ED2014 Interviews ED2014 Musicals ED2014 Week1 Edition

Rob Winlow: Austen’s life on the musical stage

By | Published on Wednesday 6 August 2014


Having previously penned the Fringe musical show ‘Armada’, actor, director and writer Rob Winlow returns to the Festival with new show ‘Austen’, as in Jane, whose life the show is based on. Ahead of its arrival at theSpace we caught up with Rob about the motivation for the show, his work researching the life of the popular author, and the challenges of bringing new musical theatre to the stage.

CC: Where did the idea come from to create a new musical around the real life of Jane Austen?
RW: Having been a long time Jane Austen fan, I knew there was an awful lot of interest in her and her work. Whilst there are musicals with her novels as the basis there are none, to my knowledge, about her life. That is not surprising, as documented information about her is sparse. Whilst she is famous for her romantic novels – even if some would argue they are not purely romantic, but also comment on the foibles and follies of the day – little is known of her own love life.

CC: Given information is sparse, how did you research the piece?
RW: I read as many biographies as possible, though, as I say, whilst there is a wealth of background information on the people around Jane, it is difficult to find much on the author herself. She was a prolific letter writer but only one hundred or so letters survived. Her sister, Cassandra, destroyed the great majority of them after Jane’s premature death. There are two well know romantic connections, but there was a third mystery man who formed the most serious relationship with Jane before his sudden death. And we cover this liaison in the show.

CC: You worked with writer and dramaturge Bernie C Byrnes on the show, how did that tie-up come about and how did it work?
RW: I had a rehearsed read through and realised the format wasn’t working. I teamed up with Bernie, and she knocked it into shape, giving it a much better framework. Bernie not only gave the piece structure but edited it to the one hour/one act time restriction we needed for the Fringe.

CC: What’s your process, what comes first, the story or the music and songs?
RW: The story came first and the songs then emerged at points of high drama, or where we needed to drive the narrative along. The underscore came last to add atmosphere and link the scenes.

CC: What kind of musical is ‘Austen’ in terms of the music itself? Do you draw any inspiration from other musical theatre makers?
RW: Because there is a modern time zone as well as the regency period in the show we are not limited to any particular style. The score is fairly simple, however, as we have gone for piano accompaniment this time rather than the big production backing tracks we used in the ‘Armada’.

CC: Ah yes, your previous Fringe production. For people who saw that, how does ‘Austen’ compare?
RW: Austen is a four-hander compared to Armada’s cast of seven. There are no massive choral numbers this time, but more intimate solos and duets. We won’t be able to boss The Mile with big songs this year, so hopefully the costumes will help us with our flyering! ‘Austen’ is a much tighter show with some high moments of levity as well as some desperately sad moments too.

CC: Did writing and producing ‘Armada’ provide lessons for when you set out on ‘Austen’?
RW: Most definitely yes. One friendly critique pointed out the show was song driven rather than narrative driven. That has been turned on its head for Austen.

CC: You also acted in ‘Armada’, but not in this show. What’s it like writing a show, and then completely handing it over to a director?
RW: Quite frankly it is wonderful to hand over the reins and let people develop it further. Matthew Gould has done a terrific job of drawing out the humour and the emotion. I was puzzled as to how Matthew would handle the ending, because it would have been so easy to create unintended laughter. Instead he has performed a stroke of genius that I know is going to move me every time I see it.

CC: As an actor and director, what drew you to the idea of writing your own musicals?
RW: Having always dabbled with songwriting, that side of it feels more natural than book writing and certainly easier than directing. I love theatre and performing so it seemed the most natural thing to combine these passions. I envy writers for whom this process comes so easily…it takes me forever to write a single page of dialogue.

CC: Tell us a bit more about Old Hall Theatre. Why did you set it up?
RW: Old Hall Theatre was set up as a vehicle to perform my own shows. We needed to form a company for being a part of the York New Musical Festival when I helped to found it in 2012. YNMF is now an annual event and plans are already in place for 2015. Both ‘Armada’ and ‘Austen’ have appeared here and I would recommend it to all writers to showcase or develop not only completed shows but also Works In Progress which we warmly welcome at the event.

CC: And what are your future plans for ‘Austen’?
RW: We are at Etcetera Theatre on 24 August, and have been chosen to perform at the prestigious Jane Austen Festival in Bath. We’re then hoping to tour ‘Austen’ in the UK a little. And we would love to hear from promoters in the US where Jane Austen is extremely popular.

‘Austen’ was performed at theSpace On The Mile at Edinburgh Festival 2014.