Ian Batterham is an early career writer/composer and Canberra-based theatre practitioner. His musical background is in variety of Canberra-based musical groups often providing original musical repertoire. He has written a set of short choral pieces for his work choir titled The Four Canberra Seasons part of which was performed by SCUNA in 2012. Camelia is his second full musical theatre work.
THE STREET TALKED TO IAN ABOUT WRITING FOR THE THEATRE AND CAMELIA – HIS NEW WORK IN DEVELOPMENT.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE FOR THEATRE?
As a child my parent would play a wide range of music around the house. My father was an early enthusiast for what is now called ‘World Music’ and I remember him bringing home some quite unusual records – Negro Spirituals, Russian Choirs and German Schuhplattler. Both my parents were also fans of musicals and I would hear a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan, and various popular musicals such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific, High Society, Oliver! And many others. Clearly this sowed a seed in me and I became a fan of musical theatre, with a special love of the golden era of musicals exemplified by Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and Lerner and Lowe.
The jump from fan to writer was a long and incremental one and sometimes leaves me a bit puzzled as to just how it happened. I can give some milestones along the way however.
Early on I began writing songs for the bands I was in. I found I greatly relished the discipline of creating a set of lyrics and then fitting them to a tune. My favourite thing was to tell a story in the space of a song and many early songs came from personal experiences, or stories I had read about.
In more recent years I have been interested in choral singing and have been a member of a number of choral groups. For my work choir I composed a song cycle called ‘The Four Canberra Seasons’; the Autumn song from the cycle was also performed by SCUNA for a Mayday concert.
The success of this led me to try something much harder – a work of musical theatre. This allowed me to take my love of telling a story in song to a much broader canvas, where the songs were nestled amongst scenes, sets, characters and dialogue.
My first work, called Storm Approaching Wangi, was set in the 1940s and told the story of William Dobell and the Archibald Prize controversy. It remains on the back burner.
After my first dip into writing a piece of musical theatre I looked around for another story to tell. So was born Camelia.
TELL US ABOUT CAMELIA, YOUR WORK IN DEVELOPMENT.
I first heard of Camelia in the 1980s when I read the book The Last Pharaoh by Hugh McLeave – about the life of King Farouk of Egypt. On a few pages of this book mention was made of a mistress of Farouk, an actress called Camelia. The little bit I learnt tantalised me and at the time I tried writing a single song about her. The song was never finished but the tune lives on – I have used it for one of the songs in the musical. Camelia stayed with me, and although there is no written biography of Camelia I found myself learning more of her through reading more about King Farouk. The internet also proved useful and I learnt (and saw) much of her through websites, blogs, and chat rooms dedicated to Egyptian history, Egyptian movies and the Jewish Egyptian diaspora.
Camelia the musical follows Camelia’s life through her early days up to her triumph as a popular screen actress and singer in Egypt. It examines her relationships with the two men who defined and shaped her life, King Farouk and impresario Ahmed Salim.
Camelia’s exotic setting gives the work its unique feel. Settings range from the streets of Alexandria and Cairo, to nightclubs, palaces, hotel rooms and movie sets.
There is a serious and relevant thread underpinning Camelia. The story is set at a time when the state of Israel was being established, and Egypt was in a period of difficult transition. Behind the lives of Camelia, Farouk and Salim are tensions, both religious and political, that resonate strongly in the current political and social climate. For example, recent events in Hollywood have strong parallels with Camelia’s experiences in the Egyptian Movie world.
Also, at the present time, when the Middle East is being demonised and set apart by the west, it is important for us to tell stories that humanise its people and help us understand how the current situation came to be. It is through an understanding of our common humanity that we are brought closer together. Camelia is one such story.
WHY TELL THE STORY WITH MUSIC?
I believe that song can add an extra dimension to a story. When integrated into a dramatic work it allows for the character to step aside and comment on the story and to reveal and explore their motivations. Think of Dorothy singing Over the Rainbow or Bloody Mary singing Bali Hai. Song also heightens drama – the right song at the right time can add a whole other level to a scene, one that’s impossible just with dialogue.
The use of music and song also has the effect of taking the story out of its reality and giving it a fabulous quality (in the strict sense of the word!). So although Camelia is a true story, the music lifts the story out of the ordinary.
There is also a tradition in Egyptian movies of the time for characters to burst into song during the action. Camelia is thus very much in keeping with its subject matter.
Finally, there was the added advantage that Camelia herself was actually a singer. This has allowed for the inclusion of ‘actual’ songs in the show, simulacra of songs that would have been performed by the real characters on stage or on the movie set.
HOW HAVE YOU WORKED COMPOSITIONALLY WITH CAMELIA?
The musical numbers in Camelia have been created to help explore the story and understand the characters and their motivation. I also wanted to ensure that the songs were melodic and memorable. To reflect the setting I also used Egyptian musical idioms in many numbers.
