James Millar had never experienced writer’s block. In fact, the writer of the morbid, darkly-funny 2007 musical The Hatpin didn’t really believe it existed.
“I had always thought it was a lack of passion or interest in your story,” he says. “Or tiredness.” But when it came to writing the follow-up to 2008’s song-cycle Lovebites and last year’s A Little Touch of Chaos, he found himself staring at a blank screen, despite the promise surrounding his ideas. “You can have all the ideas in the world and the biggest well of excitement about telling it, but your fingers just refuse to type and the mind wanders almost immediately,” he explains now that the show is in the final stages of writing. “It was very frustrating. I am glad it only lasted a couple of weeks … I used the time to just think about the characters and the story – which was invaluable for the direction the piece is now heading in.”
All that thinking paid off. The consummate actor and writer, a graduate of both the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Musical Theatre) and the University of Technology, Sydney (Writing), is in the process of devising a truly original musical comedy in Nelson Started A Group – a title which, he is quick to point out, is a work in progress as much as the show itself. Working with his longtime writing partner, the composer Peter Rutherford, Millar sets out to explore the dynamics of a therapy group. He explains: “It’s very different to the other [shows I have written]… The show is about six people who meet every Wednesday night in an institute hall as part of a support group that is set up by the central character- Nelson. All six of them are wildly different to each other but share a similar crippling plight: they all accidentally killed someone once. And…it’s a comedy. Black, obviously!”
This group-room dynamic, which has been explored onstage numerous times, is given a fresh spin with the musical comedy format, as Millar explains: “The idea of a support-group going off the rails and accidentally turning itself into something else is ripe for theatrical fun! It mimics larger political structures and power-plays, but on a very zany and domestic micro-scale.” On a more serious note, he is interested in “our need to ‘commune’ as part of a healing process following a traumatic experience. I wanted to explore, in a black comedy sense, the idea of power-plays, relationship shifts, the transfer of power, rule-making, leadership, secrecy and betrayal in a badly-facilitated support group.”
The Sydney native, who has performed onstage himself in notable musicals such as Jerry Springer: The Opera, Oklahoma and Company, was fascinated by the support-group format, particularly as a way to deeply explore his six main characters. “A support group encourages people to speak, expose their histories and feelings and address their personal issues out loud…so it feels like an up-close way to get to know characters and what makes them tick really quickly,” he says. This confessional aspect of a therapy group seems to be the driving interest for Millar, who undertook extensive research of various support-group techniques and formats to prepare to write the script.
“After I mapped out the story and discussed with Pete how the show ‘sings’ and what the musical voice would be, we set about reading all sorts of support-group psycho-spiritual techniques that are used to bring people – and what they believe – out in the open,” he says. They set out to understand techniques as diverse as hypnosis, dance meditation and music therapy. “We immersed ourselves in other self-help literature and videos,” Millar laughs. “Pete attended an ashram, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Research never ends!”
Based on their previous successful works, they received a commission from Onward Production, a company in Perth which is run by Sally Burton, Richard Burton’s widow and a passionate patron of the arts in Western Australia. Nelson Started A Group will open Onward Production’s season next year and the company is also professionally producing the workshop for the show prior to the show’s premiere. Onward, which also produced Lovebites, has been “exceptionally supportive”, Millar says. “It is lovely to be given so much security and foundation to develop and create a brand new idea.”
For now, Millar is immersed in the writing process and excited about completing the show. “I am enjoying the characters a lot,” he says. “They are very quirky, troubled, funny, warm and misunderstood and developing well…but fighting a little too much!” The show is structured around eight consecutive Wednesday nights, allowing the tensions between the characters to fully develop. Millar says, “I want the audience to feel like they are a silent member in Nelson’s group, too.”
After his initial bout of writer’s block, he says he has been lucky to find the writing process to be free of obstacles. “I’m just running out of coffee regularly and sometimes forgetting to go to sleep,” he laughs. He also thinks the show will have wide appeal to “Anyone who likes a laugh, I hope!” More seriously, he thinks it will resonate with “anyone who might have felt a bit like a social outcast at some point in their lives. We’re calling it ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ at the moment…so I suppose the kind of people who would enjoy the show are people who enjoy their comedy black and their characters a little left-of-centre.”
But on a personal note, his favourite thing about the show is more lowbrow. “There’s a meteor in it,” he laughs.
Nelson Started A Group will open in Perth next year, and is likely to tour Sydney and Melbourne later in 2012.