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Evie May

"a collaborative spirit"

Hugo Chiarella charts the three years of excitement and frustration that went into the creation of a new Australian musical.

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Show: Evie May
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The Making (and making) of Evie May

Date: 11 Oct 2018

2015: It was during the Sydney season of Les Miserables when my fellow cast mate, Naomi Livingston, sent me a cryptic message asking if I could meet her in the greenroom between shows for a chat.

The show was coming to the end of its time in Australia. For some reason, I had decided that 18 months of bellowing across the barricades wasn’t enough and had signed up for another 12 months of international touring.

But Naomi was close to completing her contract and was beginning to think about what might come next.  She was planning for a second child in the near future, and was aware that this may be her last opportunity for a while to think about writing her own show.

Naomi had a concept for a one woman show that she was interested in us writing together. She and her husband, Drew, had recently produced an incredible album called So Long Live This featuring Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music, so I was well aware of her abilities as a composer. I had been involved in a few projects as a book writer and lyricist over the previous few years, so it felt like collaborating on a small-scale project of this nature might be a nice way to spend our final months of Les Miserables.

That was three years ago …

The story has evolved significantly over the course of the following three years, but Naomi’s central concept of a performer, in her dressing room following a show, recounting her life, has remained throughout.

After some initial discussions, we felt that the final performance at the Sydney Tivoli in 1966 would be a fascinating moment in which to ground our story.

This was a massive turning point in Australia’s cultural history. With the advent of television, Australia’s rich tradition of live variety quickly dried up over the course of a decade.

The Tivoli, which had at that point been around since the 1890’s, struggled on presenting overseas stars before winding up operations completely. Many local acts did the rounds of variety television shows like Club Seven, Sunnyside-Up and In Melbourne Tonight, then, as time went on, many performers earned their bread and butter in the suburban club circuit.

That final 1966 performance at the Sydney Tivoli was not a clean break from live variety into television, but it represented a cultural moment in which several generations of performers were, to some extent, rendered part of a bygone theatrical tradition.

Naomi and I became fascinated by the idea of a central character, who has defined herself by her part in this cultural tradition, looking ahead at an unknown future at that pivotal moment of cultural change. This formed the basis of what is now Evie May.

Over our final months touring in Les Miserables, we set about researching, writing and composing a solo version of Evie May. It quickly became apparent that the story could not actually be told with a single performer, so we expanded the cast to include a second performer, and then a third and by February of 2016 we had a complete first draft of the work.

2016: Shortly after we’d completed our first draft of the show, Naomi sent me a link to the submission call out for New Musicals Australia, a development programme for new Australian musicals in association with The Hayes Theatre Company.

Initially, I was a little reluctant.

We had been quite convinced we were writing a ‘play with songs’. It just didn’t feel like the kind of show that would be of interest to a musical theatre development programme. But there didn’t seem any harm in at least throwing our hat in the ring, so we put together an application.

I was in The Philippines (still performing Les Miserables) when Naomi went into The Hayes (having given birth just a few weeks earlier) to present a 20-minute ‘snapshot’ of the show to the New Musicals Australia panel.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear from her that the panel had loved the presentation and it had caused Nancye Hayes to reminisce at length about many of her colleagues who had performed at The Tivoli during her J.C. Williamson days.

But along with the praise came notes. The first of many, many rounds of notes.

Having gone through the process of workshopping and developing an original musical in the past, I was no stranger to the process of receiving and incorporating feedback. What makes the New Musicals Australia process both invaluable and daunting is the rich and varied perspectives of the panellists.

The challenge for a writer is to take on board this variety of ideas, tastes and opinions and try to get to identify the common core of what is being said to you.

The thing I have learned is that people often have massively differing suggestions as to how you should develop your show. More often than not, all of these different suggestions are in fact individual reactions to a common problem that people are perceiving.

The job of the writer is to try and look beyond the suggestion to the problem that each person is trying to solve.

Naomi and I decided to try and engage in this process with as much commitment to the feedback as we possibly could. We tried to work through every single note that was given to us and understand the common problems that were being identified.

This had a profoundly transformative impact on the trajectory of the work. Between The Snapshot and Stage Two of New Musicals Australia, we added a performer and four new songs.

