It's all about serving the musical moment

Way back in 2013 when MishMash Productions just started to poke its frightened head above the parapet I started my R&D with theatre.  

To my eyes, the world of children's theatre is remarkably broad-minded and forward thinking – putting the audience above needless traditions and conventions and developing bespoke work with the needs of children at its heart.

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Applying theatre to music has, therefore, become a kind of snappy way of explaining what we do, how we roll, the cut of our jib, our raison d’etre, but what does that actually mean?

Excellent theatre (whether for children or not) has at its foundation:

  • A company of people – director, designer, writer, lighting designer, producer, dramaturg etc etc
  • The highest production values – not just what is presented but how it’s presented, the design, the lighting, the staging, the costumes etc
  • Proper time is given to R&D, and then rehearsal – often 6 weeks or more
  • Communication and connection – it’s not good enough just to nail your part, you have to nail it whilst looking the front row straight in the eye and negotiating set and props!
  • A perfectly balanced structure or arc – you can’t just cello tape a number of different scenes together, they need to make sense and form a coherent whole

In addition theatre for young audiences is a respected genre in itself.  Not an add-on or a tick box, the audience is truly valued.   Across the country we have 6 flagship theatre venues just for children and young peoples’ work:

The MishMash Method

In building a unique approach to developing music led theatre for young audiences we have tried to respond to these characteristics of excellence and embed them into our practice.  In doing so we have built up a set of values that should always be at the forefront of our work:

Photo by Johanna Vogt on Unsplash

1. Trust in the music

Our work is and will always be music led.  Music has its own profound dramaturgy and that should be harnessed:

‘The order, intensity, and presentation of the music create their own special dramaturgy ….. There is an important difference between putting music into an existing story and forming a narrative line around strong musical programming.’[1]

There is a danger that the theatre fails to serve the musical moment.  This is top of our watch list when creating work:

‘Never before have I seen a theatre show for families where the power of music is harnessed without the confines of a band playing at the side, lyrics being sung on top, narration over it, it being pre-recorded, placed behind or hidden from the action.  The music is no longer an accompaniment but is the driving force of the adventure.’[2]

The nature of the music is also vital.  Young audiences are very accommodating and broad-minded when it comes to genres and sound-worlds:

‘I think it’s so important that we haven’t dumbed down the show, the lengths, the quantity of music to a safe amount that we know every child can handle – to the lowest common denominator.  We have challenged the children to sit and listen and with almost unfailing regularity, they have risen to the challenge.’[3]

2. Connection and Communication

We are also very preoccupied with the presentation style and the setting. We consider at length the performance practice of the players, how they communicate and connect with the audience and the proximity of that audience to the performers.  The role of the director and designer are key to this and the consideration of staging and props that support this engagement,  

The Danish Researcher/Producer/Composer Jesper Gottlieb refers to the ‘filters’ that music passes through between performer and audience and our duty as producers to reduce the filters as much as possible and to ‘mind the gap’.   More about this next time. 

It’s not good enough to just play the notes but we work with performers to really connect with their audience.

‘A concert is both an individual and collective experience at the same time.  Much of the success of a good concert lies in establishing a group dynamic in the audience, where all audience members actively participate in creating a group experience with the musicians and the music.  At the same time, it is important that each individual audience member feels that their concert experience is relevant and personal.’[4]

3. Absorbed Engagement

I have always been convinced that a child can be totally immersed in a performance without actively participating in it and intrigued by the way in which the music sector seems hooked on audience participation as a way of obtaining audience engagement.  We don’t see theatre or dance productions inviting audiences to join in to somehow distract them into engaging with the performance.

During my research I uncovered an evaluation report by Researchers Susan Young and Niki Powers in response to the Starcatchers programme in Scotland where they coin the phrase ‘absorbed engagement’ where children are not interactively or physically engaged by an activity but were ‘transfixed’ by the work: 

‘I think it is important to show that a young audience can be captured entirely by a musical event without employing a workshop-structure.  It is the start of demonstrating to children how they can listen, how they can engage and be at the centre of the musical experience imaginatively rather than literally.’[5]
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The Norwegian researcher Scott Rogers has led some really interesting research about the listening experience of the child which can be found here:

https://yamspace.org/toolkit/new-entry

https://yamspace.org/article/what-are-they-listening-to

4. Production Values

We are 100% committed to a professional approach, to creating quality productions that use staging, lighting, costume, and design as appropriate to serve the musical moment and enrich the musical experience.

