Host Luisa Lyons chats with the Creative Director of HMDT Music, Tertia Sefton-Green.
We chat about HMDT Music's extraordinary children's theatre education program pre-pandemic, the fortuitous decision to downscale in 2019, and the new female-led musical filmed live in 2021 Jina and the STEM Sisters. The musical is available to stream worldwide until April 11 from HMDT Music.
HMDT Music, twice winner of the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Education and of the 2020 Excellence in Musical Theatre Award, is a leader in commissioning inspiring musical works embedding the arts across all areas of learning for young people. Key successes include: Trench Brothers commemorating ethnic minority soldiers in WW1; Shadowball ground-breaking baseball and jazz opera; Hear Our Voice international tour of a new work compiled from children’s Holocaust writings. HMDT runs an extensive Saturday Music Programme and arts-rehabilitation projects for young offenders. Their Creative Director Tertia Sefton-Green has created, commissioned, managed all their large-scale projects in addition to fundraising and writing some of the libretti. She also conducts their I Can Sing! music theatre programme. Learn more at www.hmdt.org.uk.
Filmed Live Musicals is the most comprehensive online searchable database for musicals that have been filmed live on stage. Visit www.filmedlivemusicals.com to learn more. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support the site at Patreon. Patrons get early access to content, no matter how much you pledge.
Filmed Live Musicals is created by Luisa Lyons. Luisa is an Australian actor, writer, and musician. She holds a Masters in Music Theatre from London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and now lives, works, and plays in New York. Learn more at www.luisalyons.com or follow on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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Luisa Lyons: LL
Tertia Sefton-Green: TSG
LL: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, a podcast about stage musicals that have been legally filmed and publicly distributed. The Filmed Live Musicals website contains information on nearly 200 musicals that have been captured live. Check it out at www.filmedlivemusicals.com. And now, on with the show!
[00:00:25] Created by an all-female team, the new musical Jina and the STEM Sisters has a goal to inspire young people, especially girls, to engage with and possibly pursue an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEM Sisters celebrates the achievements, discoveries, and stories of a diverse range of historical women who fought prejudice and social convention in the name of scientific inquiry. Created by the award-winning children’s music education and performance program HMDT Music, today I’m delighted to be chatting with the company’s creative director Tertia Sefton-Green. Welcome, Tertia.
TSG: [00:01:04] Hello, Luisa. It’s absolutely lovely to be here.
LL: [00:01:07] Oh, thank you so much. So can you tell us what is HMDT Music?
TSG: [00:01:10] So HMDT Music had its 25th birthday last year, and it started as a small charity in Hackney, a local London borough, as a fundraising arm for a Saturday instrumental program. I’ve been there for 20 years, and my co-director Adam for 22 years, and since then… Adam actually is American, and he brought a lot of ideas with him, and so we’re quite an Anglo-American partnership. What we’ve tried to do is show how music and the arts can be embedded across all learning, and that’s our sort of USB. So we’ve commissioned a lot of works over the years, often operas, for mainly children to perform. Sometimes community operas, but our focus now is on young people.
[00:02:02] And all our topics are complex themes, often that involve some sort of prejudice and diversity, and to use those as means of linking it to other learning, so across the curriculum. So we have a jazz opera about the Negro Leagues in baseball, which was a way of teaching segregation, as well as performing in the opera. There’s a whole band of resources so children could learn their maths through baseball stats, they could perfect their English writing through lyrics, and then we also taught them baseball. And at one point, we had some funding from the American Embassy, and had some Marines come and do some baseball training with them, so that was great.
[00:02:50] Our most recent project, Trench Brothers, was a four-year project commemorating ethnic minority soldiers in the First World War, and that was a project that went to schools across the UK and culminated in a large-scale production, but it was a series of workshops that children underwent. So they would meet an Indian soldier; they made their own Indian and Caribbean British Regiment soldier puppets; they created lyrics writing a letter home as if they were a soldier, and they were given different soldiers to research, and they worked with a composer and set their lyrics to music, and then they had a team that would come and perform in school, including their letter song. And then when we did a large-scale production at the end, we brought many of those letters together and orchestrated it, and had 250 performers.
[00:03:42] We did a big international project on the Holocaust, that was a libretto. Trench Brothers was also a libretto I wrote, but the Holocaust [inaudible 00:03:52] was children’s writings that I’d researched, poetry, letters, diaries written by children during the Holocaust, bringing them together in a piece. And we worked with children in London, Nuremberg, and Prague, culminating in a piece where children from all three countries toured all three countries, along with artwork. So we do lots of varied things. We also work in prisons, using music to rehabilitate young offenders, and we have a big Saturday program which you can start when you’re one. We have children who are fifteen who I’ve known since they were one doing the project. There’s music theatre, there’s instrumental, there’s a big jazz academy, and a big special needs program. So we have a big range of work.
LL: [00:04:37] Oh my goodness. There is so much to unpack in there. That is so extraordinary. The thing that grabbed me, I would have loved as a kid for professionals to come in and help me write music and then perform it on a stage. That sounds so empowering and exciting.
TSG: [00:04:56] It’s an amazing experience, and almost all our commissions, and we’ve commissioned 60-plus works over the years, most of them start as a devising experience with participants, with the young people. Cause it gives an ownership, it is empowering. The Holocaust project was all about children’s voices today responding to children’s voices. And so they were really instrumental in bringing those words to life in ways that resonated with them. It’s an amazing process, actually.