Between Stage Two and Stage Three, we turned a one act show into a two-act show, added eight songs, rewrote another four and added two more performers, rounding the cast out to six.

Off the back of the second read-through to the New Musicals Australia panel (a full reading of the work, with myself and Naomi singing through the songs) we were informed that the work had been selected for a week-long workshop followed by a staged reading. It all moved with exceptional speed.

Or at least that is how it felt. Never expecting to progress as we did through the programme, we were both fairly comfortable with the possibility that each Stage might be our last. At certain times we may have even welcomed it. The seesawing between being excited and being overwhelmed was constant.

2017: Early in the year, we gathered in the rehearsal room at the Sport for Jove headquarters in Surry Hills with director Damien Ryan at helm to get the show on its feet with a full cast. 

The show evolved in small and subtle ways over the course of this week. By this point the show had become an intricate tapestry of past and present scenes and songs, weaving in and out of different time periods and memories.

It was difficult to interrogate any one piece of it in isolation from the overall structure. This workshop proved invaluable in getting an overall sense of the flow and scope of the work, and also a feeling for how the tension mounted (or needed to mount) over the course of the two hours.

Once again, an enthusiastic feedback session from the New Musicals Australia panel led to lengthy period of reflection and filtration from Naomi and myself as we tried to work through the various opinions and what direction they might be pointing us in.

Meanwhile, Michelle Guthrie, one of the true champions of this show, continued to work behind the scenes to get the script in front of as many different people as she could.

It felt like every month I would get another email in my inbox with a new set of notes and provocations from another stalwart of the Australian theatre industry. Reading criticism of your work is always hard. Reading criticism from people you have grown up admiring is harder still.

But being a writer is about constantly asking yourself how your work could be better, and every set of notes is a new opportunity to consider that question from a fresh perspective. Every single person that Michelle found to look over the script has ultimately shaped the work in an immediately identifiable way.

As Naomi and I set about writing new songs, rewriting old songs and fleshing out the various storylines we received notification that the show had been selected to go into production at The Hayes Theatre in late 2018.

2018: By this stage I had moved to London and was performing Les Miserables on the West End.

I know. That is a lot of Les Mis. But I’m nothing if not a completist.

The director-choreographer Kate Champion had come on board as the director of Evie May, with Steven Kreamer as musical director and veteran musical theatre composer, Max Lambert, as musical supervisor.

The show had also been cast with an incredible group of actors consisting of Amanda Harrison, Loren Hunter, Tim Draxl, Keagan Joyce, Bishanyia Vincent and Jo Turner.

Naomi was in the Blue Mountains with her two young daughters, a singing coaching business and directing a show, but still managed most of the face-to-face action leading up to production.

I was juggling an eight-show week in London, an MA and a part time job and I was unable to get back to Australia for our final workshop ahead of production. I would get up at 6am every morning and skype in with the team to have that days notes relayed back to me.

Needless to say, this was a difficult process for me. Receiving notes at seven in the morning that have come out of six hours of discussion that you have not been privy to, is not how any writer would wish to develop their work. But at this stage it was a necessity. I think the fact that this process forced me to relinquish some control of the development process and put my trust in the whole team has ultimately strengthened the show.

It may not have been easy at the time, but musical theatre is an unavoidably collaborative art. Unless you enable the whole team to engage creatively and collaboratively and take some ownership of the work, it is very difficult to move forward in a productive way.

This slightly unconventional workshop process necessitated that collaborative engagement from the whole team and ultimately focused everyone’s sense of what we were trying to achieve with the work.

It is a collaborative spirit that has now permeated its way into the rehearsal room.

As with the New Musicals Australia feedback process, occasionally the number of voices and ideas makes it necessary to look beyond the suggestions to the problems that people are attempting to solve.

This is not always an easy process. It is occasionally a frustrating process. But it is always an engaged process. And now, after three years of development and waking up in the middle of the night to rewrite lyrics, having 12 people in a room, passionately engaged in the production of this work, could not be a more joyous experience.

It is a spirit that I hope is visible on the stage, and it is a spirit that I hope continues with the life of this show.

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