We developed a new musical over Zoom.
I didn’t know how to do that, but we figured it out together and excitingly (and somewhat surprisingly), it worked.
Some context. Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie aka Noisemaker are currently developing a piece called Ceilidh, which is a wonderfully heart-warming piece about Scottish culture, and Ceilidh, and community. Having reached the end of a first draft and needing some actors to breathe life into it, Scott and Claire partnered up with Goodspeed musicals and The HARTT School with a view to sharing some of the work as part of the Goodspeed Digital Festival of musicals.
I joked with Scott that it was pretty much the LEAST appropriate show to develop – remotely – with a cast of American students. It’s deeply, fundamentally Scottish, so much so that it’s basically written in dialect. It’s immersive and relies on an audience joining in to reveal where the rhythm and pacing sits. It’s a show about dancing and not only were we not in a room together, we didn’t even have a choreographer. But what the heck… I won’t say no to directing a Noisemaker show, ever. So we adjusted our body clocks to Eastern Standard Time and got ready to rumble.
We had two weeks to explore the material with a Zoom sharing at the end – 12 days in total. On day one we met the students and cast the show, and on day 12 we shared the whole show from start to finish – although we didn’t decide until a day or two before that this was the plan!
I was surrounded by the most incredible team – Musical Director Chris Poon, Assistant Director Alice Eklund, Scott & Claire, our producer Michael Fling, dramaturg and wondermind Anika Chapin and a courageous, generous and humorous cast who brought so much to the process.
This is an outline of some of the things we did, what helped, what was hard, and where we found joyful moments.
This is a piece about community – a group of people coming together for a Ceilidh – so it felt really important to try and create a sense of togetherness. We decided we’d have extended warmups together every day, which we are used to here in the UK but not something our cast always do. Mostly warmup followed the usual pattern – 15 minute vocal from Chris and then some kind of game/ exercise/ acting technique moment from me. I whistled through my list of Zoomable games which were mostly designed to bring some creative silliness, and learnt others too – including the now famous ‘I don’t think so honey’ which is equally impressive and terrifying; the speaker has to rant for a minute without stopping on a topic of their choice and is only allowed to repeat the phrase ‘I don’t think so honey’ – extra points for fake rage about things that are universally loved like Julie Andrews or Disney Princesses.
It was important to me that we heard everyone speak every day – and as we were often all in different breakout rooms we used warmup as a moment to check in, so some days the warmup became chat time. We talked about Starbucks orders, how far away the nearest shop is.. one very memorable day I mentioned that I felt disconnected to not know anything about what the cast could see out of their windows and they pinged google map locations into the chat so we all went for a virtual walk around each other’s neighbourhoods.
Chris migrated from scales and arpeggios to taking requests for Chris-aoke so we had a good old (muted) singsong every day including classics from High School Musical, Rent and Tangled. Occasionally someone would unmute and riff a bit, to much applause. To an outside eye these sessions would look chaotic and very silly but they were building the atmosphere of our rehearsal room in exactly the right way with a sense of allowing and embracing and folksiness which is all part of the DNA of Ceilidh.
Apart from the obvious – Zoom – we used every bit of technology easily and freely available. I finally learned how to navigate Dropbox (which I’ve been using badly for years) and make shared folders. We worked out together that if you can’t access the shared folder it’s because Dropbox thinks your email address is something else so it’s time to go back through every email address you’ve ever had and invite them all to the folder – one of them will get in. FYI if you are in a shared folder and you remove something from it, it will disappear for everyone. Another FYI, your top level folder has to be not shared, but you can make other shared folders within that one.
Claire McKenzie is an absolute Dropbox queen and wins all the awards for organising and labelling everything so brilliantly.. The musical Marie Kondo of the Universe. When people ran out of Dropbox space we went to WeTransfer. WhatApp groups, email chains, Facetime, two Zooms at once… we had it all going. During the presentation I had the audience view on one Zoom screen and another Zoom meeting open for Alice, Michael and I to troubleshoot in real time.
I missed the easiness of being able to walk into a room and hand out photocopies of a new section, and the faff of transferring notes across different digital copies was sometimes annoying, but the cast made it look easy and eventually I gave up on my printed out script and copious notes and just rolled with the punches of new PDF drafts and my instincts.
Of course we were at the mercy of sketchy Wifi and having to negotiate with housemates to ‘please come off the Wifi for 10 mins so I can do this recording’ – jumping on and off personal hotspots and often losing people to restart the router. But we muddled through, praying it wouldn’t happen in the presentation. (It did, a bit, and it messed up the order of faces on the screen but no one really noticed.)
Schedules were on Google Docs so that they could be made and updated and checked in real time. Alice and I had shared google docs for planning so that we could ‘read over each other’s shoulders’ while both updating it at the same time and keep everything in one place. We got to the point of having a Google Doc FOR the links to the Google Docs. Inception.
