Friday, 14 July 2017

Atlantic Dramaturgy: RCS @ Edfringe 2017

From Sondheim’s twist on classic fairy tales to two new works that bring together a transatlantic team, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland students are gearing up for the greatest arts festival in the world.

Atlantic: A Scottish Story
Written by: Scott Gilmour & Claire McKenzie (S&C)

Atlantic: America & The Great War
Written by: Ryan Bernsten, Christopher Anselmo & Desiree Staples (R, C & D)

What was the inspiration for this performance?
R, C & D: The international collaboration has truly been the most inspirational aspect of our process. The entire Atlantic team met for months via multiple overseas phone calls to kick-start the development of this then untitled project. The conversations about our respective countries and our respective experiences allowed for such a ripe beginning to the work. One theme we all kept returning to was the question, ‘is it a curse to stay in, or a curse to leave your homeland?’ For the Scots, their families have been rooted in the same location for centuries. 

For the Americans, quite the opposite. All three of us come from such different backgrounds - even Chris is a first-generation American - and we wanted to find a story that really explored what it means to be American. And, as we believe theatre should in today’s political climate in the States, we put an emphasis on responding to current events through our historical lens.

S&C: As the American team have already mentioned, Atlantic was a collaborative project inspired directly by our differing cultural and family heritage and how that affects us now as individuals in the modern world. 

Our piece, A Scottish Story, looks at the ties we have to home and, in many cases, how difficult it can be to escape them. Is it a curse to stay or to go? What happens if you never leave home - can you still be happy? If you have no need to discover where you’re from, because you’re already there, can you be content not knowing what the rest of the world has to offer? These questions of isolation and identity were fundamental in discovering the world of Atlantic for us.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?

S&C: I think it’s becoming a more sacred space for discussion. We can now experience some of the most powerful and moving stories from the comfort of our own bed. We can communicate, lecture, debate and discuss with whole communities without ever having to leave our room. 

Live performance, however, is something that’s yet to be replicated by technology. As a result, the forum of theatre and music, and the discussion that takes place between a performer and the audience, remains this uncanny thing that is vital to the sharing of ideas and sensibilities for everyone.

R, C & D: We think performance is more vital than ever to discuss ideas and see lives that are different from our own. We have an empathy shortage across the world and allowing to see real people in front of us experience lives that may be in different centuries and different countries that still hit universal notes and themes. 

The unique opportunity to have two writing teams from both Scotland and the United States has allowed us to have discussions on the most important topics: what makes our countries alike? What makes our experiences different? How does heritage fit into our consciousness? Why is beer so much cheaper in Scotland?!

How did you become interested in making performance?
Ryan: I’ve been a part of theatre since I played Captain Hook at the age of eight and there’s something about creating new work for the stage that is more satisfying than any other endeavour. The collaboration of a team of artists, both old and new, creates something that can only come from those particular artists. 

This international team truly has reinvigorated my belief that making live theatre is more worthwhile than ever as we’ve learned from each other not just as writers but as world citizens and general goofballs (we do a lot of impersonations of each other’s accents).

Chris: I got into the performance world through music. I was your typical American garage band kid; playing guitar to impress friends and getting into trouble. I knew I loved telling stories through my music and so musical theatre was such a natural leap. My sophomore year English teacher encouraged me to write my first musical as a book report assignment, and it just clicked and avalanched from there.

Desiree: I personally became interested in making performance in college. I’ve always been in the school of thought of ‘write what you know,’ so in college I became interested in taking the challenges and issues that were on my mind and performing about them (whether it was in song, in comedy or a more serious production). I also think it’s more important now than ever to question, dare and open people’s minds rather than give them a definitive answer of what to believe. I’ve discovered that performance, especially musical theatre, is the ideal forum to risk and tell these kinds of human stories that do just that - which has been very inspiring to me as an actress and writer in this process.

Scott: I always liked reading stories. I tried to become a novelist when I was younger but
failed and ended up working in a Spar … I started at an amateur theatre group on my days
off and that led on to drama school. After that I met Claire and we formed our partnership company, Noisemaker. I still like stories just as much. But now I get to make them.

Claire: I originally found music through a love of dance as a child. I think my parents noticed I had some sense of rhythm and thought it might not be a complete waste of money to send me to recorder lessons. Quite a few years and instruments later I ended up studying classical composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, followed by a Masters in Musical Direction in their drama school. 

