Five years ago I was a wandering itinerant folk singer/songwriter/performer/theatrical nut, living on a dime and sleeping on the floor of my best friend’s house. Seven months previously I had taken the somewhat drastic step of quitting my day job to pursue my dream of becoming a full time songwriter. I had saved up some money in my years working in administration and since I couldn’t think of anything to spend it on, I decided to give myself a year and see if I could survive on professional performing and songwriting work. That year I earnt the princely sum of about £1400 from my first forays into the world of the professional songwriter. Interestingly enough they all came from theatrical contracts… consequently the £10,000 I had squirreled away over the previous 5 years was soon depleted to a small collection of nuts.
That money is gone forever, but I don’t think I’ll ever regret the decision to have a go at doing this for a living… because I feel like one of the lucky ones. It’s been hard, at times I’ve lived on practically nothing, I’ve lived in hostels, I’ve toured shows for months on end but at the end of the day i get to do what I love almost every day now. Writing songs for shows. If I hadn’t given myself that chance I think I would always have regretted it. I also would probably own a nice little house in Kennington… but hey.
Of that £1400, the majority of it came from a project titled These Trees Were Made of Blood. Director Amy Draper had been to Argentina a few years previously and had become fascinated by the story of the Madres de La Plaza de Mayo (The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo). I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was just a baby (and being encouraged to stick my fingers in electrical sockets by my big brother) in 1980 New Zealand, upwards of 30,000 people were being brutally tortured and “Disappeared” by their own government in Argentina. The Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo were mothers of the Disappeared. Their children were taken from clubs, from homes, from classrooms and subjected to horrific torture and murder by the right wing military state. They were detained without notice, without trial and their very existence was denied. From 1978 – 1983 the population of Argentina lived under a terrorist state. Only the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo were brave enough to speak out. They were ordinary women thrown into horrific and extraordinary circumstances. They were threatened with death and torture on a regular basis but they maintained their peaceful protest which eventually helped lead to international pressure and the eventual downfall of the military government. To this day, many do not know what happened to their children and they still march in the Plaza.
Amy found me whilst I was performing with my folk band in the foyer of the National Theatre, she was a friend of our singer Angie Fullman, who introduced us and suggested to Amy that I might be good to work with…
She must have liked what she heard, as soon I had a conversation with her and I was offered one of my first professional jobs, to come along to a week of workshops at The BAC to write some songs for this show inspired by The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. I was excited and intimidated, Amy’s instinct was to turn this story into a political cabaret. Many people I mentioned the idea to, said, “You want to do a cabaret musical about the murder and torture of 30,000 people? You’re nuts. Good luck with it.”
But I thought there was something there. There was something so horrific, so terrible that it felt like words were not enough to do it justice. I could hear music in my head. A mixture of traditional Weimar Cabaret, Gyspy Jazz and Argentinean folk music gradually crept together in my tiny musical brain. I listened to everything I could get my hands on and then suddenly we were in a rehearsal room at the Battersea Arts Centre with cabaret artists, actors, singers and musicians and I had to write some songs…
That’s how my journey on this extraordinary project started.
It is now five years since that first giddy experience, and I feel I have gained in experience and so I wanted to talk about how I approached writing the songs for a piece of “political” theatre. The show had a successful critically acclaimed sold out run at The Southwark Playhouse in 2015 when Producer Jim Croxford of Theatre Bench took a chance on an unknown, creative team because he believed in the story we were trying to tell. Now we have the chance to tell the story again, but even bolder than before at the wonderful Arcola Theatre.
I know that for many people, politics can be very dry, but I think that it is only “dry” if it’s presented that way. A lot of people’s experience of political stories is through the news media, which (sometimes as a necessity) often overlook the intensely personal stories behind politics.
For me, politics is all about heart. It’s about people and struggle. Yes, it’s about numbers and statistics but behind them are thousands of beating hearts. In some cases people struggling to exist even on the most basic level. And that’s why I think that watching so-called “political” theatre can be amongst the most powerful and deeply affecting experience that an audience can have. So when people said I was crazy to be working a show that essentially documented a mass state-sanctioned genocide, I thought the opposite.
Where could the stakes be higher? This story seemed to me like the very story that needed music to tell it properly.
That was all very well… but where to start?
I’ve said that politics is all about heart. You have to dig deep through the stats to find the humanity underneath it all. This is sometimes difficult but I think it’s absolutely essential to creating a political show. You can’t just have a message or an opinion. You have to have a moving narrative that your audience can connect with. In this case Amy had decided that she wanted to focus on one mother’s story to find her Disappeared daughter and she wanted to set it all in a cabaret.
Immediately the heart of the show was obvious. How would you feel if your only child was taken from you for unknown reasons, brutally tortured and murdered and then the perpetrators denied it?
The first thing that suggested itself musically was the idea of a lullaby. What represents the closest connection between a mother and her child? A mother singing her child to sleep. I wrote a lullaby inspired by Argentine folk music called My Little Bird, that tells of a mother’s fears for her children. Eventually it also grew to represent the suppression of the state. But it all started with that most personal of song forms. The songs grew from that seed to become cabaret numbers that subverted and shocked, dark torture tangos, and defiant ballads.
One of the difficulties of political cabaret is that there is a tendency to want to educate as well as entertain. Again, I think the key is to make sure that any education is part of the narrative and deeply connected to the heart of the story. This is easier said than done and I haven’t always been successful with it, but I’ve tried. If people are coming to the theatre they want to be entertained, they want to feel something extraordinary and woe be to the writer who doesn’t fulfil this basic want.
We are now in the final stages of being able to tell the story in the manner we have always felt it deserved. The Arcola Theatre is producing a new version of the show and it will be on this summer from June 14 til July 15. Since that first job in 2012 I’ve had the good fortune to go on and write many shows, but the story of These Trees Are Made of Blood remains one of the most important and powerful stories in my mind.
I hope you can come and see it.