it for me is the ability to stand on a stage and tell a story that can reach and affect hundreds of people you don’t know, and for those three hours or so everyone can escape the troubles of their own life and can lose themselves in the story. For me, that’s the real magic.
Can you tell us about your links to the English National Ballet?
Nia: I’m a freelance musician and writer, and part of my work is as an Associate Artist for the ENB. I work for their Engagement Department, delivering workshops based on their current ballet productions. That can involve going into schools or dance classes with a dance artist, but my main role is with the Oxford hub of the ENB’s Dance for Parkinson’s programme. It’s a wonderful project, giving weekly sessions for people with Parkinson’s Disease. I co-lead them with two dancers, and we use music, stories, characters and choreography from whichever work the ENB is performing, to build a workshop that helps participants move more freely, express themselves, project their voices and use their creativity. It really is magical, and one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
In a world where you can get entertainment ‘on demand’, what makes theatre special?
Saffi: The fact that you will never see the same show twice. Don’t get me wrong—we will work and rehearse every hour of every day to get the choreography right and make sure we are singing the right words, but performers are just human; things happen; a prop might break, someone might miss their cue—but as a performer you have to make it work. You can’t just yell ‘cut!’ and take five to fix the problems. Also, when you are in a theatre you get to decide what you see: you can decide where you want to look, what you want to focus on: there isn’t a camera making that decision for you. So you can make your own opinion, which will probably be completely different to the person sitting next to you. You also get to be there, with the people on stage, and personally I find myself much more invested and connected to the characters if they are real and standing in front of me. They’re not just a picture on a screen.
Who are Three Chairs & a Hat, & what is your role?
Nia: I created Three Chairs and a Hat to stage the musicals that I write. For years I’ve been harping on about wanting to have my own theatre company and do things my own way … and it suddenly occurred to me that I should stop moaning and do it! The name comes from my love of pared-down theatre that uses minimum props and set, maximum imagination. We’ve cheated a bit with Verity and used four chairs—but my other current musical, ‘Melody’, makes up for that by only using two!
You are performing in Verity at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; can you tell us something about it?
Saffi: I don’t think excited is a big enough word! Verity is such a wonderful show, with amazing music and a relatable and touching story line. I feel incredibly lucky to be making my debut with such an incredible show and with such an awesome cast and creative team! All I hear about the Fringe is how amazing it is and how lucky I am to be going and I just can’t wait!
As the creator of Verity, how much of the show is fed by your own life experience?
Nia: You know, if you’d asked me that even a year ago, I would have made a joke of it and said ‘not much!’ Verity’s life is in a mess, she seems to be in a downward spiral, bored with her job, annoyed by her family, devastated by the events in her love life. But as we’ve been rehearsing for Edinburgh, I’ve thought more and more about the fact that Verity, as well as Eileen, the apparently dull PA in her office, both find the confidence to be themselves—or at least to begin that process. And in a way that’s what I’m doing with the development of my writing and Three Chairs and a Hat. It’s about that really tricky thing of taking your work seriously—not in a braggy or pompous way, just being prepared to say: ‘this is what I do, and it’s important to me’. For Verity, that’s about redefining herself after her disastrous wedding; for Eileen, it’s about acknowledging the importance of the work she already does. But I think it’s something that feeds into everyone’s life experience, in a way.
Verity is your fourth production; what have you learnt about Musical Theatre since your first musical, Daddy’s Girls?
Nia: I think one of the most important, and exciting, things that I’ve learned is how much a musical, or any piece of theatre, is the creation of everyone who takes part in staging it. It’s amazing to see the director, cast, technician, costume lead bring their own vision and ideas to the work—especially when they bring out things I’ve never really thought about myself. It’s quite moving when you find the courage to put your weird ideas out there, and then people buy into them, take them seriously, and build them into something more. It’s all part of the whole storytelling process, and I’m learning from it all the time.
Can you tell us about the rest of the cast & the dynamics between you all?
Saffi: The cast is one of the best things about this show. I came in later than the others, as I have been brought in for the Fringe, and to be honest when I started I was a bit worried that I was going to be a bit of an outcast, as they’ve been working on it together for a few years. But I couldn’t have been more wrong! I know it’s always said, but we really are like a family. Everyone is so lovely and supportive and crazy talented. I can’t wait to spend a week exploring Edinburgh and performing with these amazing people.
What is the biggest obstacle you overcame while putting your show together?
Nia: This comes back to your question about what I’ve learned about musical theatre. One thing I learned was: everything possible will go wrong—but keep going anyway! Since we first started putting the show together a few years ago we’ve had about seven changes of cast, for various reasons, some of them tragic, all of them to do with the unexpected curveballs of life. Three years ago one of the cast, my dear friend Becca Allison, died suddenly after contracting sepsis. I thought at the time that we would never stage Verity again, but Becca was always hugely supportive of and enthusiastic about my projects, and when Jenna Elliott joined the cast in that role she revealed that Becca had been her singing teacher and had first introduced her to musical theatre. It sort of seemed right—and Jenna has fitted in brilliantly with the rest of our fantastic cast.
You’ll know a good show when it’s happened, what are the special ingredients?
Saffi: Working hard, laughing lots, being a team and loving every second of it! Because if you as the performers love it then the audience will too… and I can promise you, we love performing this show!
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the show to somebody in the streets of Edinburgh, what would you say?
Nia: Songs, laughs, calamities, some rude cocktails, a touch of online stalking and if all else fails, a picture of a cat!