A contemporary one-act musical by Zara Nunn
IN VERSIONS takes a playful, abstract and intricate look at personal identity in order to challenge the assumptions we make about people based on what they look like/what they say. We meet six seemingly non-related characters whose stories start to become intertwined, negligibly at first, but as themes, words and images start to cross over, we realize there is something bigger going on. We start to see glimpses of their increasing anxiety as jarringly loud interruptions mixed with a disconnected voice from somewhere outside of the place they are in start to occur more and more frequently.
As we near the end, our focus is pulled towards GRACE who tells the final story of a mundane shopping day getting interrupted by some teenage girls who racially abuse her in the street, which leads to a violent attack in a ladies toilet in a shopping centre. During the fall out from this, the other five work out that they are all different ‘slices’ of GRACE. These interruptions then turn out to be police radio, running water, footsteps on a tiled floor and the voice is that of the police officer who has found Grace. Up until then, the voice has been repeatedly asking questions such as do you know who you are, what’s your name and do you know where you are, but as things unfold in this surreal place we’re in, which of course is Grace’s unconsciousness, these questions seem to unnerve everyone or illicit responses at certain times, acting as catalysts for the stories to be told.
HOW A WEEK’S WORTH OF STUDIO TIME WOULD BENEFIT ME:
With six actors, a piano and a director in a focussed period in a rehearsal room, what would most benefit me is having the time to unpick and flesh out an initial framework for the next aspects of the piece I want to focus on which are:
Revisiting the overall story arc, particularly in terms of the ensemble moments I didn’t manage to add into the first draft within the time I had to write it. I would then want to experiment with and explore how these moments might establish themselves and contribute to the pace, feel and tension in combination with the external interruptions that happen throughout. I would explore this musically, textually and dramaturgically with new material and ideas I would generate both prior to and in response our sessions.
I would like to revisit all the existing music/songs, establish the points where the musical arc needs fleshing out and adding to, and do a deep dive into the characterisation, particularly in terms of the characters of RUE and CLEM and revisit their stories, journey and places in the overall arc.
So much of the original process was about defining what the overall story actually was, how the reveal would happen, why they were all there, and writing/establishing the solo songs/main drivers for each individual, that I now feel, having got an overall shape and a set of conventions I like, that to be able to start at the end and almost reverse engineer the piece in terms of amplifying the layers, themes and complexities of the way these characters are all connected would be extremely valuable, and leave me with a clear sense of how to start to really move the piece on.
This song happens near the end, and is sung by RUE. Up until this point, she has slowly been revealing to us the fact that she is quite a loner, happiest when travelling, being in green space, feeling free and quietly people watching. There is an over-riding sense of sadness about her and here she reveals the fundamental reasons why. Crucially though, as the title will suggest, it is, like all of the solo songs, part of the puzzle and one of the big nudges that forces Grace towards remembering what has happened and where she is.
This song is the second of the character solos, and is sung by ANNIKA. She is the youngest of the group and in her opening story she tells us about encounter with a workman in her house which involved a ‘crack in the sink’, again, in the wider scheme of things, a reference to the bathroom we will eventually find ourselves in at the end, and the crack perhaps in reference to the thing Grace’s head left behind!
ANNIKA sets herself up as the observer, the watcher, the worker-out of all things; throughout the piece she gradually formulates a big equation on the surrounding blackboards made up of snippets of the things she hears, and eventually she is the one who forces the ‘cracking of the code’ and the discovery of who they all are. In this song though, she reveals the most significant event of her life that lead her to be this way…
At the start, we hear everyday noises and a heart monitor beeping. GRACE, RUE, ANIKA, MYLO, HANAN & CLEM (all names which mean grace) are in the space. Music starts, we hear fragments of conversation.
SONG #1: THE GAME
From within their own worlds, the six tell us about the day that lies ahead and the challenges that presents for them.
A burst of CB radio interference interrupts them. A sympathetic female voice: Can you tell me your name? There are five more INTERRUPTIONS; these questions then develop: Do you know where you are? Can you tell me what happened?
CLEM tells the story of THE CROTCH LADY, which encapsulates the nature of his extraordinary friendship with gay best friend, Winnie. RUE describes TRAVELLING – about a tour of Europe that ends in a taxi driver quite offensively offering her a ‘Black Boy Lozenge’
ANIKA tells THE CRACK IN THE SINK, of how she first got to notice everything – the first of many references to a bathroom.
SONG #2: WINNIE AND ME, sung by CLEM
Tells how he and Winnie met, then her move overseas – the first reference to people going away.
GRACE tells PIMPING AT THE STATION, an example of the suburban racism – showing how she responds with wit and education. MYLO tells LOVE ON A BED OF LETTUCE (Part 1), the first reference to writing & creativity and the way in which a teacher stifled it.
HANAN tells us IRONY where we discover how/why he is often referred to as having a chip on his shoulder.
SONG #3: WRITING NOT DROWNING, sung by ANIKA as a direct connection to the power of adults in positions of authority; ANIKA’s ex-teacher writes to her from abroad and the letters save her from drowning in the abuse she is facing at home.
HANAN tells us about his favourite Auntie Pearl, how she died and nobody in his family told him until after the funeral.
SONG #4: THANKS FOR LETTING ME KNOW, sung by HANAN, tells incrementally more horrifying stories of ill-treatment by family members, which he deals with by shutting down/comfort eating. An out of the blue trip to a train station finally reveals he was adopted as he meets his biological mother.
