An Interview with Michael Howell

0ff1a1f.jpgHello Michael, so where you at, & where ya from, geographically speaking?
I’m currently heading up the Musical Theatre programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where I’ve been for almost ten years now.  At this very moment I’m in our final few days of rehearsal for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe production Into the Woods with our current MA in Musical Theatre Performance and Musical Directing students. I was born in London and grew up in Kirkcaldy, I trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London on the PG Musical theatre Programme under Mary Hammond. I worked as an actor in a whole range of different productions for ten years before returning to Scotland. I was actually part of the Scottish premiere of Into the Woods at the New Byre Theatre with Ken Alexander way back in 2001 and now I’m back in Glasgow directing it which has brought back a lot of fond memories.

What is it about Musical Theatre that makes you tick?
The wonderful thing about musical theatre as an art form is that it has very few artistic constraints – the gloves are off, as it were. It’s a hugely flexible medium allowing us to incorporate and integrate dance, movement, music, song, text and instrumentation as we attempt to tell stories in the most creative and entertaining of ways.  In my opinion, that’s when theatre is at its most exciting. We only need to look at the output of our producing houses in Scotland over the last few years to see its influence, with more and more productions experimenting with the integration of these art forms.

What does Michael Howell like to do when he’s not immersed in the arts?
The job itself is pretty much 24/7 at the Conservatoire. We have two musical theatre programmes, the three-year Undergraduate programme and a 12-month Postgraduate which runs from September to September, so I’m usually always working! When I’m not involved in the arts, I spend time with my family, although it’s worth noting that our movement director, EJ Boyle, is also my wife … so work tends to be all consuming.

What are the keystones to a good musical, & then an amazing musical? 
What makes an amazing musical is what makes any amazing piece of art – a fabulous, intriguing, entertaining story and a committed group of performers who have a desire to tell that story.

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This year you are bringing the widely popular ‘Into the Woods’ to the Fringe. Can you tell us about it?
Into the Woods has always been popular among those interested in musicals and has become even more mainstream since the movie was released. Staging any production of a piece that is, in many respects, viewed as a classic piece of musical theatre,  as well as a Sondheim classic, comes with challenges because, of course, people know the story and there are expectations about how it should be told. Any reimagining of the world needs to be treated carefully but the great thing about telling that story with actors in training, and also at the Fringe, are the creative possibilities that it offers – we can, and should always, try to craft it in a way that provides a positive training opportunity for the students while making the production relevant, different and accessible for all. It’s not just about putting on the best production that we can create for the Fringe but also, as a Director and Educator, providing a fertile ground for the students to continue to develop.  What’s the point of telling these stories now? The interest for me with Into the Woods is that fairytales exist on two levels, they act as simple stories, right versus wrong and good versus bad, but actually on a much deeper, subtextual level, when children are reading them they act as a guide for traversing life, giving children hints and moral codes which they may or may not live life by. The narrator was our starting point for the development of the piece, who is he, why is he there and why is he telling that story? The physical language, created by EJ Boyle and the wonderful design by Rich Evans, has really helped bring to life the metaphorical woods and our narrator’s imaginative retelling of these stories. Trying to find an existence for a narrator that went beyond the traditional storyteller/Jackanory-style version seemed crucial.  We’ve attempted to create a story that exists for the narrator which sits alongside the main storytelling adventure – where do theses adventures spring from and why does he recount them now?  The original tales were particularly gruesome, not the sanitised versions we’ve become used to in animated film, balancing the two dimensional world of the first half and the horror of the second, has been key  in the development of our narrator’s journey and indeed the world of the piece.

Can you describe the experience of performing in Edinburgh in August? 
I haven’t performed at the Fringe, however, it’s a tremendous opportunity for our students to take a musical on an extended run. In training situations, invariably, the students work on a production for maybe a six-week rehearsal period with a one-week run. That’s a fabulous experience and it’s one that all arts education is designed to facilitate. The wonderful thing about the Fringe is that it allows our students to take that piece of work on a four-week run where they’ve got to think about stamina and sustainability, focus, maintenance of energy and technique. They need to discover and find new things and become better as the run progresses. That is really key for them as performing arts students. They get the opportunity to be in two productions, both Into the Woods and one of our new works in collaboration with the American Musical Theatre Project and Northwestern University (Atlantic: A Scottish Story or Atlantic: America and the Great War). Students will be performing in two shows a day, doing two different characters and have been engaged in two entirely different processes throughout rehearsals. On top of that, performing at the Fringe is a chance to utterly immerse themselves in the largest theatre festival in the world. They are also exposed to an eclectic range of work that they otherwise might not see if they weren’t at the festival themselves.

Each year, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s MA Musical Theatre students strut their stuff at the Fringe while the BA students stage productions throughout the year. Of these, who has gone on to the higher spheres of musical theatre?
The Royal Conservatoire’s Musical Theatre programme has produced successes including;

Rebecca Faulkenberry
Rock of Ages, Spiderman and High School Musical (Broadway)

Scott Garnham
Les Misérables and I Can’t Sing (West End)

Aaron Lee Lambert
Sister Act, Shrek and Urinetown (West End)

Keisha Fraser
Colour Purple and Book of Mormon (West End)

John McLarnon
We Will Rock You and The Commitments (West End)

Robbie Towns
Legally Blonde and Transatlantic (West End)

Musical Directors

Alan Bukowiecki
Book of Mormon, Chicago and Hair (US national tour)

Amy Shackcloth
Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (UK national tour)

Sarah De Tute
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (UK national tour)

Claire McKenzie
Award-winning composer and founder of Noisemaker music theatre company

Andrea Grody
Venice and Love Labour Lost (New York)

Lindsey Miller
Fame (UK National Tour)

What does the rest of 2017 hold in store for Michael Howell?
Well, after the Fringe I go to Gothenburg in Sweden to direct a four-week devised piece with a cast of musical theatre performers and a small group of composers, writers, musicians and DJs.  After that, it’s straight back to the first day or term at the Conservatoire.


Into the Woods will be playing at this year’s Fringe

@ Assembly Hall

 Aug 3-13, 15-20, 22-27 (11.30)

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