Conventional theatres may have gone dark, but digital theatre is brighter than ever – and we’ve been fortunate enough to chat to some of the brilliantly creative people making sure productions are still happening. Throughout May and June, the creative team behind new musical Cautionary Tale have been encouraging people across the UK to take part in a digital workshop by learning the choreography and music, and uploading videos of themselves performing it on social media. Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, the writer, here takes us through the inspiration behind both the musical, and the decision to take the workshop online!
There’s so much information on your website but could you, in your own words for the good people of Upper Circle, tell us a little bit about Cautionary Tale?
Cautionary Tale is a new British musical written by me (Rebecca Atkinson-Lord) and composer Becky Applin. It’s the story of Gloaming, a town where everyone has extraordinary powers but where it is forbidden to use them. If anyone breaks the rules, then they are taken away by the Safe Keeper, never to return. It feels a bit like a mash up of Tim Burton, Roald Dahl and Victorian Melodrama and if you’re into stuff like Stranger Things, The Goonies, IT or Stand By Me then it might be for you!
How did you come up with the idea, and what has the process of developing it been like? There seems to have been a lot of collaboration.
Becky, the composer, wanted to write a musical based on Hillaire Belloc’s poems, but when I came on board as writer, I persuaded her that it’d be more fun to write modern cautionary tales. We started thinking about that but pretty quickly realised that we really didn’t like the idea of spreading more fear in a culture where we’re encouraged to be scared of everything and everyone. So instead, it became a story about rejecting fear and disobeying the Cautionary Tales we’re taught as kids. The rest of the story just flowed from there – I can definitely see references to all the stories I loved as a kid as well as to my own experiences. There’s one character, Fred, who is based on someone I loved who died just as I was writing the first draft. Fred’s special power is to laugh so loud that anyone who hears it feels hopeful and brave – and that’s there because it felt like a great way to remember the person I’d lost. Becky and I have worked really closely with Choreographer Mark Iles. From the very beginning, his ideas around the movement and physical language of the show have shaped both the music and how the world of the story has developed. We’ve also been really lucky to work with a few different groups of emerging performers to help develop our ideas and that has been brilliant.
Your workshop was cut short by COVID-19, which must have been devastating – but your response has been so imaginative! Who thought of it? How do you think this digital workshopping will impact the development of the show?
It was all of us really – Mark suggested asking folks to record songs and post them online, and I wanted to create a richer creative experience than just recording the songs, so I suggested putting a fuller package of stuff online for people to engage with the script, the choreography and design and ideas of the show as well. Then Becky had the idea of theming it around each family of characters so we could workshop it over several weeks.
The digital workshop has already prompted me to plan a few changes to the script and possibly write a new song. We’re putting the packages together in real time every week, so releasing them publicly forces us to think in detail about each section and how it works in the real world for performers. Doing all of that in lockdown has also meant that we’ve been able to dedicate really focussed time to it in a way that we wouldn’t normally be able to outside a full production process. I think that will shape the future of the show dramatically – the world is so clearly developed and clear now that in the future we’ll be working from a much stronger foundation. And because we’re also looking for producing partners, it means we can give a better sense of what the show will become for a live audience.
Just Like Us, one of the tracks that has been released, is a beautiful but bittersweet song about growing up. What’s your top tip for holding onto the fun and creativity of childhood in a difficult world?
I’ve been very lucky to be able to make a living doing what I love most. I think devoting time to what you really care about, every day, is a great way to stay curious and creative. I’ve also learned that having a healthy disregard for other people’s opinions is a massive step in staying happy and making good choices in life.
As well as Cautionary Tale, there are so many opportunities to watch and make theatre digitally – what (if anything) have you been enjoying in lockdown?
Honestly, there’s so much brilliant creativity out there right now that I haven’t been able to take it all in, but there are a few things I’ve encountered that have felt incredibly inspiring and hopeful; Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s #PFTLightHopeJoy project is just wonderful, openhearted creativity. GIFT festival’s shift online was incredibly well done – and it was a joy to see innovative theatre of that calibre being made available to so many. The NSDF Bigger Room events online are amazing and inspirational and Forest Fringe have been up to some pretty exciting stuff with their Paper Stages and Forest Fringe TV projects too.
And finally, for people wanting to get involved – any advice for anyone who might need a bit of courage or inspiration to take part?
Just jump in! The thing to remember is that this is a workshop – we’re asking you to come up with questions, ideas, challenges and crunchy stuff that makes us really test our work. It’s not about having all the answers or giving a perfect performance. I think mostly I just want people to get excited about the show and the story and the music – to find their own joy in it and then share it with us. For now, it’s not about the audience or what other people think, it’s about digging in to the joy and promise of creating something yourself and sharing it with the world.
If you’ve been inspired to take part, find out all the info at https://www.cautionarytalemusical.com/