Tuesday, 8 January 2013

When characters come to life by Keren David


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.

9 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

How thrilling, Keren! I had a student over the summer who wanted to write musicals, and acts in a lot of them. Before that, I'd never really thought about them at all. It must be so very different from writing 'straight' fiction.

David Thorpe said...

Fascinating. It's when you see actors reading lines you've written as well, that they really come alive. It sounds like a great project. Good luck with it.

Elaine Smith said...

Wow! It must feel amazing to see your ideas on the stage, it is such a personal medium.

Lily said...

Wow, what an exciting process. I often think writing for the stage cuts out all that boring getting characters into and out of rooms and so on, and lets you concentrate on the fun bits, the dialogue. And then you let other people bring your characters to life...

Did you choose to write the script, or was there an option of having someone else write it? and where/when is the final musical going to be performed?

Carole Anne Carr said...

Sound like a good idea, could do with those students to work through the dialogue in my present children's book. :0)

Keren David said...

Thanks! Yes, it's very different from 'straight' fiction, or even writing a play, because the music can do so much to indicate mood, and add depth. The words need to be really sharply written - no room for flab at all. And the plot inevitably needs a lot of stream-lining, so I'm constantly checking whether the bits left in still make sense. Lily, I've LOVED cutting out all the descriptive and logistical bits..so much so that I wonder if I can go back to it. We started with a draft script put together using slabs of dialogue from the book, and then gradually I've been reworking it. Someone else is writing the lyrics at the moment, but we'll be working on it together. The musical will be shown in Carlisle at the end of the month - in a work-in-progress form - and then we hope there will be another student production in London in the summer. After that eventually it will be available for professional and amateur companies to licence, so who knows?

Keren David said...

Oh, and I'm also finding that lines I cut out of the book for being too silly or over the top fit perfectly into the musical - which is nice. The book is a rom com, but the musical is funnier.

Penny Dolan said...

Good to start the new year with something that sounds such fun. Hope it goes well and gets picked up by keen singing students elsewhere.

catdownunder said...

I often wonder what it must be like to see something you have written come alive in a different format. It sounds fun - but scary!