LL: [00:05:32] Were you able to get a sense of what the kids got out of it at the end, like their sense of history or their sense of empathy? Obviously the practical skills of writing and research, but were you able to get a concrete sense of how it impacted their view of the world?
TSG: [00:05:50] That’s a great question. Yeah, so obviously in terms of sort of filling funding reports and ticking boxes, we’ve got lots of different evaluation methods that go on along. Sometimes it’s writing things, sometimes it’s videoing conversations, talking to children. But I think what is definitely a sort of feedback that pervades all of it is… What we try and do is take big subjects, but deal with individuals within them. So with the Holocaust, you were learning one child’s story, and with Trench Brothers, it was one particular soldier’s story who you got to know as far as you can get to know. For Shadowball, we dealt with individual characters, and that’s also with STEM Sisters. So in getting to know individuals, the response is always that there’s a different sort of empathy. It’s impossible to understand six million, but it’s much easier to understand and identify with a child of your age, or a historical woman, or a specific whatever the subject is. So yes, I think we have had a lot of feedback about how it’s changed people’s views of large-scale issues, whether it’s antisemitism, an understanding, particularly for British children, of segregation, because it’s something that’s an [inaudible 00:07:11] here, something that isn’t talked about, even though of course we’re still always dealing with issues of racism. Yes, it brings a different sort of awareness of situations and experiences by living through them as part of the project.
LL: [00:07:31] Bringing that idea of the specific is actually universal. The more specific it is, the more universal it is.
TSG: [00:07:36] Exactly. The smaller it is, the bigger it is in a sort of… Yeah, absolutely.
LL: [00:07:41] Oh, I love that poetry. And what a powerful program for children to have access to, that it’s not just… I put “just” in inverted commas, not “just” performance, but that there’s writing and music and research that is part of the program.
TSG: [00:07:57] Absolutely. And actually, all the curriculum… So over the years, we’ve developed our resources further. So for instance, Trench Brothers, we wrote 90 lesson plans so that you can do all your maths and all your science and history and even your religious studies and P.E. through the themes of the piece, and that’s something that personally is hugely important to me, because it also has raised academic achievement. We’ve had schools saying how it’s turned around their teachers’ thinking, because not everyone is good behind a desk, but if you are good on a stage or things a lot of the children we’ve worked with never had the opportunity to do, so they haven’t realized is a skill, and then, because you’re interested, you can bring that back into the learning. So it’s a sort of full-circle way of learning, so that hopefully different elements appeal to different people. With Shadowball, our baseball opera, lots of kids didn’t want to sing, but they loved playing baseball. That brought them in from a different angle. But so it’s just showing how huge an impact the arts can have across all areas of learning. You can learn your maths through writing music, through rhythms. You can bring dance into history. There’s all sorts of… A little bit of creativity goes a long way.
LL: [00:09:26] That is so inspiring, and very exciting to think about education in this way, this organic, very rounded, multifaceted way as well. Do you have a background in education?
TSG: [00:09:41] So my background is I did an English degree at Cambridge, and trained to be an opera singer, so I spent quite a bit of time doing that, and then started working as a singer in education departments and opera departments. And then I started writing quite a lot of resources. And then I actually won a Churchill Fellowship and went to look at primary school or elementary school education, opera education, in the States for two months. And as a little personal history, I met my husband, who is my co-director now in the company, we work together. And so that sort of Anglo-American inspiration went further than planned. And that’s how I sort of got into education. He was director of education at San Diego Opera at the time. So I don’t have formal training in education, but I’ve written our resources for 20 years, so I know something about it. And when I… So for STEM Sisters, I commissioned proper science educators, cause that’s not my area of expertise at all. For other projects, I’ve commissioned the art and the technology, maths. So yes, I’ll bring in specialists and experts.
LL: [00:10:59] So you had HMDT Music, you had these huge projects that involved lots of children, and traveled very widely. And then in 2019, you made the decision to switch to something much more small-scale with STEM Sisters, just a two-person show. What inspired… And this was pre-the pandemic.
TSG: [00:11:20] Absolutely. It was extremely good timing, but it was fortuitous. So it’s a combination. So when we started our projects 20 years ago, we would go into a school for a month with a team of three, and they would work there every day, and teachers would let us work with the children, and [inaudible 00:11:37] them, and then they had resources that supported the project to work on alongside. And that was expensive, and we managed to get funding, so schools contributed, but it was heavily subsidized. As the years have gone by and as our education system has become more and more stringent and less creative and more tick-box, it’s been harder to find funding, but also really sadly, harder for schools to give up time. They’re always concerned about “We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this.”
[00:12:09] And so Trench Brothers was a new formula by which they had five workshops and we’d come in for a day and complete the project together, but they’d have the resources along the term. So it wasn’t intrusive into what else they needed to get to. It enhanced what else they needed to do. But again, it’s quite expensive. We went to 60 schools, and it’s a fantastic tour, but it’s quite a lot. So we wanted to try and find something that would be a bit more logistically viable, but that could reach more children, and so we came up with the idea of… So alongside seeing the show, with STEM Sisters, they do get science workshops in school, and again a whole bank of resources. So we’re very much hoping they will feel engaged. Again, children were part of the composition process, and our own music theatre program children recorded some of the songs in the show, so they’re part of the process.
[00:13:14] I do feel, if I’m really honest, I do feel a sort of sense of loss of not working on a larger scale with the children, but it’s also got to be practical, and this is kind of a long-term project, and I hope it can go across the country, because we’ve got three people we need to take with, the two puppeteers and the stage manager, not 250 children. So at some point, something has to give. So yeah, it’s an experiment, and as it turned out, given what’s been going on in the world, was extremely good timing by luck.