GRACE tells us how she dealt with THE BOYS ON THE BUS.
MYLO finishes LOVE ON A BED OF LETTUCE (Part 2), which ends in humiliation for him as his teacher reads out a chapter of his book to the class. ANIKA tells WORKING THINGS OUT, how she developed an analytical mind.SONG #5: WHITBREAD CALYPSO, sung by GRACE, about the trauma of being dragged to the afro hairdresser; the humour of 80s hair styles mixed with the mismatch of outer image v inner life.
RUE tells us why she loves WALKING.
HANAN tells us THE IRONY OF THERAPY; once he’d finally faced his issues of abandonment, his therapist left him for all the things he secretly wanted for himself.
SONG #6: BATHROOM FLOOR, sung by RUE about the building of a ‘perfect’ relationship, which ended in her leaving him at the altar.
MYLO talks about GAINING PERSPECTIVE; how looking at things from an alternate angle can mean that the answer stares you in the face, which segues into SONG #7:
CHANGE THE VIEW, as he describes an example of gaining perspective in action.
SONG #8: SAVING GRACE, sung by all, led by GRACE. Describes the day of the attack, when all six characters experience the moment GRACE’s head is shattered and the other ‘Graces’ are revealed. A powerful final ensemble number draws together lyrics/music from earlier songs.
GRACE, alone, reflects on what we have just witnessed. She leaves. The background noise fades to leave the sound of the heart monitor.
In Version is written through the lens of my unique perspective on social, cultural & philosophical aspects of personal identity and self. I was adopted from birth into a white family from a rural community in the midlands. My parents had two biological children, temporarily fostered thirty-three & permanently fostered eight; one was my biological mother, who left just as I was born. Technically then, she & I have the same parents, who are her second child’s grandparents, but no relationship with each other. I grew up with no emotional, cultural or psychological connection to the way that I look. Mine was virtually the only non-white face I’d seen until university. As an adult & artist, working in one of the most inclusive industries, I regularly experience the effects of assumptions that people make about me, my background & cultural frames of reference based on my appearance, which continue to have personal repercussions far beyond issues of race. The characters we meet look & sound very different from each other, challenging the audience’s assumptive thinking when it’s finally revealed that they are, in fact, different slices of the same person. The main themes are facing abandonment, finding coping mechanisms, developing identity, race, the importance of relationships outside of family members, the ability to create humour and resilience in the face of adversity. Whilst the material is true to my experience, it taps into a universal theme of the individual carving out a place for themselves in an increasingly complex world.
In Versions is an intimate one-act musical with a combination of wit, pathos and powerful imagery; on stage live musicians are essential to the piece and give it the immediacy of unplugged sound acoustically. The orchestration breakdown of Piano, Violin 1, Violin 2 (MD doubles Violin), Cello, Vibraphone and Percussion (conga, bongos, shakers, toys, no drum kit) allows for a really interesting hybrid sound: we can effectively create the calypso sound required for one of the numbers and can also utilize all the emotional colours that having strings in the palette affords. The atmospheric element is further enhanced by the use of vibraphone, which is an unusual and compelling addition to the musical ensemble.
After its first outing in March 2017, which was a one night industry sharing of the show with six musicians and six actor/singers completely off book, after just six full days in the rehearsal room, audience member responses included: ‘This is a 21st century female version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company’; ‘It’s conversational and witty, and very intimate’; ‘Zara’s lyrics are sublime’; ‘Amazing thought provoking show, great music’; ‘The music has a singular voice and the lyrics are filled with character’; ‘It’s not what you expect!’ ; ‘Deceptively intricate’ ; ‘funny and moving’ ; ‘The harmonies and vocal work superb’ ; ‘..the first song sets up the show really well (and is super catchy). The ending also is fantastic’ ; ‘the choral singing/writing was great, so well done!’
I am approaching the next draft of the piece, in the knowledge that the songs are powerful/individual and the characters are strong; the main focus is to develop the stories, the structure and the characterisation, and write the additional music and songs that didn’t make it into the first draft because of time constraints, so that I can discover how these intertwine to make a satisfying book that can match the finesse and quality of the music and lyrics.
Future plans, after the next wave of ‘putting it in front of people’ might take us beyond studio theatres and into unexpected spaces, as I feel it could really function almost as an installation in parts.
In the long term, the target audience for this is those who are discouraged to engage with musical theatre because of the generic all-sparkling, all-dancing, feel-good definition that is widely purported in the mainstream as standard. In the context of new UK musical theatre, I am a contemporary/alternative writer, able to demonstrate that music theatre can be challenging, uncomfortable, intellectually stimulating, funny and engaging. With specific reference to this piece and as an artist/educator, I have worked in numerous applied/community settings, and recognise that in our current climate of political and global issues of displacement (psychological, cultural & geographical), where the increasing instances of unconventional family situations & prevalent stories of survival in the face of extraordinary adversity are dominating daily life, there is a responsibility to make challenging and thinking theatre such as this, that can act as a powerful agent for change on many levels.
Initially those who engage with In Versions may well largely be my current audience/fans, supporters, industry collaborators, partners and new musical theatre audiences who will be instrumental in helping to reach a broader audience in the future. In the long-term we aim to attract people interested in or affected by displacement, adoption, mental health, discrimination (gender/race) as well as those interested in new/contemporary theatre, original composition, alternative writing for theatre, female voices and nuanced work dealing with social, cultural & philosophical issues.