There was an opportunity to attend a free discussion last night (10th November) at Nottingham Playhouse about the forthcoming play 'My Judy Garland life' based on the book by Susie Boyt and I attended, eager to learn more about the play that premiers in January/February 2014. The playwright is Amanda Whittington, a prolific and successful theatre writer from Nottingham.
The event began with an introduction from Nottingham Playhouse's Giles Croft who explained the proceedings and the opportunity to get a copy of Susie Boyt's book signed after the event. The actress Sally Ann Triplett was introduced on stage and sang a belting version of Judy Garland's 'The Trolley Song' from the film Meet Me In St Louis accompanied on the piano by Steve Sanders. Sally Ann will be playing Judy Garland in the new play and has a great talent and pedigree in the theatre and musical theatre.
We then welcomed and heard the author of 'My Judy Garland life', Susie Boyt reading from the book and she was very amusing with her childhood anecdotes. I paraphrase Susie's reading below.
Susie Boyt: I was a very sensitive little girl. I was the kind of child that if someone left a bit of mustard on the edge of the plate I'd really feel for that bit of mustard and do you know when you go to the supermarket and there's a little pile of items that people decide they don't want at the last moment. Well my heart used to go out to them and even now I try to buy one of them if I could possibly justify it in any way. I wasn't quite as bad though as the woman I saw on television once who used to cry every time she put the rubbish out because she was never going to see it again. Though I wasn't a million miles away. And it didn't help that my family had just returned from its biggest adventure just before I was born. When my Mum's Mum died she left her some money and my Mum brought a share in a rusty cargo ship and took her four small children round the world. And they had incredible adventures. They got stranded in Trinidad and had to sell limes and when they were in Denmark the crew mutinied and they had to eat my mother's face cream.
Everyone was always talking about their experience on the ship and it was nothing to do with me at all and people were always saying to me “You have got to toughen up. You've got to grow an extra layer of skin. You can't go round having all these feelings all the time or you're not going to have a happy life.” Which is quite a severe thing to say to a five year old. And yet one day my Mum took me to the cinema to see The Wizard of Oz. It was the first film I saw and when I heard Judy singing Over The Rainbow I thought, finally here is someone whose feelings seem to run as high as my own and she's not embarrassed about it. She's not ashamed of it, she's not hiding it. There was an instant smash of recognition between us. It felt to me that there couldn't possibly be better news than what she was communicating to me.
I had a record of The Wizard of Oz – not just the songs but the whole screenplay and I used to listen to it in my bedroom on my own and recite the film and so I'd be sitting in my room saying “That dog's a menace to community. I'm taking him to the sheriff to be destroyed!”. The more I listened to Judy Garland the more I felt that we cared about so many of the same things. Chiefly, the idea that the most important thing in life was making other people happy and I still believe that one of the best ways to improve the environment is to be 50% kinder to all friends and strangers and then just sit back and watch the world improve. And although I didn't understand Judy Garland's sorrows I saw that she had them and that they weighed heavily on her small frame and that she was a bigger person because of them. Like thousands of others before me I felt that just by listening to her I could somehow help. Even as a child I could see that Judy's courage was contagious. She must have been the most conscientious and and unreliable person that ever lived and I was conscientious and reliable. Chubby and intense – keen to stay a child for as long as possible, forever if I could manage it. I felt that the grown up world inhabited by my parents and my much older siblings was more dangerous than I could bear.”
Susie continued with a story about emulating Judy's dance routines by taking tap and dancing classes three days a week tutored by a Miss Audrey She worked hard and practised for hours using the mantelpiece in her bedroom as a barre. She said that she learnt a song called 'Friendship' which had the line 'if you ever lose your teeth when you're out to dine, borrow mine' and loved the idea that someday there might be somebody she might want to lend her teeth to! Her love of Judy Garland grew and after the death of her father Susie said that, although saddened, her outlook became positive and life, a little more possible and her strength of feeling that some saw as an affliction, Judy seemed to think could be the making of her. She went on to say:
“What does it say about this extraordinary performer that I felt so powerfully linked to her all my life? What does it say about me? But whatever strange alchemy has been at work between us the facts are these: I was there at her greatest triumphs and her greatest moments of despair and she has been at mine.”
There followed a short film clip of Judy Garland singing and washing up for a show. The lines called out for the listener to “Look for the silver lining and try to find the sunny side of life”.
