Interview with a composer in quarantine

  • 02, Apr 2020
  • All things Paris
  • Aysha Ferullo

This week, we caught up with one of Theatre in Paris's dear composer friends and fellow Paris resident. She preferred to remain anonymous, but you'll see her name up in lights soon enough. Here is how she manages to put some rhythm back into this downbeat time. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself - what do you do? 

Well, I like to call myself a budding composer of musical theatre, although I feel like it sounds pretentious! I’ve always preferred the craft of song writing over-performing, and obviously the ultimate dream is to have a sell-out Broadway smash hit (tell me your secrets, Claude-Michele Schönberg). While waiting for that very-easily-achievable goal, I’ve been adapting several Shakespeare plays into child-friendly musicals, for young teenagers to perform. It’s a very exciting and rewarding process, firstly to sit at my piano for the first time with a specific brief for a song that I want to add to the musical, then to teach it to the kids, and finally to watch them perform it to their families. Also, I will add that there is no feeling more amazing nor surreal than hearing other people singing a song you wrote yourself. This process made me realise that perhaps my calling really is workshopping musicals with children and that my bells-and-whistles dream of having my name in lights on Shaftesbury Avenue can happily wait its turn. In my daily life, I try to draw inspiration from any possible corner - of course, musical theatre soundtracks are the most directly influential for my style and purposes, but help can come from anywhere, from a piece of soaring John Williams film music to an unknown song used in a TikTok video!

What does a typical day look like for you in quarantine in Paris?

To deal with this unexpected isolation I’ve made myself a daily timetable to which I adhere as much as possible (or at least I tell myself I do). Besides the universally accepted daily activities of eating, sleeping, and trying to do some form of the most basic exercise, I make time to do something creative at some point during the day. My favourite activity is to sit at my cheap and cheerful little keyboard by my window, consider what colour the sky is, and see where the mood takes me for what to play. In these times of uncertainty, I have found myself automatically playing comforting nostalgic songs, from older musicals that provided me with my theatrical education as a child. We’re talking Cats (nobody’s favourite), Les Misérables (everyone’s favourite), and West Side Story (neutral ground). I like to play with the window open for all the neighbours to enjoy (...or not; I’ve received one noise complaint already. Killjoys). I do truly feel, however, that music unites us, and we could all afford to have a little more brightness right now. So why not try to bring it?

For four hours each day, I teach children English online. This is where I do most of my ‘exercise’: the lesson plans involve many a song that requires far too much dramatic leaping around. However, as my boss is constantly telling me, “it brings out your theatrical side!” So, I’m not exactly complaining. In the evening we dutifully come to our windows and applaud the amazing hard-working nurses and doctors who are saving lives every day. Someone almost always has a guitar or even a sound system, and sometimes we engage in a song or two during the applause. The sense of camaraderie and community is overwhelming, and I honestly think we all feel the applause as some sort of ‘musical’ expression of appreciation. Really makes you wonder about the neighbours who complained; where’s their sense of community, hm?

How do you express yourself artistically? How have you had to adapt to your new situation? 

I have found that recently the drive to create has been stronger than usual, as having such an abundance of time is a blessing for artists, even though I still find myself procrastinating! I decided that it would be a challenge and opportunity to start writing something new, using all the many emotions we all feel right now to channel into creating art. Not being able to go to the theatre means having to create your own theatre any way you can! The frustration, fear, loneliness and anxiety, all combined with the unexpected beauty, togetherness, gratefulness and love, could really come together to make a pretty cool and maybe even inspiring piece of work. I’m also throwing caution to the wind and applying for a competition judged by the one and only Jason Robert Brown, calling for songwriters to compose a piece for choir based on the current situation in which we’re all just about surviving. Something uplifting and full of hope. So, watch this space!

What advice would you give other artists that may be feeling uninspired during these trying times?

I can’t offer anything that hasn’t already been said by people far more important and talented than me, but we truly have been given the gift of time. In a way, it’s an unexpectedly exciting opportunity to achieve something, no matter how small. Keeping theatre alive in your home in any way you can will help to keep you thriving. Learn a new audition monologue. Practise your range to try and finally sing that soprano solo you always wanted. Nail that scale you’ve been struggling with on your instrument. Do! Create! Innovate! But importantly, it’s crucial not to pressure yourself. These are desperate and confusing times for everyone, so if you feel uninspired you are not alone. It’s okay if all you do day-to-day is survive. Try to remind yourself of any small artistic joy you can. Don’t force yourself to reinvent the wheel, just keep doing the things that make your soul glow. Eat vegetables, drink water, and whatever you do, avoid the Cats film adaptation like the plague.

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