Now that we had a National Youth Choir up and running, it was time to put on our first big concert. Up until December we had performed at other events but we hadn’t yet organized a night just for us.
On returning from the Christmas holidays Loni, Jo-Annah and I started to plan what would turn out to be an incredibly successful production. We chose the 8th of March which would give us about 8 weeks to prepare and would coincide with the annual St. Patrick’s Festival, with our show opening the week-long festivities. We immediately booked the Montserrat Cultural Centre and checked with the Festival Committee that nothing was planned for that evening, securing that Saturday Night slot on the Festival calendar.
So, we had a date and a venue, next step was deciding on the content for the concert. All Loni, Jo-Annah and I knew at that stage was that we wanted to avoid a concert structure of a stationary choir singing a song, applause, different song, applause, unrelated song, applause etc. We wanted the evening to flow and have some sort of theme.
I got to work on the programme, aiming for somewhere between a 1.5 and 2 hour concert. I had just started the junior choir on two musical theatre songs which they absolutely loved: When I Grow Up (Matilda the Musical) and When Children Rule the World (Whistle Down the Wind). This then gave me the idea of having a Musical Theatre theme for the evening. Children in Montserrat are not exposed to Musicals at all, with most not knowing what a musical was before we started this project let alone having seen one before. However, having worked with these children and young people on projects such as last year’s Under the Mango Tree (see previous blogs) I knew how dramatic and confident they could be. I was quite certain that musical theatre would bring out something special in these youngsters and that they would have a lot of fun at the same time as pushing their boundaries of performance.
Thing is, I had promised the teenage choir that after Christmas they could sing songs of their own choice (within reason!) So I could hardly go back on my word and make them sing all musical theatre songs, most of which they would never have heard before. So, I bargained with them. They would give me a list of songs suggestions, and I would pick some and throw in a few musical theatre numbers too. This meant that the concert would also include popular songs, but to stick to the theme I decided we would present them in the style of musical theatre and I would write some sort of narrative to link them together. This meant I now needed some sort of story….
I sifted through their list of suggestions searched for any recurring themes. All the songs were very different, but it jumped out at me that many explored topics that could be applied to teenage life. I thought it would be interesting if for the middle choir’s section of our show we explored the different emotions experienced during teenage years, the different characters you come across during secondary school and the tough things you have to go through during this period of growing up.
Growing up. That was the link I had been looking for, tying in perfectly with the junior choir’s song, When I Grow Up. This was when the idea for the show really started to come together and things started to fall into place. The show would be about growing up from the three perspectives represented in our choir: Children, teenagers and young adults. It would be presented in the style of a musical.
The three choirs rehearsed separately on a weekly basis. About half way through I realised I had probably been a bit over ambitious thinking that we could do this show in one rehearsal a week for 8 weeks. We added Saturday rehearsals in the 2 weeks leading up to the show which meant we were just about ready. There was a lot of excitement buzzing around, especially among the younger two choirs who really did work very hard. It was amazing to see some of the more shy members of the choir gain confidence and come out of their shell. As well as the singing, some really responded to the acting whereas others were more confident in and shone in the dancing. There were some moments during the rehearsal process where I would be completely blown away by something a child would do spontaneously, and I would go away and write in a part for them, or add something to the storyline as we went along. I saw a huge amount of growth in these young people in just 8 weeks, with most of them ending up performing at a completely different level than they were at the start. Some pictures from rehearsals.
I threw myself in the deep end of this ambitious project and learnt a lot myself over the course of the 8 weeks. I ended up the Director, Musical Director, script writer and the Choreographer (Anyone who has seen me dance will know what a challenge this was for me!) I also stretched my creativity in coming up with ideas for the set design and costumes, although thankfully wasn’t involved in making either! Something I would do differently next time is actually schedule in a bit of piano practice. I got so carried away in everything else I was doing that I didn’t have time to ever sit down and actually practice properly the music I would be playing on the night. Obviously I had been playing for all the rehearsals, but I was so focused on everything else that I never really paid attention to what I was playing. This made for a few extra nerves on the night…
We were very fortunate to have the help of Peter Filleul, a musician who was in Climax, one of the first bands to record at Air Studios Montserrat. He took control of anything technical, spending days in the Cultural Centre figuring out which stage lights worked, what microphones would be best to mic the choir, where and how to place these microphones. He enlarged the stage area as well as building ‘flats’ for local artist Kelvin ‘Tabu’ Duberry to paint the set onto. He liaised with the sound and light teams to make sure they knew exactly what they were doing and were present during the last rehearsals. Without him my life would have been a LOT more stressful!
The Montserrat Cultural Centre is such a big space and can feel very empty even with a reasonable sized audience. My concern was that after all their hard work, the choir would go out on stage to see a half-full cultural centre, and the atmosphere wouldn’t be electric as it had the potential to be. I knew it was going to be a really good show and wanted as many members of the community as possible to see it.
The best way of promoting anything in Montserrat is over the radio. Loni, Jo-Annah and I went on Rose Willock’s Culture show on the Saturday morning the week before the show and went on the breakfast show later on the week for another live interview. In all seriousness I’m getting far too used to this whole radio thing. The first time I did it last year I nearly passed out from nerves whereas now I secretly rather enjoy it!
We also had a lot of help from Michelle Cassell, a member of our older choir. She designed the tickets as well as writing the script for the radio advert which was recorded by Loni.
Mrs Sujue Davis, the wife of the Governor of Montserrat, organizes fortnightly coffee mornings at the Governor’s residence. She invited me to give a presentation on the work I have been doing as well as doing a short performance. I used the opportunity to promote the show and even brought two young choir members who were singing solos from Les Miserables and Annie to perform alongside me. Their singing brought tears to the members of the audience who gave them a standing ovation. Needless to say I sold 50 tickets in ten minutes thanks to those two girls of 8 and 9 years old.
‘Changing a culture’ (not in a bad way!)
I think it is fair to say that things rarely run on time in Montserrat, especially performances and shows of any kind. If something says it starts at 7.30, you can safely turn up for 8pm and it won’t have started yet. Also, audiences generally don’t seem to see anything wrong with walking around during performances. Whether it is to the bar or the bathroom, they come and go as they please. I was adamant that the show would start on time and the doors would be closed, only to be opened to let in latecomers during applause. I didn’t want people to turn up late, as is the norm in Montserrat, and be disappointed to miss the first part of the show because they didn’t think we would start on time. I also didn’t want the young performers to be distracted as audience members came in late and wandered around. I remember someone saying to me “Becky, these things are engrained in our culture. You can’t change our culture for one evening!” I replied “Well I am going to try!”
We specified on the tickets that “Doors open at 7pm and close at 7.25pm”, the same information was on the radio advert and every time we spoke about the show, whether on the radio or just in person, we explained the importance of being early. This ‘doors close at 7.25pm’ concept spread quickly as things do in Montserrat, but caused quite a bit of confusion. We had so many questions about what this meant as it is just not done here.
To my amazement it worked. We did change the culture for one evening. The Cultural Centre lobby was full before 7pm of people demanding us to open the doors. When we did open the doors, the auditorium was packed by 7.20. We did start 5 minutes late but only because so many people came that we had to put out extra chairs.
On the night, I arrived at the Montserrat Culture Centre to see these members of the choir Having fun and warming up outside before the show. Don’t think they look too nervous…