Brainiacs and musicals


British Musical Theatre Research Institute Symposium

Wow, that’s a mouthful! On Saturday I went thinking. The symposium at University of Winchester looked at ways documenting creative practice, and how scholars could offer thought to creative processes. It was a challenging morning which I was unprepared for (it was Saturday!), but has left me mulling over questions like how I go about creating, what exactly is that process, and also about my retired idea for a PHD which I now really, really want to go back to! The afternoon sessions looked at working with institutes of higher education – how practitioners and places and students can work well so that all parties get something out of the mix. I already work with the University of Chichester in a really flexible manner to develop my work, so it was very useful hearing about the other models out there.

There were a few guest speakers – Sam Kenyon spoke of his new project and talked about his research process of interviewing. I liked the fact that he said something like: ‘the right people always turn up. The people you need to talk to will be there. Forget the rest.’ I am paraphrasing there, but that was my take-home   . . .  stop sweating about who doesn’t show. Which is all well and good as he’s friends with a lady at RSC who’re putting on his show. And although he was at pains to point out that he went through the process fairly and squarely, I’m still peeved that they cancelled coming to see my work at the last minute! Ha – that’s my sour grapes for the day (and is in no way about Sam and his work – he is super talented, judging by his reviews, career, and website!).

We also heard from Adam Lenson (director only interested in musicals) who has a provocative way of looking at things, but when he says it, you realise that he’s right. He spoke about an ideal of writer-centric new musicals, rather than producer led. Ah, the utopian ideal. He also (later) talked about the use of A or THE in describing musicals, but that’s for his future podcast so I’m not going to discuss anything about that.

Then we all went to the pub, which was fun. I met loads of lovely people, and was challenged in lots of ways, so I am thoroughly glad that I went, and was welcomed so wonderfully.

This morning (Sunday) I have been considering whether I should indulge myself with reading research, and how that could inform my scholarly practice. But actually, I need to get on with writing a play that’s rather overdue!

To get back to my website, click on my name Zella Compton.

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MY WORLD – new adventure

MY WORLD booked for an exciting new adventure

I went to look at the next venue for MY WORLD on Friday morning, with composer Tom Guyer. The show has been booked to appear at a conference of ocean / science communicators in December. Fabulously, the National Oceanography Centre are funding us to make it again, but this time with a much smaller band and cast (not sure where we could fit 1500 singers again!). We’ll be back in Southampton, at St Mary’s Football Stadium. It’s going to be challenging, as it’s a long thin room, but Tom and I are okay at adapting to new surroundings.

I’m going to re-write some of the lyrics for characters instead of choir singing, and then Tom will re-orchestrate for a reduced band. Exciting stuff

my guest pass

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Testosterone – interesting show about identity


Back in Portsmouth on Thursday night, I went to see Testosterone by Rhum and Clay at my favourite theatre, New Theatre Royal. This is a show about trans-gender, and told the story of one young man’s experiences. There were some very thought-provoking moments, in particular the speech about being a man and the power that it gives you.

The set was a locker room. I wasn’t sure of the decision to place a bench across the downstage, as it created an additional barrier between show and audience, though I loved the lockers (especially as percussion instruments). There was a lot of dancing too, to what seemed like full-length numbers, and while the energy was cracking, I would have preferred that time to be used to explore further into the subject.

Get back to my website by clicking Zella Compton.

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Miss Mary Rose – progress on the Battle of the Solent

I’ve been very busy working on Mary Rose Unbroken.


This week I’ve had to relook at the overall structure. I like to work in word tables, so that I can move section / scenes around really easily. But this leads me to some bizarre acts in chronology, and even though this piece intertwines two time periods, both still need to be chronological for it to work.

I’ve sat down and re-read one of my sources to check whether what I have ended up with is what I wanted it to be when I started. Needless to say, in my enthusiasm of combining timelines, I have gone awry. This has entailed a lot of fixing which has helped with deleting extra scenes.


I am aiming for a 60 min first act, 45 min second. At the moment my poor audiences’ bottoms will be falling to pieces. Both acts are way too long.

In order to help with time, I killed off a character this week. It’s a shame, I really liked her, but she added nothing to the story which couldn’t be worked in another way. She was light relief if you like. So she disappeared, as did her 1,000 words or so.

I find killing off characters quite stressful at times, and there have been more than one instance when I’ve had to go back to a previous draft and bring someone back to life.


Today I’ve been looking at the Battle of the Solent. This is where Mary Rose (spoiler alert) sinks. The scenes around this hadn’t worked for me, or others who have been privy,  so I’ve sat back and thought about what I could do instead. What I don’t want to end up with is a whole lot of people slumping to the floor with a giant aargh. It needed to be much more subtle, and given the number of people who lost their lives, moving.

Today I’ve used a description of the battle from the shore. Originally this was contained in a performance poem I wrote in 2013 (or thereabouts) when I was Henry, overseeing the day’s machinations. I loved the language and rhythm of the piece, but it was far too long for this new piece of theatre, and also, Henry has enough to say all ready. I’ve given the majority of it instead to Catherine Parr, his much younger wife of the time. I’m really happy for this solution at the moment. Tomorrow – who knows?

