I’m sitting in a room observing a family therapy session. A father and his two sons, and they’re not getting on well. In fact they all seem to hate each other. The room is charged with emotion, the family bristling with tension. There are many awkward silences, outbursts of anger, moments where people say things which shock or infuriate the others in the room. At one point one of the brothers twists his body away from the other, so he doesn't have to look at 'that thing' as he calls him.
Half an hour earlier I was sitting in on a marriage counselling session. A couple in their forties, working hard to keep the family business going,caring for two teenagers. The spark’s gone out of their relationship. The mum wants to go out, have fun, the dad’s exhausted from working long hours. He starts the session denying that there’s anything wrong with their marriage at all, after a while he’s complaining that they haven’t had sex for months. They negotiate a deal - a date at a wine bar in exchange for a night of passion.
I was particularly fascinated during these sessions, because this couple, these families aren’t real people at all. They are my creations, my characters, magically transformed into flesh and blood and given minds of their own. I’m writing the script to transform my book Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery into a musical, and as part of that process have been visiting the University of Cumbria in Carlisle where students on the musical theatre degree course have been helping us develop the script and music. These improvisation sessions were part of the process, to help me with my script writing and to get the student actors thinking about their characters.
The improvisation process reflected so accurately what I try and do when I’m writing. I create characters, I think of an interesting situation to put them into and then I try to let them get on with it. Writing dialogue without planning it too much beforehand tells me about the characters, gives them and the story life. Having actors in front of me took the process a step further, letting other people’s imaginations join in. It means letting go of a lot of control (I found it impossible in the ‘family therapy’ session not to ask leading questions, giving the actors more information than they needed) but you gain new insights, new ideas and a sense of the potential directions for the story as a whole.
Adapting an existing work is difficult, because you have to let go of your idea of it as a finished product, unpick it and be prepared to rethink almost every aspect of it – in collaboration with a whole group of people. Luckily I love working as part of a team, and I couldn’t have a better group of collaborators. It also helps that I know nothing at all about script-writing or musicals, so I am learning all the time, and rarely tempted to insist that things need to be done my way. Seeing talented people creating music from something that I’ve written is extraordinarily uplifting. Seeing students act my lines, become my characters, put their own spin on my story, is just stunning, especially when it goes well. It's also hilarious - London accents haven't been too easy for the Carlisle crew, so we've got a family which includes brothers from Scotland and Yorkshire, and Lia's sister has been brought up in the North East of England.
I’ve been up to Carlisle a few times to work with the students, but I won’t see them again until early February when they’ll be performing a work-in-progress version of the musical. Then I hope to work with more students in London, do more improvisation, learn more about the story that I created, work on the script to make it sharper, funnier, more of a musical, less of a book.
When I was 18 I briefly had an ambition to write a musical – an ambition long forgotten until Perfect Pitch, the company developing Lia’s Guide into a musical got in touch last spring. Working on it has been every bit as good as I thought it would be all those years ago. I just wish I could get the students to come along to my writing room and improvise the next bit of my latest book for me.