Under the Bonnet of #50Days

Written by Ed
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3rd May 2024

Since taking part in the Musical Theatre Darkroom residency in 2022, creator and writer Thabo Stuck has continued to develop #50Days – a grime musical that tells the story of the 50-day period that leads up to the outbreak of the 17th Century British Civil Wars.

We’re excited to be supporting the next phase of development for this brilliant piece of work. Having organised for him to spend some time in Milan with Director & Dramaturg Omar Elerian a couple of weeks ago, we asked Thabo to recap on the journey so far and his reflections on working with Omar to get ‘under the bonnet’ of the show.

Since its inception early in 2019 the #50Days project has travelled from its first showcase at the Turbine Theatre in 2021, to Northampton for the Musical Theatre Darkroom residency in 2022, and to the Birmingham Hippodrome where a youth version was staged with the British Youth Music Theatre and a cast of about thirty in 2023. Next stop… Milan.

I first encountered China Plate in 2022. Someone sent me a link to their Musical Theatre Darkroom page, where they were offering developmental awards to three successful projects. In collaboration with the Royal & Derngate in Northampton these writing teams would be given a one-week residency; developing their pieces with assistance from composer Fred Carl and lyricist & librettist Robert Lee – both experienced musical theatre practitioners and specialist tutors from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, who both have an abundance of industry experience.

Last year Ed (China Plate’s Co-Artistic Director) and I started talking and he mentioned that China Plate wanted to help the project to develop through its next phase. I have been asked before if there were any dramaturgs who I would want to work with if there were no obstacles. The answer for me has always been simple – Omar Elerian, who directed Misty by Arinze Kene, which is one of the most powerful pieces of art I have encountered. Fast forward to February 2024 and we had started to have some preliminary discussions about working together.

Ed said he wanted Omar to help me get under the bonnet of #50Days and really take the piece apart. This analogy of the bonnet reminded me a little of Formula 1, where the teams regularly have periods where they can develop ‘upgrades’ and test them out. In Formula 1 you are trying to develop things like speed, downforce, and fuel efficiency. For a musical theatre piece, you are developing elements such as story depth, character arcs and the overall flow of the piece.

I have an overall concept of course – it is a story about this 50-day period preceding the British Civil Wars, it has key characters, and it uses grime as its prime medium. This concept doesn’t need to change, but there are facets that can be developed and questioned to achieve the outcome wanted. In Formula 1 the teams are chasing points, podiums and race wins and I am chasing down how to tell this story to a particular audience, in a particular way… Enter Omar.

Firstly, Omar wanted me to really think about the framing of the piece and how it is presented to the audience. Where is it set, what does this mean and how this might affect the story? Without giving anything away, I think there’s an exciting framing concept emerging, which really excites my writing senses, and I can’t wait to get started on developing this further.

Second, who are the central character of this piece and is there an obvious protagonist? Seems like a simple question, but it’s not one I have really thought about in much depth. We started mapping out all the characters from scratch again and really considering their wants and their barriers to achieving these. Fred and Robert introduced us to this exercise in Northampton previously, but I have been so focused on the music side of things that the characters have been left to their own devices a little, so to speak.

Finally, who is my target audience? It’s easy to say that you want the piece to appeal to ALL audiences, but this isn’t always possible. In thinking about everyone you might reach no one.

Omar introduced me to a series of existing musicals and plays, to help me grapple with these three core ideas. The pieces we discussed included pieces I had never heard of – Marat/Sade, Michael Kohlhass and Life Of Galileo, to name a few. We also discussed contemporary shows such as Come From Away, Hamilton and of course Misty. My limited knowledge of theatre now certainly feels more enriched.

When I started writing this show I certainly didn’t think that I would be sitting in a café in Milan, listening to The Hills Are Alive and writing down the wants and barriers of Maria von Trapp, but here we are.

Thanks for all your support, China Plate. Where to next?

Musical Theatre Darkroom is presented by China Plate, Birmingham Hippodrome, Musical Theatre Network, Mercury Musical Developments and Royal & Derngate, Northampton.

It is a ground-breaking laboratory programme that supports the development of original new musicals. As part of this programme’s commitment to championing diverse voices within musical theatre, this opportunity is targeted specifically at new musicals by artists from the global majority.