The success of 10-minute musicals show we should be making more Welsh musical theatre
’10 Minute Musicals’ is the initiative of Director Angharad Lee and her company Leeway productions has run the initiative for two years. The premise is simple but effective: gather writers and performers over the course of three intensive days, across three weeks and guide them in developing a 10-minute piece of musical theatre. Over the two years over 100 creatives have been supported in developing new musicals in Wales, and for the most recent group, I was a part of it.
As an artist, it’s a rare thing- a chance to play. That might seem counterintuitive but as writers, and as performers we’re so conditioned in today’s climate to the ‘win’ – the getting the job, the getting the commission, the creating the perfect thing. We’re expected to go from zero to perfection with nothing in between. What Lee creates in 10 Minute musicals is the opposite of the competition culture that now permeates our industry- instead, the emphasis is on collaborative culture. The point she insists in the first meeting, is not creating a perfect 10-minute musical, but in creating creative connections, in experimenting, in having space to create and to play. And the irony being, to the rest of the sector, this creates far better work, and we were left with five lovely pieces of musical theatre, all of which had potential to become ‘more’ than the 10 minutes.
The process is a wholly collaborative and ‘safe’ one. There’s no judgement, no expectations. From experimenting with exercises which feel ridiculous (singing to a clamshell in my case) but all sparked creativity. To also simply having time to spend with fellow creatives, even when not creating is valuable. In musical experimentation, we all traversed a spectrum of ‘traditional’ piano and voice performance across instruments, styles and influences. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, but such is the nature of collaboration. To work as well with talented musical performers elevates what you create- in seeing what your performer-collaborators can do, pushes writers and composers to push their work. And over three weeks, two sessions and countless skypes and texts (including one hilarious read-through without music) we created a musical. Between us we created five.
It’s not right to ‘review’ a scratch night, and as someone on the ‘inside’ that’s not a thing I can objectively do. What can be said is that the variety, style and scope of musical theatre reaches far beyond what even the average theatregoer perhaps thinks. From children’s pieces in the charming ‘Uke and Me’ that explored grief from a child’s-eye-view. To witty comedy through song in ‘Banana Chips’ that had a serious undertone- as all good comedy does- about social isolation and loneliness. 10 Minute musicals also pride itself on multi-lingual performance and alongside Welsh and English performers, we also had BSL poetry incorporated into a musical. Showing we aren’t limited even by a shared common language- in fact, our shared language is theatre.
In just three weeks a huge range of work was created- and a range of musical styles. And 10 Minute Musicals is also a fantastic gateway for people who think they don’t like musicals. Us musical theatre nerds know there are as many kinds of musical as there are kinds of music. But those who only experience the West End or big bold brash touring musicals would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. And while there’s nothing wrong with a big bold brash touring musical (sometimes one of my favourite things) there’s so much more to musical theatre. And by allowing a stand-up comedian to write the book (script) of a musical, by bringing in a gigging musician who never before thought of writing a musical and allowing them to create alongside other theatrical creatives, what constitutes a musical gets interrogated, it evolves.
Why is Welsh musical theatre important? Firstly British musical theatre is important, because we lack the infrastructure that our American counterparts have to nurture new musical theatre talent. London is catching up, but as we well know in Wales, our voices are often lost to a London-centric approach. Most importantly, as a ‘Land of Song’ surely we have something unique to contribute to musical theatre? We’re a land of stories (often through song) and shouldn’t that lend itself perfectly to a very Welsh understanding of musical theatre? Where are our musical theatre composers in both Welsh and English?
The answer is that they’re lacking an outlet. Welsh language musicals are performed at the Eisteddfod but rarely get a life beyond that, partly because of a narrowminded view that Welsh Language musical theatre can’t be enjoyed by non-Welsh audiences, when operas are daily being performed to those with no understanding of the language they’re being performed in. English language writers have to go to London to create work, when they have so many stories of their native land to share. None of this is a problem unique to musical theatre, but the lack of new musical development in Wales leaves a glaring artistic gap. Leeway’s 10 Minute musicals proves the talent is there, the audiences are there and is hopefully that first crucial step to changing the game.
The support of Theater Sir Gar/Ffwrnes theatre this time around was crucial. The idea of getting creatives out of Cardiff, and more importantly taking work to audiences outside of our capital is crucial to theatre’s lifeblood in Wales. We all know that the arts are catastrophically underfunded (and underappreciated often by Government’s and Local Authorities) so to have a theatre welcome creatives with this experimental work- and to have audiences embrace it shows the power that the arts holds- transcending everything (including vile weather in this case!) that tries to hold it back. It’s not a solution but it’s a start.
And that’s the heart of the 10-minute musicals project-a start and a creative spark. In the room, for the creatives, for audiences experiencing new musical theatre for the first time, for theatres programming it…hopefully some if not all of the five pieces performed last weekend will develop into something more. But most importantly, five new musical theatre pieces were made in Wales last weekend. And an audience came and responded to that. It proves we can and should be making Welsh musical theatre.