LL: [00:13:48] That is meant to be. For folks who haven’t seen it yet, can you tell us what is Jina and the STEM Sisters?
TSG: [00:13:59] So Jina and the STEM Sisters is inspired by extraordinary stories of historical female scientists, engineers, mathematicians [inaudible 00:14:11] STEM, their own personal stories, their own struggles to achieve what they did, often almost always unrecognized, sometimes; Rosalind Franklin’s Nobel Prize was never credited to her. Hypatia, an Egyptian astronomer, was stoned to death. It’s quite complicated to really understand why, but clearly the fact that she was a female teacher had quite a lot to do with it. So what these women gave up and what their struggles were is extraordinary.
[00:14:49] So Jina is a girl, a budding scientist, lost in a forest, trying to find her way but also trying to find, metaphorically, who she is. And she meets several different women who each give her a scientific gift, such as curiosity or open-mindedness, persistence, creativity, as a means of exploring her own identity as gifts that are there to help her find her way out of the forest. And so she has several different encounters and comes out realizing that she can do what she wants, she can be who she wants, and that being a scientist is… She can contribute to part of the greater whole of who these people were, whether she becomes one of them, whether she achieves something great, or just contributes something really small. Either way, everything is meaningful.
LL: [00:15:46] For folks listening, you have until April 11th to stream it. Get thee to Vimeo and stream it, because it is such a beautiful show. And as you mentioned, the stories of these women are complicated and dark and often not happy, and I love that this musical doesn’t shy away from those stories. Even though this is aimed at children, it is able to show that darkness in a really beautiful, empowering way, I feel.
TSG: [00:16:18] It’s so lovely to hear that, because you never quite know whether you’ve got it right, and for you saying that, which is exactly what our aim is, someone else will always see it differently, and not get that. Because we’ve written so many shows for children, I’d like to think that something that’s really important for us is not patronizing them, not looking down at them. So yes, when you go, you might not know what an algorithm is, but the whole point is the show will tell you. And there might be lots of words you don’t know. If you’re doing the project in school, you’ll do some preparation, so you might learn a bit about these women before you start. But if you come in cold, they’re there to tell you. And you’ll take what you get from it, and if you want to go and find out more, we’ve got a program with more detail, but there’s also Google, there’s lots and lots of ways of finding out more.
[00:17:12] And it’s really about everybody getting what they get from it. People get things on different levels. We do work with big topics, and we don’t believe in shying away from them, but we also want to make it fun, so it’s not a roll-around laugh a minute, but I hope there’s enough humor and lightness in the puppets. And that’s why, also, puppetry was a really interesting new art form for us. We’ve worked a little bit with puppets in Trench Brothers, and what we found was there’s a sort of remove about working with puppetry where you can embody the character, but you don’t physically look like anybody because the puppet’s doing the work for you. And actually, a review of how interesting it was with the masks, which was a COVID safety precaution, but it sort of made the puppeteers even more… There’s a better word than “removed” that I can’t come up with, more objective from them. And actually, it helped…
LL: [00:18:31] It made them less visible, even though they’re right there.
TSG: [00:18:35] Exactly. And therefore although you admired their mastery and skillfulness in dealing with the puppetry, it’s not about them. We weren’t pretending they weren’t there, but everything they did they put into the puppets, and so I hope that really helps bring the puppets, and therefore the women, to life as physically as possible. And we chose women… There’s a huge choice, and therefore it was quite difficult to sort of narrow down who we wanted to include, and we had different criteria, one of which was actually a sort of education criteria that, because the project is supported by lots of resources, we wanted to choose women whose actual work and field of work would link into our key curriculum so that we could write resources that were about these ways of showing how these women and their work fits into what they’re learning at the time.
[00:19:31] So there were some amazing people doing amazing things, but actually that wasn’t gonna work in terms of our sort of education aim. We wanted a big range of historical periods, we wanted as much diversity as possible. That’s limited because of history, not because of our choice, but because history, scientists, it was difficult enough being a woman, so there’s not as much diversity from a woman 300 years ago, obviously, compared to something now. So we had different criteria, and we wanted to work in different fields, so we wanted to make sure that we had... Hedy Lamarr, who’s an inventor, or Ada Lovelace, who’s a mathematician, Marie Curie, who branches between physics and chemistry, but who is extraordinarily unique, and then someone who is quite a find, like Maria Sibylla Merian, who was a 17th-century naturalist and illustrator who traveled with her daughters to Surinam, South America, from Holland, I mean, how that even happened is quite extraordinary in itself, and drew beautiful, beautiful pictures of insects and flowers, unknown, especially…
LL: [00:20:46] One of my favorite moments in the show, the reveal of her illustrations, is so…
TSG: [00:20:52] Oh, did you like that?
LL: [00:20:54] It’s so delightful and unexpected and I literally gasped out loud, because I was like, “Oh, that’s so clever!” It’s just the whole… I won’t give away the device of it, but…
TSG: [00:21:05] It’s a very simple device…
LL: [00:21:07] But it’s so powerful.
