Interview: Alice Gillham – Build It And They Will Come, Or Expectations Displaced

September 10, 2017



Composer, producer and playwright Alice Gillham’s new musical Calling Me Home recently completed its first run – a brief installation at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, where it met with mixed reviews.

The piece was initially something Gillham was asked to put together by the publishing company she is signed to, EMI Music Publishing/Sony ATV, which suggests, potentially, that the process of writing the story and the accompanying music might have been different than if she had developed the idea independently.

“It was not a commission as such,” notes Gillham, “but rather a suggestion – ‘Why don’t you try this? Looking at your work, we think you might enjoy it.’ And I am loving it – the writing; watching it come alive; reviewing it as it goes and seeing what needs changing.”

Gillham understands that perspectives on a work like this will vary.

“I need to make it come alive for the average audience member,” she says. “I’m trying to make it engaging – the sort of magical experience that has always made theatre a special place for me. When I see someone in the audience having that sort of experience, I feel exhilarated. And making changes to the show is exciting. For one thing, we’ve taken off nearly half an hour of the original running time – it was too long to begin with.”

There must be some pain involved in that situation.

Gillham shrugs.

“People think you get attached to these things, but I think creators have an understanding that some things won’t work, and that it’s okay to just cross them out. We had to get Calling Me Home on stage to see what really works and what doesn’t. There’s a lot of stuff still to change that we couldn’t get to in the first run, Now we’re into a full three-month review process.”

What’s involved?

“All the main creative team attend,” explains Gillham. “We take comments from cast members, right down to looking at pages of dialogue and changing lines that don’t work. Very few people know how intense the review process is. This is just the first one – we have a full year of this work ahead.”

How sound are the foundations?

“The houses have been better than expected,” remarks Gillham. “People have invested. The response has been such that some people saw the show three times – aware of its flaws but loving it anyway.”

Speaking of investment, how is all of this development financed?

“This production is not a big-budget affair,” Gillham states. “It’s an opportunity to build something, and everyone’s been generous with investment, and willing to take risks.”

Calling Me Home is a large-scale musical built from scratch. Everything is important – the characters, the book, the music (of course).

“You don’t write a musical. You rewrite a musical,” observes Gillham drily.

“What I started with is very different to what’s there now, and it will change again. There are an enormous number of moving parts. If one doesn’t work, it pulls down the others; if one shines, it pulls the others up. It needs to ultimately all lock into one emotional energy curve.”

Where did it begin?

“When I started to imagine this story, I was in London, on the street,” recalls Gillham. “I looked around me and everyone was from somewhere else, and dealing with their own challenges. I started digging up information around what it is to be displaced. We all feel that at some level. It’s a intensely human state, and one that can be very painful.

“It’s a topic the world engages with only in terms of stats and politics. I wanted to look at its humanness – how people experience it.”

Those nuances make a production hard to categorise.

“In South Africa, we’re still relatively new to the product creation part of musical theatre; the funding and so on,” says Gillham. “In theatre, more money is given to so-called ‘South African’ stories. But in many other industries, nobody is trying to confirm an identity; just to produce a work. For Calling Me Home, there is a great deal of support and enthusiasm overseas – for the story.”


The first team

The original cast and creative team are helping to shape the template on which this production will be built as it travels and, later, becomes populated by other personalities.

“At some point it might be good to get fresh eyes and strong creative opinions, and it would be foolish to not listen carefully,” suggests Gillham.

“But there must be more than one creative vision, and that vision has to be concentrated. People who can’t buy into it are going to be destructive. That said, you don’t know if a team is right. You take a chance, and we’ve been luck here, with people throwing in their energy and passion, pulling all-nighters and more. They’re a diverse team, too – some with theatre experience and some from other areas.

“I’ve not stopped learning for a second; the process has taught me all sorts of things that I hope to incorporate into the next project I take on.”

For a musical about people from different countries and backgrounds, it seems fitting to have premiered Calling Me Home in one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan cities.

“It has been interesting to stage it in Joburg,” offers Gillham, “where there are perhaps different expectations to European audiences. It’s so important to just get it staged; to learn. The responses, good and bad, have been passionate, and have started a conversation about starting – and supporting! – new work in South Africa. That aspect is important and needs further development.”

And that conversation is reaching influential ears.

“Calling Me Home has pulled international investment into South Africa, from people who believe in new work for its beauty and its financial viability,” says Gillham. “It’s an unusual thing to say as a composer, but we’re creating product here. This needs to be viable beyond South Africa – you have to take shows abroad for long-term viability.”

So step one is nearing completion, but there is so much yet to come.

“Joburg audience saw a number of versions of the piece,” says Gillham.

“We had a performance about a week into the run where we nailed it for the first time. All of us felt high backstage! And we’ve taken it from there. More rehearsals and previews would have been fantastic, but they’re prohibitively expensive. Developing something in the public eye is stressful but exciting. We’re seeing the audience travel with us, and one of the comments that’s come up many times is that the show makes them feel proud.

“I’ll take that.”