The Role of a Director on a New Musical
By: Robert McQueen
When Britta Johnson contacted me in December of 2015 to say that she had been awarded the Toronto Fringe Festival’s Paul O’Sullivan Award for her new musical Life After I was, of course, thrilled for her. I had first heard Britta’s theatre composition a year earlier when she participated in our annual Noteworthy session, and immediately I had became an ardent admirer of her work; so, when shortly after our first conversation, she rang me again and asked if I would direct the Fringe production, I was thrilled.
Over the winter and spring of 2016 while she was working to complete the rehearsal draft of this deeply personal new piece, Britta and I would meet regularly to discuss the development of the material. By our first day with the cast that June, Britta had, just the day before, completed the rehearsal draft and during our three short weeks of rehearsal the evolution and development of Life After continued with daily rewrites to the text, new songs added, scenes put on their feet and then reworked entirely two days later.
In all of this we were beautifully abetted by the collaboration of our committed and outstandingly gifted company of actors, designers and production staff. It was a generative, intense, and thrilling rehearsal process.
All of us engaged in the Fringe production knew that we were part of something remarkable. What we didn’t anticipate was that the piece would garner the immediate interest of The Musical Stage Company, Canadian Stage and Yonge Street Theatricals. The result of this generous upswing of support allowed us to continue the arc of development with another workshop in April that included renewed examination of text and music, with songs cut, new songs written, and scenes developed or deleted. Again, the work achieved was dynamic and productive.
During the past 18 months of work on Life After, I think often of the great theatre writer Sybille Pearson and her constant reminder that the creation of a new musical is the act of writing, then rewriting, then rewriting again ~ which, as I type, is exactly what Britta is doing and will continue to do up to and into our initial weeks of rehearsal.