TSG: [00:21:09] But I think it’s… Yeah. It’s so interesting how technical we wanted to go as well. That was a sort of ongoing discussion with my fantastic team of how much we are going into a sort of multimedia world and how much it’s actually core puppetry and… I think the audience, hopefully, if people do watch it, they’ll find out and decide for themselves whether we made the right decisions. But one thing, being new to puppetry, I hadn’t appreciated is quite different is that we used a lot of different styles of puppets, whereas most productions will decide that marionettes or whatever… So we had Ada Lovelace as a marionette, so she could lock and pop and boogie to her rap, we have rod puppets, and then we have some sort of [inaudible 00:22:05] styles for Hypatia, so she’s a much bigger puppet, and it’s very arm-based, because she also links with the stars, so she doesn’t walk, she doesn’t have legs. She floats, and she’s much more in the spheres.
LL: [00:22:22] The puppetry is so beautiful, and from what I read in the program, it’s several different people that created the puppets?
TSG: [00:22:31] So Sophia Lovell-Smith, she designed them all, but we used different puppetmakers, partly for exactly that reason, that people specialize in different styles of puppetry, partly on a practical level; by the time our funding did come through, our schedule was quite tight, and it made sense to field it out to different people. But actually, I love that, because I think we’ve come up with a diversity of puppets themselves, not just in the choices of women, but by having a sea of different makers, and I think that’s very un-uniform in a way that I think, hopefully, is interesting.
LL: [00:23:14] And the designs are stunning. Like you mentioned, Ada Lovelace’s dress, the way it moves is so fun and delightful to watch. And Hypatia’s dress also, the lights are so beautiful. Her dress has fairy lights underneath it, and it’s very effective.
[00:23:33] I’m curious if the… I noticed that most of the production team and creative team are women. Was that a conscious choice?
TSG: [00:23:42] It was very much a conscious choice, and a really exciting choice, because some of them were women we’d worked with before, but some were new to us, and I love putting teams together. I love working with and meeting new people. And it did have… It was different. It was a different sense of collaboration than there’s been in other projects. And there was a sort of… I’ll get into trouble for saying this. There’s a different way of how women… We sort of more chat, is what I was going to say, was the outside perception. So that’s why I’m being a bit careful here on whether I’ll let you include that bit. But there was a different sort of level of support that was quite interesting, lots more emails about “Oh, I love that,” and “That really works.” It was a very collaborative process. It was very warm and open and… Yeah, it was fully interesting. It wasn’t just the writer and designer and director and composer. It was also the band, and obviously the singers, and stage manager, production manager, as far as we could go. I tried to make that work.
LL: [00:25:02] The women that are featured, the stories that are told in the musical, are very diverse, but so are the musical styles. And Jenny Gould’s gorgeous score is very eclectic. Can you tell us more about that?
TSG: [00:25:15] Yeah, that was a really exciting part, and I’ve worked with Jenny before, and she’s written letter songs for Trench Brothers, and she’s been music director on several shows, but we hadn’t given her a whole commission. And I really love that process, so something I’ve discussed a lot with Rachel, the writer, is how we wanted the women to inhabit historical musical styles. And she built that in really beautifully to the lyrics. And then Jenny transposed it fantastically into the score. And we worked really closely on that, so she did a lot of research into Egyptian-sounding music, for instance. And Caroline Herschel was an 18th-century astronomer, actually sang Handel, and premiered some of his stuff. Her brother, who was also an astronomer, knew Handel, and so she was a very… She was a diminutive woman, very small lady, and I don’t know what her voice would’ve been like, but I really wanted to… That was sort of very obvious to me, that we had to have some Handel. And so Jenny incorporated this brilliant sort of going from a few chords into a sort of pseudo-Queen of Sheba, and then coloratura, and Jenny started writing some coloratura, and I just said, “Look, you can go further. Let’s really get it out there. Let’s get those top Cs, let’s get those runs going.” And it was really good giving her the sort of freedom to go mad.
[00:26:41] But then, extraordinarily, in the same number, she goes into a quasi-Chinese pentatonic sound for Zhenyi, and then transcends into Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, and goes into an 80’s sort of funk soul number, and she does that all within one number, which I think she does really magnificently, and ending with our theme of the STEM sisters. So that was fun. And then Marie Curie, Clare, the director, did turn to me and said, “I don’t know how you gave Marie Curie a patter song, a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter song, when she’s a really serious woman and it’s all about her death.” But that was something that I took great pleasure in, that it was completely unexpected, that it’s quite a… It’s a very serious number, but it’s really funny and witty and very fast.
[00:27:46] And then Ada Lovelace, her work was with computers, with Charles Babbage, the analytical engine. And she foresaw that the computer would one day be used to make music. So music technology was a sort of obvious set. We wanted to get in that digital soundscape. And Jenny used a lot of electronic music, which was new for her, so that was… She went through a quick learning curve. And Ada has a really funny rap, with a kind of “do the robot.” So yeah, we tried to...
LL: [00:28:23] The robot dancing rapping Ada Lovelace is such a highlight for me, and her costume is so great. I would love a full-sized version of that costume, please, if you could just have a word with your designer.
TSG: [00:28:38] It probably won’t come cheap. What Sophia did was brilliant. She put the crinoline outside, so she’s sort of half-dressed. You see the crinoline frame, but she’s attached these sort of computer punch cards to it. And she’s tried to incorporate elements of each woman’s scientific skills to every costume. So Maria Sibylla Merian has her own illustrations woven into her dress, and like you mentioned, with Hypatia, with the stars and the lights under. So I just sort of feel that learning can be on so many levels, and we just tried to combine and include as many as possible, and the music is such a sort of obvious learning curve for me. And there will be children who won’t know who Handel is, and they won’t have listened to it, but somewhere, subliminally, you sort of take in these different soundscapes and you might not necessarily know what they refer to, but hopefully there comes a point of recognition at some point in time. And even if it’s not obvious, it’s part of the whole world that you’re embracing, the historical world.
