The Art of Storytelling

Last month, I finally went and took the advice Stephen Flaherty gave to me over three years ago: “If you want to write musical theatre, don’t study music. Study drama. Learn about plot, characterization and structure.”

At the time, I didn’t really grasp the importance of that advice. Sure, I intellectually knew that musical theatre was about story-telling, but as an aspiring composer, shouldn’t I be focusing on…well, you know…tactics and stratagems for writing haunting, timeless musical masterpieces? Otherwise, how would I ever write my own Broadway standard?

—”On My Own”, the seminal classic from Les Miserables as performed by Lea Salonga in her portrayal of Eponine.

Anyway, you don’t question the masters, you obey (even if – in my case – you procrastinate a great deal before you do). So off I dutifully went to attend the Dramatic Writing Essentials short course at NIDA over two days on a September weekend. The class, which was led by Peter Lamb, was completely amazing. I walked in not really knowing what to expect, but met the most amazing people, including Ian Boath – who is looking to write a full fledged opera in honour of the upcoming Anzac Day Centenary.

Over those two days, I learned a couple of really interesting things:

  • The first draft of anything is $#!@. It really is. And when you read it aloud to the class, then listen to the feedback from other people, you realise that even if it is terrible, it is not as terrible as you think it is. Also, everyone else’s first draft of anything sounds so much better than yours.
  • The only way to learn how to write is to write. I used to think that was circular logic rubbish, but this is actually true. We did so much writing in those two days, my hand hurt for the rest of the week afterwards.
  • The tyranny of the blank page sucks. Jeff Bowen knows what I’m talking about. Though unfortunately for me, my blank pages usually don’t animate themselves and give me a whole lot of attitude with a snazzy tune.

—”Original Musical” from [title of show]. Written by Jeff Bowen and as performed by Yale students.

The most profound thing I learned was in a true stage play script, each and every word on the page must have a dramatic function. I remember Peter reading out what I thought at the time was the most ridiculous set of stage directions on the set of a play which I can’t remember the name of. These were so long winded and precise, that they specified the colour of the windows, the positioning of the sink relative to the window, the types of objects in the kitchen and where they were located, ad nauseum – and went so far as to say that failure to follow the directions to the exact letter would result in a meaningless play. And yet, when we did detailed analysis of the scripts, each item served a specific dramatic function, without which the play no longer made sense.

Going line by line through the dialogue and stage directions and analysing the motives behind every action and non-action by each character, as well as what they said and left unsaid was also incredible. And that was just in one given scene. There was just an incredible level of thought that went into the work, and it gives me a whole new appreciation for the craft. And as I sit here, rambling on and failing to be concise, I’m so intimidated by how hard it is to write for the stage. And then we need to add music to boot!

Sometimes I think that when I think, I over-think and then I think it’s all too hard. Maybe I haven’t really figured how this whole applying left-brain to right-brain thing works yet. All I know is that due to my natural drama queen tendencies, I normally am alright at storytelling, yet I seem to freeze up at the thought of putting words down on a blank page. Eurgh.

At any rate, Tripod versus The Dragon was recently aired on either ABC or SBS (I can’t remember which). Despite having left my D&D days well and truly behind me, I have to say this is my current favourite musical act. It’s geeky, it’s comic, it’s tragic and it’s a MUSICAL to boot!!! I have always loved Tripod, but now I really, really, REALLY love Tripod.

—”Ivory Tower” from Tripod versus The Dragon, as performed by Elana Stone and Tripod.

Oh boy. I have a long, long way to go on my quest. Whilst I’ve got a map now, there’s a lot of levelling up that I need to do…

…annnnnnnd I’m going to quit being a geek now…

Anyway. Whether life is a musical or a quest, most of us have pretty low odds of being the star or being the hero. So I know my chances of being the next Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Weber, or Jonathan Larson are slim to none. But hey, whether life is a failure or a success all depends on your frame of reference, right? No matter what happens, I know I will never give up on music.

If all you leave me is bones
I will sing bones
If all you leave me is dust
I will sing dust
If everything I have loved is taken away
I will still play
I will still play

I won’t change the course of the rivers
Or sing up the stones
You won’t still be humming my tune
By the time you get home
I know we all go back to dirt at the end of the day
But I will still play
I will still play
You can do what you want anyway
—”I Will Still Play” from Tripod versus The Dragon

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