Project Book update…Painful Progress

I don’t know if I ever intended monthly project book updates but here we go….

Well I’ll be honest this isn’t so much of a ‘project book’ update as it will be a general moan about life. But this blog is designed to both document the book-writing process as much as it is to share the research. And the reality is, this kind of stuff is part of the process.

So, life update. Or at least job update. Or indeed lack of job update. I spent Christmas working in a bookshop. Which was hard work but fairly enjoyable all told. And before it ended I found out I had a temporary admin job lined up. Happy days, I can have a routine, and work on my research around the work.

As it happened the job wasn’t what I’d hoped. For reasons I may get to talk about in more detail another time. But added to that, this week they decided to let me go. And I’ll be honest I’ve taken it hard. From the financial worry once again, to the crippling feelings of ‘failure’ at still not having a ‘real’ job. And, well nobody likes to be told they aren’t good enough do they?

Alongside that the ever-present panic that I’m going to mess up this opportunity to write the book (and the play, there’s a play that’s due around the same time).

Add to that a feeling of deflation around other things. I’ve been trying to jump on the Angels Broadway bandwagon and pitch articles to different outlets, throw myself at the publicity as ‘Dr Angels’ and see if anything bites. But nothing is. I know it’s par for the course in that world to get rejections. But knock back after knock back there is putting me back in the ‘not good enough’ frame of mind or the ‘losing out to people who just shout louder.’

And on the latter point there is a frustration. With this play, that I know I’m one of the experts on, and that there aren’t many of us (I’m never, in case anyone thinks so, conceited enough to say I’m the best or only one. There’s some excellent fellow Angelologists out there every bit as deserving to share their thoughts as I am. But also I’m one of them, I want my voice in that mix). But instead I’m feeling like a third rate academic, that nobody wants to hear from.

Finally, this week. I did a thing I find hard to do and asked someone for help and advice with the career, with writing- after they’d offered. I got shot down. I got told I wasn’t deserving to be paid for writing as I hadn’t ‘paid my dues’. I got told I clearly didn’t ‘want it’ enough as I’m not living in London, being a starving artist and sacrificing it all for my work.

An objective me can sit back from this week. Take in the knocks that are par for the course. Brush off the ones that are just bad luck or bad people. But that’s hard too. And right now I feel defeated, and deflated. And as if all this fighting, all the scarping and scarping I did last year was for nothing.

And where does that leave Project Book?

I’ll be honest, I’ve not done a lot lately. The combination of work, and the frustrations around it being back again but out of reach have blurred my focus. But I’m slowly switching that around to inspiration again. Channeling all that into wanting to make it the best I can make it. Because I fought this far, I’m not letting myself down.

And right now I feel like I’ve let myself down. I’ve lost another job. I’ve not made any progress, not capitalised enough on opportunities I had. And that maybe I’m just not good enough.

It is a kind of painful progress I guess. And my ‘dreaming ahead’ in this moment is putting a kind of blind faith that prioritizing finishing the book is the right thing to do. But that’s scary, because what if, what if it all goes wrong. It’s all for nothing and another year is wasted. What then? But I guess also, what if you don’t. What then have you wasted?

But ultimately in times like this, all I can do is write. Sit down and write the best book I know how to write. And even if it’s not good enough, at least I’ll know I tried.

And so to ‘spinning forward’ where am I with the actual writing (Stop moaning about life Em an actually talk about the book…) My projects for this month are as follows:

  • Edit Introduction chapters and work on original productions
  • Source any missing material around these
  • Collate information on 2017 production (reviews etc)
  • Create a detailed plan for 2017 analysis

The book has shape in my head now. And many spin offs and avenues that may or may not get explored here (maybe they won’t fit, maybe it’s a 2-parter, as a true child of Kushner should be right?)

It’s there, it’s alive. It’s waving papers in the air an shouting at Mormons.

Project Book update…Painful Progress

I don’t know if I ever intended monthly project book updates but here we go….

Well I’ll be honest this isn’t so much of a ‘project book’ update as it will be a general moan about life. But this blog is designed to both document the book-writing process as much as it is to share the research. And the reality is, this kind of stuff is part of the process.

So, life update. Or at least job update. Or indeed lack of job update. I spent Christmas working in a bookshop. Which was hard work but fairly enjoyable all told. And before it ended I found out I had a temporary admin job lined up. Happy days, I can have a routine, and work on my research around the work.

As it happened the job wasn’t what I’d hoped. For reasons I may get to talk about in more detail another time. But added to that, this week they decided to let me go. And I’ll be honest I’ve taken it hard. From the financial worry once again, to the crippling feelings of ‘failure’ at still not having a ‘real’ job. And, well nobody likes to be told they aren’t good enough do they?

Alongside that the ever-present panic that I’m going to mess up this opportunity to write the book (and the play, there’s a play that’s due around the same time).

Add to that a feeling of deflation around other things. I’ve been trying to jump on the Angels Broadway bandwagon and pitch articles to different outlets, throw myself at the publicity as ‘Dr Angels’ and see if anything bites. But nothing is. I know it’s par for the course in that world to get rejections. But knock back after knock back there is putting me back in the ‘not good enough’ frame of mind or the ‘losing out to people who just shout louder.’