LL: [00:29:50] And you mentioned much earlier that you had the children’s chorus were on the recording for this show, and some of those children have been with the company since they were babies?
TSG: [00:30:06] They have. Yes, some of them have been in Music Box, which is something that I run for under fives, since they were very little, and many of my senior group in the music theatre program have been in that since they were five, so sort of nine or ten years, which is really lovely. Quite attached to them. And it was really special to involve them, because we’re in lockdown here, so we can’t have any face to face sessions, so they had to learn all the music through Zoom sessions, which was really not easy. The worst thing about lockdown when you’re trying to teach musical theatre is you can’t sing, you can’t actually do anything musical that’s shared. You can only do that one on one. So our instrumental tuition has been okay, but that’s really been a struggle. So we’re sort of learning things in a group, and you don’t really know what they’re coming out with, so I gave quite a lot of one-to-one sessions. And it’s quite difficult music, so some of them were struggling, and even til we got them in the room, we didn’t quite know what we were going to get. And they had such a wonderful time, as did Ellie, Eloise, who sang the role of Jina, she’s also a child on the course, and she found it an amazing experience.
LL: [00:31:32] I think if I have any criticisms of the show, it’s that it’s a shame we don’t get to see all the singers, because the music is so glorious and the singing is so beautiful. I actually didn’t realize until the end that it wasn’t the puppeteers… I mean, I figured out once the voices changed that it wasn’t the puppeteers doing all the singing. And I don’t know how that could be incorporated in a future…
TSG: [00:32:01] That’s really interesting. Yeah, you sort of have to see the program, don’t you, to get that. But in a way, I quite like the anonymity of it. But yeah, you sort of miss something as well. Yeah, I don’t think there’s an easy way around that.
LL: [00:32:18] Well, especially that the cast you have assembled is so diverse, and that you have Nadine Benjamin, a lyric soprano, who’s also a woman of color… I think it’s really important for the kids to see that. We have the representation of the women in STEM, but also the performers are important too.
TSG: [00:32:44] Yes, no, it’s true. In a way, what’s been wonderful about making this as a film which is not as it was planned, it was planned as a live show, is there’s things to be learned from it, so there’s things that we can think… I don’t know whether that’s something we could include, but it’s really important to sort of understand and know that. One thing I’d like to add to the teaching resources is a little interview with all of the team, and that would include the singers, about what their job is, what they like about it, how they got into it. Cause I think there’s so many different things you can learn from backstage as well as performing stage. And so with the singers, Abigail Kelly is also a Black soprano, and she’s a fabulous singer, she plays Caroline Herschel. So there are, there’s lots of different understandings of who everybody is. So yeah, there’s always things that you can improve on and change. And I would say…
LL: [00:33:50] A show is never finished.
TSG: [00:33:52] Exactly. And it felt really important to have a young girl singing Jina. El is fifteen, so she’s a slightly [inaudible 00:34:01], probably a bit younger, eleven, or whatever, so that it wasn’t all grown-up sounds as well, so that you had a different sound world for every woman.
LL: [00:34:10] As I was watching, there’s something, like you said, very powerful about using puppets, because they can do things that regular people cannot, and they can say things that regular people cannot, which… And there’s a lot of magic in that. But I also had this sense of, as I was watching it, I would love to see it with human people, this show performed with humans. And I would love the children’s chorus to appear and Eloise to be like a Matilda.
TSG: [00:34:40] Yeah, it’s really odd for me, having done, for so many years, shows with children. I sort of miss that. And there’s things that you realize they provide a whole other level of engagement, of seeing children on stage. I miss that. I think it’s the right thing on all sorts of practical levels, but… Yeah. I think there’s another production that has a film backdrop as well where you can sort of bring in things.
LL: [00:35:17] So what was the decision, obviously with the pandemic, but what was the decision to film STEM Sisters and release it online?
TSG: [00:35:26] So that was definitely pandemic-driven. We’ve always filmed our shows, but we’ve never made a film without doing the show, if you see what I mean. So that was another learning curve. So originally, because we knew we would have to wait a long time to go into theatres, we thought, “Let’s get the project up and running, let’s get the production made and created and let’s just show it to schools in the first phase of the project.” So there’s twenty schools who start the project in May. Again, that’s delayed slightly because of lockdown. And they have workshops with resources, and they’ve done an insect introductory session with them, and they see the show as part of it. And that was going to be it.
[00:36:16] And then we budgeted for PR, because we wanted to sort of spread the word. And the person we worked with said, “Well, you won’t get any reviews unless it’s shown to the public, cause that’s how it works.” So we thought, “Oh.” And then it became a whole different project. So it was never really intended for public viewing until it went live. So that opened up lots of different things, partly as well, because we’ve never really needed to do much marketing, because we’ve always had an in-built audience. Either we’d worked in a theatre that’s got its own audience or, when you’ve got lots of children performing, you’ve got lots of parents and don’t have to look too far. So that’s been a totally new learning curve, cause we’ve sort of started slightly with zero, so working with a marketing company on our social media has not been our strong point, because there’s actually only three of us who are working at the company, apart from lots of freelancers. So this was quite a lot.
