There is a special kind of grief reserved for composers. It’s the moment when your presence is no longer needed to make your music function. You can listen and give notes for ever, of course, but ultimately, the whole point of the exercise is to provide a score which is iterable, coach it until it resembles as closely as possible your ideal version, and then leave them to it. The deadline for scores in theatre is the Press night, at which point the vast majority of companies consider the show ‘frozen’, ie no substantive changes will be made thereafter.
Last week I was at Northern Stage in Newcastle with the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a Play for the Nation. I’ve been working on this show since April 2015. We’d already opened the show in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and there had, indeed, been a press night there, but the dimensions of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre are so specific that adjustments were required to send the show to the touring venues. Music cues needed to be snipped – by numbers of seconds, rather than numbers of bars. It’s an exercise I find rather satisfying. ‘This needs to be reduced by about 8 seconds,’ says my director, Erica Whyman, and my task is to take the existing cue and render her instruction in a way that retains something of my original plan, sounds like a reasonable musical structure, and which fits with the new timeline. ‘Go straight to the second time bar – that’ll take around 5 seconds off and shouldn’t be too brutal musically – then cut bars 15 and 16.’ Bingo. The scene change no longer ends before the music, and I have performed a useful task. My contract is finished, while the show will perform for another four and a half months.
I say goodbye to the cast and crew, return to my flat in London, and…well, to be honest, grieve. There is such an intensity to the relationships formed within the rehearsal room, such ‘fast trust’ as my sociologist cousin describes it, such a need for good will and focus on the common goals, that I come to the conclusion that theatre is a form of romance, and that on Saturday night I left one of the loves of my life.
What makes this particular show harder to leave is that, like all romances, it has changed me so that I cannot simply go back to life before April 2015. Visible on stage in each performance there are 39 people: 19 professional actors, 4 musicians, 6 amateur performers and 10 schoolchildren. In addition there are the unseen heroes: the stage management team (though they’re often finding themselves onstage too in this particular production!), sound, lighting and the backstage crew who are, pretty much by definition, the unseen workers.
In order to teach the kids the song I’d written, I was filmed teaching a group of Stratford kids, and this ‘digital lesson’ was sent round the country, so that when I arrive at a theatre, the kids all know my face, as well as my song.
I’ve learnt immeasurable amounts from working with this vast and diverse group of people.
The diversity of our cast is such that I now see the inequalities of casting all over the place – and am concurrently aware of my former unconscious tolerance of this, whatever my best intentions.
During our first rehearsal in Newcastle, one of the amateurs fell and broke his leg. He waited for over four hours for an ambulance to arrive. The NHS issues I rant about on facebook are very much in evidence in Newcastle. I gather that they always were.
At one performance, one of the professionals, one of the amateurs and two of the children were off. I watched the entire cast – children, amateurs and professionals – take this in their stride, understudying the absentees as planned, but also taking up any slack. The most striking example was a girl who had learnt my song from the digital lesson. As the introduction started, she walked downstage centre, glanced left and right – establishing, at least in my head, that she was, indeed, completely alone in terms of her usual team, as well as the most prominent of all the performers – then looked straight out at the audience and sang her heart out. I have such deep admiration and pride for this girl I never really met and will, quite possibly, never see again.
And then there’s the team I’ve worked with daily and weekly for the past weeks and months. Some I’ve known for years and years, and our lives and families are interwined; others I met during our audition process in Autumn 2015, and others still I met for the first time on January 4th 2016, our first day of rehearsals. They all have something in common. They’ve all taken on this crazy and challenging project and are relishing every new occurrence and configuration, every new accent and attitude with such delight and goodwill that I defy anyone not to be a little bit in love with each and every one of them. And now, in missing them, I salute those I know, those I have yet to meet, and those whose work I will, for practical reasons, simply not have the privilege to witness directly.
Such sweet, sweet sorrow.