15 Minutes Live by Slung Low, which played this year at The Holbeck (previously Holbeck Working Men’s Club), Leeds, was an awful lot of fun. More than I was expecting! I’m trying to pick apart why, and here are my thoughts. Is it just that I’m older and wiser, I’m working with friends, I’m far less caffeinated than I used to be? Maybe all these reasons and more…
The first 15 Minutes Live was performed in 2011 and since then (5 years ago) it’s become a streamlined operation. Originally we took a week to rehearse; now we’re at two days, including time for rehearsing the band and the dress rehearsal.
15 Minutes Live is a live radio play experience – radio plays presented as theatre, performed with scripts in hand and recorded for archive and posterity. There are five plays, each around the 15 Minute mark, and I think this time we had 11 performers over all the shows. It’s really rather a lovely and laid-back way to spend a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.
There is live foley, the sound design art that gives us a popped balloon if a gun is fired and all the other background sounds called for in a script. There’s a five-piece band, some of whom double or triple up performing different instruments (drums/percussion/glockenspiel, clarinet/saxophone, violin, cello and piano/french horn/melodica), MD’ed by me. If we cock up the recording, say, an actor fluffs a line, or kicks over a mic, or we in the band mess up a cue, we keep performing the play ’til its end and then go back and record that little bit again.
In previous years, I’ve always found the live part of this job, for me, particularly taxing. I’m elated at the end of it, the relief that I’ve got through it in one piece. I LOVE being behind the scenes; I’m even ok with calling some of the live elements in a show (like the choir in some of Converging Paths), but I’ve never been overly comfortable in front of an audience. Even as a violinist, I was plenty content in the trio playing for weddings and other functions – we were glorified background music for the most part. I never got used to solo performances. I have nightmares about them occasionally, even now, and I can count the number of times I’ve picked up that poor, neglected instrument in the last few years on three fingers (that’s three, btw).
Something changed in this last show though. Maybe I’m just getting older and more mellow. My hair’s certainly getting greyer. Whilst there was still a frisson of nervous energy, somehow I’d managed to reframe the experience as exciting rather than rabbit-pinned-in-the-headlights petrifying. It was no longer just a valuable, challenging experience, something that was character-building; I was actually reeeeally looking forward to it.
I spent what felt like a long time composing the music for this – three weeks is unnecessary long for the number of minutes of score. But it was way more enjoyable, and my work days were short, I had most of my weekends free, and I was always fresh and ready to sit down and really work on the music, seeing obvious ways in which previous work should progress, change or be edited, then ready to stop and spend the rest of the day on recharging pursuits (biking, baking, the usual) rather than slogging away hour after hour always with a deadline becoming the primary motivation. The latter is not the reason I went into this business in the first place, after all (even though, on occasion, that deadline becomes an essential tool to forcing the decision-making process).
The music got sent off to the band (for any feedback they might have, like whether or not it was actually playable) a whole week before the show, a first for me to be that early. During that next week, I mentally rehearsed the score a few times daily before the first rehearsal. Conducting does not come naturally to me and there are times that my head is counting in 3 and the baton counts in 4… However, I imagined it going well; and also envisaged where it might go wrong, and how I might have contingencies for mistakes.
The band’s rehearsal didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would. These people are all pros – always employ people who are better than you; it makes life so much easier. Also, most of these guys have been with me since the second show, one since the first. They all know the drill well enough by now, they know my easy(!) film-musical stylings and I know their proclivities: who’s happy with improvisation, who likes a challenge.
Quick conversations leading up to the show with some of these chaps over Facebook messenger or email about options and possibilites for instrumentation and orchestration were easy, and the fun of writing for the group always came to the forefront of my experience – the pianist/french hornist even bought a new instrument (a melodica) in time for the show. Now that’s commitment.
