Writer/director Tristan Jackson-Pate talks about his inspirations for Cherwell Theatre’s brand new co-production with Royal & Derngate – Song of the Summer.
Song of the Summer marks the culmination of ten years of work in theatre and music, and seventeen years since the first time I played with a band.
I was raised in a house filled with music. My Mum played the piano, my Dad the guitar, the flute and the tin whistle. The house was never silent; the Beatles, Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green became second nature to me, part of my every day life.
When I got hold of my first second hand guitar it was a Beatles song book I picked up first, making it my mission to learn as many of their songs as possible. I spent hours and hours in my bedroom, twisting my hand into new chord shapes, pushing past the pain of steel strings on my finger tips. Inspired by Lennon and McCartney who like me, had no form of ‘classical’ music training, I developed my craft song by song. I fancied myself like Dylan at the cross roads, ready to play for eight hours a day, learning from the great masters before attempting my own
My own early burgeoning songs were nothing to write home about. Largely derivative, with plenty of teen angst, but through sharing them with friends, interpreting them with a band and ultimately performing them in local pubs (which I was still technically too young to be in) I found an unshakeable, unwavering and frankly unearned confidence in myself and my abilities.
My experience of being sixteen, which I hope to capture in Song of the Summer was one of endless excitement and possibility. Though far from ‘popular’ at school (a spotty drama kid), I found my freedom and confidence as a songwriter, as far as I was concerned. I was ‘discovering myself as an artist’- and I might have even made note of that idea in my treasured notebook, which, many years later reveals myriad other cringe inducing insights too.
The fact is, performing in my scrappy little band was the closest I ever felt to transcendence; swaggering, sweating and shouting at bemused locals in the sleepy little pubs in my dull market town. My friends and I felt like hometown heroes, regardless of the size of the crowd.
When I started a drama college course in Northampton my horizons broadened again. In 2004 British indie music was undergoing an exciting resurgence. I’d discovered the Libertines, the first band I ever truly worshipped. More immediate and exciting than the Beatles, they were a band you could reach out and touch. I followed them around the country wherever I could, sometimes missing the last train home after gigs (on the inevitable occasions Pete Doherty turned up late). My friend had a guitar signed by Pete- another had accidentally head butted Carl Barat at a DJ set. They were a band that simultaneously felt of the people, yet shrouded in their own epic mythology.
I moved into a filthy bedsit, my own ‘Albion Rooms’. Upon leaving college, I worked a job in a call centre while I auditioned for drama schools. I’d gig five nights a week in Northamptonshire and beyond, returning home at mid-night, drinking until 2am and then cycling two miles in to work at 7.30am the next morning. This house, at 34 Ivy Road became a somewhat grotty haven for various musicians and side projects, the place where I wrote many of what I modestly thought were my ‘biggest songs’.
I pinned my hopes firmly on this band, to the extent that I started considering whether I wanted to go to drama school after all, so sure was I the music had to be going somewhere. Then it all fell apart. We imploded spectacularly- much like my beloved Libertines, with no hope of salvage. We went our separate ways, and soon after, I secured a drama school place- taking this as a sign. I moved on, finding my next obsession, and with it, found less time to write and sing.
All these years later, I still cite the experiences I had in those couple of years as some of the most character forming I’ve had. I found my stage ‘persona’ and learned to hold a crowd. I met tens of musicians and formed new alliances and friendships. I set up my own gig nights and learned how to compere. Above all, I found joy in creative collaboration with others and fell in love with the adrenaline and excitement of expressing myself in front of an audience.
Post drama school, I worked for several years as an actor, largely in touring theatre. My first job gave me an opportunity to combine my acting and musicianship in Bill Kenwright’s Dreamboats and Petticoats. An introduction to a rigorous touring schedule and short rehearsal periods the production introduced me to a whole new range of musicians. There were, of course, plenty of RocknRollers and Musical Theatre performers, but it was with a highly skilled group of jazz musicians with whom I learned to ‘jam’. I rediscovered the saxophone, which I’d played as a youngster and developed my guitar, bass and drumming skills. Collaborating with these musicians on long tours away from home kept me inspired and engaged.
Post Dreamboats I wanted to find a way to use my craft and stay sane in between acting engagements. I had worked in pubs and variously as a teaching assistant and office worker, but when I found music therapy, something clicked. The opportunity to share music I loved with adults with dementia has changed my perspective as a musician and artist in the widest possible sense.
Music is the great leveler – a universal language we all share. Having undertaken music therapy training and notched up hours and hours of practical experience, I have to say I share the therapeutic nature of the work myself. Every session I lead, whether in a care home, a support group or on a hospital ward is a chance to share the magic qualities music has with those that need it most. Whether it’s to relax us, to energise us or to help us feel a sense of community and wellbeing, this work has driven home music’s vital role in my life, and it’s influence on me as a theatre maker.
This is where work with young people comes in. Having completed several actor-musician and straight theatre tours (and having had a child in this period) I started to return to running youth arts projects on a regular basis.
I had always found this work rewarding- teaching my first Saturday morning drama clubs during my training, passing on the lessons I was learning during the week to participants. Over the years I developed my practice, leading devised theatre pieces, exploring improvisation, eventually writing and directing large scale community productions with a professional creative team, and then having the opportunity to lead a youth focussed theatre company Cherwell Theatre Company which I have been proud to do since 2015.
Much of my work in this time has been with young people with low self esteem, or who struggle to keep pace in a traditional educational setting. Many young people with autism have taken part in my productions, and I strive to make it an accessible and rewarding experience for them. Regardless of background, I have found young people to be consistently empowered and enriched through leading drama projects, much in the way I was as a young musician.
In today’s society, anyone who works with young people can see that the pressures on them have increased and anxiety and depression are on the rise. The arts have also been marginalised in our school system and young people need time and space to access their creativity more than ever.
Song of the Summer illustrates the idea that creating something with your friends, whether it’s a piece of music, or a play, or an artwork or a film, and sharing that something with the world is the most empowering, joyful and triumphant act any of us can undertake.