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Hi, My Name is Ben: The new musical's journey from New York to Dundee (and back again)

This summer, Dundee Rep Theatre announced that its transatlantic collaboration piece, Hi, My Name is Ben has been selected for the Annual Festival of New Musicals in New York (taking place in October) following its successful premiere in the United States.

Hi, My Name is Ben tells the true story of New Yorker Bernhardt Wichmann, who changed the lives of those around him without ever speaking a word. Using just his notepad and pen, Ben 'turned a neighborhood of strangers into a community of friends, before finally encountering a miracle of his own'.

It was a unique experience that helped us develop the piece, but also our process as a writing partnership. It was also important to us to begin writing Ben’s story in an environment like this, as it is set against such an iconically American landscape- Noisemaker

The idea was developed into a musical by Scotland's own Noisemaker - the award-winning writing partnership from writer/actor, Scott Gilmour and composer/musical director, Claire McKenzie. The transatlantic collaboration has since had support from Goodspeed, Dundee Rep Theatre, Creative Scotland, Scottish Ensemble and the National Theatre of Scotland.

The idea for Ben blossomed during a two-week residency in New York in 2017, when the Noisemaker duo became the first Scottish writing team to be selected for the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed, an organisation dedicated to the preservation, development and advancement of musical theatre.

"Since we began writing, we wanted this piece to be something we made on both sides of the water," Noisemaker (Scott and Claire) explain. "Partly because the story is a modern-day New York fairytale, but also has a more global message at it’s heart about community and the way we communicate as a species. Working in New York was a big part of that."

"Allowing the writing to evolve in the same locations the real story happened in was vital in making it feel truthful to Ben.

"But then having the opportunity to refine this work back at home, using artists and process that we’ve honed over time, allowed the piece to grow into a story for a universal audience. It also subjected us to a remarkable level of support and professional growth as writers."

Andrew Panton, Artistic Director of Dundee Rep says he was able to go for a part of the Colony and found the experience invaluable.

"There really is a fantastic infrastructure there in terms of nurturing and development and it’s specific to developing new musicals," he says.

"That’s all that they do - and they have a real history of it. They’ve had many, many Broadway transfers and they’ve won Tony Awards - they’ve even had a specific Tony Award to them for nursing new musicals which is great."

"I can only speak from my perspective," he adds, "but it was an incredible experience because of the infrastructure for development, which we don’t necessarily have in one place in this country.

"To have a hub like that is incredible. Even down to the ways in which rehearsals are run - what stage management means in the States - it’s quite different to the UK."

Scott and Claire also found the experience powerful. "As the first Scottish writers to have ever been invited to the Colony, it was a huge privilege for us both to learn from other writers work, but also their practice as American artists."

"It was a unique experience that helped us develop the piece, but also our process as a writing partnership. It was also important to us to begin writing Ben’s story in an environment like this, as it is set against such an iconically American landscape.

"Getting this guidance and feedback from the Colony allowed us to embed an authenticity to the work, before bringing it back to Scotland to create a more universal voice for the show as a whole."

"It has been thrilling to see the possibility of transatlantic development for us both. Harnessing the level of skill, knowledge and investment available when working with somewhere like Goodspeed, but then supporting that with the care and craft present within Dundee Rep, helped us build a show that was filled with the best of both worlds.

"A story that's worked, and has a continued future, on both sides of the water."

Ben went into production in America this Spring. "Even that production was what they call the experimental slot," says Andrew.

"On the back of that, it got selected for the National Alliance of Musical Theatre Festival of New Work which happens in New York City this October. There’s only eight pieces selected. It’s a very hard thing to be selected for."

NAMT (as it's known) is attended by many of the key regional theatres across America, and so the potential for generating further performances is huge.

"Also," Andrews adds, "Broadway producers are there. In some ways, it's a shop window for the work, but it’s also a real melting pot for talking about the development of new work.

"For Scott and Claire it’s a real opportunity - it’s incredibly exciting."

Hi, My Name is Ben was at Dundee Rep in September 2018. It is being shown in New York in October 2019. Find out more at namt.org/musicals/hi-my-name-is-ben/.

This article was published on 09 Aug 2019