BWW Interview: Gabriel Lumsden Talks Life As A Music and Drama Student Under Lockdown
The Talking Heads question - "My God, how did you get here?"
I'm studying music and drama at Manchester University [BA Music and Drama], so musical theatre has become a massive part of my life. I was interested in it before, but in no way to the extent that I am now after seven or eight months on the course.
With the current lockdown situation, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. Thankfully, by chance as it happened, my dad needed to build a sort of acoustic sound booth. He's an actor and does a lot of voiceover work as well. And so we built that together. And I thought, well, I've now got some quite good stuff here, I might as well try using it myself.
So I went in there for a couple of days and made I my "Hello" [from The Book of Mormon] video, which is the kind of thing I've wanted to do for years - a big video, with all sorts of character stuff in there. I already have the music for it, so I used Logic for the sound and made a track per character and it just worked!
That's where you are now, but how did you navigate your way from thinking "I'd quite like to do this" to enrolling on the degree course at Manchester University?
I've always been interested in music and acting. I started playing the piano at five or six years of age and then other instruments, and I've been singing a lot - with both parents being actors, it runs in the family.
And I was just very lucky if I'm honest, because I mainly applied for music and languages courses based on my A-levels, because I wasn't able to study drama at school. My dad actually discovered the music and drama course in Manchester, which based its entry purely on music grades - great for me, because that's all I could give!
Did you have an audition?
There wasn't an audition, but there was an interview and you needed a certain grade level in music on one or two instruments. Once I got to the university, the drama door was thrust open, and I had all these opportunities to do plays and musicals.
How did you find the culture change both in terms of moving from London to Manchester and also then being thrown into the maelstrom of life in a major student city?
Oxford Road, Fallowfield and the Northern Quarter have everything I could want if I were living in London, but I can walk everywhere! So I don't get a bus pass or anything. I think that's wonderful.
The arts and culture scene in Manchester is pretty spectacular. There's so many venues with gigs going on all the time. There's the whole Hulme Complex, which obviously does theatre and cinema and I've seen a few things there, both as part of my course and just going down with friends.
Manchester University is known for its science, so music and drama is one part of a larger university as opposed to it being the main purpose of a specialist college - how is that working out?
It's one very, very tiny part of a really big picture as well, because our BA Music and Drama cohort is the biggest they've ever had. And that's only 12 people!
Being on a joint honours course, does that mean you mix with the music students Monday and Tuesday and drama students on Thursday and Friday?
As a music and drama student, I have a lot more choice in terms of the modules. I think I had maybe two or three compulsory ones and the rest of them I had to sort of pick what worked for me.
You just have to manage your time, which is tricky, but it's absolutely worth it as far as I'm concerned, because you get to be involved with two very good departments. You're also splitting time between student work, extracurricular shows, and rehearsals or performances.
The society I spend a lot of time with is the University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society (UMMTS). That's made up of anyone and everyone. The chair of that society is a fourth-year speech therapist.
How do the mechanics of the course work? So much depends on cross-disciplinary work in theatre, so is it possible to slice and dice it so as you get the richness of experience of those related disciplines?
There's lots of liaison between the two departments, with music and drama all in the same building - a fairly recent change, I understand. There can be miscommunications and timetabling clashes, but many modules have elements of music and drama, regardless of their "home" department. UMMTS have staged operas, for example. So single Honours students get plenty of both disciplines too!
Stanislavski in the morning and Bernstein in the afternoon?
There are very analytical sides to both music and drama. If you focus a lot more on the practical modules, you do have far fewer contact hours, so it's less likely that you're going to have music in the morning and drama in the afternoon. But it can get a bit complicated, because sometimes you do end up rushing around between the two.
Venues like the Watermill Theatre and Union Theatre have a long tradition of bringing together companies of actor-musicians who play both their dramatic roles and a range of instruments. Do you and your fellow joint honours students see yourselves as actor-musicians?
I think it's kind of different for all of us. Personally, I'm interested in being an instrumentalist and an actor. In my last non-musical play, I still ended up being a pianist at one point. It was a student written piece that was meant to be going up to the Fringe this summer, but obviously that's been cancelled.
But it does sound like you've caught the bug of musical theatre. That's where you want to go at the moment?
Yes! Soon after I started, there were auditions every day for all sorts of things. I think it was probably the most auditions I've done in my life. I was actually too late to apply for the UMMTS production of Legally Blonde, but knew someone who was helping sort it out and basically just dropped him a message and said, I've missed all this anyway, but I could try? I went for it and was lucky enough to be cast as Emmett!
I was really, really lucky, because pretty quickly, after arriving in Manchester, I was thrown into this this scene with UMMTS, and I love it. There are so many people from other courses who are just so amazingly talented. We make do with what we have - not the biggest budget or anything like that - because, essentially, everything comes from fundraising. We do three shows a year and it's just been wonderful - I would say it's the best part of uni life.