Between the last 15 Minutes show I worked on in 2013 and this most recent one, I somehow stopped drinking caffeinated drinks – its not a moral thing or anything and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a vice. It just makes me act and feel just a bit weird, jittery, scattered – I’m very sensitive to it, as I’ve heard is pretty common for introverts. I don’t need it to stay awake, and in fact I’m more awake, focussed and, crucially, function better later in the day without it. I don’t get such extreme highs and lows and life feels loads calmer since I kicked it.
I definitely had more consistent energy resources available to me through the whole on-site rehearsal process than I’ve had in previous years… (except for after I’d had seconds of Hansa’s takeaway curry just before the dress rehearsal. Possibly a mistake. A very tasty mistake. But I got a second wind after a couple of hours, yay! and phew!). It was most noticeable during the performance – at no point did my energy wane and the 2-and-a-half-hour show just flew by. In previous years I’d blame excessive fatigue down to being around people for too long. Just didn’t happen on this occasion (’til the Monday after, but that’s post-show elation come-down for you!).
There’s a rough and ready feel to the show, appropriate to this working men’s club environment. We’ll make mistakes, but it’s ok, we can got back and re-record those bits, and the audience is in on the magic – it’s actually exciting that rather than a polished sleight-of-hand we all get to see behind the scenes!
There’s a contentedness I feel with this particular group and format that isn’t surprising though – I’ve worked with the producing team and some of the cast for over a decade now, others for almost as long. It is bloody lovely to make shows with your mates, you know? Is it purely the familiarity creating an air of security, a safe place to take more risks? There’s also feeling that we’re all in this together, and we’re including the audience in our gang.
Honestly… I just don’t know. All I know is that I didn’t feel nervous, I felt excited and behind that was a strange calm that knew it would all be ok on a deep, visceral level (not the usual intellectual ‘of course it’ll all be fine… f**&&*^^%k!’). We were all looking out for each other – we’d all bring our A-game and if one of us happened to stumble the rest would be there to pick us up.
tl;dr? I got old, I worked smart, I rehearsed, I quit caffeine, I work with excellent and lovely people. Can these be the reasons I enjoyed actually performing this particular show…?
Maybe. Though I do sometimes wish I’d stop over-analysing these things and learn to appreciate them for the joy that they are. Plus it was pretty sunny over most of the weekend and that usually does it for me. So it was probably that. Glad I got that sorted, then.
All photographs Copyright © H. Fenoughty 2016
January was all about Third Angel‘s Partus and in February I worked on the preliminary score for Red Star‘s latest 3D animation. An excellent, varied and challenging start to the year in all the right ways.
I’m now starting to think about the latest edition of 15 Minutes Live – on at The Holbeck, Leeds, 10th April, 2016. Exactly a month today! There are 5 short radio plays, and I’ve 3 scripts already with two arriving as and when. The show is still a long way off, and I really don’t need to start working on it yet, but as an excessively paranoid type I like to get started, prepped and organised as early as humanly possible (though I did take a delightful week-and-a-half off between the last project and getting going on this), especially on shows with a live music element.
In contrast, Partus was a huge departure from my usual, uber-prepared way of working. One likes to squirrel oneself away in the studio for the bulk of work time actually planning, plotting, writing (for the purposes of work, I’m the most introverted person I know and possibly you’ll ever meet without realising it – I manage it to my own advantage well mwahahaha… ahem) peppering as necessary with meetings and rehearsals and general out-and-about time.
The more I can restrict face-time to the essential information-gathering and idea-collaborating environments, the more efficient and effective those times are, and the more time I get for proper experimentation in the studio, rather than drawing on past, effective – but sometimes cliched – motifs and chord progressions, instrumentation and sound design.
Deep-thinking, alone time is my most valuable resource for getting the right music for the job written on time.
Though I do like to mix it up when the opportunity arises, as such an opportunity did indeed arise in Partus, a devised piece by Third Angel about, “birth in all its bloody glory.”