And on the latter point there is a frustration. With this play, that I know I’m one of the experts on, and that there aren’t many of us (I’m never, in case anyone thinks so, conceited enough to say I’m the best or only one. There’s some excellent fellow Angelologists out there every bit as deserving to share their thoughts as I am. But also I’m one of them, I want my voice in that mix). But instead I’m feeling like a third rate academic, that nobody wants to hear from.

Finally, this week. I did a thing I find hard to do and asked someone for help and advice with the career, with writing- after they’d offered. I got shot down. I got told I wasn’t deserving to be paid for writing as I hadn’t ‘paid my dues’. I got told I clearly didn’t ‘want it’ enough as I’m not living in London, being a starving artist and sacrificing it all for my work.

An objective me can sit back from this week. Take in the knocks that are par for the course. Brush off the ones that are just bad luck or bad people. But that’s hard too. And right now I feel defeated, and deflated. And as if all this fighting, all the scarping and scarping I did last year was for nothing.

And where does that leave Project Book?

I’ll be honest, I’ve not done a lot lately. The combination of work, and the frustrations around it being back again but out of reach have blurred my focus. But I’m slowly switching that around to inspiration again. Channeling all that into wanting to make it the best I can make it. Because I fought this far, I’m not letting myself down.

And right now I feel like I’ve let myself down. I’ve lost another job. I’ve not made any progress, not capitalised enough on opportunities I had. And that maybe I’m just not good enough.

It is a kind of painful progress I guess. And my ‘dreaming ahead’ in this moment is putting a kind of blind faith that prioritizing finishing the book is the right thing to do. But that’s scary, because what if, what if it all goes wrong. It’s all for nothing and another year is wasted. What then? But I guess also, what if you don’t. What then have you wasted?

But ultimately in times like this, all I can do is write. Sit down and write the best book I know how to write. And even if it’s not good enough, at least I’ll know I tried.

And so to ‘spinning forward’ where am I with the actual writing (Stop moaning about life Em an actually talk about the book…) My projects for this month are as follows:

  • Edit Introduction chapters and work on original productions
  • Source any missing material around these
  • Collate information on 2017 production (reviews etc)
  • Create a detailed plan for 2017 analysis

The book has shape in my head now. And many spin offs and avenues that may or may not get explored here (maybe they won’t fit, maybe it’s a 2-parter, as a true child of Kushner should be right?)

It’s there, it’s alive. It’s waving papers in the air an shouting at Mormons.

Thank You Jonathan Larson (again)

A slight diversion. But as this is the ‘research blog’ it seems only right that I take pause today to talk about the ‘other half’ of my academic life. And so much more.
Larson wrote ‘How do you measure a year in the life’ and the more years that go by- in both his work a part of my life and since the world lost him- it becomes harder to encapsulate those things in words.
Larson’s work shaped me personally and professionally. And musical theatre owes him a debt. We would, theatre kids, likely have no Hamilton if it wasn’t for Larson (Don’t believe me, listen to your God Lin-Manuel while he tells the story of how Larson’s work shaped him here ) Now we aren’t all Lin-Manuel Miranda, obviously. But I’d bet that most of us theatre kids of a certain age (and the generations after us) owe a little something to Rent. And actually, like Miranda I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done without Rent.

For me I came late to it. I was 19 and just discovering musical theatre. And of course, on that discovery Rent came soon after. Eventually I made it to Broadway to see the show. I loved it, who wouldn’t. Interestingly it wasn’t that first time that had a profound effect on me, but I think the second or third. I remember so distinctly being sat in the Mezzanine of the Nederlander theatre and being hit by a wave of emotion stronger than anything I’d felt before, in the theatre, and rarely have since. And although I loved Rent, as musical theatre fans do, it was that moment it really became a part of me that I’d never quite shake.
And so, Rent became a part of me. In that way anything you love intensely in your teens and early twenties does, it became entwined with my growing up. When I started I was a bit younger than those characters, but as time passed I grew up into them and lived on past that point in life. But they remained there. Part of the lessons learned on the way:  I wished to live with the abandon of Angel, love like Collins and be fierce and fearless like Maureen. All the while, being a lot like Mark- the observer, the outsider (and a bit like Larson too it seemed). I gathered the stories, consumed everything on this musical. The year the film came out is a halcyon daze of celebration for this thing we loved in my mind. Early internet fandom (hello Hamilton we got there first) and the sharing of information, grainy video clips, and friendships made. Rent marks out moments in my growing up, a constant soundtrack, my musical home. 
Fast forward a few years, and a few more. I wrote a PhD.  I wrote a PhD on Rent. I am when I’m not being Dr Angels, Dr Rent. And I fought hard for that PhD. I fought people who said I had no business writing on a musical at all. I fought people who said this musical wasn’t worthy. And I did it anyway. I like to think Larson would be pleased with that. Not just that someone, from country thousands of miles away, wrote a PhD on his musical. But that she fought damn hard to prove the legitimacy of it. Because Larson was passionate about musicals as an art form. And we’re getting there now in that recognition, but boy did he fight for us too.
I spent my PhD, when I was doing all the defending, telling people who inevitably asked about the two plays ‘Angels is my head, Rent is my heart.’ That does both a disservice- equally both deserve the analysis I gave them, and equally both are loved. But I was right, there is something about Rent that is etched into my very being. Even without thinking of it, it runs through my veins in the way only music you fall in love with at the right moment in your life can. I have a companion, and inspiration for life in that. I can fall back on it in times of joy and sorrow, or even when I’m just feeling a bit lonely. It’s my friend and companion. And by now it’s a part of me.
(And yes, by the way anyone with the foolish notion to marry me will have to endure Seasons of Love in the ceremony, it’s just the way it is).
 I spent four years with my head in this (and a couple of other pieces). I deconstructed, I stepped away and analysed coldly. I was forced to defend my choice of Rent, a ‘lowly musical’ as a piece of serious work. I was forced to look at it in the most critical way. And I began to feel like I should have ‘grown out of it.’
Almost exactly a year ago I came out of a production of Rent that was, firstly the best version of it I’ve seen since the original. Secondly, one that so profoundly affected me I had to sit on a bench desperately texting the two people I knew would understand, to pull myself together and move. After all this time, all these years, still it’s in my bones. In the very soul of me.
And maybe some people out there feel Rent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But there’s no denying the influence it had on people. From the extremes of, yes writing a PhD on it. To the lesser extent that it just helped people through difficult times. Or that it made them happy.

