Traveling all the way over from the United Kingdom, New International Encounter (NIE), the team behind Beauty and the Beast
, brings with them a wide array of theatrical and musical talent. The show is a devised piece of theater that reframes older versions of the fairytale with new elements such as live music (performed by the talented company), as well as a change from a story about a damsel in distress to one of female empowerment.
During the first production in 2017, Michael Judge, the Associate Director of NIE, asked the cast and creative team a few questions about the development of the ferociously funny retelling. Keep reading for a deeper look into the creation of Beauty and the Beast
Michael Judge: You started with an idea of the classic fairytale, but everything else—the songs, words and actions—the company invented. How did you go about that process?
Alex Byrne (Director):
At first, we had a few days where we just met to develop some musical ideas. Then, we started to tell each other the story of Beauty and the Beast
as we remembered it. We wrote down major plot points on big pieces of paper, and then tried to connect them in a simple way.
There are a lot of different stories to work from, but we chose to start with the fairytale
fairytale. One night, we watched both the Disney movie and the Jean Cocteau black and white French movie together. I was very interested in the French setting of that movie, and realized that I wanted our version to take place in France too. It isn't really in the Disney version, but it is in some of the others—they come from Paris where it's posh and expensive, and they move into a poor, broken down cottage in the countryside. That's an interesting dichotomy—from luxury to ruin—especially because the story centers about what's on the outside of things versus what's on the inside.
Then, we asked each other, "What's the Beast's story? Where does the Beast come from? What did the Beast do to be cursed?"
Sara Lessore (Isabella):
In terms of the process, Alex would give us a scene and we would just improvise it. When we liked something, we later incorporated it into the script.
MJ: So, there was a lot of brainstorming, and then you cut out the rubbish bits and kept the good bits.
Exactly. We knew we wanted the Beast to invite Isabella to dinner, and I wanted it to be terrible. He has to get it all wrong, and for it to be quite beastly, despite his best attempts. Martin really went for it—sometimes in quite a scary way. It's nice when you go to the theater and see different things that don't normally happen. I think that's why this dinner party scene is so entertaining.
There's a process about just saying, "Yes," isn't there? Our ensemble just has this thing about saying, "Yes," and accepting everything. So, if Alex asks us to do something, we just say, "Yes" and go with it. We put ourselves out there.
MJ: Elliot, can I ask you, as musical director, about how you created that music?
Elliot Davis (Anastasia and Musical Director):
I consulted with Alex a lot, and when he said he wanted it to be set in France—immediately, I knew I wanted an accordian. You can say to an audience, "We are in France," but if you have music that sounds French, it transports them. As for the songs themselves, they emerged organically.
Usually, we come up with about two, three or four bits of music to see what we can work with and what we can't. One day, Alex and I had some spare time, so we made the first song—the one about the Beast's story. It just came out of messing around with different pieces of music we already had.
We'd walk in the room with enough music to give everyone pieces to play. So, there were loads of arrangements that we didn't end up using. Just messing around is great for a brainstorm, plus getting together and playing music really helps a new cast bond.
Everyone brought ideas, so when we got closer to the production, Alex and I would have to start saying, "Okay, stop doing that and start doing this." We began to find out what works. It's an ensemble piece, you bring everything to the table, and then you slowly start taking bits away.
MJ: Do you have any advice as to how to stay motivated during the creative process, even when it gets hard and you have doubts or worries?
Martin Bonger (Beast):
In making a show like this, you have to have fun. There were times when we were struggling, and then Alex would say, "Come on, we need to have a laugh." Or, we'd all come together and say, "We need to have fun—we have to be able to play together." Playing together is how you discover and create new things.
I think that something Alex is great at—is getting us to try new things. While we were creating this show, sometimes we would start discussing ways in which an idea might or might not work. Alex always said, "Oh no, no, let's just try it and see what clicks." Sometimes, what we tried, ended up being totally different. So, my advice would be to just try things out, because that's a really great way of finding out what material works. It's okay to be wrong–if you only try to get things right, you're stopping yourself before you can really start.
Michael: It seems like you really look after each other as an ensemble. Alex, what initially inspired you to adapt Beauty and the Beast for the stage?
The most important thing for an artist, is to work in good faith. In a way, you say, "I go to work, and I try to make something," and then you try to make it as best as you can and for the right reasons.
Beautiful and excellent bits of culture are essential for a full life—it confirms our humanity. With art, we can see that the questions we have about the world are shared—they're common. Art can celebrate difference and allow us to walk in someone else's shoes. Being a part of the theater audience experience can be really nourishing for children, and for adults.
So, the reason why we made this show—and the reason that I first proposed it to our team—is because I wanted to make something beautiful and excellent. That was the only reason, and I had to let go of any other sort of motive that drove me, other than that.
Lauren Extrom is the Fall 2018 Communications Apprentice at the New Victory Theater. She is a second-year graduate student in the Performing Arts Administration program at NYU Steinhardt. In addition to her work as an arts administrator and aspiring arts educator, she is an active vocalist and musician in the New York City area. She sings in the NYU Jazz Choir, and tours with VOICES 21C, a Boston-based non-profit chamber choir. In her spare time, she practices yoga and improv dance.