Glory Days

Feature in Issue 23-1 | Spring 2011

An artist’s diary from Rajni Shah.

Here’s to all the People Here: Rajni Shah and Glorious
I don’t like what I see. I want to change the world.

Writing about Glorious right now is a bit like writing about a lover – a new and exciting one, but one I’ve hunted for years. An affair I am afraid of, thrilled by, and one which keeps me up at night. That’s my disclaimer. Forgive me if I speak too passionately.

You’re wond’ring how it starts…

2006

I’m walking across the Waterloo Bridge with producer Julia Carruthers, talking about this and that – and I tell her that one day I’d like to make a musical. She laughs. My work is usually very experimental in form and well known within the live art sector. I know, I say, it’s surprising, isn’t it? Most people wouldn’t expect it. But I’ve always loved musicals. Someday…

January 2009

Having spent a year declaring that I was going to make a show called Glorious: a musical extravaganza, I find an advert through the New Work Network e-digest:

A Month of Sundays – Musical Theatre Writing short courses

I apply for the course (run by Chris Grady) and am accepted. It’s very practical and everyone is surprisingly welcoming. I enjoy the feeling of being a beginner. Each week we pair up and write a song or outline based on a theme. I clearly still have a lot to learn. The best thing I come up with during the month is a rhyming lyric about a woman who gets turned into a bear: Now I’m feeling rather hirsute, I’m a woman in a bear suit.

July 2009

Several days with the Glorious creative team in the Live Art Development Agency’s Study Room. We watch a lot of DVDs, read a lot of books, and talk about things we feel are specific to a stage musical: repetition and revisiting, colour schemes and emotions, ritual and selfreference. Sheila (Ghelani) watches The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time. We talk about what it means to walk into an unknown future, and how much the significance of ‘future’ has changed for us over the years. We talk about the audience being allowed to feel emotion, and about them being invited at some point to enter into the world of the musical. We don’t want to be afraid of the beautiful. And we don’t want our audience to be afraid of us.

I want to make a show that reminds us that the people around us are amazing – a show that really takes place in a location, and that embraces the idea that if we come together and listen to each other, anything’s possible – that the future’s in our hands. It feels like we’re shrinking away from ambition and hope, and that only the past can be seen as glorious. I want to apply that word to the future – can we imagine a glorious future, in such uncertain times?

September 2009

Sheila, Lucille (Acevedo-Jones) and I lead a public intervention in Lancaster’s St Nicholas Arcades shopping centre. For two days, we invite people to have a cup of tea in an empty shop and write a letter to a stranger. We discover that people have a lot to say – some stay for almost an hour, writing about whatever it is that feels important. They seal the letter in an envelope, and then exchange it for another unopened envelope – a letter that someone else has written and left. We will never know what is in these letters, but it is profoundly affecting just to see the exchanges between people who are young, old, lonely, comfortable, sad, delighted, and unsure. One older woman tells us that she has written about something she carried within her for years, a family secret that she desperately needed to share. Her letter is taken by a schoolgirl.

This is the third time we’ve made an intervention in Lancaster; it feels familiar and new at the same time. This time we go on to lead a workshop for some of the people we’ve met writing letters. They astound us with the performances they create.

February 2010

I’m lucky enough to be the recipient of the Wooda Arts Award: six weeks with my own studio in Cornwall. Lucy (Cash) and Lucille visit. We watch Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Sally Potter. I read Bruce Chatwin, Catherine Wood, Tim Etchells, Matthew Goulish, David Byrne, C Carr. I write a very short song. Slowly, the different strands of the piece start to emerge. We want to make something intelligent and beautiful and unusual. But we also want to make something that is anchored around local stories and that can be owned by all the people who take part in it.

All this time standing at the coast here, I am remembering that once we could step across to North America… and whilst our voices are here now in this room, they are drawn in every direction through our land and complex ancestry; they span or spin us across glacial and inter-glacial times, beyond the human (and male) scale of politics, across the edges of languages. We are not so far away.

We decide that we want people from each place where we perform to play a central role in Glorious – people telling their stories, people playing the music. People who might not have performed like this before. People we have not yet met.

9 July 2010

I’ve been tentatively working with composers Ben and Max Ringham since September 2009. Now I have to write some lyrics before we can go any further. This deadline has been looming on the horizon for quite a while. They have been very patient. I am completely stuck. And I am becoming concerned that perhaps, after all, I can’t write the lyrics for a musical.

I stare at the page, then at the computer. And then I decide to treat myself like a workshop participant. Write a letter, I say to myself, write a letter to someone you care about.

And just like that, on the 9th of July 2010, the first song emerges: the words I wish I could say to someone who is at once dear to me and far away.

‘Dear Lucille…’

This is how it starts.

Since last July, we’ve been making songs and building costumes and running workshops and writing letters; we’ve given out flowers and performances and cakes and champagne and tea. We’ve met 931 people in London, Newcastle, Nottingham and Bristol.

We’ve built a show in three acts with two short intervals. Each act will contain the same stories and songs told in a different setting – laying bare the idea that the past returns, and that the future is at once familiar and filled with the possibility of something new.

And it is now that we begin to meet our performers: the people who live in each place where we will perform the show. In Nottingham, Suzie (Shrubb) has started rehearsing with a drummer, a guitarist and a percussionist. In London, she’s working with two whole classes of students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The scores that are emerging for the first two shows already sound radically different from each other.

Meanwhile, Karen (Christopher), Lucille and I have set up a small market stall on Whitecross Street in the City of London, near the Barbican (where the show will premiere as part of SPILL), and are taking up residence in a charity shop in The Meadows in Nottingham. We’re offering gifts and conversation, and in return we’re meeting market stallholders and shoppers and local residents. Now we just have to see where our conversations lead us, and find out who would like to perform with us in the show.

These people’s words and music will anchor Glorious. It is their presence in each act that will give it shape and relevance. It is terrifying to have built a show without knowing who the performers will be. But Glorious has always been about journeying into the unknown, about letting go of what you thought it would be, and opening up to something new.

And then the lights go down, and then the songs begin, and then the curtains open…

Glorious has been commissioned by SPILL Festival at the Barbican, London and co-commissioned by Live at LICA (Nuffield Theatre Lancaster), Wunderbar festival and InBetween Time Productions.

Creative team: Lucille Acevedo-Jones; Lucy Cash; Karen Christopher; Sheila Ghelani; Mary Paterson; Ben and Max Ringham; Rajni Shah; Suzie Shrubb; Helena Suarez; Steve Wald; Chahine Yavroyan.

Funded by Arts Council England, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, PRS for Music Foundation, Royal Victoria Hall Foundation, and many generous individuals.

Glorious premieres at the SPILL Festival, Barbican, London, 19–21 April. See www.spillfestival.com Book tickets at www.barbican.org.uk

Glorious will then be touring in the UK and Europe till October 2012. Starting at the Wunderbar Festival, Newcastle: 28 October – 6 November 2011, and ending at Live at LICA (formerly Nuffield Theatre) October 2012.

For more on the project see www.rajnishah.com/glorious

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 23-1
p. 6 - 8