And for me who Larson was, along with what he achieved, is a part of why every year on this day I pause to think about how he inspired me and continues to. Larson fought hard for what he got. And yes, before anyone says so, for every Jonathan Larson there are dozens if not hundreds who never achieve what they set out to. But does that mean we should all stop trying?
In Tick Tick Boom Larson writes the following:
“I want to sit down at my piano and write a song that people will remember. And I want to do the same thing, every morning. For the rest of my life.”
“When I emerge from B minor or A, 5 O’Clock Diner calls, I’m on my way. I make a vow right here and now, I’m gonna spend my time this way”
That there, in whatever form is what Larson gave me. That feeling that dreams are worth it, if they’re worth it to you. And I’ve come to realise, very slowly, that this is what matters to me. To write, to make something that matters to people. Larson doesn’t put a number on it- he couldn’t have known after all quite what Rentwould become. But it was always the drive to make something. He was 35 when he hung up his battered Converse trainers to go and work on the workshop of Rent. Of course, the story has been mythologised in Broadway history. And Larson had a series of minor successes that led him to that point. But I still hold onto that. It took Larson until 35 to hang up those shoes and leave the diner he worked in. And I like to think he’d have carried on trying beyond that had he needed to. I’m not a believer in anyone sacrificing everything for their art. But you live with what you’re comfortable with. That’s what Larson did- for him working in a diner meant space to write. And that’s what drove him.
I listened to Tick Tick Boom on the drive to work in my last ‘proper’ job. The one I swore would be the last job I settled for. That I was taking the leaps to try and chase some dreams. Yesterday I got fired from a Temp job that was set to become all consuming and not let me follow up on what I’m really trying to do. And no, chances are I won’t be another Jonathan Larson. But if I think to Larson on a parallel path, I’m sure he’d rather have got to say, 50 and said, ‘Well I gave it my best shot.’
And that’s what Larson gave me. The music that shaped my life. And the power to keep going. Through that music. And through how he lived.  Even when it feels like it’s falling apart.
I’ll be honest, my life has felt like it’s falling apart this year so far (and it’s only 3 weeks in). All the tiny steps forward made last year feel like they’re going hurtling back and 100 miles per hour. But I will pause. Breathe. Listen to Jonathan’s music, and think about how it set me on a path that drove me this far. And hope that it can carry me further.
I’ll be sending four claps up to you tonight. And saying once again, Thank you Jonathan.

Thank You Jonathan Larson (again)

A slight diversion. But as this is the ‘research blog’ it seems only right that I take pause today to talk about the ‘other half’ of my academic life. And so much more.
Larson wrote ‘How do you measure a year in the life’ and the more years that go by- in both his work a part of my life and since the world lost him- it becomes harder to encapsulate those things in words.
Larson’s work shaped me personally and professionally. And musical theatre owes him a debt. We would, theatre kids, likely have no Hamilton if it wasn’t for Larson (Don’t believe me, listen to your God Lin-Manuel while he tells the story of how Larson’s work shaped him here ) Now we aren’t all Lin-Manuel Miranda, obviously. But I’d bet that most of us theatre kids of a certain age (and the generations after us) owe a little something to Rent. And actually, like Miranda I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done without Rent.

