10 days in Minnesota: folk music in freezing temperatures
Jen Green
Emerging Excellence artist and freelance orchestrator
21st November 2014
10 days in Minnesota: folk music in freezing temperatures

Standing at the bag-drop line at Heathrow I have yet another moment of panic – despite having triple checked the baggage rules, are they REALLY going to let me put a bag containing a very large musical saw in the hold of an aeroplane? I haven’t tried to travel with what could be classed as a potential weapon before, nd even though this one has blunted teeth and I can play scales on it, would US customs think I was in fact a deranged psychopath and kick me straight out of the country? This would somewhat confound the purpose of my trip to Minnesota, which is to rehearse and produce a staged reading of ‘Van Winkle – a folk musical’ with my writing partner Caroline Wigmore, generously supported by an Emerging Excellence award from Help Musicians UK.

Winter12 hours later my fears about being held in custody are unfounded when I land at Minneapolis late in the afternoon. However, I do realise that I have forgotten to bring a hat or gloves with me, so run the risk of hypothermia: even in November you’re lucky to get above freezing point in Minnesota. Caroline – who has flown out a week earlier to finalise arrangements with Mission Theatre Company, who are producing our reading – picks me up and we drive straight to our first rehearsal. I try to adjust my musical language to measures and quarter notes for the sake of our American cast, but jet-lag plus a couple of decades of habit gets the better of me. Fortunately I think they find my constant references to quavers and bars endearing rather than confusing, and they seem to be excited by the novelty of a British orchestrator keen to learn about their folk traditions. 

Penny NewsonThe jet-lag wears off quickly as the next few days pass in a haze of rehearsals and fun with the cast as we experiment incorporating ukeleles, musical jugs, a washboard, the musical saw and a newly discovered autoharp into the show. Having the opportunity to further develop the show with a full cast is wonderful - we try out new ideas, keep some of them in, throw others out, and each time we go through the material the cast are keen to try something different or emphasise a different nuance.

Having come straight from rehearsals for our UK showcase reading, I’m immediately struck by the differences in musical approach between our UK and US cast. Not better or worse, but very different. All the US performers have an improvisatory background – chatting to them in breaks I find that many of them first learnt music within the strong Minnesota church tradition, where improvising harmonies for hymns is a given and a band including a bluegrass fiddle or two is routine. I try to imagine what the reaction would be if anyone started improvising along to ‘How Great Thou Art’ in a traditional UK congregation and realise that there is a large cultural difference between my (very classical) background and the musicians I’m working with. While I’m officially the person teaching the music to everyone, I’m learning just as much from them, and I notice that I’m becoming more confident in playing purely by ear as part of a group, which isn’t something I normally do much of.

Tin Can GinIn-between rehearsals, we find time to get out and about in the Twin Cities. We head out to a local folk gig for research and have a fantastic night at the Turf Club, which is packed to the rafters with bluegrass bands and fans. Caroline and I spend the trip home discussing how we can further integrate some of the stylistic ideas into ‘Van Winkle’. We’re invited to watch our host Mission Theatre’s production of ‘Detainee’, a new play written by Sam Graber, and I have a fascinating chat with the director Anneliese Stuht afterwards about the perceived and real differences between American and British theatre. We’re also interviewed by Mark Sweeney for his ‘Twin Cities Song Story’ musical theatre podcast. Later in the week, a free afternoon allows us to head out to a historical site for some research into a potential next project. I also sample a ‘juicy lucy’ (a burger with cheese injected into the centre of the meat – it’s as good as it sounds!).

US CastAll too quickly our rehearsal period is over, and we move into the Phoenix Theatre for a tech and dress. We have three showcase readings scheduled and our first goes brilliantly – a full house, great feedback and a real buzz from the cast and audience. Interestingly, the American audience responds differently to certain parts of the script and songs to when we’ve done similar readings in the UK. It’s a unique opportunity to test the material in the US, and the responses of both the cast and the audience give us plenty of ideas for areas we can tweak and rework. Then that night it snows. And it keeps snowing. It’s freakishly early even by Minnesota standards, and by the time there are 8 inches on the ground, we’ve had to reluctantly agree with Mission Theatre to cancel the next evening’s performance. Unable to do anything else, I build a snowman and try to appreciate a few hours of enforced leisure. Luckily a large number of the audience are able to swap to the following evening – this is apparently a fairly regular occurance in the Twin Cities once the snow starts – and we’re back in full swing for our final night to another great house. We’re now talking to a couple of producers about potential further development, so it’s been a very successful trip all round.

Jen GreemI am incredibly grateful to Help Musicians UK for their generous support in making this trip happen. Not only has it been fantastic for the development of this particular show, the opportunity to work with a US cast of folk-trained musicians has been an amazing learning experience and has really opened my eyes to the nuances of the style, and affected how I think about music and orchestration in general. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity at this point in my career, and am looking forward to making use of everything I’ve learnt over the coming years.