Frankenstein co-director David Cumming talks
about breathing new life into a classic story and creating a one-of-a-kind theatre-beatbox hybrid.
Waking a monster
For the past three years, deep in the darkened depths of Battersea Arts Centre, an experiment has been taking place.
An experiment in re-animation.
An experiment in breath.
In back rooms bubbling with beats and alive with ideas, the monstrously talented BAC Beatbox Academy, guided by myself and co-director Conrad Murray, have been testing the limits of an art-form. Too often relegated to the status of sideshow, we wanted to put vocal percussion front-and-centre; use breath, beats and bars not as the accompaniments to a show, but as the very means by which the story is told. Was that even possible? We didn’t know. But we wanted to try. And what better story to breathe new life into than that classic tale of re-animation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?
This was the challenge I faced when I joined the project back in 2016. At that time, the show was just a loose collection of songs. Yes, they were impressive in their use of vocal percussion and yes they were unbelievable catchy, but they weren’t, for want of a better word, theatre. So this was the task at hand – how do you tell a story through the medium of beatbox? We had nowhere to turn for guidance on this as, to my knowledge, no one has ever before attempted to make a theatre show in this way. The vocal gymnastic abilities and musical skills of the collective were clear, but it was obvious to me from early on that this wasn’t going to be enough to sustain an entire production. The show needed to be more than that. So we went back to the drawing board and looked at what we had.
And what we had was the BAC Beatbox Academy – 6 insanely talented young musicians, working in a relatively new art-form, taking in the (often hostile) world around them and reflecting upon it through their art, their lyrics, their bars and beats. They reminded me of another young artist reflecting upon her world through a new medium: Mary Shelley.
Remaking a monster
A true radical by blood (her father, William Godwin, was the first modern proponent of anarchism and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, penned the original feminist text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein and yet her novel (a relatively new medium at the time) brims with some of the most politically, scientifically and philosophically revolutionary ideas of her time. Her explorations into the power of new technology, the consequences of ‘playing god’, the true nature of man and his obsession with beauty, the self and legacy shocked her contemporaries in the way they summed up the world around them and held a shameful mirror up to modern society. So why not give today’s youth the chance to do the same?
Using Shelley’s novel as stimulus, we set about exploring the themes from her novel that still resonate with the youth of today. The Academy dug deep into their own life experience and discovered a shared frustration with a world that increasingly mistrusts its youth, that is increasingly obsessed with appearance, that is increasingly unjust. A world that has often rejected them without ever giving them a chance. In short, they realised that to some, they were the monsters.
Using this stark realisation, we began building How to Make a Monster, a modern re-examination of the themes of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. For a long time, the show was just a collection of ideas, snippets of tracks and snatches of rhyme, but through Battersea Arts Centre’s generous Scratch process, I worked with the performers as we sliced, diced, cinched and stitched the parts together; pumped them full of light, sound and movement; and brought How to Make a Monster to life.
Making a monster hit
A mesmeric mix of heartfelt poetry, gorgeous movement, witty asides, gut-wrenching lyrics and playful personalities, all expressed through shocking-real soundscapes, soaring melodies, dirty baselines and, of course, the sickest of beats, Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster is unlike any show I have ever worked on before. Indeed, it is so one-of-a-kind that it recently won the OffWestEnd 2019 TBC Award for ‘Shows That Defy Categorisation’. Honestly, you won’t believe what your ears are hearing or your eyes are seeing once this show hits you. I still don’t and I’ve seen it countless times!
We set out to test the known limits of the art-from of beatbox and to pump new life into an old tale and I, for one, believe we have achieved just that. What was initially conceived as just a short project has over time grown into something bigger, something stronger – much like The Monster in the original tale. Thankfully, unlike the original Dr. Frankenstein, we love our creation and have worked tirelessly to help it grow, nurturing it through its (at times difficult) adolescence and, like proud parents, we are very excited to see it take its first fully-grown steps, blinking into the limelight of a three-week run in the Grand Hall this March.
And we hope through its breath, it’ll leave you breathless.
David Cumming (Co-director), on behalf of the Frankenstein company.
Frankenstein is in our Grand Hall from 12 – 29 March | Tickets £15 – £26