Yes, there's always so much more to university than the actual education. But it gets to March and lockdown closes universities - so what what's life like now as a student?
I was meant to be doing a music solo performance recital on piano at the end of the term, but that has obviously been cancelled. And everyone on the course (as far as I'm aware) has just been automatically passed, because the first year grades don't count towards the final degree classification.
The other two modules I was doing last term are Performance Practices (Drama) and Introduction to World Cinema - which wasn't specifically a drama module, but a lot of drama students do it. That's been moved online relatively easily with lectures we can download and watch.
It's still been difficult, with one of the hardest things for me as a student suddenly doing my work at home and not being able to leave.
You haven't got the motivation that comes with being in groups - how do you feel about missing that vital learning experience?
Obviously, it's a great loss and it's arguably what we've been paying for, because we have missed out on certain elements of that practical module. Rather than creating a big piece to perform, we've had to come together into smaller groups and write a piece of what's called "Imagine Theatre" - but we're obviously not learning the same skills.
The jump from school to university is pretty massive, and I do feel quite nervous about the prospect of doing my first proper university exams in my second year. It's very frustrating.
I do appreciate that the university's done what they could, but there's nothing they could do really to avoid the fact that we're missing out on months of time at the university. As far as I understand it, they're planning to deliver lectures online at the beginning of the next academic year. When it comes to things like seminars and tutorials, I think it's more playing it by ear, hoping that Government advice will allow the campus to be open.
There's a lot of doom and gloom around the future of theatre right now. I see that, but I think the venues, talent and demand will still be there whenever we open up. That said, capitalising shows, finding viable rehearsal spaces and 101 other things will be a challenge. How do you feel to have a dream opportunity like doing music and drama at Manchester with your industry so nervous?
It is quite scary. I've always had a slight sense of fear going into an industry like this anyway, because, from my family, I know how difficult it is to survive with a career based in music or theatre or both. I very much hope that everyone who enjoys theatre is going to be absolutely desperate for it as soon as it reopens again.
Though it's not professional theatre, we had a UMMTS production of Jesus Christ Superstar cancelled the day before the opening night because of lockdown. Very understandable, but that's left us in considerable debt and we don't really know what we can do to get out of it, beyond hoping to fundraise as much as possible.
Like all venues which depend on the generosity of the public, we hope people will be kind towards us. But that even West End theatres are worried about surviving is terrifying to someone in my position.
Times like this can produce paradigm shifts, and I just wonder what kind of things will be different about theatre in five years time. You're the generation who don't know what life was like before the internet and you will create opportunities.
You've made the very accomplished "Hello" video - have you got any more plans? Because you've definitely got the opportunity to create an online presence which you might not have had if you were working in student productions
Absolutely. I've been trying to plan projects, and not just in terms of musical theatre. It's actually been quite an emotional time, because "Hello" has had such an overwhelmingly positive response. I appreciate that more than I can really put it to words.
So yes, I am very much hoping to do some more. I suppose the difficulty is that I was very lucky with "Hello", because it's just the Mormon characters, who are all male - which is handy for me, but not necessary. I've already been toying with what I can do, where I'm also performing female roles.
I was also lucky that the backing track was very well done. I just don't know the detail on copyright, especially for YouTube at the moment. I do know that it's a really complex situation, and all sorts of content is being taken down.
Are you a member of Student Equity? Because they can help
I haven't thought of that - I think it'd be great to know what I can do. I was thinking of doing a song from Miss Saigon. But, again, finding the right backing is tricky, because they're often sort of karaoke tracks, which I don't particularly want. Or I might find one that's so good I am worried about whether I'm allowed to use it.
There must be so many students and young performers like yourself trying to do this, and there is a well of empathy and support. So maybe there's some scope to loosen some Intellectual Property Rights, even temporarily...
It's difficult to get to a level which is professional enough to put it out there as a showcase. While I've had a lot of fun working on a project like that, it is also what I'm aiming to do with my life and my career, so it's incredibly important to me that I can reach the right quality.
I actually re-filmed the entire thing, because when I watched it back, I just thought, I'm not really acting here. And that's half the battle, isn't it? So, yeah, it's difficult finding a number where you're able to do something like that.
Loosening a bit on restrictions just now would really help new talent to come through. And if people aren't able to do things like that, obviously performers will create original content and that's brilliant. For singers performing songs from shows that exist, we need permissions.
You can't attend the tale of Sweeney Todd without having the music available!
Some people might be able to recreate backing tracks, and it's something I've toyed with myself. I can record some things with very good sound quality, but on piano? Immediately, the sound quality just drops.
The only way you can get yourself out there is from your home, so if you don't have the resources made available, I can't see how people can demonstrate their incredible talent. And that's one of the scariest things about this situation. I can only hope that it will become easier to do this sort of thing.
I wish you guys - "The Fools Who Dream" as Emma Stone sings - the best of luck