A Conversation with Scott Gilmour & Claire McKenzie
Written by Helen Scultz
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
July 27, 2016
The story of Forest Boy seems like it was meant to be put onstage: out of nowhere, a boy emerges from the woods, and tells the story of how he hid out in the forest and is all alone in the world. Or is he?
Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, a composing team from Scotland, brings Forest Boy to the New York Musical Festival this summer. We sat down to talk about making a living as an artist, social media, and the freedom to construct one’s own identity.
Helen Schultz: How did you first encounter the story of Forest Boy?
Scott Gilmour: In 2013, Claire and I were commissioned to write a piece for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. We were brought in for a very last-minute notice – they said, “We have a development week thing and if you have any ideas, you can come in and work with this cast,” but we didn’t have any ideas. That story was trending at the time on Twitter and Facebook, and we kind of got a bit hooked.
Claire McKenzie: I found it on Facebook one night and I read it, and it’s a fascinating true story and I just wanted to keep on reading about what happened. It was still unraveling at the time, so back then there wasn’t an end to the story – where it ended was that he was found working in Burger King. I thought there’s something very poetic about that. He came out of the forest and this land and character he had created, but in reality he was working at a Burger King. I found that there was something theatrical in that for me.
SG: We took the story and a song into this development week as a starting point, and the conservatoire that we were working with liked it. They gave us some commission money to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The story was still unraveling, [so] the version at Fringe didn’t have an ending. This version does have an ending, don’t worry.
HS: And you both went to the Royal Conservatoire in Scotland. How did you guys meet and start working together?
CM: I studied composition in the music school – they have a music school and a drama school. For the first four years, our paths didn’t cross because I was in the music school. Scott studied musical theater performance. I moved to the drama school for a year and did musical direction. We met and became friends through that course and through meeting in drama school. We decided that we liked the same things, and we went to see lots of theater and just became friends. One day we decided we might try to write together, and, actually [Scott] signed me up for something–
SG: –yeah… I kind of forced Claire to do it. We had put together another project, and it was a new works thing. I was working as an actor in it, and you were a musical director. The vibe of the room was very cool, and I thought maybe we should try to do this, the two of us. At the end of my degree, there was this sort of collaboration thing between the Conservatoire and this theater in Glasgow that was an underground, new works venue. They had this collaborative project where if you had any ideas you wanted to develop, you could do that. I didn’t ask Claire, and I [just] signed her up to work with me. We went for the pitch, and our first piece was a piece called Freak Show. It was based around a Coney Island freakshow, so it was a song-cycle type thing. It was sort of immersive, so the audience moved around it and if you’d stop by a performer, they’d have a song and interact with you. That was the first idea we had. From then on, that show went on to have another life and we were like, “Oh! Well maybe we should do this again sometime!” That was four years ago, and now we’re here!
HS: Forest Boy is of course based on a true story and real people that are still alive. How did you go about culling all these facts and figures, and putting them into something that’s also narrative?
SG: For me, I find it a challenge in that when you’re able to come up with your own world and your own story, there’s a lot more artistic license to do what you want with it. When you take a true subject, there’s a respect there. You can’t lie too much if it’s a true thing. The biggest challenge was trying – with the theatricality – to fit in these facts.
CM: True, and I’d say structure. Because we’ve done three or four different versions of the show over the years, I think the main thing that we’ve been playing with is what the best order and structure to tell the audience this story, because it’s quite complicated. Do you tell them all of the forest story, then all of the real story of what really happened, or do you tell them at the same time, or do you try and tell them as it was unveiled in the press? That’s this version. You can tell it lots of different ways. It’s just very complicated story to tell – it’s not a linear structure.
SG: It’s also that dangerous thing that when you get a real story, you’ve got to try and find the version of it that’s actually true because it was a story that came through the press and social media, and they have a tendency to exaggerate. In order to get the facts, you need to troll through the different articles. For me, when it came to getting the actual facts and figures about when he was there, when he was kept there, and how long he stayed in Berlin and all that, I actually turned to the German papers. Everyone else was a knock-off version of the German newspapers at the time. There were a lot of news sources in the UK, but there was a sort of a diluted version of the truth, so you have to do the detective work to get the real story.
CM: He hasn’t done many interviews. There’s not much we found of what he made of the whole thing. He’s decided not to really talk about it.