For me I came late to it. I was 19 and just discovering musical theatre. And of course, on that discovery Rent came soon after. Eventually I made it to Broadway to see the show. I loved it, who wouldn’t. Interestingly it wasn’t that first time that had a profound effect on me, but I think the second or third. I remember so distinctly being sat in the Mezzanine of the Nederlander theatre and being hit by a wave of emotion stronger than anything I’d felt before, in the theatre, and rarely have since. And although I loved Rent, as musical theatre fans do, it was that moment it really became a part of me that I’d never quite shake.
And so, Rent became a part of me. In that way anything you love intensely in your teens and early twenties does, it became entwined with my growing up. When I started I was a bit younger than those characters, but as time passed I grew up into them and lived on past that point in life. But they remained there. Part of the lessons learned on the way:  I wished to live with the abandon of Angel, love like Collins and be fierce and fearless like Maureen. All the while, being a lot like Mark- the observer, the outsider (and a bit like Larson too it seemed). I gathered the stories, consumed everything on this musical. The year the film came out is a halcyon daze of celebration for this thing we loved in my mind. Early internet fandom (hello Hamilton we got there first) and the sharing of information, grainy video clips, and friendships made. Rent marks out moments in my growing up, a constant soundtrack, my musical home. 
Fast forward a few years, and a few more. I wrote a PhD.  I wrote a PhD on Rent. I am when I’m not being Dr Angels, Dr Rent. And I fought hard for that PhD. I fought people who said I had no business writing on a musical at all. I fought people who said this musical wasn’t worthy. And I did it anyway. I like to think Larson would be pleased with that. Not just that someone, from country thousands of miles away, wrote a PhD on his musical. But that she fought damn hard to prove the legitimacy of it. Because Larson was passionate about musicals as an art form. And we’re getting there now in that recognition, but boy did he fight for us too.
I spent my PhD, when I was doing all the defending, telling people who inevitably asked about the two plays ‘Angels is my head, Rent is my heart.’ That does both a disservice- equally both deserve the analysis I gave them, and equally both are loved. But I was right, there is something about Rent that is etched into my very being. Even without thinking of it, it runs through my veins in the way only music you fall in love with at the right moment in your life can. I have a companion, and inspiration for life in that. I can fall back on it in times of joy and sorrow, or even when I’m just feeling a bit lonely. It’s my friend and companion. And by now it’s a part of me.
(And yes, by the way anyone with the foolish notion to marry me will have to endure Seasons of Love in the ceremony, it’s just the way it is).
 I spent four years with my head in this (and a couple of other pieces). I deconstructed, I stepped away and analysed coldly. I was forced to defend my choice of Rent, a ‘lowly musical’ as a piece of serious work. I was forced to look at it in the most critical way. And I began to feel like I should have ‘grown out of it.’
Almost exactly a year ago I came out of a production of Rent that was, firstly the best version of it I’ve seen since the original. Secondly, one that so profoundly affected me I had to sit on a bench desperately texting the two people I knew would understand, to pull myself together and move. After all this time, all these years, still it’s in my bones. In the very soul of me.
And maybe some people out there feel Rent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But there’s no denying the influence it had on people. From the extremes of, yes writing a PhD on it. To the lesser extent that it just helped people through difficult times. Or that it made them happy.

And for me who Larson was, along with what he achieved, is a part of why every year on this day I pause to think about how he inspired me and continues to. Larson fought hard for what he got. And yes, before anyone says so, for every Jonathan Larson there are dozens if not hundreds who never achieve what they set out to. But does that mean we should all stop trying?
In Tick Tick Boom Larson writes the following:
“I want to sit down at my piano and write a song that people will remember. And I want to do the same thing, every morning. For the rest of my life.”
“When I emerge from B minor or A, 5 O’Clock Diner calls, I’m on my way. I make a vow right here and now, I’m gonna spend my time this way”
That there, in whatever form is what Larson gave me. That feeling that dreams are worth it, if they’re worth it to you. And I’ve come to realise, very slowly, that this is what matters to me. To write, to make something that matters to people. Larson doesn’t put a number on it- he couldn’t have known after all quite what Rentwould become. But it was always the drive to make something. He was 35 when he hung up his battered Converse trainers to go and work on the workshop of Rent. Of course, the story has been mythologised in Broadway history. And Larson had a series of minor successes that led him to that point. But I still hold onto that. It took Larson until 35 to hang up those shoes and leave the diner he worked in. And I like to think he’d have carried on trying beyond that had he needed to. I’m not a believer in anyone sacrificing everything for their art. But you live with what you’re comfortable with. That’s what Larson did- for him working in a diner meant space to write. And that’s what drove him.
I listened to Tick Tick Boom on the drive to work in my last ‘proper’ job. The one I swore would be the last job I settled for. That I was taking the leaps to try and chase some dreams. Yesterday I got fired from a Temp job that was set to become all consuming and not let me follow up on what I’m really trying to do. And no, chances are I won’t be another Jonathan Larson. But if I think to Larson on a parallel path, I’m sure he’d rather have got to say, 50 and said, ‘Well I gave it my best shot.’
And that’s what Larson gave me. The music that shaped my life. And the power to keep going. Through that music. And through how he lived.  Even when it feels like it’s falling apart.
I’ll be honest, my life has felt like it’s falling apart this year so far (and it’s only 3 weeks in). All the tiny steps forward made last year feel like they’re going hurtling back and 100 miles per hour. But I will pause. Breathe. Listen to Jonathan’s music, and think about how it set me on a path that drove me this far. And hope that it can carry me further.
I’ll be sending four claps up to you tonight. And saying once again, Thank you Jonathan.

