In 2019, local playwright Joshua Val Martin packed his bag and went to London to work intensively with a cohort of students at Central School of Speech and Drama on a new project. In a room together, they poured out their anger, fear and unease about the world they grew up in and what might lurk in their collective future.
A musical theatre script emerged and a story told by over 50 characters that takes place across Leicester, Amsterdam, Krakow and Berlin. This was the beginning of A Permanent State of Emergency.
Two years later, and after many new unforeseeable woes around the world, Joshua and director Sue Dunderdale rallied some talented performers to begin to reshape the script. This time it was, predictably, over Zoom and not in a room.
“I didn’t expect to enjoy working on theatre over zoom – especially not a musical! – but actually it brought a useful focus to conversations”, said Joshua. “I think there’s something about everyone concurrently looking at everyone, that forces active listening. And whilst this becomes exhausting, it got us into a particularly deep mine of the play and left me excited to write the next draft.”
“As the first draft had been written for a drama school, it was kaleidoscopic in its themes and ideas, with almost fifty characters! It was great having the brains of these fantastic actors and students – and people new to it – to discover what A Permanent State of Emergency is really about, and how it might be best to tell that story, and with fewer actors.”
As Joshua mentions, there were some visiting students both current and post-graduate who joined these Zoom rehearsals to give their take on how the play was being developed. Madeleine Brooks (a University of Manchester Music graduate & MA student in Opera Directing at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff) was one of these and here she is talking about the experience:
Q: Why did you want to take part in these development rehearsals?
A: I was excited by this opportunity to observe and participate in workshops for a new musical with Hope Mill, having been blown away by their production of Hair, and being very interested in new writing for musical theatre and opera. I was immediately drawn to A Permanent State of Emergency. The premise of the musical resonated immediately with me; it seemed to be the first time I had come across the challenges my generation face being made into art in such an explicit way.
Q: What did you observe during the process?
A: Sue the director told us that the aim of the workshop was to bring the piece up to date, and to give Josh the writer material and thoughts to go away and be able to redraft it. First, there was a read through of the whole play. It was great to see the actors bringing the text to life. Zoom is a tiring medium, but I was completely absorbed in the drama and the work being done. Sue made space for discussion of general points and ideas about the play afterwards, and then offered us a chance to give any thoughts that we might have had.
The rest of the sessions followed a pattern of going through the play section by section with a read through and discussion scrutinising in detail the characters, story, and form. This was the meat of the workshops, where the play was completely analysed and ripped apart for Josh the writer to then go away and work on a new draft.
Q: What was new to you about this phase of the creative process?
A: I was surprised by how un-precious Josh was about his words and the story. I was also struck by how invested the actors were in their characters and the piece itself, wanting to make it the best it could be. I liked that Sue wanted to hear from absolutely everyone and created a space in which this was possible. At various points, the actors broke out to work on the music with the musical director. It was great to hear them come back and perform some of the songs, despite zoom lag difficulties. It made the style and feeling of the piece really make sense to me.
Q: What impression did the play and/or the way the play was being developed make on you?
A: There was a lot of discussion during the workshop. Both about the play itself and the wider themes and issues it brings up about the younger generation. There was one lengthy discussion, where Sue particularly wanted to hear how I and the other student observers felt about our future. It went to some quite dark places and I am still thinking about some of the things that were said now. It has made me think very differently about challenges facing my generation, such as whether we must scrap the expectation that we will be able to bring up families in nice houses in a similar way to our Boomer parents, and why so many people in their twenties are still living at home. I had not taken such an objective historical view as this before. It was scary but also freeing, and I left the process feeling very stimulated but little overwhelmed.
For the final day we were given a new draft of the script. I was amazed at how much had changed in such a short space of time. For this last read through Sue delegated chorus parts for us to read in, and I also played a small character part which I very much enjoyed. It was great to be involved actively in this way.
A Permanent State of Emergency by Joshua Val Martin will be performed at Hope Mill Theatre script-in-hand and with music between 7th – 9th June, tickets are only £7 plus booking fee and can be found here.