‘Beulah’ – one of a number of shows The Flanagan Collective is presenting under the #littlefest banner at C nova this year – was outed as a “beautiful secret” by our reviewer. So we put some questions to the group’s Alexander Wright, about the show, the ideas and music in it, the art of making new musicals, and the #littlefest venture at Fringe 2012.
CC: “Part story, part conversation, part musical” – tell us what we can expect from ‘Beulah’.
AW: ‘Beulah’ is just that, it’s part way in between things. It’s got a whole bunch of beautiful original songs; it’s got one story about Lions, Kings and Queens and another about a couple and an island; it’s got suitcases and puppets; and it asks questions about the way we measure our world. It’s singing, talking, playing and storytelling.
CC: Where did the idea for the show come from?
AW: Beulah is a world which the poet William Blake thought was somewhere between this world and the next, a world of ‘mild and pleasant rest’. It is essentially a place where we go when we sleep, with windows back into our world and on to the next. I have been fascinated for a long time with the idea of Beulah as a place. And also the absurd way in which we measure our world in minutes, seconds and hours when, actually, what we really measure our lives in is moments and memories and the little bits of poetry that take us by surprise. Both these things inspired the show.
CC: Did you begin with the stories or the songs?
AW: We began with a big conversation with the audience and the character of Lyca. We played with this back in November 2011 at The Little Festival Of Everything down in Yorkshire. After that I tried to hone the story to work the ideas of the conversation into the piece. It went through a lot of drafts before rehearsals and during rehearsals. The lyrics were scattered through the piece and have moved around a lot. Jim and Ed wrote the music in rehearsal – incredibly quickly actually – it was very exciting to hear it all coming out.
CC: You describe the songs as resembling “everything from folk ballads to Sigur Ros” – did you set out to be that eclectic, or did that emerge as the piece was written?
AW: Ed and Jim both play a bunch of instruments, so it was nice to have that variety to compose with. The music seemed to come quite naturally, the narrative feels quite musical in a sense anyway. We all have different backgrounds in writing and listening to music, but all share a pretty big love of all things acoustic, soaring and fun.
CC: What are the challenges of creating a brand new musical?
AW: I don’t really think of myself as someone who writes musicals, so that probably makes it easier. The idea of musical theatre comes with an amount of baggage, mainly from Andrew Lloyd Webber, so it’s nice to be able to forget all that glitz and glam and just write songs that fit the story. A lot of conventions in musical theatre are a bit odd, so we ignored most of them and just put two guys on stage with lots of instruments to play. The songs from Beulah would make a great album on their own – I think that’s quite a good thing.
CC: The musicals section of the Fringe Programme is quite small – especially if you focus on new musicals – why do you think that is?
AW: Potentially it’s just to do with the idea of the genre. Perhaps people would rather hang on the theatre side of ‘play with music’, rather than call it a musical. Perhaps the word ‘musical’ conjures ideas of jazz hands and dance routines. Obviously this is not the case, and there are so many brilliant new musicals which push the boundaries of what the genre traditionally is. Music fills our world so often on a day-to-day basis, it’s peculiar to sideline music in our heads when we get to categorising theatre.
CC: Tell us about The Flanagan Collective – how did you guys come together, what do you do outside of the Fringe?
AW: Well we set up with the simple premise of wanting to make things and to make things happen – we wanted to work with people and try and link up with lots of other artists and companies to create shows, festivals, events, conversations, whatever people needed doing really. So we spend our time talking to other people and finding ways to put things on. We spend an amount of time performing in pubs and halls, we run The Little Festival Of Everything in the depths of rural North Yorkshire, and we all work with other companies too. We are a rolling and changing bunch, very open and without any real rules. We like talking to people.
CC: You are presenting ‘Beulah’ as part of a thing called # LittleFest, what’s that?
AW: #LittleFest is place where some of the usual Fringe rules don’t apply. We have a number of regular shows which run at the same time each day – lots of brilliant companies from around the country all in one space, which is superb – and then we have a rolling and shifting programme of guest events, happenings, bars nights, comedy, cabaret, music, scratches and whatever else works. This programme will grow across the months with artists who want to try things out, test things, play with an idea and then chat with people about it. Hopefully #LittleFest is a place where artists and audience can spend time on an equal footing, a nice place to be at the middle of a frantic city in a busy month. To keep up to date with it all you can follow us on Twitter – we’re at www.twitter.com/FlanCol.
CC: Are there any other musicals this year that you rate?
AW: Well, as a shameless bit of self promotion, there are two other musicals I wrote up at the Fringe this year. ‘Some Small Love Story’ is back with Hartshorn Hook after some lovely reviews and feedback last year, at 7.45pm. And No Shoes Theatre, best known for ‘The Improvised Musical’, are presenting their first non-improvised-musical, ‘Therapy’, at 9.00pm. They’re both at C nova. Naturally ‘The Improvised Musical’ is superb and very enjoyable. A lot of stuff that comes out of Royal Conservatoire is great too. There is also some wonderful cabaret which straddles the divide. Damsel Sophie’s international smash hit, ‘HOT’, is on as part of #LittleFest too – and there’s plenty of singing in that, that’s 10.15pm in C nova.
CC: What are you plans post this year’s Fringe?
AW: Various really. ‘Beulah’ will do a miniature tour around some little places in Yorkshire, and we are helping to tour the band Holy Moly & The Cracker’s brilliant show, ‘If The River Was Whiskey’. We do a communal dining version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ that will crop back up in winter. But, as with everyone at the Fringe I imagine, we will cross our fingers in the hope that something comes up to give the shows in #LittleFest more life after August.
The Flanagan Collective performed ‘Beulah’ at C nova at Fringe 2012.
Photo: Kat Gollock