[00:37:17] So the film sort of came about in different ways. And there was also the decision, which was linked to COVID, of “Do we do a socially distanced film so that we don’t have to worry about anything?” And we realized that that wasn’t the show that we wanted to produce, so we decided very early on that we wanted to make the show that goes into theatres, but ensure it’s safe, hence the masking, which has turned out, I think, as a sort of plus, artistically. And then an awful lot of work went in by Tammy, our production manager, who’s great, who’d just done a diploma in health and safety, a huge amount of wipes and gloves or not gloves and this and that and every person had their own cup and temperature checks…
LL: [00:38:09] Air circulation…
TSG: [00:38:12] Yeah, exactly.
LL: [00:38:14] You filmed at the Millfield Theatre?
TSG: [00:38:16] Yeah.
LL: [00:38:17] So what was the process?
TSG: [00:38:20] We were really lucky, actually. We were very lucky. Little Angel Theatre, which is a specialist puppet company who we’ve worked with before, they very kindly gave us their rehearsal space, donated that to us. And Millfield Theatre, which is a local theatre, is part of Enfield, which is a local borough that HMDT Music is based in, they have two or three theatres. And originally they were going to host the premiere of the live show in a small theatre. That small space is now being used as a testing center, so that was out of action. So they offered their larger space, and again, were extremely generous about our use of it. So we were able to rehearse there for a week before filming it. It’s a lovely 400-seater theatre, which was perfect, cause it gave us good perspective, also, for our fantastic photographer, Clive Barda, we got some really beautiful photos from him, and for the film crew to sort of get some space and distancing in it. And basically, we sort of rehearsed the show, teched it, got the final recordings, and then just spent two days filming it. So it was quite a…
[00:39:41] We decided to sort of mainly film it as if we were doing a live show. But they got several takes, and then edited together. And most of the film is quite straightforward. I spent a lot of time asking for closeups or distancing or including things. The only time we sort of really played with photography, the filming, was in the Marie Curie scene. I don’t know if you noticed that she grew. We had a bit of an Alice in Wonderland thing. I just wanted to create something a bit different for her, something to vary the pace, and just because she’s larger than… Everything about her was rather extraordinary, so I hope that worked, cause that was quite fun.
LL: [00:40:22] Yes, very much so. And how many cameras did you use in the filming?
TSG: [00:40:26] We had two camerapeople, and three cameras. A fixed camera… But I think they had different cameras on the two days they were there. So I don’t know… I probably should know that. I don’t know whether there were five different cameras used or three, I’m afraid.
LL: [00:40:50] That’s okay! And so you had those… From the, I say back of the auditorium, it’s not that anymore, but kind of that wide shot, getting the whole space angle, and then from the sides…
TSG: [00:41:09] Yeah, the wonderful thing about not… So they’ve always had to film with an audience, which is great, but also noisy and gets in the way. So they could have the whole space to themselves. So sometimes they were very close. They didn’t actually go onto the stage, partly as a distancing thing, partly cause they had good enough cameras not to need to. But yeah, they worked the sides of the stage or at the front, sort of moving along as they needed to. Occasionally, they asked for one section especially so they could get a particular closeup or something. But on the whole, they sort of made it work with what was just happening anyway as part of the rehearsal.
[00:41;48] The only other thing we did is we recorded all the music separately in a great recording studio called The Premises. And then I suddenly realized, probably should’ve been obvious, we hadn’t really thought about the dialogue needing to be recorded separately behind masks, and also because of the timing with the music. So that was quite interesting. We had to find a quiet room in the theatre. And there were a few gurgles that we had to get rid of, of pipes and things. It wasn’t specifically set up for a recording studio. But the puppeteers watched a runthrough and spoke into mics while they were seeing the action so they could time it. And of course, the advantage of a mask is that we didn’t have to sync everything perfectly. So it actually worked quite well, and it was a much better sound quality than we would have done had we not done that.
LL: [00:42:29] It’s edited so beautifully that honestly, it took me… I don’t remember how long, but it took me a while before I realized, “Oh, actually, the music is prerecorded.” It felt live. It feels like it’s happening in the moment. Like I said, it took me a while to realize, “Oh, wait, these are multiple voices that are coming from these two women.”
TSG: [00:43:13] That’s really great to hear. I didn’t really know how well a film would resonate. I mean, there’s nothing that beats live theatre, but films do offer you other options. They offer you different ways of seeing things, particularly with a proximity with the puppets and the delicacy of them. There’s an intimacy.
LL: [00:43:41] Getting to see that beautiful detail!
TSG: [00:43:43] Yeah. I mean, we will only ever perform it in small auditoriums, but even so, the sort of film gave another perspective. So it’s really nice to hear that the music didn’t feel extraneous, but it felt part of it.
LL: [00:43:58] Oh, very much so. And like I said, if I were to see it live, I would love to have it all be live. I would love to have the whole orchestra, the band, and all the voices. I want to be able to see them too, even if they’re separate. It becomes a whole other production. And I see the dollar signs just running…
TSG: [00:44:20] I was just gonna say, show me the money. Whatever that film is.
LL: [00:44:27] With your previous recordings, were they for archival purposes or are they available somewhere?
TSG: [00:44:33] Some are. I don’t know whether any are… I think Trench Brothers is on our website, and maybe Shadowball now. So they were for archival purposes. Really, they were to give to the performers. We used to make these very beautiful packs, pre-digital, we were incredibly lucky for years to work with Clive Barda, who’s a really renowned performance photographer worldwide, who’s fantastic and is also a friend and therefore we’re very lucky to work with him. So the quality of what we’ve produced has been amazing, and we also worked with an amazing graphic designer a little. So I am very proud of how good our stuff looks. So we used to produce these gorgeous things, which is now online. So yeah, their main purpose was yes, records, archival, but also to give to all those performers who’d worked so hard, a sort of memento.