In 1981 a fellow school friend of Susie Boyt got an expressive poem published in a school magazine and she confessed to the Nottingham Playhouse audience that she didn't know it was possible to have such thoughts and that she longed (inspired by Judy) for a life on the stage and all the alleged glamour of backstage life as portrayed in the MGM musicals. Then she read amusingly and in detail of how she readjusted her theatrical ambitions and went from downgrading herself from star to leggy chorus girl. Failing that the understudy job would do and maybe she could 'accidentally' cripple the star and rush out on to the stage in her place to great acclaim. Or maybe being the dresser or make up lady would be a possible career 'warmly soothing and smoothing – a sort of faithful human iron'. The stage door guardian and the box office lady both got considered as options and spoken about with wit and insight by Susie Boyt and then she slid down the ranks to ice cream seller clad in a maroon polyester tabard hankering for sequins. He maths teacher at school asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she that she shyly whispered that she'd like to be star of musical comedy to 'go on stage'. The maths teacher cruelly replied “Well, you'll have to shift an awful lot of weight before that's a possibility!”. Susie went on to say that later in life a friend was compiling an anthology of regrets. Susie told her that she always wanted to be a star of stage and screen. Her friend replied “That won't do as a regret because for something to qualify as a regret it has to be within the realms of possibility!”
The evening continued with an audio recording of Judy Garland being comical and diverting in an interview. Judy spoke about being in Paris with a chic friend who she felt made her look very un-chic and it was suggested she got her hair done by a French hairdresser who went to town and piled her hair up on top of her head in extravagant bunches. Predictably the tall hair started to collapse as she started to sing.
Susie Boyt retired – with great applause- from the Playhouse stage and Giles Croft invited Kath Rogers (director of the play My Judy Garland Life) and adapter/playwright Amanda Whittington on to the stage to talk about the process of the play making from the directorial and the writing angles. I was particularly interested in the play making part of the discussion – the process and the inspiration. This is because I want to further my writing for the stage and it is always good to learn from those who have success in the business.
The discussion considered the phenomenon that was Judy Garland and what stardom and fame does to you and what it is all about and that there is no better person to have as an example of that. Giles said that he telephoned Amanda Whittington and asked her if she was interested in writing a play about Judy Garland. Amanda replied that it took about a tenth of a second to exclaim a very keen “yes!”. There was an explanation from Amanda that she realised that there was a play in Judy Garland because of her very difficult life but she felt that the dark side of her experiences was a 'known' and very well reported. She went on to say that when you listen to the records you get all the heartfelt joy and the love and the life and the celebration and during her play writing research she wanted to find a different way in. She read Susie Boyt's book and was knocked out by it because it is so original and so different and because Susie is such an authority and fan there were such a plethora of left of centre stories about Judy Garland to exploit. I use the term exploit in a positive sense. Also there is the central relationship between Susie and Judy and Amanda could see great potential in that as a work for the stage.
Giles Croft then spoke to Kath Rogers and we discovered that Giles first met her when she was an actress at a theatre he ran before Nottingham Playhouse. Kath described her transition for actress to director and spoke of how a lot of actresses find at a certain age that work falls off a bit and how she had always been 'that annoying actor' who thinks they know better and wants to direct the play in their own interpretation. Now she is a director herself she says that she realises how 'appallingly annoying' it is. She continued saying that she works with students a lot and she always tells them “Let the director direct her version of the play and you can do yours another time.” Kath's first chance to direct came from Nottingham born, Jonathan Church, at Salisbury and she found that she really loved the responsibility of directing and that one is creating something with amazing talents.
Kath met Amanda Whittington through Amanda's play – the Will's Girls – which was adapted for a Bristol audience at The Tobacco Factory. Amanda explained that the play began with the title Players' Angels and she adapted for it Wills so that it was relevant to the Bristol audience. The play showed in the actual factory and was a big success. Lots of people who didn't normally go to the theatre came to see it because of the historical aspect and generations of their families had worked at the factory. Kath and Amanda went on to talk about other projects they had worked on including Radio Four and Tipping the Velvet which was an adaptation of the novel by Sarah Waters. A play about slavery followed and then Kath commissioned Amanda to write a play called The Dug Out. I was very impressed with the creative output from Amanda and would love to aspire to be the same. In relation to the play 'My Judy Garland Life' Kath Rogers said, when asked, that she isn't a huge fan of Judy Garland but is of Liza Minelli and realises that in lots of ways they are quite similar.
On approaching the adaptation Amanda explained that in adapting a book for the stage a lot of the decision is what you leave out and it can be a bit of a wrestling match because there is such a wealth of material and a lot of it is narrative. You have to tease the play out of the original and make it theatrical – bringing it into the moment rather than story-telling and try to avoid a lot of narration. What was interesting was the relationship of Susie and Judy, both complex young women, although at different times, growing up, both with commonalities and dramatic urges. Although Judy was there for Susie in impressing her development as a girl and woman, Susie wasn't there for Judy of course but, as Amanda explained – in the play she is. The play dramatizes the emotional and spiritual truths of the characters through a collaging of interaction. Plus there is the musical element of live singing from the actress Sally Ann Triplett who plays Judy. We heard that the writing has gone through countless draughts and Amanda explained about a time when she and Kath met up and they chopped up the text into sections and moved them around the kitchen table to look at the scenes in a new light and perhaps new order, sometimes cutting scenes in half to see what happens. There had also been workshops with two actresses to develop the writing of the play. Kath explained that the new play is nothing like anything Amanda has written before. “A very distinctive piece of work” echoed Giles Croft. Amanda said that 'the more unreal the scenario got the real and truthful it became and a very strange kind of alchemy that happened. As soon as you freed yourself from naturalism the more believable it became.' Susie Boyt, in admiring this stage adaptation of her work said that it was - like a dream collage.
