Belinda Jenkin and Will Hannagan on writing a new musical
While studying Music Theatre together, Belinda Jenkin and Will Hannagan often found themselves playing around on the piano and writing songs when they weren’t needed in rehearsals. Five years later, the first musical they wrote together, The Gathering, is currently enjoying a season at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne.
After being encouraged to create their own work post training, Belinda and Will applied for the Theatre Works Musical Works Initiative with their idea of a show about a housewarming and the reuniting of a group of friends. After winning the grant, The Gathering (previously titled Housewarming), went on to have workshops in Melbourne, and at the New York Music Theatre Festival, before its current premiere staging. Belinda and Will have also written the song cycle Until Tomorrow, which enjoyed two seasons, one in the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
Getting the chance to work closely with these two incredibly creative, open and driven artists over this rehearsal period has been wonderful. Watching the way they constantly question and rewrite so that the work reaches its full potential has been truly inspiring. Naturally, I thought I would share my coffee this week with Belinda and Will, and find out what its like to be an up and coming writer in this industry.
What inspires you to write?
It changes once you have a show that needs a rewrite to meet a deadline, but initially inspiration can come from anywhere. For us, it’s currently about chronicling our generation. Looking at the intricacies of how young people interrelate, and finding the best way to authentically represent this in what is an inherently larger-than-life form. In terms of music, we are equally inspired by other musicals as we are by contemporary folk, pop and soul.
Once we’ve decided on a theme we usually sit at the piano and play around with a few chords and just see what comes out. We both love writing lyrics, and filling journals with song ideas that would come into our head.
Is having a deadline creatively stifling, or do you think it encourages you to get something out there?
I think it depends. Sometimes it works when you tackle it calmly. Otherwise, you can’t think of anything else except the time ticking away. It really depends what headspace you’re in.
What headspace have you mostly found yourselves in during this rehearsal process?
Literally each day was so different. Week 2, we were so overwhelmed. We just felt, ‘what is going on? We have to put on a show in two weeks and these actors have to perform it, and we don’t even have a show.’ I think this was because it had been so thoroughly pulled apart in the room. And when you’re workshopping on the floor you often think that a shift will be easy to make. But then you get home, and you try to make the change, and it’s always harder than you anticipate. Because every piece is interconnected—every scene, every lyric—so once you shift one thing a whole lot of other things will need to change, too. But obviously it has all come back together, and it has been a really great process overall.
How do you remain so open to your work constantly changing based on other people’s input?
It is hard because everyone has an opinion and you don’t know whose is right. And if you go with someone’s suggestion, it may well service the piece as a whole, but you might lose your favourite song or a scene that you loved. I think having worked on it for so long means we are so open to those changes. If we’ve taken it this far, we just want what’s best for the show. And you do have to detach somewhat rather than clinging on to every note or word. In this case, the show is always the priority.
How do you maintain the patience and perseverance to stay with this project after five years?
We’ve been lucky in that it wasn’t a constant slog for those five years. Rather we’d revisit the piece once a year for a reading, or a grant deadline, or whatever, and ultimately we got to where we are now. This is a great way to approach a musical, because inevitably they take forever, but you need to be inspired by the story you’re telling, and this means taking time off from it sometimes. We’ve also both done so many things in between; we’re both performers and theatre makers and have studied other things (Will did a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, Belinda went to Sydney and studied at NIDA). It’s always been in the back of our minds, but we actually only work on it for a couple of months at a time. That said it has been a pretty definitive, formative experience for us. This show is our early 20’s.
How do you think your writing has evolved as you both evolve as people?
Maturity is such a big thing, just like when you approach it in acting. You have so much more understanding of human interaction; how you act, how others are perceived. I feel like we’ve learned to study life more. I think our method has change somewhat too. I have so many notes and voice recordings with melodies that I just record straight away. It’s so convenient to have your phone handy when you see people in real life that could make such interesting characters, or stories that you hear.
As trained actors yourselves, how do you believe that influences your writing?
It helps to always have your actor’s brain on when you write- I imagine how it’s being played out in my head. Where is the humour? What are the beats? But of course it changes when it’s put on its feet and you have other actors read it. Because the flaws become so blaringly obvious. Thinking as an actor helps with scene construction and objectives/obstacles too. To this end, we’ve been so lucky to have Chris Parker (the director) who has really encouraged us to know exactly what the given circumstances are, and what each character wants at every given moment.
What are the benefits of writing as a team and being able to collaborate?
It’s so much better, because you have so much self doubt as a writer. You may think, ‘this is so great, this is so funny!’ But when it’s read, it’s not great at all. In a partnership, you can bounce ideas off of each other. When you read your own writing, you have the one voice and you don’t know if that’s exactly what you want to convey. We can also read our work aloud together, and it gives you an idea of a scene’s rhythm, tension and how climactic it is. The tricky thing is, we do live in different areas, so it’s often just a matter of finding time to be together. We’re very understanding of each other and, doing it for so long, we are usually both on board with the general direction of changes we wish to make.
What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
I guess we’re all trying to just work it out! Just try. So many people talk about what projects they’re going to create, and they never actually do it, or they’re too afraid to. And fair enough, because there are so many reviewers and critics that might bring it down, or it’s hard to sell. But just look towards your friends and other emerging artists; producers or designers. Band together, especially if you are younger and just starting out. There are initiatives like ‘Homegrown’, and you’ll slowly be able to climb the ladder.
And look for mentorship. That’s been a massive help for us. Reach out and email people and make those connections. We’ve had Anthony Crowley, Petra Kalive and Vicky Jacobs (to name but a few) who have been so wonderful in helping us out. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
What can you suggest to writers wanting to have their projects workshopped and ultimately performed?
Five years ago when we first started, there were far fewer initiatives, like the Theatre Works one, to help emerging writers. And now there are more chances and more people wanting to do readings and support new work. The ‘Grassroots’ Initiative that Ben Nicholson and Nick Hedger are doing and the Hayes Theatre New Musicals Program are really fantastic. Again, the best advice we got is to just email and put your enquiries out there and find out what’s going on. Also, don’t think that these avenues are the only way to create a show. You can workshop something in your lounge-room. Give yourself a deadline by entering it in a fringe festival. There are no formal boundaries to how this process takes place. Invite your friends round and do a reading! Make it happen!
That being said, we are so grateful that there seems to be a collective willingness for the Australian industry to grow in its identity. It is harder to get people along to new musicals because they don’t know what they’re in for, especially with emerging writers and artists. But that is all changing. And if we can take our work overseas and maybe one day have as much influence over there, that countries like the U.S. and the U.K. have on our industry, that would be ideal.
Belinda and Will’s musical The Gathering is playing at fortyfivedownstairs until Sunday 11th December.
Tickets at: http://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/