As we enter the final week of rehearsals and the start of our Edinburgh preview performances at South Hill Park I reflect on my AnimAlphabet journey so far. For me one word sums up the journey better than any other and that is creativity.
Through necessity, people working in theatre are some of the most creative people I have ever worked with. There’s the obvious creativity in the performance, which is obviously a challenge in itself, but beyond that there’s the creativity that goes on behind the scenes. The creativity in actually making any of it happen at all. It’s ridiculous hours, its stressful, there’s a lot of rejection but it’s also the most incredible thing. To start with very little and create something that, for a short window of time, enables the audience to escape whatever is going on for them outside the theatre doors is a wonder. To laugh, to cry, to be taken on a journey, to experience. That’s it, right there. To be able to play a part in that is very, very special. I often say nothing worthwhile is ever easy and never is that truer than in theatre.
So how do you create fantastic theatre on a tiny tiny budget? How do you help theatre programmers see what you see when you have little more than a good idea to tell them about. How do you pay for rehearsal rooms, set, marketing, props, costume, puppets – how, how, how? When the Director says that’s nice but could it be bigger and could the jaws move and could the body do this and that and the other and could it be more magical! How is the question? How do we make that happen, that is the question we keep coming back to. Then we find a solution or two or three and invariably one of them works. We have overcome many, many challenges over the last 12 months and here is my story.
Mark and I met with Al from the Hoosiers in June 2016. Al and Sam had songs recorded and characters created based on the 7 notes of the musical stave. The characters were incredible and the music fantastic and we all agreed it would make a wonderful musical story. And that’s where it all started - the making of AnimAlphabet the Musical.
The first challenge was creating a story. We considered paying someone to write the story but we only had a certain amount of money and that wouldn't last long. Hence plan B - have a go at writing it ourselves. We started with a brain-storm on the 8th July with children, parents, musicians, teachers and creatives from the theatre world. Lot of ideas were generated. We took them away and created draft 1. AnimAlphabet The Musical was hatched. Then a read through, more ideas, draft 2, another read through, draft 3, scratch performances and so on. The version you are about to see at South Hill Park is the 10th revision to the script. This process helped us shape the story, shape the characters and increase the drama. We even added a new character and song along the way.
November 2016 and it's our first read through in front of an invited audience at South Hill Park. Sam once again dusts off the keyboard in front of 30 invited guests including teachers, CEO's, artistic directors, toddler experts and most importantly young children. The musical now includes an extra song called - 'The Sorry Song' to tie the show together at the end. Some additional underscoring is added to drop behind scenes and some sung lines for the dastardly Calando are included.
We also found time in November to hold auditions and the AnimAlphabet cast of Brad Clapson, Jake Addley, Rebecca Ayes and Ishia Osborne were offered parts in the show. It’s a very busy show, the cast work exceptionally hard throughout. One performer has 17 costume changes in 60 minutes. I will leave you to decide who that is after watching the show.
In December, David Wood (Danny Champion of the World, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Twits stage adaptations) found time to read the script and offer his guidance on plot and storyline to increase the tension and drama. He also thought Metro The Gnome would work better as a person rather than a voice over and Kerry Ingram (Olivier award winning Matilda, Game of Thrones and the new tween drama Free Rein) was offered the part of Metro The Gnome and added to the cast.
The financial implications of any decision are never far from our minds. Creating a new musical was never going to be cheap. We put our own money in at the start but that would quickly reduce in 2017 so we needed to look at additional finance streams. For this reason, at the end of 2016, we launched a crowd fund campaign. A half marathon and a Tough Mudder later and the campaign had raised over £2200 of support from individuals plus an additional £1200 from businesses. Thank you to everyone who donated.
South Hill Park were and are amazingly supportive, providing rehearsal rooms, building the set and providing advice and support along the way. South Hill Park is an amazing arts centre in Bracknell, Berkshire. Without it many of the individuals involved in the creation of this musical would never have met. I don’t think it’s excessive to say that there would be no Animalphabet The Musical had South Hill Park not existed. A big shout out to Ron McAllister who is moving on from South Hill Park Arts Centre in August after 17 years at the helm. Well done Ron and all the best for the future.
Our biggest financial boost came when we were successful in attracting funding from National Lottery / Arts Council England. They provided £14,400 to assist with the early development of Animalphabet. This was essential and looking back I don’t think we would have been able to create anything like the show we have without it. One of the biggest problems with creating a show is finance and cash flow. We've spent about £30,000 so far (our rehearsals are about £500 per day). Our budget is actually quite small for this type of touring production. Figures of £100,000 and a lot more are often mentioned as realistic for budgeting purposes. Many big modern musicals will cost millions to create, the most expensive musical created reportedly being $75 million.
Financially we are still a few thousand pounds short of where we need to be but hopefully with good ticket sales from our July venues, a bit more public / business support and some financial gymnastics we should make it through to October, having not lost our shirts, hopefully.
Some people ask why? Why not?
If you can, you should, because if you don’t, who will.
But more specifically in respect of why. AnimAlphabet is different, it's definitely lots of fun and it appeals to a wide range of ages - toddlers and teenagers, parents and grand parents, they all love the show. All ages have, for very different reasons, their own attachment to the show – the characters, the music, the puppets, the costumes, the story, the comedy. It has a very broad appeal and is certainly a show the whole family can enjoy together. It's also an opportunity for a young generation to engage with live theatre. With the reduction of funding for the arts in schools and in the wider community anything we can do to inspire young people in music, theatre or anything creative is invaluable. It’s a chance for children of all ages, abilities and disabilities to enjoy a show that’s created with them in mind. At South Hill Park we are really pleased to be able to offer relaxed and BSL interpreted performances for audiences with hearing difficulties and we hope to bring this to more venues in the future. Plus, as the show contains many musical references Animalphabet is a vehicle to educate and inform. A secondary school teacher said at one of the shows 'AnimAlphabet is brilliant. If all my students had seen this whilst at primary school it would make my job teaching them so much easier.
What is not to love about AnimAlphabet :-)
There are far too many people to name individually who have helped but you know who you are. To you all I simply say thank you, you are all amazing. To Charlotte and my family who put up with all of this and help make these things happen – thank you x and to anyone who has taken the time to read my ramblings – thank you. This is just my story so far, it’s my journey, many other incredible people have their own AnimAlphabet journey and I hope its as pleasant as mine is.
So there we are, my AnimAlphabet The Musical journey, or the first part of it anyway. Who knows what the future will bring, a friend tells me you win some, you loose more but sometimes you've just got to roll the dice. I hope AnimAlphabet goes on to bring as much joy and fun to families around the UK as the creation of it has brought to me. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some insanely talented people and long may that continue.
Dean – Producer
If anyone would like to donate we have just launched a just giving campaign to help provide the extra bit of money required to create the show and to support our AnimAlphabet campaign for ‘Tickets not Troubles’. 'Tickets not Troubles' provides free tickets for families who are finding things difficult, be it through bereavement, health or financial issues. Obviously we can’t solve the problems but perhaps, for a brief period of time, we can offer a welcome distraction and bring a smile or a laugh to a young person or family who are struggling. www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/animalphabet