It was this degree that led me to realise that I wanted to use my composition skills to help tell stories, collaborate and create unique pieces of theatre.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
R, C & D: Both teams started with a commitment to community storytelling. Because Atlantic: America & the Great War is set at such a turning point in American history where the U.S. decided to truly join the world stage, we as writers wanted to capture the aspirations of not just our main characters but of the nation as a whole. Therefore we hope the aesthetic of the show resonates with the themes of a nation on the precipice of change, and our main character Annabelle swept up in forces beyond her control as she goes on a journey to find her sister in the war.

S&C: During our initial discussions, both writing teams were drawn to the idea of exploring folkloric traditions, and the differences in storytelling style between our two nations. It was fascinating to discover more about American folklore and how relatively modern their stories are compared to our centuries-old Scottish tales. From these initial discussions, we were keen to find a story with universal themes that also had this timeless quality within it. For this particular production we were lucky to have two development periods, one with the Scottish cast in Glasgow, followed by another with the American cast members in Chicago. Both of these workshops have significantly shaped the piece and allowed us to devise and create characters with and for the young cast playing them.

The Atlantic process has been incredibly collaborative from the outset and has been a unique writing and development experience for all of us involved.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?
S&C: Atlantic: A Scottish Story has been a bit of a departure from our usual style of storytelling, which has made it so enjoyable to make. As our writing partnership, Noisemaker, we have chosen to take the form of musical theatre and push its boundaries to challenge the expectations of an audience. That can be structurally, musically or simply in the style of production. On our last visit to the Fringe we brought our choose-your-own-adventure musical, The Girl Who, a show where the audience made the characters’ decisions resulting in 128 possible permutations of the story and score. A Scottish Story is a little different, as we're returning to the roots of classic musical storytelling, combining Scottish folk music and myth to create a piece that feels of the time but also relevant to our lives today.

R,C & D: What is exciting is that Atlantic is all about home, heritage, adventure, and the relationships you make along the way in discovering who you are - tied in with the tumultuous political, social, and global times of 1917, exactly a hundred years ago. We have always been passionate about telling stories that resonate now, and we think that looking at the past is not only very poignant and important to our lives right now, but can unlock so much about how we want to shape our future.

Chris: For example, this process has been perfect because my style of music, both as a musical theatre composer and as a singer-songwriter, leans heavily towards folk and Americana. I also tend to compose almost exclusively on the guitar, and the texture that comes from that method has really opened up a really interesting soundscape for the piece. It’s something that’s rooted in a Scottish folk tradition, but distinctly American.

Ryan: For me as a playwright, most of the plays I’ve produced have been in the genre of contemporary political satire and drama, so a historical setting presented a challenge upon first impression, but ultimately it was surprising how cyclical history can be. The development of the piece began while I was working as a staffer on the Hillary Clinton campaign, so it really became important in the aftermath that this musical answered to what America’s legacy is and how complicated it can be at times.

Desiree:  For me, currently writing for the LA Fringe and sketch comedy, it’s been an exciting challenge to bring these skills back to the musical theatre genre. I think the relationships in this story are very true to my past work. I've wanted to explore how to tell a family story, a love story, and a story about home in a way we haven’t seen before and Atlantic knocks it out of the park. 

I think our characters are complex, determined and will very much resonate with young people right now who want to be in control of their destiny and change the world for the better. 

Creating an ensemble piece has also always been something I’ve wanted to write, and our ensemble is such a foundation of this show, it’s going to be very thrilling to see it performed.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
S&C: We hope that the audience will be led to question their own heritage and sense of belonging, by falling into this simple and poignant story of a girl who couldn’t leave her island. Using a rich, folk score with plenty of song, dance and dynamic storytelling we hope Atlantic: A Scottish Story creates a world far from the buzzing streets of Edinburgh - even just for an hour!

R, C & D: The journey across the Atlantic is epic. We’re hoping the audience will become enraptured in that journey with Annabelle but also take the unique opportunity to reflect that the American chapter in Atlantic: America & The Great War is set exactly a century ago from today. During the process, we’ve discovered a terrifying amount of parallels between then and now, from the military industrial complex to fake news to discovering one’s heritage in order to find identity to not having a sense of belonging. 

And though Annabelle’s journey is arduous, we’re really hoping audiences will enjoy the heart and humour of the piece, because it would be impossible to discuss the American identity without these moments that make us human.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
R, C & D: Considering the length requirements for the piece and the epic scope of the story we are aiming to tell, we had to experiment with the way our play flows, both musically and lyrically. Building upon ‘story theatre’ techniques such as ensemble narration, object puppetry and movement sequences, we’ve been striving to ensure that the score follows suit and supports the fluid (pun intended) motion of the piece as a whole. 

While traditional American musical theatre favours the ‘song-then-scene’ method, our play opts for a more ‘mosaic’ approach, in which many songs explode into sequences, and sequences shrink into personal moments. We’re really excited about seeing how it plays out with an audience and we hope that it helps tell this massive story in a very personal way.