[00:45:33] But we have started to realize that we’ve got some great things that we should put out there, and if we can work out the marketing, we should show them. I mean, actually, Shadowball, I think, would really, really resonate for an American audience. It’s a really fun show. There’s one adult, Cleveland Watkiss, who’s an amazing jazz singer, but lots of great kids. And these are not kids who auditioned, they’re kids who are in a school, take classes in the school, and so you get everything. But it’s an amazing amount of talent and energy, and it was a show they had such fun doing. And yes, we’ve realized that we should start to work out how to… I mean, we’re selling this film on Vimeo, just on our own website, so that was an interesting research to work out the best way of actually showing the show, the film. And we have other shows, Shadowball and Hear Our Voice, which should have a wider audience.
[00:46:38] Where we struggle is the three of us, and we’re always trying to… I’ve got to run all the projects, and I’m the main fundraiser, and I conduct… We just never quite have the time, and I think it’s a weakness of the company to take what we’ve done and get it out there. That’s something, I think if I had a wishlist, there would be a fairy godmother who comes and helps us do that. Because yeah, I think we’ve got some shows that would be of interest, and even though they were filmed differently, they’re still very good quality films.
LL: [00:47:16] Certainly as a result of the pandemic, a ton of shows have been made available online and to the general public, like you said, that haven’t been made available before. Do you think that as a result of the past year, streaming or filming shows for public consumption will be a part of HMDT’s model going forward?
TSG: [00:47:40] I think it needs to be, and I think we need to, as I say, work out how to use what we’ve got, but also think about going forward. I do think, as I’ve mentioned, we suffer from not having an inbuilt audience, because we’re not a venue, so we’d need to find a way round that. But I think the old adage “Out of adversity comes” something or other, we’ve learned a huge amount this year. It’s been very difficult for everybody. But it has been really interesting creatively to think out of the box and realize how much more you can do in ways that we would never have dreamt of, like the film. I suddenly thought, “Well, we don’t have to sit and wait. Let’s do this.”
[00:48:31] And now we’ve done this, we know how to do it, and therefore you start to think… We were going to do just a little show with our music theatre group to commemorate VE day last May, and we’d started rehearsing, and it was a show that was several of our own Second World War commissions, we’d got lots of different music, and suddenly we couldn’t finish. And just before we locked down, I suddenly… It came to me that we needed to film all the rehearsals that we’d done to date. So we just did it on our phones, but it meant we had a record. And we made a film. It wasn’t a film that I would show publicly, but it was a combination of rehearsal footage, not costumed, archival images… We then asked children to record some of the songs that hadn’t been finished and put them together, put all the individual solo lines into choruses. And we asked them also to create some of their own monologues and artwork, and we put it all together and we called it a scrapbook. And it was really interesting artistically. Some things were added that never would have been there, sort of the combination of, particularly the archival images, and the sort of in their tracksuits, training clothes, actually worked really well. And then having one of their pictures put amid the scene.
[00:50:00] So that sort of really inspired me to think about how much you can do that you never would have thought about had you not needed to, and how much further there is to go. And I’m sure, I haven’t kept up enough with what other companies have done, because I never have time, but people have clearly come up with really exciting things to do. So yeah, I think the world will have changed. I never would want to lose live theatre. There’s nothing like sitting in a room with people. But there are an awful lot of other things you can do that are interesting.
LL: [00:50:37] And I think all of the educational resources that you have and the amazing curriculums that you have alongside the shows, grown-ups love that stuff too, and I’m thinking of people that do homeschooling, and especially now so many people are still hybrid learning… What a tremendous resource to have. It’s not just a show, it’s a math curriculum and a science curriculum and… I’m picturing kind of a DVD pack that’s not just a show, there are extras, there’s behind the scenes, you can meet the artists. And that’s very exciting and I feel like you already have that content.
TSG: [00:51:22] That’s what we started to realize last year, that we do have a lot of that content from other shows as well. It’s the sort of putting together the time and the resource, and whether it’s a DVD or whether it’s more online but a subscription or something, it is something we should invest in. We do a lot of commemorative things. I don’t really know why. But we’ve done quite a lot of… I mean, I think everyone’s probably fed up of the Second World War, but it’s also a really good way of learning, and a lot of our projects, we’ve discovered, are history-based, and it’s an interesting way of learning things that need to be remembered. I think when we think about… I mean, Adam is already saying, my colleague, “What’s next?” Because we also always have to think financially. We’ve got to start fundraising for the next thing for our survival, so it becomes… Whatever “next” is, we’ll incorporate these different formats, inherently be built into it. But it’s got to, somehow, have a bigger reach and a bigger potential and sort of combine those elements.
LL: [00:52:47] That is very exciting. I know it’s a huge undertaking. It’s one thing to create live theatre, that’s a huge undertaking in itself. And I know that digital adds a whole other world of logistics and considerations. But as someone who loves consuming theatre online and digitally, and sees the potential for it and the reach of it and how it democratizes theatre and there’s a whole… It’s very exciting to me that it will be a part of your future.
TSG: [00:53:22] That’s lovely to hear. It’s really interesting, I am not very technologically astute. Luckily, my colleagues are. Understanding what’s possible is an interesting second journey as well. How much further can you go? What could we add?
LL: [00:53:44] Yeah. As Jina and the STEM sisters say, oh, where’s the quote? I wrote it down. I loved it so much. “Anything is possible. Everything is possible.”