Angels Crashing in: Broadway gets closer.

How many times can I fall in love with this play all over again?  And how also does it still hurt so damn much.

Photo: Annie Leibovitz for Vogue

It’s something that’s been kicking around my brain a lot, as the production moves towards Broadway.

Today spurned on by the article in Vogue and the gorgeous images taken by Annie Leibowitz I think I crystallized a few of those thoughts.

Let’s backtrack again. The article in Vogue. With pictures by Annie Leibowitz.

And of course the small fact that Angels is back on Broadway (in the theatre most recently housing Cats for added nerd value). And with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Lee Pace and the wonder-New-York-Recently-Discovered that is Denise Gough.  (I’m staking the claim now America, you don’t get to keep her.)

All of that is enough to make this nerd heart leap. But what I’m still struck by is the power this play still has. Even in the thinking about it.

The Messenger arrives in the original production

I spent years writing about this play in what felt like the backrooms of academia. This play has always been a pretty damn big deal. From opening at the National Theatre and on Broadway to great acclaim. To the theatrical, political and cultural statements and stirrings it caused. You don’t get to be ‘The most talked about written about’ play in American theatre for nothing. But, fighting my small corner on it,  I spent years of a PhD and beyond feeling like Louis and his piles of research- shouting from the photocopier hoping someone would listen. I’ve written about all this before. How I was done with it all. How this production changed all that, changed me. But I guess every time it still sneaks up and surprises me with the sheer force of it.

Actually through most of the PhD I looked like this.

Why does it still surprise me how much I fall in love with it?

“You’re not stupid so don’t ask stupid”

Alright Mormon Mother you’re right.

But why then does it also feel like my heart is breaking?

“When your heart breaks you should die.”

Thanks for that Harper.

 And the emotions all of this- as the Broadway production is in rehearsals, as the theatre is being dressed, as it almost is time for these Angels to fly on Broadway for the first time in 20 years. It’s an impressive number. It’s an impressive play. And impressive production. But this play, this production is so much more.

When I was slaving over a 100, 000-word thesis on it. It felt like the forgotten masterpiece. In the UK it crashes back through our ceilings about once a decade. And last time, Daniel Kramer’s masterful incarnation stirred feathers, but was no ‘Heaven Quake’. This time around it was the theatrical event of the year for many. And suddenly, my passion project was everywhere. For the first time in a long, long time it felt like the world was paying attention again.

Suddenly, through also virtue of some pretty special actors involved- whether it was for Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield or Denise Gough your interest was stirred (Special shout out to a subset of theatre Twitter in the James McArdle camp of ‘you have my attention’). All of theatre world was talking about it and it was joyous. Even when we disagreed, even when people still 20 years on couldn’t wrap their heads around Perestroika as the wonderful difficult second child that it is. Even when those who loved the original couldn’t gel with Elliott’s re-writing of the style. It was vibrant, and passionate and intellectual debate. Even those who hated it. But it also felt like London embraced this play once again with the same welcome it had 25 years ago. It felt like it stayed a bit of a worst kept secret, this wonderful creation on the South Bank.

Why does it rip at my heart to see it on Broadway? Because it’s terrifying. And wonderful. All at once.  It’s sending this crystallized, inventive but boundary pushing creation from Marianne Elliott and the National Theatre back ‘home’ to New York. And it feels almost-to use an appropriate idiom- a bloody cheek for a bunch of Brits to be giving it the first Broadway revival. But it also feels bloody good. And a little bit exciting that we know what’s coming.

It is as Prior himself might say, ‘Wonderful and horrible all at once’. This precious thing you guarded for so long, that you fought for (and over- viciously) is now suddenly being once again the fodder of the masses. And as much as you wanted the world to share this thing you love, there’s also a part of you that wants to keep it close, for fear somehow in the sharing it gets ruined.

And it’s wonderful because you want everyone to know just how brilliant, and life changing and exciting it is. (And I have enough of Louis in me to be unable to resist that) But being so close to something, as researching a PhD makes you, it feels horribly exposing. Seeing that thing under such public focus, takes what you’d kept so close to your heart for so long. Because also suddenly everyone has an opinion. And everyone might have an opinion on your opinion, should you dare to say ‘Um actually I know this play better than a lot of people….here I have a thing to prove it.’

And of course on a personal level I’m desperate to write about it and to have a platform to do so- and my heart is breaking a little that, no matter how many brilliant pitches I write, I probably won’t get the platform to do so. And my heart is in this play, and I have more of it in my head than frankly some of the people who step out on that stage. I have ten years of head and heart, and I’m pleading with the Universe to just give me one more chance to share it- More Life once more if you will.

But most of all I’m bursting- with pride and love that this thing I love is soon to be back in the world again.

