NMN’s Peter Auker reports from the first Musical Theatre West Midlands conference, held at the University of Wolverhampton on 23rd November 2013.
Although the organisers of this excellent conference are based in the West Midlands (at the University itself), they cast their net wide and the event had more of a national feel to it, which was very welcome, and led to a pleasing diversity of views and inputs from all over the country.
The conference, efficiently and expertly run by the University’s senior lecturer in musical theatre Sarah Browne, was entitled Making Connections (which, by coincidence, is of course what NMN is all about!), and its real focus was dealing with the questions of a) what do we mean by “new work” in musical theatre, b) how can we facilitate its creation, and c) how can we get it seen by audiences in a cultural/economic environment which is not always as receptive as we’d like it to be to new and unfamiliar work.
A great attraction of these kind of events is the opportunity not only to hear the experts speaking from the platform (and, in one instance, from New York via Skype), but – almost more crucially – the chance to meet new and interesting people and chat with them over coffee. During the breaks I was fortunate enough to have some great conversations with various poets, playwrights, composers, PhD students and producers, though, curiously, no actors! (I’m sure they will have been there, it’s just that none of them seemed to cross my path during the day.) In my case, it was also very pleasant to speak with several delegates that I have previously corresponded with by email – putting faces to names was a lovely experience, and their kind comments about New Musicals Network encouraged me that we at NMN are doing something worthwhile!
There were stimulating, entertaining and sometimes controversial sessions featuring Jenifer Toksvig, Andy Barnes, Mel Atkey, Millie Taylor, Caroline Routh and Michael Lovelock.
The keynote speaker was composer and musical director Georgia Stitt, who appeared direct from New York via Skype, projected onto a large cinema-style screen – an arrangement which worked surprisingly well. Georgia gave an illuminating and fascinating talk about the state of new musicals in America, and it was especially interesting to note that there are more similarities than differences between our two countries in this regard. Despite the USA being the spiritual “home” of the musical as an art form, new work struggles just as much over there to get exposure as it does here, and the challenges are just as great, with a similar division between the “commercial” (i.e. Cameron Mackintosh) theatre and the more ground-breaking, experimental landscape that is the typical territory of the “new musical”.
Questions were taken from the floor, and there was a satisfying amount of interaction between delegates and Miss Stitt, who patiently engaged with us and led the discussion with great expertise.
Not surprisingly, definitive answers to the three main questions remained elusive, but at least the occasion allowed much airing of views and experience which was a healthy product of the day. Drawing together these views, the consensus was clearly (and, again, not surprisingly) that the key to ensuring new musical theatre work thrives within what is undoubtedly a difficult and sometimes even hostile environment is to use every available opportunity to get it heard and out there – almost by “hook or by crook”. Being imaginative in terms of venue, drawing on human resources such as the enthusiastic and underused (in this sphere anyway) amateur dramatic movement, presenting work for use in educational establishments (from primary schools up to universities and conservatoires), creating work for non-traditional audiences, thinking outside the box in terms of structuring your musical (e.g. exploring immersive theatre) and simply getting together with a “tribe of friends” (Toksvig’s term) to put on a show anywhere, anyplace, any time – were all ideas that could readily be taken away and first steps taken to put them into practice.
All-in-all, the conference was an extremely inspiring event that I am glad I made effort to go to. It is to be hoped that, not only will it become a regular event, but that some of the excellent discussions will lead to the bearing of fruit.