Another new pay by Amanda Whittington will be playing in the Nottingham Playhouse Neville studio at the same time as My Judy Garland Life. This is a very different show and is called Amateur Girl, a gritty drama about a young woman who turns to the world of filming amateur porn films as a way of getting extra income and her getting drawn into that seedy and dangerous world. This started life as a fifteen minute play written for BBC Woman's Hour and developed into a larger one woman show. The character Julie was originally played on the radio by Kath Rogers.
There followed a discussion about the nature of good and bad fans and how this is central to the book and one assumes, the new play. Actress Sally Ann Triplett told of her childhood where she used to sit and wait for the Judy Garland MGM films to appear on the telly because there was no video facility to watch them at random times and that was the thing she loved. She also loved Betty Davis and Al Jolson was her hero even to the point of her doing impressions of him at school with white bits of paper round her eyes and mouth and got detention for it. Later in life she played Jolson's wife in a musical about the entertainer. Sally Ann illuminated the fact that Garland too meant a lot to her and that it wasn't her (Garland) but her energy that she admired and feels that she herself has a similar kind of performing energy to draw on. It was all about how Garland felt. It had to be 100% or not at all.
It was a very joyous discussion and we continued with a question and answer session. Questions ranged from “Aren't you a bit young for admiring an old timer like Judy Garland?” to one aimed at Susie asking “Why do you need another author to adapt your book into a stage play when you could do it yourself?” The answer to that was an embellished version of 'no, because it is a very different discipline and mind set writing a play to an autobiography or novel and it would be very hard for the original author to make choices in editing and making the work a theatre piece'. The first question was also answered and explained by Sally Ann Triplett as the love of Judy Garland and similar artists from the period they lived and performed in was a beloved legacy of the family all enjoying the films at the cinema and the telly. Also the actress feels sympathy for Judy Garland in her weakest moments as she was controlled by the movie bosses and felt dis-empowered and turned to alcohol and drugs to cope and this still continues with people this day. On a positive note Judy Garland as the entertainer still is very present in our culture today with children and adults still loving the famous film, The Wizard of Oz and others.
My own question (gentleman in grey sweater) was around the writing process as I was intrigued to hear about this dissecting of the script and laying it out on the table and asked if the working process had been used before. Amanda explained that she had never used that process before and always thought that it might be a particularly useful creative thing to do but it never seemed relevant to other things that she had done. She spoke of Bowie and how he famously used to write his lyrics like that and reconstruct the feel and text by tossing it all up in the air. Amanda felt it work because for this particular piece, it is not a linear journey, it doesn't start at a beginning, have a middle and an end. It goes backwards and forwards in time so the structure and where we place certain events didn't have to be chronological and it just felt right to get he Pritt Stick and the scissors and chop away at it and physically try and make this thing sit together properly. Kath interjected saying that there were certain bits of Susie's book that we wanted to 'get in' could be set in different places theatrically. She continued by saying that anecdotes and scenarios drawn from the book helped form the narrative and that by reconstructing the story in this way helped them find out the emotional core of what the play was about.
Amanda explained that writing is mainly a solitary process but there are times when you work alongside a director or someone involved in a literary capacity and it can be brilliant to have two heads looking at the work and talking it through, figuring it all out. That to her as a playwright is very valuable that right from the early days of the process that is someone else is involved to give another viewpoint in the story and aid with the mechanics of script development.
Susie Boyt said that when she was writing the original book that she wanted those transitions between Judy and herself to have a flavour and the reader to have no idea about what was coming next. Giles Croft said that he first came across the book whilst driving to work and listening to the radio and it worked wonderfully and playfully on the imagination and that is why he thinks it would work equally wonderfully as a play.
Sally Ann Triplett sang us out with a great rendition of The Man That Got Away.
The event ended with an appeal from Giles Croft to the audience members to consider the effects that the local proposed County Council cuts to the Playhouse grant funding might have and for us to make our feelings known through various forums including the County Council website.
Susie Boyt was available to sign copies of her book after the event and I for one can't wait to see (and possibly review) Amanda Whittington's new play in January/February 2014
The play runs from Friday 31st January to Saturday 15th February 2014
Nottingham Playhouse Box Office is 0115 9419419
Sally Ann Triplett's own website can be viewed here.
Playwright Amanda Whittington's website can be viewed here.