TSG: [00:53:56] Exactly.
LL: [00:53:57] To bring it back around. Oh, this has been so wonderful, learning more about HMDT and about the show. So I have some questions that I ask all my guests. I might adjust this one slightly knowing that you have an opera background, but do you have a favorite musical or opera?
TSG: [00:54:20] Since I’ve been conducting our music theatre program, I’ve been introduced to a wealth of musicals I didn’t know, and I, as a child, loved Sound of Music and Mary Poppins in the sort of standard way. And I’ve really enjoyed entering a whole new world of music. I think it would probably have to be West Side Story. I think it’s absolutely fantastic on all levels. Brilliant score. I know Bernstein doesn’t like the words anymore, but it’s a brilliant… The film version, the choreography, it’s extraordinary. I absolutely weep. I can’t watch it very often, cause it’s too painful. I think it’s also an extraordinary adaptation of a play, and shows how extraordinary Shakespeare is, because he just works everywhere in all sorts of versions.
LL: [00:55:16] I love that. Do you have… I know you’ve been very busy working on shows, so it’s difficult to watch other shows while you’re working on them. Do you have a favorite show that has been filmed live?
TSG: [00:55:31] Billy Elliot.
LL: [00:55:33] Ooh, yes, Billy Elliot. Oh, I love that capture.
TSG: [00:55:37] It’s brilliant. I’m actually really annoyed, for some reason I never saw it live. So I’ve only seen the film version. So I hope that counts under your question. It’s really wonderful.
LL: [00:55:53] Oh, totally agree on that one. So you referred to Jina and the STEM Sisters as a film, and like you said, there’s nothing that replaces the live theatre experience. So when we film a live show, it’s not exactly theatre, and it’s not quite a film either, so what should we call it?
TSG: [00:56:15] Oh, I think you’ve got me there. Do you have… I don’t know.
LL: [00:56:21] It’s a mean question. I don’t know either. It’s something I’m obsessed with that I think… What you’ve created with Jina and the STEM Sisters is its own thing. It’s not quite the theatre show, but it’s not The Sound of Music, the Julie Andrews movie version.
TSG: [00:56:39] No, and it’s not on location, it’s a very… So that’s a very good question.
LL: [00:56:45] It’s something in-between.
TSG: [00:56:46] Yeah. I don’t have a good answer to that, I think.
LL: [00:56:51] That’s okay. Where do you stand on bootlegs?
TSG: [00:56:56] Artists need to earn a living, so anything that takes away from what was, for most of them, probably a very meager payment is a bad thing. So I would say I’m against that. I’ve never been asked that question, so it’s a fascinating question. I do believe as many people as possible should see things, but I don’t think it’s necessary to steal in this day and age, and things can be found at very reasonable costs. So no, it’s a no-go.
LL: [00:57:33] What do you wish had been filmed?
TSG: [00:57:37] I think I don’t know enough about what I’ve seen, whether it has been filmed or not. Oh, I know what, actually. An amazing production by Trevor Nunn, a quite recent production of Fiddler on the Roof. So it was done in London, I saw it probably a couple of… I’ve lost sense of time. I think two years ago. We were lucky enough to be sitting in the stalls, and he had made the whole of the stalls into a little sheitl, so you were sort of sitting in the village. Sorry, not sheitl, shetl. And it was, again, a very intimate theatre, which musicals are not often done with. So you were really part of the action. Absolutely brilliant production. I think… shtetl, how do you say it? You were sitting in this little village in the auditorium. You were part of the community. And I think that would be an amazing film, cause it’d be a really brilliant way of incorporating… To my knowledge, it hasn’t been filmed.
LL: [00:58:55] I wish… There was a production two years ago in New York… Oh, I forget the name of the company. Folksbiene? They did a production of Fiddler all in Yiddish.
TSG: [00:59:10] Oh, wow.
LL: [00:59:11] I’ve seen Fiddler, it’s just one of those shows that everybody does and I’ve seen it a thousand times and I know the movie and I know the score, and it felt like watching it for the first time.
TSG: [00:59:23] First time. I can’t imagine that. Extraordinary.
LL: [00:59:25] Transported there. It’s so real.
TSG: [00:59:28] And it didn’t matter that you didn’t understand it, cause you knew it.
LL: [00:59:32] There were subtitles.
TSG: [00:59:34] Oh, right.
LL: [00:59:35] But it was so powerful that I wish that one had been filmed. Finally, what would you like to see filmed in the future?
TSG: [00:59:45] Oh, actually, I think that is Matilda. I believe they are making a film of it. They’re in the process. One of my colleagues, who’s been working with us for the past few months, really luckily, we’ve been able to work with him again because he’s the children’s music director on the London show and hasn’t been able to work on it. So I believe that it is being made into a film. I think it’s a really brilliant musical, and the films of the book I don’t care for, the ones I’ve seen. But there isn’t, to my knowledge, a film of the musical yet. I think that has massive potential.
LL: [01:00:24] Oh, I would love to see that filmed live from the West End. One of my favorites, too.
TSG: [01:00:30] It’s a really great… I loved doing it with our kids. I mean, they just love singing it.
LL: [01:00:35] Oh, Tertia, this has been so much fun. Thank you so much for your time today.
TSG: [01:00:39] Likewise for me. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so, so much.
LL: [01:00:42] Jina and the STEM Sisters is available on demand from HMDT.org until April 11th. You can find links in the show notes.
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