Seeing those pictures again, I was struck most of all by the sheer force of it. Every time I think I’m back to that colder intellectualism, something takes hold of me again.

And with this production, it feels like us Brits are in on the secret. We know how wonderful it is. What an incredible feat Marianne Elliott pulled off with Tony Kushner’s masterpiece. Even those Americans who saw the NT Live broadcast who think they know, don’t really know the real power of it in person. And that’s exciting to watch happen again.

There is a force of nature to this play. It not only gets into your head, but it is under your skin and takes a hold like no other piece of art ever has. And it is that, that driving, consuming love for it that keeps me writing. And I cling onto that. Like Prior’s ancestors in that boat.

Sometimes you just need a hug when you think about it

And yeah it still can knock me sideways. That’s how I know it’s sincere. That’s how I know I have to keep working. That the  World only Spins Forward.

And I have lots more to say about all that. I hope to say it. I plan to. Somehow.

Angels Crashing in: Broadway gets closer.

How many times can I fall in love with this play all over again?  And how also does it still hurt so damn much. 

Photo: Annie Leibovitz for Vogue 

It’s something that’s been kicking around my brain a lot, as the production moves towards Broadway. 
Today spurned on by the article in Vogue and the gorgeous images taken by Annie Leibowitz I think I crystallized a few of those thoughts. 
Let’s backtrack again. The article in Vogue. With pictures by Annie Leibowitz. 

And of course the small fact that Angels is back on Broadway (in the theatre most recently housing Cats for added nerd value). And with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Lee Pace and the wonder-New-York-Recently-Discovered that is Denise Gough.  (I’m staking the claim now America, you don’t get to keep her.)



All of that is enough to make this nerd heart leap. But what I’m still struck by is the power this play still has. Even in the thinking about it. 

The Messenger arrives in the original production 

I spent years writing about this play in what felt like the backrooms of academia. This play has always been a pretty damn big deal. From opening at the National Theatre and on Broadway to great acclaim. To the theatrical, political and cultural statements and stirrings it caused. You don’t get to be ‘The most talked about written about’ play in American theatre for nothing. But, fighting my small corner on it,  I spent years of a PhD and beyond feeling like Louis and his piles of research- shouting from the photocopier hoping someone would listen. I’ve written about all this before. How I was done with it all. How this production changed all that, changed me. But I guess every time it still sneaks up and surprises me with the sheer force of it. 

Actually through most of the PhD I looked like this.

Why does it still surprise me how much I fall in love with it?
“You’re not stupid so don’t ask stupid”
Alright Mormon Mother you’re right. 
But why then does it also feel like my heart is breaking?
“When your heart breaks you should die.”
Thanks for that Harper. 


 And the emotions all of this- as the Broadway production is in rehearsals, as the theatre is being dressed, as it almost is time for these Angels to fly on Broadway for the first time in 20 years. It’s an impressive number. It’s an impressive play. And impressive production. But this play, this production is so much more. 
When I was slaving over a 100, 000-word thesis on it. It felt like the forgotten masterpiece. In the UK it crashes back through our ceilings about once a decade. And last time, Daniel Kramer’s masterful incarnation stirred feathers, but was no ‘Heaven Quake’. This time around it was the theatrical event of the year for many. And suddenly, my passion project was everywhere. For the first time in a long, long time it felt like the world was paying attention again. 


Suddenly, through also virtue of some pretty special actors involved- whether it was for Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield or Denise Gough your interest was stirred (Special shout out to a subset of theatre Twitter in the James McArdle camp of ‘you have my attention’). All of theatre world was talking about it and it was joyous. Even when we disagreed, even when people still 20 years on couldn’t wrap their heads around Perestroika as the wonderful difficult second child that it is. Even when those who loved the original couldn’t gel with Elliott’s re-writing of the style. It was vibrant, and passionate and intellectual debate. Even those who hated it. But it also felt like London embraced this play once again with the same welcome it had 25 years ago. It felt like it stayed a bit of a worst kept secret, this wonderful creation on the South Bank. 
Why does it rip at my heart to see it on Broadway? Because it’s terrifying. And wonderful. All at once.  It’s sending this crystallized, inventive but boundary pushing creation from Marianne Elliott and the National Theatre back ‘home’ to New York. And it feels almost-to use an appropriate idiom- a bloody cheek for a bunch of Brits to be giving it the first Broadway revival. But it also feels bloody good. And a little bit exciting that we know what’s coming. 


It is as Prior himself might say, ‘Wonderful and horrible all at once’. This precious thing you guarded for so long, that you fought for (and over- viciously) is now suddenly being once again the fodder of the masses. And as much as you wanted the world to share this thing you love, there’s also a part of you that wants to keep it close, for fear somehow in the sharing it gets ruined. 


And it’s wonderful because you want everyone to know just how brilliant, and life changing and exciting it is. (And I have enough of Louis in me to be unable to resist that) But being so close to something, as researching a PhD makes you, it feels horribly exposing. Seeing that thing under such public focus, takes what you’d kept so close to your heart for so long. Because also suddenly everyone has an opinion. And everyone might have an opinion on your opinion, should you dare to say ‘Um actually I know this play better than a lot of people….here I have a thing to prove it.’ 