SG: I think that was a way in, of making it a drama, because he’s the only one that has not spoken out. So you’ve got all these people saying that he’s like this, or like that, and actually there’s this kid in the middle of it all who still hasn’t done any press – he did one interview in a little tiny paper in Holland, and that’s it. Immediately you go, well maybe we can make a character out of him.
HS: So much of this show is about media frenzy.
CM: That’s a big part of the show.
HS: And I feel like that’s a big part of our world right now, too.
CM: They made “Forest Boy.” They made the story what it is. In reality, a boy turned up and tried to be taken in by social workers, but we – the media and social media and the press – made it into the story of Forest Boy, a big mystery that lasted about a year. Without them, it would have never become a story.
SG: It’s enticing and I think it was one of the reasons that we felt maybe now is the time to tell the story in that way because even five years ago, ten years ago certainly, it wouldn’t have happened. He wouldn’t have become this huge, massive “who’s Forest Boy?” and #ForestBoy would have never become a thing. It would have stayed local, it would have stayed a national thing in Germany and it wouldn’t have permeated across into all our cultures. Forest Boy is one story, but – like you said – social media is doing that all over the place. It’s exaggerating everything. As a person, I get most of my news through Twitter way quicker than I get it through a newspaper – it’s immediate. That said, you take what’s said there as truth… It’s a different time now, I guess.
HS: Has it made you consider these things differently in your own lives, and how it forms your opinions?
CM: Scott doesn’t have Facebook, do you?
SG: I’m really bad at it; I’m really awful. I’ve been told to get Twitter because of work. But I’m getting better at it. I’ve started doing hashtags and everything, but I never got Facebook. It is a really fascinating thing: how quickly you can become reliant on it being there, and how quickly you can rely on it not just for communication, but for information. We take what it says as granted right away.
CM: Also, we know something that’s happened, instantly, anywhere in the world. In the past, it would take time to feed through.
SG: Exactly! Like the thing in Turkey, the madness that happened there. The Prime Minister, he’s out of the country, and they cut off the internet in Turkey, but he’s got Twitter and can see everything happening, like the coup. It’s a really different kind of time.
HS: And now celebrities like Forest Boy have morphed into politicians like Donald Trump.
SG: Because he’s become a character in himself.
CM: In Scotland, we have an opinion of him through the media. That’s all we have.
SG: Taking it back to the story, what always took me about that story was that it he has been turned into a character, like Donald Trump – he’s become The Forest Boy. But who actually is that, underneath all that stuff? Why did he do that thing, and how does he feel about it? It began to become a window into why we wanted to make a piece about it.
HS: Forest Boy also constructs his own identity, that’s so disparate from his reality. Could you talk about identity in this piece, and what role it plays?
SG: I think one of the most exciting parts of this story, for me, is that it immediately divides people. On one side, you have people saying this guy is a hero! He managed to convince the whole world that he was this kid from the forest, he escaped his life, and he said I’m not going to accept that this is the life I’ve been given, I’m going to do something different about it. And I feel that. I think he’s brilliant. And that fact that his imagination could do that to the world. But then you get all these other people, who are like he’s like a little dick. How could you do that?! He lied, and cheated, and played everyone along in that way and I think it’s one of the interesting parts of the story: what is it about his identity and our own? Do you just accept what’s been laid out in front of you, or do you have a say in it?
CM: Can you change it? He did. He tried to.
SG: I think as a piece, it’s a massive part of it. One of the hooks about the story is that you kind of want it to be true. You want to believe that he actually did live in the forest. You think, wouldn’t that be great? Because in the back of your head, it’s the thing you ask yourself: could I do that? Could I drop everything and go live in this other place and become someone else? I think it questions an awful lot about how we feel about our own identity, and I certainly did when I first read it.
HS: Switching gears a bit: can we talk about the difference in making art in the US, Scotland, and the UK?
CM: There are some similarities – we have experience in Fringe; and this right now is a festival. There are some similarities in the kind of speed you need to make it, the speed you need to put it up in the theater; there’s no comfort time, everyone’s running at pace to make the show, which I think creates an energy. I think that’s something that, for shows that a take a long time, sometimes you can lose that momentum. So that’s a really positive thing. In terms of differences, in Scotland, musicals aren’t a big culture, and in the UK it’s not as big as it is here in the US. Scotland hasn’t made that many [musicals] so you’re trying to build an audience for musicals over there, while here the musical is the major genre of theater. It’s wonderful being in this environment where it’s such a big thing and you have a massive audience waiting to see the work.