The basic songs and arrangements were created by myself and then given over to three wonderful musicians: Daniel Brinsmead, Patrick Baker and Leonard Weiss for arranging.
The musical ensemble comprises strings, piano and percussion. This is again designed to echo the music of the time and place. Egyptian classical and popular music makes use of strings to the exclusion of other typical orchestral instrumentation.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT?
The workshop is the next step towards the realisation of Camelia as a work of musical theatre, one that is ready for presentation on stage with full production.
It will take Camelia from words and notes on a page, through rehearsal, to the level of a public reading. I will learn how my words sound coming from the mouths of actors and I will see the response of an audience to my story and songs. Getting critical feedback from an interested audience will also be of great assistance. I will be well prepared to move to the next stage.
For the many Canberra based artists and technicians involved the project, they will be part of the development of a new musical theatre work from the ground up. Such a large-scale collaboration between so many people working in theatre and music in this region will see a further strengthening of capacity within our industry.
WHAT THREE QUESTIONS ARE YOU LOOKING TO ANSWER IN THE WORKSHOP?
- Does Camellia work as a piece of theatre?
- Do the songs help tell the story?
- Do people care about Camelia and her story?
HOW WILL YOU WORK WITH DIRECTOR/DRAMATURG DIANNA NIXON IN CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT?
Dianna Nixon is a remarkable individual who can successfully combine the roles of director, dramaturg, voice coach and accompanist. Her vast knowledge of musical theatre and musical performance has taught me much about the needs of a script and a score and the work needed to transfer it to the stage. Before I met Dianna I was a babe in the woods in the area of musical theatre writing and was full of many misconceptions about the ease of getting a work on stage. Dianna has kindly taken me under her wing and given of herself to an extraordinary degree to help Camelia along its way. Our relationship will continue throughout the workshop and Dianna will be there to be the conduit between me and my script and score and the performers and musicians she has brought together for the project. I hope Dianna will remain attached to the project in some form in the steps to come – towards a full theatrical production.
SINGERS TOBIAS COLE AND YLARIA ROGERS ARE INVOLVED – WHAT WILL THEY BRING TO THE WORK?
Both Toby and Ylaria are accomplished performers who have worked in a range of musical theatre productions and styles, from popular to operatic. With this experience they will be able to breathe life into the words and music of Camelia and also to see where work needs to be done or changes made.
I have only heard the songs from Camelia played back by my Sibelius composing program and sung by me in my rather poor voice, so the thought of hearing the songs sung by two such strong performers is very exciting.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET.
I have always loved that The Street Theatre gives equal time to both theatre and music. Over the years I have attended many memorable productions and concerts at the Street.
I was introduced to the creative programs at the street by local musical identity Ian McLean who suggested that I apply for the Hive program after I gave him an early version of Camelia to read. I was accepted into The Hive and spent a wonderful year absorbing theatre pieces and working on Camelia with the help of dramaturg Peter Matheson.
Since that time Caroline Stacey has been very helpful and supportive of work towards the further development of Camelia. She has always been ready to offer space at the street for workshops and has provided numerous letters of support for grant applications.
WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?
The first thing I expect Camelia to do is to provide an evening of entertainment. This is my base goal and if it does this then I will be satisfied. But I am also hoping Camelia will do much more – provide a view into a different world – the melting pot of cultures that was Egypt in the 1940s, the status of women at the time, the privilege and corruption of kings, the establishment of the state of Israel and the skulduggery that went on leading up to this, the heavy hand of imperialism and the freedom movements that sprang up to break free.
WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU IN MUSICAL THEATRE?
I am always inspired by new musical theatre. In an environment where older works are constantly being restaged, the triumph of getting a new work performed should be celebrated. I have been very excited by a number of recent productions at The Street that have incorporated popular song into a dramatic narrative. Examples are Cold Light and the recent production of Boys Will Be Boys, which I found entirely satisfying on all levels – entertainment, musical quality, strong, compelling story and brilliant staging. If Camelia can match some of this brilliance I will be very happy.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I am a voracious reader of non-fiction. I especially like books that throw some light on a neglected part of history; which look at stories that occurred out of the limelight, or stories that occurred in a little known part of the world. I am also currently feeding my fascination with Egypt through reading fiction works by contemporary Egyptian writers. My guide through this is The Literary Atlas of Cairo compiled by Samia Mehrez, which has opened me up to a wide range of voices from the city.
As for my watching preferences, I have recently discovered the joys of ‘binge watching’ and have devoured the full run of Treme (the music!), VEEP and am working through the Canadian show Slings and Arrows based around the life of a theatrical company. As to free-to air TV, I am an inveterate ABC watcher and love the ‘small’ comedies they specialise in such as Please Like Me and Rosehaven.