And of course on a personal level I’m desperate to write about it and to have a platform to do so- and my heart is breaking a little that, no matter how many brilliant pitches I write, I probably won’t get the platform to do so. And my heart is in this play, and I have more of it in my head than frankly some of the people who step out on that stage. I have ten years of head and heart, and I’m pleading with the Universe to just give me one more chance to share it- More Life once more if you will. 



But most of all I’m bursting- with pride and love that this thing I love is soon to be back in the world again. 

Seeing those pictures again, I was struck most of all by the sheer force of it. Every time I think I’m back to that colder intellectualism, something takes hold of me again.

And with this production, it feels like us Brits are in on the secret. We know how wonderful it is. What an incredible feat Marianne Elliott pulled off with Tony Kushner’s masterpiece. Even those Americans who saw the NT Live broadcast who think they know, don’t really know the real power of it in person. And that’s exciting to watch happen again. 

There is a force of nature to this play. It not only gets into your head, but it is under your skin and takes a hold like no other piece of art ever has. And it is that, that driving, consuming love for it that keeps me writing. And I cling onto that. Like Prior’s ancestors in that boat. 





And yeah it still can knock me sideways. That’s how I know it’s sincere. That’s how I know I have to keep working. That the  World only Spins Forward. 

And I have lots more to say about all that. I hope to say it. I plan to. Somehow. 

Why Elliott & Harper is the company I’ve been waiting for

As the first production from Elliott & Harper opens its doors for previews tonight, it’s worth pausing to think what this new production company means and why indeed we need more like it. Something of a ‘power house’ company formed of Marianne Elliott and Chris Harper. Both coming from the National Theatre- as Director and Producer respectively- there’s a real understanding of both the craft of theatre and the audiences that do- and don’t- come to it there. And made by and produced by in the commercial realm. That’s potentially very exciting.

 

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Firstly, the act of two people who really love theatre, really understand  it both from an audience point of view and an artistic point of view. Secondly, one of the UK’s best directors striking out on her own to make work on her own terms. Thirdly, and you bet it’s an important factor, a woman artistic director. It’s all exciting, and has the potential, we already know to produce exciting work. A company that is starting with a new Simon Stephens play ‘Heisenberg’ starring Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham is obviously a pretty strong start. When your second play is a radically re-imagined Company, with Rosalie Craig in the starring role, and a small matter of Patti LuPone also starring. Even in the most unforgiving critic’s eyes that’s a bold and strong start.

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Why then is Elliott & Harper both such a good idea and an important one for? Firstly, then theatre people making theatre. As loathe as some critics are to admit it, we do have a lot of great  work happening in London and beyond (and can we pause to note that already Elliot& Harper are working beyond London with their collaboration with West Yorkshire playhouse, this gives me great hope for a regional outlook in the future) The London fringes, subsidised sector and indeed a lot of regional work are brilliant, daring and pushing boundaries and audiences to the limits. And that is wonderful work. I love the West End, I love a big musical and a classic play. I even firmly believe there’s a place for Mama Mia in this world, but what we need is a balance.  Performance that challenges audiences, gives something new, twists those classics but is also accessible to casual and seasoned theatre goers alike.

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And you know what, I think Elliott Harper are the ones to brings us that. Theatre people who understand both theatre as a craft, and audiences. That’s what our theatre needs an intelligent alliance at the head of a production company, one that understands and wants to challenge but excite audiences. The Harper in ‘Elliott&Harper’ will drive a production company that’s business savvy, but also doesn’t lose sight of the.We have a lot of business savvy producers, and we have business savvy producers who do I’m sure care about the work. But I fear a lot of them have lost touch with that. In a difficult market, when a proven commodity or safe bet is easier it feels like ‘why?’ is a question only answered by ‘money’. We need money in theatre, we all know that but a producer relationship with an artistic director that drives that question ‘Why?’ with a more complicated answer is far better for us all in the theatrical world. And having a director like Elliott then answering those questions for you with the productions is possibly a recipe for theatrical gold in every sense.

Elliott’s directing work has always been both risk taking and accessible. Proof that you don’t have to alienate an audience to challenge them, that you can be bold to engage an audience not put them off. Proof also that visuals and spectacle and turning theatre on its head work only when engaged with the heart of the matter: human storytelling. The National, where Elliott &Harper have both honed their craft, is as a rule good at this kind of risk taking. Of pushing boundaries with form or taking a risk on the kinds of stories told.  Any of Elliott’s ‘big hits’ could have ended in disaster, and in interviews she’s far too modest to say so, but in other hands they likely would have. From the ‘let’s tell this children’s story but with puppets, giant horse puppets’ to the Scottish fairy tale with a floating princess and Tori Amos music, to the inside of an Autistic boy’s mind to, yes, Angels crashing through ceilings. These were pushing theatrical boundaries in one way or another.