The four-week process was split around Christmas – two weeks before, two weeks off for the holidays and then two weeks finalising with the first show on the Friday, into a run lasting a week or so. In a complete break from character, I spent a large portion of those four weeks in the rehearsal room with the rest of the team.
I do love a script when it comes to theatre work. Those words on the page fill me with optimism (usually), hope (always) and a clear vision of where to go next – or at least what the gaps are in my knowledge that need filling in order to get the music progressing. Then there’s the feeling that we’re all ‘on the same page’. We all have a clear and common point of reference. A new script will also give me a healthy terror of a ‘what-the-eff-am-I-going-to-write’ variety, but we won’t go there just yet.
Primarily, with a script, or even just a synopsis or scene breakdown, I can work out the purpose of the music, where it sits with the sound design, and the characters’ journeys. With music, we travel through time and space and into the deepest recesses of the human emotional journey – of both the characters, and more importantly the audience.
Though I don’t need it at the beginning of the process, there will come a point during the schedule where I may start to fret if the structure of the script hasn’t been defined and formalised – because I know how long it takes me to come up with ideas, write them, get them performed by the computer or people in time for delivery on time. And there is nothing that pisses me off more than not delivering work on time (ok there are lots of things but it’s at least up there in the top ten).
With this devised work, Partus, on day 1 there’s by definition no script, no scene breakdown, no synopsis. There’s a huge bank of research from mothers, fathers, midwives, nurses and other health workers… but there are no predefined characters, no arcs, no 3- or 5- or 7-act structure. Though it’s unsettling, it’s also quite liberating – I feel like I’ve a long enough lead up to the show to enjoy this not-knowing phase, and (hopefully not misplaced) faith that I’ll get the job done someway, somehow.
It’s an intriguing process, one I don’t normally get to see (and haven’t in many years, not since the early days of Slung Low) and not normally one I want or need to. I’ve a tendency to start scoring in my head immediately I see something that might need it, before allowing the process to weed out the chaff and develop what’s left into something more mature and worthwhile – that may not need music at all.
On this occasion, working with a company new to me on a topic that wouldn’t normally be on my radar, I decided to see what would happen if I worked differently, by necessity – there wasn’t really any other way to do it. It was lovely to be in the devising room and see the process in action, though long days were incredibly draining and later in those first two weeks I did have to catch myself from getting a little antsy for a brief or a structure of some kind.
“It’s all part of the process, you can’t rush it,” I’d tell myself.
“Well I’ll be rushing at the end if I don’t get some sort of structure RIGHT NOW,” I’d reply.
“Jeez, chill your beans,” would be my witty retort.
And so on, etc etc.
Eventually, a little time after New Year, the show coalesced into something tangible. Very few of the preliminary sketches I’d made during the Christmas break made it into the final score wholesale, but there was plenty of raw material if time got short… which it did, and that raw material got used and abused! The structure shifted substantially during those final few days before the first performance, though the ‘bricks’ of those structures and some of the narrative themes always remained consistent. We always had something to build on, and I usually had musical material to draw on as we swapped things around.
It was a challenging and exhausting process with some brilliant ladies (and gents!) creating a show on an enormous and emotive topic that was very well received. We made it! There’s something in that feeling – mostly relief and disbelief – but also of having finished a marathon at sprint speed and the endorphins have just kicked in…
This process has made me more open to different ways of working, and also confirmed how best I like to work given the right conditions. I’ll not stop loving the script as a universal concept, and I won’t stop pushing for one in some form by the point I’ll definitely need one to deliver the music on time (in fact, now I think I might be slightly more pushy…).
However, needs must as the devil drives, and if it’s to work with good people on worthwhile topics and interesting projects, I’m not too old a dog to learn new ways of working. Just to mix it up a touch, now and then. Give the grey matter a little jiggle to wake it up.
Now back to marking up these 15 Minutes Live scripts for cues. Wonder what the final two scripts will hold in store…*
*WHERE ARE THEY ALREADY?**
**jk Alan and the writers 😉