Teresa Howard: ‘I was arrested for the first show I made’
How did you become a book writer and lyricist?
I did a performing arts degree and I was an actor to begin with, but I was a writer long before that. I started writing poetry from the age of about eight, although I don’t think writing poetry is the same as writing lyrics. While I was studying I started writing plays. The first thing I wrote was a one-man show, but I acted it, as a British soldier in Northern Ireland. I hired a gun from prop hire and did it in the middle of a Wood Green shopping centre and got arrested. They let me go, but it was from that moment that I realised the power of theatre. It was the most exciting experience.
Tell me about the process of writing.
It’s taken such a long time. Composer Steve Edis and I worked on the floor with lots of cards, just like you do for writing a movie. We had to cut out a lot of characters. I wanted to have the animals as puppets and Steve said: ‘Absolutely no way.’ After that I spent three months just writing a rough draft with vague ideas of where the songs would go. Then we had to make a decision: is this a musical? Did we need the songs? Everyone’s decision was, yes, we really wanted the songs.
How did it end up on stage?
We did a workshop at the Royal Academy of Music and then a showcase. Dodie Smith’s nephew, Christopher Reynolds-Jones, came to it. He really loved it. We approached Brigid Larmour at Watford Palace Theatre and she loved the idea of the show, but she said Watford just cannot afford to do it. So I set about applying for an Arts Council England application. Steve and I really became producers. We got a grant and did another showcase and we formed a partnership with a commercial producer. Then we applied for another grant for the actual production. If the Arts Council hadn’t funded that, I don’t know what we would have done. That took a long time – I could have written two more shows in the time I had to do the Arts Council application.
How do you think new musicals are faring in the UK?
I think the terrain for new musical theatre is really healthy. Regional theatre is a great place to start. Trying and testing things through development and workshop is really important. Although we have a lot more help now getting from page to stage, what we don’t have is ‘from vision to page’. That’s a really hard place. We had a shadowing book writer through part of the production, so she’s watching some of the process as a writer. We’re trying to be really inclusive. Cameron Mackintosh funds composers to work with theatres, but no one is funding book writers and lyricists. Writers still need to live, and not to have to feel grateful for someone putting on their show. It’s that moment – from being in your head to being on the page – that is the most difficult part. But I do think regional theatre is a fantastic place to begin. Brigid Larmour was willing to take the risk to experiment, to be innovative in the way she approached this.
Are producers put off by the cost of putting on a new musical?
Yes. It’s easier for the Royal Shakespeare Company to do Matilda and for the National Theatre to do London Road. They have a lot more money. Creating a musical is really collaborative, but maybe the only way to put it on is through collaboration. Musical theatre earns 50% of the box office in the West End. Regional theatres are working with really limited resources. They’d be more likely to say yes if some of that West End money was put into regional work. Musical theatre writers would be able to write more shows and fewer Arts Council grants.
Is it necessary for book writers, librettists and lyricists to write other work too in order to have a sustainable career?
I don’t know. Quite a lot of people I know have done a lot of different things. There is a hangover stigma attached to musical theatre and, to be honest, we really are trying to stop there being such a division between musical theatre, theatre and opera. We want to join these mediums together. It may be that people who write lots of different things, that’s what is invigorating the form. There’s some amazing stuff out there. It’s an exciting time.
CV: Teresa Howard
Agent: Kate Weston at Janet Fillingham Associates
First professional credit: Jo’s Story, Street Theatre, London (1979)
I Capture the Castle opens at Watford Palace Theatre until April 22, then tours the UK
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