The collaborative road to West Side Story

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Preparations have begun for the university’s third annual collaboration between the University of Lancaster Music Society (ULMS), Lancaster University Dance Society (LUDanS) and the Lancaster University Theatre Group (LUTG). I’ve been able to question some of the cast and production team of this year’s collaboration, West Side Story, to find out exactly how these three societies came together and manage to put on such a big undertaking each year.

This year’s director Andy Ainscough was involved with the first collaboration – Cabaret two years ago. He had this to say: “The collab started in some conversations at the activities conference in 2012 – it got awarded £500 for best idea and from that, after what feels like hundreds of meetings, it was decided that our first collaborative musical ‘Cabaret’ would happen in summer term 2013.”

Speaking then to this year’s project manager, Alex Lui, on how the far the collaboration has come since then, he said: “the process has refined over the three years the collab has been going. The production team now has a clear idea of how we want to do things and how to get them across.”

Collaborations between societies can lead to brilliant results, as any who saw the mini Wicked collaboration in the Lancaster University Ballroom Society Charity Showcase can confirm. While this is the case, I wanted to ask what challenges the bringing together of three societies poses.

Every time I asked this question one key word would appear: ‘compromise’. All three societies are, of course, accomplished at putting on performances in their own art forms which can lead to a situation similar to having too many cooks in a kitchen all following a different recipe. As stage manager Kieran Baker puts it, “all three societies have their own way of doing things and, having different areas to specialise in, they all have an individual vision as to what the final show will be like.” The challenge then is putting together a performance which brings together the best of each vision. How this is managed was explained to me by David Weale, the musical director, who said                                                                                                                                    that each element (dance, music and drama) is put together separately before being combined. In this way, David says, “we all compromise at some point when we put everything together, but we get to start with what we want in our own areas first.”

Other challenges come with the fact that the performers are not always necessarily skilled in the other art forms. As Emily Nightingale, one of four choreographers working on the project, explained to me that one of the biggest differences she faced working with non-dancing cast members was the language barrier. She said some jargon such as like ‘step-ball-change’ can cause confusion for non-native speakers, but how this can be a rewarding challenge for both them and the cast.

Speaking specifically on the topic of West Side Story, I asked the cast and production team what were the moments they are looking forward to most both in the performance as well as the process of rehearsals. I found it interesting that most said the big group pieces such as the iconic song ‘America’ or the dance at the gym which involves most cast members. This showed that despite the independence of each society, there was an enthusiasm for the most collaborative elements; a lot of people said they were looking forward to the first full run as it meant they’d really get a chance to see things they hadn’t been involved with.

The unity the show inspires through collaboration was striking throughout the interviews and, as many commented, the opportunity to work on such a show might wouldn’t be possible if not for the societies having the initiative to come together. The dialogue between the art forms, which can be seen in musicals by how they come together, demonstrates the necessity for Lancaster to put on such events to enable to expression of students and greater enable them to try new art forms that work alongside those they already enjoy.

As fantastic as the collaboration is to the societies involved, project manager Alex Lui expressed to me his belief that at Lancaster University “the arts are not quite as equal to sports” in terms of the focus university life might put upon them. Lui went on to say that “there are more than a few societies that could be doing something when Roses is on” and has been in talks with the university’s cultural arts committee with regards proposing a potential alternative arts festival that places a similar focus on non-sport societies to that which Roses teams receive. He asks for any other societies interested in such a venture to come forward and get in contact with him so that they may get involved with this. To any who think that this idea is an impossible undertaking in bringing multiple societies together for such an event, I would stress that three years ago an ongoing annual collaboration of three societies to create a large-scale musical might have seemed an out there idea, and yet its end products and benefits to students now would disprove any doubts that may have originally existed.

West Side Story, this year’s collaboration, the reworking of Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet in musical format with gangs, songs and dancing, will be performed on campus at the Nuffield theatre during the first week of third term.  For further information and notice of when tickets go on sale, check out their Facebook page.

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