Check, check and check again

My final task of the day is to look at the blue highlighted sections throughout the piece. I leave markers where I need to go back to as, for example, I need something to pull the timelines together, I’m not sure of a fact, or the pace drops. I’m hoping to clean-up all the factual queries by the end of the day, which should give me a clear run tomorrow at writing a different battle sequence which needs more work (there’s a theme there!).

I also need to get my facts together as best I can as I have arranged for an expert eye to start fact checking for me, one of the original divers no less! More on that to come . . .

And, also today, I went for a lunchtime dip in the sea.

Boat in the solent

A calm July day on the Solent, perhaps similar to the day Mary Rose sunk?

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The Pajama Game . . . thoughts on the show (not a review!)

The Nuffield, Southampton Operatic Society, 24 June 2017

Last night I went to see the Pajama Game. First on stage in the 1950s, this shows tell the story of a group of workers seeking a pay rise in a factory. Into the mix are thrown a couple of love stories. One is between management and a grievance committee rep, another is between an aggressive-knife-throwing-jealous-control-freak and a worker, and the third is philandering husband who tries to get it on with every female co-worker.

Dodgy relationships

While the songs, and lyrics, were fun (some extremely clever), and the bigger pieces great to watch, I couldn’t help but come away with bile in my throat. How is it possible that a serial philanderer works in the company, creeping over every woman, that and that anyone would go for him? Prez is a gross character and I have worked in enough places to know, for a fact, that within three days of being there you’ve been warned about which men to avoid being alone with, which men are predatory, which are creepy and which are uncomfortably odd. But, the Pajama Game clearly shows us that if creepy, touching men persevere they will eventually get to have sex. Gross. What kind of message is that for young men watching this show?

Then we’ve got Hines and Gladys. We know Hines is a control freak from his clock-watching, we know he is jealous of everyone Gladys speaks of (he tells us this), we know he has a knife-throwing act (we see it), we know he can’t handle his drink (we watch that too) and we know he is aggressive (as he throws knives in a temper at work) and yet still, with all this going on, smart, clever, fun Gladys goes back to him. And we also know, as we watch this in the course of the musical, that Hines is not going to break the cycle. So here, as an example to men, we have drunken, jealous, abuse which is forgiven. And as an example to women? Forgive, forgive, forgive. Yuck.

And then there’s Babe and Sid. The mis-matched lovers who fight about hourly wages, and then he fires her. She’s been after a pay-rise for a long time, everyone else in other factories has had one, it’s fair and just given the amount of business. But, it’s only when he checks the books and sees that there is a fiddle going on, that the rise comes into play. And then she snogs him, because even though he’s ignored her, fired her, ignored her some more, he’s solved a problem which wasn’t the one she was fighting. Grim.

Workplace fights

The show’s set in a factory, where one of the first scenes shows us Sid shoving a sub-ordinate, and then telling people multiple times that he ‘shoved him’ as if this is acceptable behaviour, because there wasn’t a punch. This is the same factory which then doesn’t call the police to report Hines throwing knives at people in the office, as it’s ‘Hines’. Seriously? I worked in a company once where the boss threw a chair at a subordinate. The next week all the staff were out of there, not laughing it off.

Choices for production

I understand why people might chose to stage this – it’s a big cast, lots of moments for company singing and dances, roles for both sexes, suits the age-range of community societies, good songs and an element of fun. But seriously, people who make these decisions should take a step back and ask themselves what they are putting on stage. Is wife beating funny? Is sexual assault funny? Is misogyny funny? I suspect that this is the kind of clap-trap that Donald Trump and the far right grew up watching.

The audience all tittered away, except for one lady sat a few rows behind us. She commented the whole way through – that’s not funny, that’s gross, that’s horrid. Far braver than I, or perhaps unrestricted by the societal conventions that you shouldn’t speak during shows? The Emperor’s New Clothes springs to mind.


This show is definitely of its time, the dark ages, when the gate keepers were keen to tell the stories that kept the status quo. It’s book-ended with a comment about symbolism. ‘This show’s about symbolism.’ I’m not sure what the symbolism was, or why that was referenced as a great thing? I didn’t get that, as I was too busy wondering how damaging crap like this still keeps getting put on stage.

The production (even though this isn’t a review!)

And, a note about the production. It was great. Strong singing, solid acting (a few dodgy accents, but hey ho), fun, vibrant routines and an all-round feel-good evening that the cast and excellent band were having lots of fun.  I’d definitely see when of their shows again, but hopefully not something so far from the dark ages.


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Making your characters sing

It’s been a good writing day today. I’ve been working through sections of my Mary Rose play asking questions of each scene. For example, what’s the point of this? Who is leading the action? Who is making a decision?

That’s quite difficult to do – the first time I did it for a piece of writing I nearly cried as I couldn’t answer myself. Now I know the questions are coming,  I am ruthless about cutting as I write, so theoretically the answers should come quicker.