S&C: Whilst incorporating many similar techniques to the Americans, we also turned to traditional Scottish storytelling to capture the world we wanted to place our audience in. The music, song, text and movement all flow as one big thing, capturing the pace and motion of a time long forgotten. We look forward to sharing the product of what's been a unique and special collaboration with audiences at this year’s festival!

Musical Theatre Masters students will stage three productions, including two world premieres, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August in what is a milestone year – the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is celebrating its 170th anniversary in 2017 while the Fringe turns 70.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland launches its dedicated Fringe website  to coincide with the release of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme. The website is a hub for all things Fringe-related with information on performances – including alumni – events, reviews, media galleries and ticket details.

Students from across the globe come to study on the Royal Conservatoire’s 12-month MA Musical Theatre programme which culminates in a fully-staged run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which attracts millions of international visitors to the capital every year.

The Royal Conservatoire will present a main stage musical and two new works at the Assembly Hall from Thursday, August 3. The two new works are in partnership with the prestigious American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) at Northwestern University and Noisemaker, the award-winning music theatre company run by Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduates, Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie.

The American Music Theatre Project brings together leading artists in music theatre to work with Northwestern’s faculty, staff and students. AMTP’s goal is to nourish and invigorate American music theatre by developing and producing new musicals, increasing opportunities for education and training with Northwestern’s theatre, music theatre and dance programmes and creating new connections between professional and academic communities. 

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe will play host to:

  • Into the Woods: main stage musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine and directed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Michael Howell.

  • Atlantic: A Scottish Story: written by Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie of Noisemaker. Directed by Scott Gilmour. 

  • Atlantic: America and the Great War: written by Northwestern University alumni Christopher Anselmo, Ryan Bernsten and Desiree Staples. Directed by David H. Bell, Artistic Director of the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University.

Hugh Hodgart, Director of Drama, Dance, Production and Film at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, said: “Creating meaningful professional opportunities is a defining aspect of life at Scotland’s national conservatoire.
“Performing and producing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the largest arts festival in the world - is a once-in-a-lifetime student experience. Our Musical Theatre Masters students have a unique and wonderful opportunity to showcase their talents – whether it’s on stage or behind the scenes - to an international audience.”

Professor Andrew Panton, Artistic Director of Musical Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, said: “The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for more than a decade and it offers a rich learning experience for our students, where they get to share their passion  on a global platform. 

Fairytale characters meet and clash in Into the Woods as they pursue their happily-ever-afters. In the woods, as in life, it’s easy to stray from the path. Into the Woods is a full-length musical at the Assembly Hall, directed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Michael Howell.

Atlantic: A Scottish Story and Atlantic: America and the Great War will explore similar themes from two different national perspectives and will be performed in repertory by students from Northwestern University and the Royal Conservatoire in the Rainy Hall at the Assembly Hall.

Atlantic: A Scottish Story is a new musical from Noisemaker. What if we couldn't travel, leave home and see the world? Would we still be happy? With a soaring score and dynamic storytelling, Atlantic: A Scottish Story is a collaboration between the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University and the award-winning musical theatre partnership Noisemaker. 

Atlantic: America and the Great War, an ensemble-driven adventure with a rousing folk score that explores the timely uncertainty of what it means to be American. On the eve of World War One, two African American sisters uncover their complicated European ancestry, but when one disappears while tracing their lineage overseas, the other must leave home for the first time to find her. 

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s MA Musical Theatre students have been performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for over a decade and have produced many Scottish premieres. 

For performance dates and tickets, visit: 

About the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
  • The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is ranked in the world top three for performing arts education (QS World Rankings 2017) and is ranked number one in Scotland for graduate employability (HESA) endorsing its status as a national and international centre of excellence for the performing arts.
  • The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is celebrating its 170th anniversary in 2017. During its existence, it has built on its roots as a national academy of music to become one of Europe’s most multi-disciplinary performing arts higher education centres, offering specialised teaching across music, drama, dance, production and film. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is encouraging trans-disciplinary learning throughout its innovative curriculum. 
  • Around 1100 students are currently pursuing degrees at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland across its specialisms. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland works in partnership with the national companies, including the National Theatre of Scotland, Scottish Opera and BBC Scotland, to provide students with the very best learning experiences the Scottish landscape has to offer.
  • Based in the heart of Glasgow, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is also a busy performing arts venue; it hosts more than 500 public performances each year and issues around 64,000 tickets from its box office annually. Additionally, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland teaches over 3000 part-time learners every year through its Junior Conservatoire and Lifelong Learning departments.

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