HOAX – the second stage
After gaining first-stage ACE funding for the project HOAX, which allowed us to research and develop dark musical HOAX My Lonely Heart and graphic novel HOAX Psychosis Blues, we were thrilled to be successful with our second-stage ACE funding application, and to move forward with the project accordingly.
Within the overall project-creation process, support for the story and its personal content was high; however, there were definite challenges in making its cross-media nature understood. Where the academic community, for example, embraced the multiple platforms being used and how they might intersect and enhance one another, artists or artistic organisations that were more used to dealing with a single media struggled to enter the cross-media discussion. Examples of this were the Director Benji Reid’s choice not to read the graphic novel, wanting instead to stay completely immersed in the show alone; and various promoters choosing only to focus on the musical as this was a ‘language set’ that they were familiar with. This resulted in what felt like compromises on the power of the project from my point of view, though I fully accept the need to respect artistic working processes. It also meant that ticket sales for the show were easier to achieve than book sales, as, although the comics community presented HOAX as a whole project, the much louder arts voice of theatre rarely did. On reflection it seems the ideal would have been to include the graphic novel in with the musical ticket price, though this would have proved impossible without subsidy. It’s an idea I’m keen to explore, however, in the third-stage of HOAX (its touring).
Whilst we were delighted to secure the full amount of second-stage funding that we had asked for from ACE, another part of our funding (from The University of Notttingham) came in at £1500 less than the amount expected. With an ambitious multi-platform project like HOAX, any cuts to the budget were always going to be hard hitting, and we certainly felt the stress of losing this. It was testiment to the skill and experience of our Producer Pippa Frith that we still managed to deliver the project – mostly via agreements to reduced and delayed fees.
The soundtrack development for the musical went very smoothly. Composer Minute Taker spent several months finding a unique, coherent and connected soundscape, with gentle guidance from the Director. This culminated in an intense week’s workshop between the two, which really pulled things together. The music shone out during the Royal Exchange run, so much so that the theatre invited Minute Taker back to perform in their main public space.
My main focus during this period was to produce the graphic novel. Whilst I had earlier considered offering the book to mainstream publishers, I now decided to self-publish via my own small publishing endeavour Ziggy’s Wish. The reason for this was so that I could uphold my desire to donate significantly from the book sales to mental health charities – something that’s not so easy to do via mainstream publishers. This meant a great deal of management, not only of the 10 contributing illustrators, but also of the design, printing and binding process. The result is highly impactful, however, as the reviews testify to.
Self-publishing HOAX Psychosis Blues presented a huge learning curve and as such was extremely time consuming. It was, though, an absolute priority within the project which meant that some of the time allocated to public engagement sessions was lost. We did, however, deliver a number of sessions on HOAX as follows:
A talk at Laydeez Do Comics, Leeds;
A book signing at Travelling Man Comics, Manchester;
A panel talk including excerpts from the musical soundtrack at Lakes International Comics Art Festival, Kendal;
A presentation at The Fifth International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference, London;
The official book launch, Manchester;
A book signing at GOSH! Comics, London;
An aftershow talk on the third night of the musical’s run at Royal Exchange Studio
Plus the four nights of the run itself.
Several more engagement sessions are confirmed for the coming months, including talks on Medical Humanities at The University of Nottingham and Manchester Metropolitan University.
With the soundtrack well in hand, the focus with the musical turned to castings and rehearsals. We knew from our first-stage research and development week that finding the right actors locally for all three of these very demanding roles (physically, vocally, emotionally) wasn’t going to be easy. Fortunately the first-stage R&D had secured us The Animator role in the form of Stephen Myott-Meadows, which left the roles of Rob and Helen. Luckily we were able to target cast Tachia Newall as Rob; but Helen necessitated an auditions day in London. There we secured Olivia Sweeney. All three actors were superb in the show, demonstrated by Tachia being subsequently offered two roles in the main house at Royal Exchange, and both Stephen and Olivia securing further roles since their performances also.
Whilst it was the genius of the Director that ultimately underpinned those performances, there was someone else who quietly underpinned the Director, and that was Production Manager Chris Whitwood. Without a Production Manager of this quality and assuredness, the pressures and tensions over staging a complete musical (16-songs), with specific technical demands (integrated AV and revolve), in just three weeks on a very tight budget, might easily have become overwhelming. Chris ensured they did not.
So far HOAX can be deemed a success. The musical sold out before it even opened, with a standing ovation on the final night. The graphic novel has received great acclaim, being tipped for ‘Best of’ in more than one category. And the public response has been immensely gratifying. There is, however, still a way to go with this project. Firstly the musical needs tightening: something we were only really able to gauge when we saw it on the floor in front of an audience at the Royal Exchange, being that we didn’t have capacity within the project to hold a sharing. Secondly the two strands of the project need more intersection: likely best realised by the graphic novel having some bearing on the musical’s further development, both actual and contextual; and by working on integrated sales.
As actor Stephen Myott-Meadows said to me a few days after the show had closed: ‘The performance really breaks you, but then you read the book and – I know your brother dies – but you still really feel a beautiful sense of hope.’
It’s exactly because of this experience, as described perfectly by Stephen, that I feel this project is so important, and why I feel it has great potential within the canon of artworks that deal with mental health. HOAX doesn’t ever shy away from the darkness of mental illness, but it's the light within the project that will truly act to decrease the stigma around this still very difficult debate.