This week on the Jazz Hands' Blog, cast member Peter Todd reminisces on workshopping Persephone earlier this year.
Putting on an original musical is a long and arduous task. A labour of love, definitely, but nevertheless it is a long and difficult route from a show’s inception to opening night. One of the most important steps along the way is the workshopping stage. I was lucky enough to be involved in the workshop of Persephone last year and now, to take on the role of Hades in the Playhouse production this Michaelmas. There are many different forms that a workshop can take, but often this is the point at which a first full draft of the show is presented to actors.
Early on, it’s usually a good idea to gather everyone together for a table read. This means sitting down and working through the show from start to finish without interruption. Sometimes, it will be a cold read - the material is completely unseen by the actors before the meeting - as this can give a great sense of the show in its rawest form. The words can finally be brought to life and become inhabited by real people. As a writer, you can hear the way that the lines fall on stage. As a director, you can see the tensions and dynamics between characters. And as an actor, you can get a sense of the character’s trajectory in the overall story.
After the initial table read, there’s a fantastic opportunity for everyone to share what went well and what doesn’t quite hit the mark. From there on out, the workshop process typically consists of the writers going away to make small tweaks (or in some cases, larger adjustments), followed by smaller group sessions and read throughs to discuss the implications of these changes. There were many times during the Persephone workshops in which Emma, our writer/director, would present us with two different versions of a scene. We would often start by acting through each scene before dissecting which works better and why - sometimes it’s just a feeling that you get as an actor that you’re connecting with the words and your fellow actors on a deeper level, kind of like things falling into place nice and neatly. Other times, neither version fully clicks, but it sparks an idea of what might work instead.
What makes a workshop particularly effective is developing a strong sense of back and forth between the writers and the workshop cast. The actors involved are able to come to the show completely fresh - they can offer new insight into each character and a new perspective on the story as a whole. This can inform the writers of the show’s strengths (it’s always nice to know that what you’re doing works!) but, more crucially, it can shine a light on the show’s weaknesses. This is the crux of the workshop mindset: a dynamic, creative partnership. Everyone is there to make the show stronger, to shape it into its final form.
Developing the music can be slightly more involved - depending on the composer, of course. There are, in many ways, more constraints on the creative process for writing music. For example, your vocal range (and to some extent, vocal style) has a significant bearing on what is and is not possible. And workshopping music requires more commitment in order to learn material and suggest changes. You can’t just show up and sing something flawlessly. (Unless you’re a sight-reading machine, which I most definitely am not.) Carrie, our composer, was really open to hearing my suggestions and listening to my intuition when I felt that something didn’t quite work. The time it takes to familiarise yourself with the music inevitably makes it slower to workshop. But, there’s always the same sense of satisfaction when it all comes together.
Another great facet of workshopping can be the use of improvisation and other devising skills. Once the actors are comfortable with one another and the characters they portray, they can start at one point in a scene and let it play out naturally to see where things go. The ideas that come up here can be really hit-or-miss but it’s always worth a try, just in case things come together perfectly - the right idea may be just around the corner, if you’re willing to push that little bit further. There were plenty of times during the workshop that we tried to play around with a scene, only for it to descend into laughter and disbelief at the cringe-worthy lines that escaped our lips. However, there were a few moments of magic that felt so genuine and heartfelt which have crept their way into the final script and I can’t wait to see them come to life on the Playhouse stage!
Workshopping can be a truly valuable experience for all involved - writer, director, composer, actor, the list goes on. There is so much to learn from one another on this journey and it is so rewarding to see your efforts reflected in the characters’ voices and the show’s final message.
Persephone will run 11th - 13th November at the Oxford Playhouse. Tickets are available at https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/persephone.