Towards the end of the process when we were running sections and getting ready for the presentation, I took my cast notes on a Google Sheet too and then would send the cast the link instead of doing notes sessions, so that they read and process their notes in their own time rather than extending screen time any more than we had to. One of the things I felt most strongly about from the start was that no one person should be on Zoom for the whole 8 hour working day so I was always subconsciously trying to expedite the things we could and get the cast away from their screens. Of course Alice, Chris and I ended up being on screen for 8 hours a day but we tried to look after everyone else – and our producer the wonderful Michael Fling was on two screens at once for more that 8 hours – with two lots of project rehearsals happening simultaneously so he definitely wins!
Everyone knows that you can’t sing collectively on Zoom and we had a fearless leader in Chris Poon finding a way through through a wilderness of ‘how on Earth do we do this musical thing, then?’ Chris taught all of the music with a combination of Demos, demos with click, notebash tracks and impressive to watch sessions in which he’d teach a section, ask cast to unmute in turn and sing it back, clapping their own beat so that he could check the rhythm. Once taught and polished, the cast went off to record their lines along to demos that Claire had made with a click added – which were then uploaded into yet another Dropbox folder, downloaded by Claire and Chris some 3000 miles away, synced up with the orchestration and mixed into actual cast recordings which we could then have back in rehearsal to practice with. One of my favourite moments of the whole process was listening to a group of the ladies sing solo bits and pieces in turn so that we could assign them – like a distant memory of a previous, magical life…
For soloists, the process was more familiar as they could play a track at their end and sing with it, then debrief. I missed being able to talk about a section and then jump in to it to pin down the ideas – I wrote timings of all of the starts of verses into my script so that I could more easily say ‘start the track at 2.12 and you’ll get two bars into that’.. it was a workaround but it wasn’t the same as breathing together with the MD and setting off.
The other thing that working remotely gives you is less room to play with dynamics, tempo, pauses, acting beats – luckily for us Scott and Claire write so instinctively that these things were already in the music, but I longed for the moment when you try something all together and the whole room feels it.
My relationship with the actors was both the same and different to usual. They were performing, dramaturging, DJing, costuming and lighting their bit of the piece, so all bets were off in terms of what a ‘normal’ process would look like. I was mindful to keep them in the loop about changes that were happening as much as possible and also our reasons why, bringing it back to the audience’s experience and perception. I haven’t always shared that so openly and fully before as sometimes I wonder if it makes actors self-conscious to be thinking about external things – but as they were all roles in this project I decided to co-opt them as audience members too!
Lots of what we did was very familiar, especially approaching the script, the rewrites and the characters, but some of the other elements of it were much harder:
I missed having the chance to exchange a quiet word with a cast member, chatting while you fill up water bottles or walk to the café for lunch. Everything is so formal and abrupt on Zoom, lacking in nuance and the ability to read microcues or body language. Usually I know subconsciously what the mood of the room is and can adapt accordingly – but online it’s much harder as there’s only one level to it all.
Staring at a screen with 17+ people looking back, muted – I felt an enormous pressure to fill space, keep talking. I felt like I needed to perform, and usually in R and D there’s a lot of group reflection which is harder to flow in an online format. I had to hold my nerve in the quiet moments – reflections would come from the group if we left space for it. Sometimes it was useful to use the chat box to record responses, and I also found that group discussion worked best when the questions were quite specific and also typed in the chat feature so that everyone could refer to them.
One of the things that is always a balancing act in developing a new show is finding the right amount of time to spend developing the piece versus quality time with the cast. It’s not always an either/ or situation, but I do often find that sometimes what the show needs is the full creative team buried in it for a session picking through tricky bits together. However, we’re always balancing that with making sure that the actors have enough to do and are busy, creative and fulfilled by the process – ESPECIALLY when working with a cast of students. We identified research topics for groups to look into, and in other groups they were tasked with learning the steps to the Ceilidh dances and then coming back to teach them to the company. This, along with making recordings, practicing Scottish accents and finding silly hats to wear for the presentation kept everyone pretty busy, and we also strongly encouraged middle of the day trips outside, although the cast were all deep in snow for a lot of the time we were together!
I scheduled the first two days in advance, so that I didn’t have to spend too much brainpower thinking about what was going to happen next. Everything needed time, and music took priority because of the way that we were approaching it, so Chris did a lot of the heavy lifting initially, with text calls working around the music department’s needs.
Once we’d come to the end of our plans and I was back to daily scheduling, I realised that one sanity saver for me was to make every day look or feel FAIRLY similar, so implemented a routine that went something along the lines of warmup/ full group work/ large group work/ getting to smaller group as the day went on. Lunch (for cast) and Dinner (for team) – writers into the room first thing after the break for the rewrites that had happened that day and the last part of the day left as TBC. This helped my brain as I knew I had 3 – 6 with the cast to schedule as needed, before the slight unknown of the evening session. The time difference worked to our advantage here as it also meant Scott and Claire had the entire day to write before jumping onto Zoom with us at 7pm and working through till 11. I was wiped by the end of the day so as the days went on the calls in the late night slot (9.30 onwards) got smaller and smaller – sometimes just one or two people. Sometimes we treated ourselves to an early finish and a little less screen time.