However, we are mindful of the potential pitfalls:

‘Many concert productions for children use visual or dramatic techniques to create focus, sustain interest and supply context for the music.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and there are many fine productions that use any number of extramusical techniques to great effect.  But sometimes they get in the way of (or replace!) a more direct experience of the music, and the concert becomes less about the music and more about something else.’ [6]

Pitfalls and Problems

Learning from theatre wasn’t without its issues.  Sometimes forcing a square peg into a round hole brings challenges and it’s quite the same bringing together the world of classical music and children’s theatre!

Performers – getting it ‘spectacularly right’

Finding the right performer was tricky.  If you've decided your work is going to be music led it has also to be musician led!  And whilst we have an outstanding range of amazing performers available across the UK they don't necessarily have what it takes to perform for children:

‘Brilliant music skills are not always paired with brilliant communication skills…….. A lot of musicians seem to think that once the music is well rehearsed and the set list decided their work is done…..’[7]

Even when you find the musicians with the right combination of ability and attitude it takes time to build the trust needed to coax them into embracing a new way of performing.  Creating a positive, encouraging working environment is key:

‘Making mistakes and feeling safe enough to make them in the room is vital for us.  Classical training is often about rights and wrongs.  There is a prescribed right way of doing things.  There is nothing wrong with that and our work is benefitting from the high-class musicianship that results from that training.  But it is also crucial that we feel we can fail – as we reach towards excellence.  Otherwise, we can't create anything truly original.’[8]
 

Getting beyond that ‘they can’t do that they’re musicians’ attitude, takes time but is well worth it:

‘In the normal run of our profession it is all too easy to hide behind our props – to reproduce unthinkingly the notes we see in front of us, to organise the how but not the why, to make sure we won’t go spectacularly wrong but without really examining what it would be like to go spectacularly right’.[9]
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Value

The classical music sector has a very clear idea of hierarchy and what constitutes ‘success’.  There are few graduates leaving the many excellent colleges and academies hoping to break new ground in the field of music for young audiences; whereas there are thousands aspiring to play at the proms or grace the stage of the Wigmore Hall.  Whilst music for young audiences remains a second best, a tick box exercise with limited production funds and rehearsal time our progress as a sector will stall.

‘In our hectic professional lives, children's concerts are often seen as a setting where you can get away with not doing your best work because there's an assumption that the children won't know any different.  In reality, this couldn't be further from the truth – children know exactly whether something is good or bad, and the quality of what you present to them is the opportunity either to create a life-long interest or a life-long aversion to classical music.'[10]

By giving time, building trust and demanding the highest quality we aim to raise the profile of this area of work.

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Fixing and Finance

There were also some key practical issues when bringing together a company of music and theatre professionals.  Some very delicate like the issue of pay.  Pay is very different for a traveling children's theatre company than for a chamber music ensemble.  The Musician Union negotiated rates for professional musicians vary hugely from those of the Independent Theatre Council's where one week’s pay for a performer or stage manager would barely buy you 2.5 days of a performing musician!  Creating an economically viable production whilst being fair to all involved is a financial balancing act.

Fixing is also an issue.  Freelance musicians are used to being booked per individual performance rather than for large chunks of work a year or so in advance so be prepared to be let down until you build up a committed portfolio of performers who really value the work you’re doing! 

The cut of our jib

We have pinned our flag (to continue the maritime theme) securely to the MishMash Method as our USP.  We are determined to continue to trust in the music and see where it takes us.

We don’t always get it right but we’re definitely heading in the right direction!

Do join in the conversation on twitter @MishMashLiz #trustthemusic #beyondtheconcerthall #newaudiences #theatricalchambermusic #earlychildhoodmusic #childrenstheatrechangedmylife

To find out more about MishMash Productions click here.

 

References

[1] Taken from ‘Young Audiences Music 101’ by Jesper Gottlieb and Scott Rogers https://yamspace.org/toolkit/youngaudiences101

[2] Taken from artist evaluation of Hubbub: A Musical Adventure by MishMash Productions

[3] Taken from artist evaluation of Hubbub: A Musical Adventure by MishMash Productions

[4] Taken from 'Young Audiences Music 101' by Jesper Gottlieb and Scott Rogers https://yamspace.org/toolkit/youngaudiences101

[5] Taken from artist evaluation of Hubbub: A Musical Adventure by MishMash Productions

[6] Taken from ‘Preparing children for active concert listening' by Scott Rogers and found here https://yamspace.org/toolkit/new-entry

[7] Taken from ‘Mind the Gap’ an article by Jesper Gottlieb and found https://yamspace.org/toolkit/mind-the-gap

[8] Taken from artist evaluation of Hubbub: A Musical Adventure by MishMash Productions

[9] Taken from artist evaluation of Hubbub: A Musical Adventure by MishMash Productions

[10] Taken from artist evaluation of Hubbub: A Musical Adventure by MishMash Productions