SG: I think it’s a slightly different feeling about how you make stuff over here as well. It’s different in that – particularly in New York City, which is like this incredible place that all this wonderful work come from – even at this stage, you’re surrounded by a bunch of people asking you, “What’s the next thing? Where’s it going to go next?” I think that’s great, because to think in that way is really positive. In Scotland, because a lot of arts is subsidized by the government, if you want to do anything, you have to send an application into an arts council, and if they consider it and they like it, you get some money to do the thing. Whereas here, if you want to do the thing, do the thing. You’re on your own and you’ve got to make it. That energy is really present here, but sometimes you can see it clouding everyone’s vision on actually making a bit of art because everyone is so worried about the next thing, and how can we make it bigger.
CM: It’s very much a business here, isn’t it?
SG: That’s it! That’s missing from where we are.
CM: Well, we’re on a festival level, but on a Broadway level, there has to be a return. There has to be a viable business, which is understandable. Whereas in Scotland, you would get money to put on a show and if you made money, that would be great.
SG: It’s less for profit. It’s never “let’s sell this thing out.” It’s “let’s make another piece for people in Dundee because they don’t get theater that much and let’s make it for them” and that’s a slightly different tone. Actually, being over here, I think the best version is set somewhere between the two. I think it’s something that I think is a business, but also keeps the heart of it at the front.
CM: It’s probably why we’re grateful to be here, though, because we’re learning from both ways of doing it. We’ll hopefully find that middle ground of how to make work, but also make money while doing it. That would be nice.
HS: How does government funding affect the tenor of your work, and what it’s like to live as an artist in Scotland?
SG: You can live as an artist in Scotland. You can afford to. You can afford to do a couple of jobs throughout the year and that is enough to make a living and you can have your own place just by doing your job. Over here everyone has so many jobs and everyone does everything – it’s amazing! Everyone’s sort of like I do this at night, then that and that pace is really incredible.
CM: I have to move around Scotland to whichever theater wants some music for the next show, but I’ve only ever worked as a composer. I imagine I couldn’t have that here. I would have to do something else on the side. I imagine I would have to do something else and write in my spare time here with the hope that it would get on.
SG: We’ve been been quite lucky in that way. It’s that thing of allowing you some time to develop your craft. We’ve done five other shows since doing Forest Boy, and now we come back to doing Forest Boy and it’s like, “oh, we’re better at this now than when we started.” I think being away from it, working in a more regional environment, [in our case] Scottish theater, allows you that time to make mistakes; you’re allowed to get it wrong, and it doesn’t destroy your entire career if you get it wrong in an environment like that. It feels like – coming to a place like New York – it’s a wonderful place to bring stuff to when it’s ready to come here. If it’s really ready, it’s the perfect place for it to flourish. But if you mistime that, you kind of get eaten up, it feels like, and you can never come back here.
HS: Claire, I wanted to ask you, in the US, female composers are not the most common, and it’s just starting to get talked about. Is it the same in Scotland?
CM: It’s still a male-dominated industry. I’m a musical director as well, and that’s very male-dominated. The thing is, I’ve kind of gotten used to it because I remember even when I was back in school, I was the only one in my music class. I was the only girl in the composition department when I started at the Conservatoire. That’s gotten better though – they’ve started bringing in more girls. But I remember at the start I was the only girl in my year. I’ve just kind of been used to that environment. I stopped noticing it. I think if you do a good job and you keep doing good work, it shouldn’t matter, and I hope it would count over here as well. I remember I was warned when I thought I wanted to go into theater by quite a lauded musical director in London. He said, “It’s really hard for a woman.” At that stage, I think it really was. I hope it’s changing. I think it is in the UK, and I would hope it is here, too. It’s good that we are talking about it as an issue!
HS: I think Fun Home was our wake-up call.
CM: Yes. You know, you’re right. I can’t name anyone… even in London, can you name anyone? In the big shows?
SG: No, actually.
CM: It’s an interesting one. It’s funny – when you’re living it, you don’t realize it so much. Maybe we should change all that.
HS: The stories we tell about ourselves and others are at the center of this piece. When you choose to write stories about yourself and others, how do you decide on what stories you choose to tell? How do you take on that responsibility?
SG: The way we always work is the story has to come from both of us. Usually the idea has got to be a thing that we share and we both connect to because if it’s not that, it’s never going to work. From that point, we find a way in, make a story, make what it will be as a structure, and write the thing. And then I give it to Claire, and she makes it sound good. That way of working always puts the story at the heart.