At the start of this kind of process the only thing I really need to know is what the expectation is regarding a sharing at the end of the week. Lovely though it is, if it’s the focus of the project then sessions just end up being rehearsals and we have to stop asking questions in order to wrangle things into shape for a show.
We were in the best position for Ceilidh as we had no obligation to share anything, so we spent the whole of the first week exploring the material. As we waded further in and everyone got prouder and prouder of what we were making, we started playing around with various ways of sharing bits and pieces in live spoken, recorded and videoed versions. As we reached the middle of the second week it became compelling to try and share it all, so at that point, with a couple of days to go, exploring turned into rehearsing and off we went.
It was more important than ever to share visuals and so had a little group working on reading the stage directions. I split it up between 3 ‘storytellers’ and we worked through the text together in detail, deciding as a group which stage directions needed to be read. Sometimes we reordered them, starting music before adding in the stage direction on top, or moving a stage direction up the page so that characters could be introduced by name before they spoke for the first time.
The actors renamed themselves according to their characters and Alice ordered them on the screen for the audience by asking everyone to turn their cameras off and then back on again in sequence. Zoom will always show you as second along after the host but our audience saw what we wanted them to see.
All of the text was spoken live, except for a few lines of dialogue that were tricky to time with over music, which we added to the tracks. We got to grips with the best way to talk over music on Zoom (share computer sound, echo cancellation on, original sound on).
Cast organised their own costumes, props and hats, and some beautiful Zoom backgrounds to set the scene and atmosphere.
As we moved closer to the presentation, we decided to do a mixture of things with the music. Some songs would be played as audio recordings, others (the complicated ones!) played, along with a screen share of the lyric sheet so that the audience could follow who was singing what. The solos were done live with cast operating their own ‘backing tracks’ at their end, and sometimes having to remember to turn the track up and down as well as performing – impressive platespinning which meant we could maintain a live sung element. We had a play around with ZoomStaging four of the songs and making video recordings which then Alice worked some absolute wizardry on, creating a kind of hybrid music video/ staged version. To do these videos, we first rehearsed everything to run in real time as a sequence with everyone in their carefully ordered zoom windows. Once we were ready to run and record, I shared sound from my end and the cast did the physical work, which obviously came out a couple of seconds behind the music, but mostly consistently behind with each other. Alice could then layer the visual over the audio on iMovie and budge it along in the timeline to sync up again. It was complicated, but Alice bravely kept the worst of the technical challenges away from the rest of the team and would cheer us up at the end of the day by sending a render of something which never failed to make us laugh. I’m proud of the fact that we managed to create things which were ‘staged’ and they gave a lovely sense of tone and creative madness which helped tell the story.
After the presentation we met to decompress and it was incredibly touching to see videos of friends and family dancing along and joining in – we hadn’t been able to see them during the presentation as we did it using Zoom Webinar, so those videos really meant a lot. My Mum sent a picture of puffy eyes from crying and a request to please send the video link. Friends from around the UK messaged to start talking about their experience of watching – I was quite overwhelmed. As a company we’d ventured into a real unknown and made something that moved others, despite not really knowing how to do it ourselves. I’m certain that the reason it worked was because of the mad creative chaos surrounding the whole thing – and the courage of our incredible cast that just kept saying yes, even as it got harder and harder to imagine and execute. So – to the team – let’s do it again SOON? And to the cast – I salute you all, your generosity, your spirit and your humour. I can’t wait to find out how tall you actually are, thanks for the windups about that…
Thank you –
To the most beautifully descriptive and evocative storytelling team Natalie, Jacob, Hannah. You guys made it live for us. To Morgan and Alexander for your patience in doing a thousand versions of the same scene and reinventing your characters every 24 hours, it became a session I looked forward to daily (surprise though – the scene has since been cut.) To Isaac for taking on a whole new character the day before the presentation and nailing a complex bit of Robbie Burns poetry with barely any rehearsal, also for having a puppy – more dogs on Zooms! To Liana for never giving up on the accent work and for nailing the acting notes every time, also for volunteering to sing in Gaelic – Queen. To Claire for cosmic vocals that took us to another realm. To Sheridan and Stephen for playing characters 60 years older than you with such gravitas, dignity and pride. To Jarod for a wonderfully competitive spirit in the warm ups and filling us all in on behind the scenes at Starbucks, and indeed for making it to rehearsal everyday when you’d been at work since 4.30am. To Cameron for being a sunbeam in rehearsals, always being ready to go again, take more notes, re-record, try something different. To Jordan the best listener on Zoom I’ve ever known, and for making us laugh every day. To Jerry for your warmth and your smile, for bringing your incredible personality and your cat who gave us all good lols just when we needed them. Finally – to Miles for carrying the weight of so much of the show and making it all look easy – and for some of the best ‘matching dialogue with underscore’ work I have ever seen in my life, no exaggeration.
If ‘tradition’s whatever you choose to pass on’ then I’ve got some new traditions for future development workshops. Thank you all, a thousand times x
A clip or two from our play around with making videos on Zoom – all credit to the amazing Alice Eklund for coming up with the Brady Bunch feel!
Something Like This: