MJ Morgan the force behind Widgeon Theatre Boat, a theatre on a vintage narrow boat, and the new musical The Grit of Life talks to Andrew Kay
Life on a narrow boat has a romantic air to it MJ, but which came first, living onboard or creating a theatre onboard?
Hi Andrew good to meet you, living onboard a boat came first about eight and a bit years ago which is what introduced me to the amazing community and led me to wishing to introduce them to my world of theatre, live music and events.
When, where and how did you become involved in theatre?
My first ever job in theatre was as a dresser for the Drury Lane Theatre after knocking on many theatre stage doors asking if they had any openings. I got to work on the production of 42nd Street. This led to working in film productions of music videos, commercials, filming live performances, short films, documentaries and music multi camera performances of artists including Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Elbow, Bryan Adams and the Mobo Awards. Working as a stage manager with the Theatre & Circus of Glastonbury I had the fortune to work for Arabella Churchill a great inspiration and who supported outdoor theatre and performers enormously.
One of the premises of Widgeon is taking theatre to places that normally have limited access to live theatre, how does that work?
By doing research to find out which towns and areas the canals and rivers pass through, finding places that enable Widgeon to moor up next to a large grassy area or existing seating or auditorium space such as Kings Cross or Bristol Harbour or in Greenford London. Then I pre-plan the schedule of the tour to insure we can bring theatre to places with limited access to live theatre.
The Grit of Life is a new work by Rory McLeod and John Knowles, how did it come about?
I have had the idea formulating in my mind for quite some time to be able to create a musical play that was fun and educational as well as canal based. This would then enable Widgeon to be able to take a specific show on tour that was not only fun, included live music but also educated local people and boaters to the history of the canal. Not being a writer myself I put out on one of the Theatre facebook pages requesting a writer and John Knowles answered the call. In fact oddly he knew some mutual film friends. This led to us both saying we felt Rory McLeod would be the perfect musician to write and compose the music for the show. I approached him through mutual friends and he brilliantly said yes to the project.
Can you tell our readers a little about the story of the play?
The story is a journey narrated by one of the actors who weaves you through a day in the life of a canal, taking you through it’s history both past and present. Introducing characters throughout the day that either live on, by, use the canal or work for. Through Rory’s lyrics and music and John’s script the audience are educated and enjoy live music, the actors playing various roles their social perspectives portrayed such as the jogger, fisherman, liveaboard, industries that thrived from it and much more.
And what might audiences expect from this piece of musical theatre with its roots in the folk music tradition?
Folk music traditionally tells stories and tales of history through the ages. Rory’s music is always known to be very lyrical and does exactly this. With so much information to digest you want to come back to hear it again. The music stemming from all genres using instruments such as harmonica, accordian, available canal tools such as the winlass, banjo and guitar.
Normally your shows take place on the deck of Widgeon, will working on Brighton Palace Pier bring a different atmosphere to the piece, I guess there will still be a watery link?
Yes although we will have performed by then on a stage next to the canal as well as on the grassy banks of Henley on Thames. With the watery link of the Channel as a backdrop we hope this will be in keeping of the subject matter “Just Add Water”. It will be interesting to indeed to see how the reaction will be seeing it on Brighton Palace Pier but we are looking forward to it.
How do you go about casting a piece like this, are the cast folk performers that can act or actors that love and can play folk music?
We did many auditions having done a call out for actors who were also musically talented as well. This took awhile but meant we found the right talent.
For people that love life on Britain’s beautiful canals as you obviously do can you explain the difference between a narrow boat and a barge?
A narrowboat was built specifically to negotiate the narrow canals of the Uk with only up to a width of 7ft maximum they would cargo coal, grit, sand, beer and much more along the waterways. A barge would tend to be a much larger boat that you will see more on large rivers or canals such as you find in China or Holland.
Those canals are seeing a massive revival after years of neglect, has this renaissance meant that you can take Widgeon further afield these days?
Sadly not, in fact I am finding that due to the massive lack of neglect, to dredge and cut back hedgerows, as well as the enormous amount of rubbish thrown into the canals it is becoming harder and harder to move Widgeon to places I would love to go. For example it took over nine days for me to move her from Coventry to Walsall which ought to have taken just four days.
It’s a wonderfully peaceful and slow paced existence these days, a stark contrast to the bustling life of canal people when canals where a major means of transport in the industrial revolution. But your life on the water is pretty busy, do you ever get chance to relax and enjoy the waterways of Great Britain?
I try to and certainly when one is serving the customers and enjoying the audience reactions it gives you a moment to take in the surroundings. At times when the journey is easy and the sun out the beautiful peaceful areas one moves the boat past it is relaxing and enjoyable.
Can you tell us about the members of your company?
Rory McLeod is a singer, songwriter, storyteller, harmonica virtuoso and traveller with music. He has a natural troubadour’s talent for weaving magical, musical and storytelling spells accompanied by his own bizarre solo orchestra of distinctive instruments including : Spoons, finger-cymbals, bandorea, djembe drum, harmonica, guitar, trombone and tap-dancing shoes!
John Knowles is a writer, director, actor and producer, based inHastings East Sussex. His work is uncompromising, vital and full of sharp wit and pathos. Fetch Theatre produces work which explores the personal, the provocative and the absurd and is independent to it’s core. He was recently the winner of the Ironclad New Creative Writing 2021 Award at the Brighton Fringe 2021 for his Fiction Romance production.
Maisy Beth Crunden is an actor-musician who graduated in 2020 from East 15 Acting School, having also studied at the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts. Maisy’s recent credits include ‘Haymarket! The Musical’ (Covent Garden). ‘On Hope; A Digital Song Cycle’ (The Other Palace) and‘Global Enhancers’ (The Tramshed, Digitally Charged Festival). She has recently released her debut EP ‘In the Waves’, which creates a’beautifully organic and natural folkloric world’ for listeners. She is passionate about the integration of music within theatre, andworks as a composer/ musical director for various projects when she is not performing. Aside from this, Maisy is also an internationally award winning and published playwright, primarily writing for Youth Ensembles.
Kristin Duffy is an actor/muso, founder of Slackline Productions and podcaster at The Second Chapter podcast. She has performed with the female/non-binary Shakespeare company : The Sirrah Sisters (Lady Capulet, Romeo & Juliet; Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Antonio, Twelfth Night), The Show Must Go Online (Ensemble, The Winter’s Tale) and with Slackline in The Werewolf of Washington Heights (Izzy Tressider). Kristin has also worked on several films and particularly enjoys comedy roles. She started learning to play the violin at age two, using a butter box with a ruler attached, before being trusted with a real violin
when she was three.
Hannah Harris trained at the Drama Centre London and Boris Shchukin Academy Moscow. She loves working across the arts, including stage, screen and VO work. Recent credits include ‘Nazanin’s Story’ ‘A Crown Fit For A Prince’ ‘The Nutcracker’. Hannah is overjoyed that live performance is back on and so happy to be able to tread the Widgeon’s boards this summer!
Patrick McHugh graduated from Fourth Monkey’s Two Year Rep in 2016. Recent credits include Much Ado About Nothing (Festival Players International, Henry VI pt 2 and Richard III (The Show Must Go Online), Macbeth (Action To The World), Dracula and Frankenstein (TRUESTORY), Darwin’s Tortoise and Taxi Girl (Spanish Theatre Company).
The Grit of Life is coming to PierFolk Festival on Brighton’s Palace Pier, can you sum up in a few words why people should come along to see a folk musical?
It is fun, educational, enjoyable experience that not only will have you tapping your feet but also learning so much as well as taking park in a quiz so a prize to be won.
The Grit Of Life, PierFest on Brighton Palace Pier
For full details & tickets: