My Cultural Life: Conor Mitchell

The musical dramatist on loving London, reading music and the inspiration of education 

You describe yourself as a ‘musical dramatist’. What does that mean in creative terms?

I've always hated the boxes we're put into in the arts - music dramas are the worst for this. I don't know how many times I've had the conversation that starts with 'what is the difference between opera and musical theatre?' So I neither called myself an opera composer or a composer of musicals. Others did that. The truth is I'm a little in-between with a dash of playwright - but that's too long to say, so I say musical dramatist.

I recall you giving a memorably manic performance in an Ulster Youth Theatre production of Oh, What a Lovely War many moons ago. Did you ever have ambitions to be an actor?

I was an actor during my year out at the Lyric Theatre under the late Robin Midgely and David Grant. I loved it and had a ball but never really wanted to be an actor. I couldn't stand being told what to do by the director and writer. It drove me mad!

Lots of writers have no experience of troupes of actors locked in a cold rehearsal room where X has ten funny lines and Y has none and Z hates rehearsing the scene where she has 90 press ups to do naked. Actors form companies and a successful company will communicate that warmth to the audience and create a sense of security. And when you have a sense of security you can do anything you want - including taking it away again!

At what age did you realise that you had a gift for music?

I don't think I've ever realised I have a 'gift' for music, but I certainly have a 'knack'. I always wanted to play an instrument. I was told I was ‘tone deaf’ – my brother John fought to get me a clarinet. I’ve always been aware of the architecture of music. I never had a problem with keys or clefs or anything like that when I was young. That came very easily. I saw music as a set of rules and structures, kind of like buildings and foundations from a very early age.

When other kids were excited by listening to music, I was excited by deconstructing it and rebuilding it – seeing the shapes within it. It’s a visual thing for me. I remember having my first clarinet lesson and being told what all the names for the notes were on the stave, then running home and writing a duet for saxophone and bassoon. It was awful, but I had conquered the bass and the treble clef.

What are the highlights of your career to date?

I had two reading of shows of mine, Mathilde and Old 100th at the Vaudeville Theatre and Drury Lane recently and, while they were only readings I got to work with some outrageously good singers. That was a real thrill. Merry Christmas Betty Ford at the Lyric Theatre was probably the highlight in Belfast. I loved every minute of that experience. My Connections show at the National Theatre, The Dummy Tree, was probably the London highlight so far. But the ultra highlight has been the personal connection with Stephen Sondhiem. He really is my hero and a true light in the world of theatre.

What are you working on at present?

A new opera for the University of Gotenberg, Geppetto in Spring; a musical for London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, The Rosen Street Protest; a song cycle with Mark Ravenhill; a musical in Philadelphia; a new show with Rachel O’Riordan and the Belfast Festival 2010, and a few other projects. So I’m keeping busy.

You’ve been based very successfully in London for some years. How does it feel to show work in Northern Ireland again?

It feels great. I always saw London as a list with boxes to tick beside each thing. Once I'd ticked all the boxes I wanted to tick, I came home. London is like a giant university for artists. I spent a long time there and saw a lot of theatre, met a lot of playwrights/composers/actors/directors and it was very, very good to me. I haven't got a bad word to say about the place. But it was never home. I am a Northern Irish writer. I don't say Irish and I don't say British, I say Northern Irish. I wanted to make my work here and send it outwards.

It is the duty of an artist to make their art the most important thing in their life. I had to return and set up camp in the countryside and write. Also, there is a different vibe in the air now. I look at the work of Rachel O'Riordan, Cahoots NI, Spark Opera, David Fenton, Brian Irvine, the Belfast Festival, C21, Barry Douglas, drama at QUB and I see a change. What matters now is product, is art and, more importantly, the exporting of that art to the world.

What’s your idea of the perfect cultural night out?

Going to see a show that a friend is involved in, seeing them succeed and being able to truthfully say 'you did it!' And I don't mean 'you got through it' or 'it was ok', I mean when they really succeed. The thrill of sitting in an auditorium and hearing a piece by your mate that excites you, or watching a piece of stunning direction, production, writing, acting by someone you know.

Which five people would be on your guest list?

Benjamin Britten, Stephen Sondhiem, WH Auden, Harold Pinter and Janis Joplin.

What are the three best books you’ve read this year?

I've just re-read Britten On Music. I often read passages by him when I'm preparing a piece. His opinions on the role of the composer in society are a must for anyone considering music making. And that's important. We are members of society and should write for that society.

Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat by Mark Ravenhill. The sheer diversity of the writing in this collection of short plays is spectacular. They are almost like a 'here's all the ways to write a play' manual. I've just set one to music, Intolerance for Spark Opera. Also, The Seven Basic Plots. It you haven't read this, do. I'm almost tempted to say that all playwrights should be given a copy by the Arts Council. It's that good!

Who or what inspires you?

Education inspires me. I was taught in youth theatre by four people: Peter Quigley, David Grant, Michael Poynor and Joan McPherson. I cannot think of a day when I don’t draw on something one of those people taught me. I have written for and worked a lot with young people and students. Every time I do I try to remember what I was like when listening to one of those four as they talked about theatre. That helps a great deal because you are in a very, very important position when a young person asks you a question. Your answer may change their life forever. They inspire me every time.

Jane Coyle

The Musician runs at Belfast Metropolitan College from 26 to 31 October (7.00 pm and 2.30 Sat). For more information visit the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s website by clicking here.