Process, partnership, passion – Fellows’ seminar by Paul Castles and Mkhululi Mabija

18 October 2022
Creating a new work of music theatre

“The process starts in private then moves to ever-escalating collaboration – with directors, choreographers and performers. The performance before an audience is the last part of the collaboration. You don’t necessarily understand it all at the beginning. You only truly understand what you’ve written when it’s performed and then it changes every time it’s performed. It’s a process of constant change. This STIAS cohort is now part of the process,” said composer Paul Castles.

STIAS Artists-in-Residence Paul Castles and Mkhululi Mabija

“The working relationship is about collaboration – intimate and extraordinary. Composers and lyricists don’t necessarily always like each other – some big-name partnerships haven’t. But ideally you need to be drawn to the subject – a passion project.  Every collaboration is unique. Some work on the words first, others the music first – you find your own way. It’s a partnership of vulnerability and trust in which you are willing to bare your soul to another person. We have been vulnerable for eight years already on this piece and showing the work always causes anxiety,” said Mkhululi Mabija, librettist and lyricist.

Mabija and Castles are Artists-in-Residence at STIAS where they are working on their latest collaboration The Road Between the Desert and the Ocean which explores a transmigratory journey, moving from the political to the ethereal, of two elderly women whose lives spanned the 20th and 21st centuries.

Mabija is a librettist and musical theatre writer from Kimberly who graduated from Tshwane University of Technology and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. At 24, he became the youngest adjunct professor at New York University. His productions include Tsotsi, Mongezi and Bessie: The blue-eyed Xhosa. He has received the Yip Harburg Award, the Really Useful Group Award, and the Eugene O’Neill Music Theater Conference Award.

Castles is New York-based but originally from Sydney, Australia. He graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America. His productions include Wild Goose Dreams, The Fountain, Touching Loss and Miss Julie. He has composed and developed music for the Miryang Summer Festival, the Three Act and Salem Theaters, the Nexas Quartet, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Clock Ensemble, the Sundance Institute, Victorian Opera, the Playwrights Foundation and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows.

Mabija and Castles have collaborated for 14 years. A collaboration that includes choreographer Clare Cook.

In a presentation spanning three acts including audio and video examples, they introduced themselves; the historical landscape of the ever-diversifying world of musical storytelling; focused on dance as the union of body and music, and often “the lost sibling of contemporary musical storytelling”; and, introduced The Road between the Desert and the Ocean.

Explaining his role as lyricist and librettist, Mabija said: “It’s about musical storytelling. I’m first a lyricist then a book writer. A musical book writer writes the spine of the show. Playwrights are not necessarily book writers – you need to understand music, be able to go from scene to song.”

“It requires a particular person,” added Castles. “Someone who understands the absence, the missing emotional space that is filled by the music.”

Using examples, including from their own works Tsotsi and The Fountain, they explained that the three elements – text, music and visuals – can be differently privileged in different pieces. Although not always, traditional Broadway musicals tend to privilege the text, alternate musical theatre the visuals and Western opera the music.

“The goal is to create a world where all three are equal and meet the specific purpose,” said Castles.

Privileging dance

They focused on the evolution of dance within musicals.

“When Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser was first performed in 1845 it caused a riot because of the dance opening,” said Mabija. “Dance was usually only part of the third act.”

He pointed out that Oklahoma was also seen as a revolutionary piece in the 1940s – with its Dream Ballet sequence reflecting the progressive, feminist and racial themes.

West Side Story is another interesting example. It has the thinnest book, and is driven by the music and dance, breaking away from many of the Rogers & Hammerstein traditions but still acting as a ‘pure’ Broadway musical.”

Cats, of course, is a beautiful case study,” he continued. “The ultimate dance musical, in which every move and direction was choreographed, and the movement lived in the bodies.”

Focusing on choreographers, Mabija highlighted the iconic Bob Fosse, whose work spanned generations, probably best known for his choreography of Sweet Charity – from which the innovative, timeless style of the Rich Man’s Frug sequence later influenced a number of Beyoncés music videos.

He also highlighted Dreamgirls which when it opened in the early 1980s offered a fresh voice for a more youthful audience with choreography by Michael Bennet and Michael Peters – Peters later choreographed Michael Jackson’s Thriller – a 14-minute long mini-musical.

Inspiring grandmothers

In Act III they spoke about their current project and how they will translate the emotional resonance of land and history through the expressionistic impulses of text, music and dance.

The Road between the Desert and the Ocean is inspired by their grandmothers and set on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, the ‘Land that God made angry’ – a metaphorical landscape through which the characters experience beauty, desolation, extremeness, ecology and human tragedy as the past and possibilities of their lives. The characters represent the last of those born into a colonial, pre-globalist, pre-digital, unequal and unjust era, and passing into one radically transformed by technology, social and environmental change. They are guided through their journey by four indigenous Gods who act as a Greek Chorus and eventually a death goddess figure representing the Yoruba God Yansa (also known as Oya).

“It’s a chance for their untold stories to be imagined, heard and held,” said Mabija.

“It’s also a collision of old and contemporary,” explained Castles, “connecting the questions of the present with the past. This is the point at which we meet creatively.”

“The two dying grandmothers are spirits in limbo encountering their memories, ancestors and eventually their divine maker. It’s about loving someone and mourning them in the period of leaving. Life and death side by side, with dance as the medium that connects the spirits. The Skeleton Coast with its changing ecology, points to life in which nothing is constant,” said Mabija.

Having visited Namibia during their stay at STIAS, the stark beauty of the landscape alongside its turbulent, tragic history is very much in their minds.

“It’s all vast spaces seemingly empty but not at all,” said Castles. “The landscapes are not permanent due to human interference. We want to examine the relationships between the characters and the space.”

In discussion they spoke about the challenges of writing about women with different but also sometimes similar cultural backgrounds; their own cultural and identity influences – “an amalgam of different worlds”; how to incorporate history and politics into theatre; as well as deciding exactly what to share about their grandmother’s lives.

“We are not interested in a one-dimensional story,” said Castles, “Theatre with perfect characters is of no interest to anyone.”

“The beauty of musical theatre is that everyone has their own interpretation,” said Mabija. “Often an audience unknowingly receives a history lesson. Look at Lion King – it’s an African visual art history lesson. You try to weave this in while keeping and disarming the audience.”

They also spoke about working together and of handing over their work.

“We are good brothers and friends,” said Mabija. “Negativity is not part of our vocabulary.”

“We want to tell the same story so we always talk about the intent and find a point of agreement,” said Castles. “You have to be willing to change. At the heart is the story.”

“Generally something takes itself out of the writing if it’s not meant to be there,” added Mabija.

“Often it’s a relief to give a piece away,” said Castles. “You can always come back to see what someone else is adding to it. Once we give it away, we release control and people’s responses should be intuitive.”

“Rehearsals are the boring part,” added Mabija, “because it’s not yours anymore, you’ve given it over. What we are doing now is the exciting part. By spinning hard we try to find the essence.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer


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