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But in their final execution were so well put together that it becomes almost too easy to forget that element. As a personal example, the most vicious argument I had with my PhD supervisor was about War Horse as an innovative piece of theatrical storytelling, because it’s so easy to miss just how clever, innovative and important it was. (Given my PhD itself was 3 years of arguing that Angels in America is an important theatrical work I can’t help but be amused, and wonder if I could now persuade Elliott to shout at my supervisor for me)

WAR HORSE London Cast 2014

Known for big storytelling, and big visuals- from Angels crashing to Rosalie Craig floating for an entire performance, to yes, those horses again. But what perhaps goes unnoticed in the bigger picture is that all of Elliott’s work is at its heart about people, the human stories. And that’s what makes her directing not just good, but something special. Anyone can throw together big visuals with the right team, and the right budget. What distinguishes Elliott’s work is that underneath all those big images is a story driving it.

 

Angels in America proved that once and for all, the biggest most sweeping spiraling narrative you could ask for, writ large on the Lyttleton stage and some full on Brechtian Epic staging, but what came through are the people. In ten years, while the Angel crashing to the stage will be a memory, it’ll be how you cried for Prior or the affinity you felt with Harper (or Louis….no just me?) that you’ll remember.  When I think of Curious Incident I have a general memory of the slick, brilliantly realised staging. But really, I think about Christopher and his story (ok and the dog). Elliott’s work is big and risk taking, but the thing that always guides it back is an innate instinct at her heart as a director for stories. That she’s also one of the most conscientious and through directors working today also helps.

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Too many productions seem a little ‘thrown together’ a ‘best fit’ or ‘will do’ which leaves glaring gaps obvious to, and ultimately off putting and insulting to audiences. Not in Elliott’s work- no research stone, or exploration of staging or performance seems un-turned until it fits together. The work always feels like it gives credit to the audience’s intelligence and investment, and repays that with a sense of authenticity to the work.

And yes, it’s important that it’s a woman at the artistic helm. Not just because we need more women visible in what is a male-dominated industry. But we need more women visibility taking charge and running things. That Elliott has used the status and freedom that being at the helm of the National Theatre’s biggest hitters not just to pick and choose what she directs, but to take more artistic charge with a production company, is exactly the steer the industry needs. Elliott could well have gone on directing for the National, or the Old Vic or frankly any other major theatre company who would a) be lucky to have her b) probably bite her arm off to have her direct for them. But in choosing to break out alone Elliott has taken back control, and is able to steer not only her career but in a broader sense the theatrical landscape in directions she chooses. And my goodness does it make a nice change to write ‘she’ in all these sentences.

This isn’t about quotas, or a numbers game. It is also about getting women’s voices heard. And that is on stage and off. Off stage it’s about the sense of hope a woman in charge brings, the idea that the person running this show (in the literal and figurative sense) understands the challenges women face- firstly to get a foothold in a room of noisy men, but then as we get older and it gets harder to be heard, as we juggle children with career, still playing catch up from before and often fade further into the background. And it’s not about saying women will automatically give other women opportunities (though that’s what men have been doing since the dawn of time) it’s saying women will recognise those struggles. The women who end up working with Elliott will still be the best of the best, because they’ll need to be, but the difference is that elsewhere those women might have been overlooked.

And then there’s telling women’s stories. Putting women’s stories at the forefront. That doesn’t mean telling only stories about women or written by women (though obviously that is something we all need to keep pushing for) but it means not pushing the women to the back in the stories we have. Looking at how Elliott directed Angels we already see that- in a story that is filled with men, the voices of the women still rang out strong and for once I felt Harper’s story was as much at the centre. Now in Heisenberg we have a woman in Simon Stephen’s play sharing equal footing with the male character- that’s a woman’s story on stage. We aren’t asking for it to all be about women, we just need stories, and directors who get that voice heard.

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And a part of that of course is Company. That deserves its own analysis just for existing. But the fact that people (men) are already complaining that it won’t work, exactly proves why it’s a story begging to be told. As a 33-year-old single woman, honestly the thought of Company told through a woman’s lens makes me want to cry- because it feels like my voice is being heard. Because I’ve heard all the things thrown at Bobby a hundred times, and because as a musical theatre nerd I want a woman at the heart of something not just to fall in love with the man. And because well who doesn’t cry a bit at the thought of Rosalie Craig in anything right? But in all seriousness, maybe the piece has started to age with Bobby as a man but put a woman’s voice at the heart and it feels like that answer to a question I hadn’t thought to ask. And that’s why, that’s why we need women like Marianne Elliott taking charge, making work.

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And if your opening move involves re-writing Sondheim…well I can’t wait to see where you go from there. So, Elliott & Harper, break a leg as Heisenberg opens its doors. And from there…who knows but it looks like it’s going to be something worth watching in every sense.

 

Elliott & Harper continue their first season with ‘Company’ later this year. Meanwhile their co-production of Angels in America opens on Broadway in March.

Angels in America opens on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre New York on Feburary 23rd. Tickets availble via Ticketmaster .

Company opens on 26th September at the Gielgud theatre  Tickets available here via Delfont Macintosh