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  • Helena Fox

From Rehab to Space

I had never imagined myself as writing for musical theatre. My first ever piece of writing for stage (other than 5-minute drag sets!), Rust the Musical, came out of the firm belief that I had a story worth telling and the passion to tell it. Rust was formed relatively quickly – I had the initial idea - that my time in hospital just before I moved to Cambridge could make a musical worth watching - in August 2018. The scribbled thoughts I put down then remained tucked in a notebook and hidden in the back of my head, until a few months later, where I found myself applying to write a CUMTS original musical for the Fringe 2019. Following brainstorming brunches at Pembroke College with Geraint, the show’s composer, in the Lent term of my second year, prod team recruitment in the Waterstones café, and a post-exams, pre-May Week few days filled with whiteboards, timelines, piano chords, and a fair amount of lying face down on the floor, Rust began to emerge.

At the end of July, the cast and crew of the show descended on my tiny countryside village for a week of rehearsing in the church hall and eating dinner crammed around my kitchen table. Over those few days, through discussions, sing-throughs, and quite a lot of tears, we started to realise we were making something that felt really important. At the end of the week, we performed a preview of the show in my old school town, which ended in a 140-person-strong standing ovation from our family, friends, the incredibly generous neighbours who had hosted Rust members in their homes that week, old teachers, and even my counsellor from hospital. It was, all cliché aside, one of the best nights of my life.

After a car journey up to Edinburgh in which Geraint and I frantically tried to cut 12 minutes of the show (!!) to squeeze it into our show slot, Rust’s time at the Fringe began. It is three weeks I look back on beyond fondly – I treasure memories of pretending I was a techie in the show’s sound box, evenings eating dinner in the flat (the Rusty palace), rocking up at the most obscure shows we could find at midnight, quiet mornings watching Netflix in bed, climbing Arthur’s Seat and being blown into each other by the fierce wind, sampling brownies from all the coffee shops in the city. Of course, the fact the show did so well amongst audiences and critics was the biggest of cherries on top of an-already-very-large cake.

As I have said in all my reflections of Rust, meeting and hearing from audience members was the most special part of the Fringe experience for me. To have a fellow rehab alum shake my hand and thank me for telling a story like theirs, or to receive an Instagram DM months later from a teenager saying the songs from the show stay with them on difficult days, was more moving and profound than I could ever have imagined when I sat scribbling those first ideas in 2018. Bringing the show home to Cambridge, the place where I learnt how to be happy again, in November 2019, was a joy. It was such a privilege to once again be surrounded by my Rusty family, and to receive a standing ovation from a sold-out ADC was unforgettable.

Rust was an act of faith for everyone involved – for CUMTS, me, and Geraint, given I had never written for the stage before, and for the cast and crew, who signed up before the show even existed; I am so grateful to everyone for having that faith. Writing it was a completely new experience for me, and Rust isn’t an exercise in technical playwriting, but it is, I think, an exercise in passion, heart, and belief in the power of theatre. It was, of course, an intensely personal show for me, and something that remains a glowing and hopeful landmark in my recovery. But, as I said to the Rusty family throughout its creation and staging, the show belongs to every single person involved in it just as much as it does to me.

I can so distinctly remember when Georgia first told me about Astrid! We met for brunch in The Locker (I miss it every day) in February, and I was so excited and flattered that someone would consider me a writer at all, let alone one they’d like to work with. Things soon turned upside down (and became uNpReCeDeNtEd), but we were still keen on working towards applying as a Lent Term ADC Mainshow.

I was pretty daunted at the prospect of writing Astrid to begin with – it was two acts, longer than Rust, and grounded entirely in fiction, which most of my writing isn’t. I was also rather overrun with trying to finish a third-year dissertation and take my finals online, so it wasn’t until the summer that Astrid really came into focus. What followed, though, was an exciting, difficult, hilarious, frustrating, and heart-wrenching writing process. It has been so much fun getting to know the characters onboard the spaceship Mara, through video calls with Georgia that end in us going, ‘I just want to give this character a hug!!’, an-already-thriving quotes page (‘To yeet or not to yeet?’), and enthusiastic use of the space gifs on Facebook.

I absolutely wouldn’t call myself an expert at any of this, and I am so grateful to CUMTS and to the ADC for allowing all of us to practise what we love doing, and to all the incredible creatives I have met over the past few years, including Georgia, who have inspired me, trusted me, and made me laugh. It’s nerve-wracking having a show programmed during COVID times – there is so much uncertainty involved and so many possibilities to consider. But I am so excited that Astrid has been programmed as the first student-written musical mainshow, and am crossing all my fingers and toes that the curtain gets to go up on mine and Georgia’s beloved spaceship.

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