But I was surprised today to find that the central story has moved to a secondary character, and not the character I thought it belonged too. So this means a whole night of pondering if I like this development, if I need to change it back, if I need to develop this further.

I think that this has happened because I’ve ignored my number one rule of having a tight plot structure before I started. Rules were meant to be broken right?

These characters though, they’re tricky.

I learnt today that two of them are distant cousins. I hadn’t seen that coming, but it explains their bickering. I also learnt my protagonist has a hobby that I hadn’t dreamt of, and my antagonist can make me cry. I think this means they’re working well.

How should you go about checking out that your characters work?

There’s no simple fix, and there’s also a million articles and blogs online that’ll offer advice.

Here are a couple of my check points which I’ve picked up from all over the internet, workshops and my own head:

  • Do they speak with their own words and pattern?
    (As in, they don’ all sound the same)
  • Do they have a life before and after the play?
    (Working out what they do at other times of the day gives you a better idea of who they are)
  • What would have happened to them today if this plot hadn’t dropped on top of them?
    (Are they the type of person who will create drama, or will drama find them?)
  • What do they value?
    (Do they hang out with people who tell the truth, or have money, or   . . . what?)
  • How do they respond to people who are not like them?
    (I forgive some people who annoy me, others I don’t. It’s to do with whether they ft into my value systems.)
  • Is their best friend more interesting than them?
    (I always felt the Harry Potter books would have been even better as a Hermione Granger or Ron Weasley series)
  • What happens if their sex is flipped, are they still believable?
    (This is a super technique to see if you’re writing stereotypical tosh. Trust me, it works. Make females male, and males female. Ouch.)
  • And finally, can their name change?
    (If it can’t, if they have to be that name, I know my job is done.)

Let me know if these are useful to you! And, once again, thank you Arts Council for making this happen!




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Bringing time together

Struggling with Mary Rose
I’ve been really struggling with the timeline for the play, and how to make that work. Originally I thought about the whole piece as Tudor, and then as contemporary, and then as act one being Tudor and act two contemporary, and then reversing that and then . . . I was exhausted.
I  watched a show recently which told one story in the first act, and then the truth in the second. I didn’t enjoy that structure as it felt – to me – that I had been manipulated too much. All writers manipulate their readers, and doesn’t a reader chose to be manipulated, isn’t that what they pick up a book for? It’s the same with shows – we want to be scared, or emotionally attached, or on the edge of our seats. The trick is entertaining your audience and taking them on that journey without them thinking that they have been manipulated – you don’t want them to be aware in the moments of experiencing the work, of the writer.
It is so complex, and while it would be simpler to choose one time period and work within it, I can’t help myself needing to use two. At the moment I am going for interlinking both. I’m excited by the conservation, I’m excited by the build. All I need to do is to bring them together with cunning dexterity.
(On the plus side, there’re some absolutely cracking moments in there!)
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Feedback on writing course

I’ve run two courses at New Theatre Royal over the last few weeks. One was a bad-ass editing one-day workshop,  the other three evenings of developing writing. Both courses went brilliantly – lovely participants who engaged thoroughly with the activities. I believe in making classes fun but challenging. People attending should – in my opinion – be able to take away exercises and techniques which they can apply to other work.


I was thrilled to read this feedback from a participant >>>>

Dear Zella

I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your creative workshops entitled ‘Develop Your Writing’ over the last three weeks.
The workshops were so enlightening and made me think in an entirely different way about writing and planning my work.
How you managed to pack so many exercises into three sessions and still retain the fun element was impressive.
The speed dating ‘What If..’ story plotting session opened up lots of new ideas!
Please let me know if you are running any further courses at the theatre in future.
It was an affordable, informative and thoroughly enjoyable course.
Many thanks
Jackie Green

Thank you Jackie! You and your marshmellow tea-cakes are awesome!

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Mary Rose Unbroken

I am writing a play about the Mary Rose. This is exciting on so many levels, not only because it’s a new play (yah!), but also because it’s Arts Council funded, and I get to wear my history nerd hat all the time!

Research process

At the moment I am at the very beginning of the process. This is the research phase. This means that I spend time in the Mary Rose Museum, delving into the exhibits, and also viewing the Mary Rose. It’s a truly wonderful place. A little dark (that’s to protect the exhibits) and full of mystery. You can’t help wondering who it was that held the spoon, or sat on a stool, who practiced with the long bows.

The museum has a wonderful selection of volunteers whose knowledge is a rich seam that I intend to mine. Already one of the volunteers has showed me her favourite exhibit, the anti-boarding netting which covered so much of the deck. Although only a small remnant remains, it is thought to have helped to cause the deaths of so many sailors on board.

How you can get involved

One of the wonderful aspects of receiving a research and development grant is that I can spend time deciding what the final piece will look like. That means I am really keen to hear your thoughts too. Tell me your impressions of Mary Rose, share your favourite stories, let me know what fascinates you. Let’s go on this unique journey together, and who knows if you’ll hear your words being uttered on stage.

Keep in touch

Find out more specifically about the project by connecting with Mary Rose Unbroken on facebook and / or instagram.

To get back to my website, click on Zella Compton.

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