CM: For us, it’s always picking the lyrics first. In terms of picking a story, we probably go with something that would allow music to have a voice, because I think there’s nothing worse than a very domestic story where you’re trying to chuck music in there.. Certainly with Forest Boy, there was such an environment and imagination, and so many themes that allowed me to be a bit freer in the writing.
SG: I think it has to be a story around an idea that has a way in for music and song for it to make sense, otherwise it’s a waste of the form and it just allows for a lot of storytelling that way. Even if it’s not on a domestic level, if it’s pitched right… Fun Home is totally brilliant that way. It’s allowing the music to do some storytelling for you. I think that’s where musical theater can suffer a little from “I’ve got this great idea, let’s make a musical from it!” Yes, but that idea has to be musical as an idea.
CM: In terms of our ideas, some of our ideas are completely original, whereas I think with Forest Boy and a couple of our other shows, it’s like more of an adaptation, but here’s what we can make our own. It’s always how original can we be with this?
HS: Does Forest Boy know about this musical?
SG: No, but we’ve tried to find him. We went to Berlin to try to find some information about him, and we went to the various places where he appeared. We found the people he appeared to and it was crazy! We met them, and they remembered him. When he arrived in Berlin, he turned up and said to them, “I’m all alone in the world; I don’t know who I am”. They totally remembered him. It was odd because we only knew about him through social media, and suddenly we’re at this place and it’s like my god, it really was real – this was a thing!
He doesn’t know about it because he’s missing again. After they found out about him and that it was a hoax, he went on trial, disappeared, and they found him nine months later, as we said earlier, at a Burger King. After that he had to do the community service and then he just vanished. He was meant to be sent back home to the Netherlands but he never did. So that’s why he doesn’t know, I guess.
CM: We would love to meet him. We have a million questions for him.
SG: The biggest question that we’ve always spoke about is did he plan it? Or did it just come out? That was a choice in the writing and I had to decide that. But I’ve always been so intrigued: did he actually plan it, or did he just appear in front of them and it just came out at that moment? It just changes the whole color of the lie, and the story.
CM: Maybe if the story has another life and we can get to him some way, that would be a goal.
HS: Is it weird to talk about this person and think about what they would do and know that they are out there somewhere?
SG: In my head, if he is the character I think he is, I’d imagine he’d be quite cool in that he is a total fantasist, and I think that the idea that your story is so good that people would spend years writing a musical… I think that’s the fuel for more fantasy. It’s kind of weird, that he’s out there somewhere. All of them are! All the people in that story are really real. That’s the weird bit: the fact that these people are normal, everyday people and just were just thrown into this crazy limelight and then they go back to being normal again.
HS: And there’s this sort of empathy in writing about these people who are all pretty “grey area” – can you talk about theater and empathy and how you access that?
SG: For me, it’s where’s the heart? What’s the idea? It has to fit the theater and it has to fit the imagination. It also has to answer the question, “why should we care about it?” Going to the theater is kind of a pain in the ass, actually – it’s expensive and not always good and if you can answer why I should care about this thing, it actually helps with all of that. I think talking about empathy, it only becomes relevant when the story that you’re telling can in someway be taken back to the present, watching it and going “Oh that’s me, and my own life”. With this story, it’s the subject of identity, and do we have to just accept who we are, or can we make a change in that too?
CM: And we’ve played with different endings as well – we won’t give it away, but in terms of giving the audience the “oh! I could make my life what I want it to be!” and “I have some control,” it’s that sort of… you can make your life exactly what you want with some confidence and courage.
SG: And I think it’s the magic of theater. It’s that actual live conversation between the people onstage and the audience out there, and if we can strike some kind of note that the audience can take away, the note is what theater has over all these other forms. You can’t really get that note as strongly from a film or a book. They speak to us in different ways because they speak to us in the way of life. Think about this and it is magic in that way and I think that what you said in terms of empathy, that’s how you get into it.
HS: And I love that idea of courage too, and I was wondering where you get the courage to go out there and make something like this, and put it in the world as artists.
CM: Because… the two of us.
CM: I was composing a little bit before we started writing together, and I was doing fine, but I think, like, having the courage to come up to New York is a lot easier when you’re a team doing it. And facing it all the difficulties, I don’t think I would be here without you.
SG: I think that is the thing though. We’ve been a partnership for four, five years now, and you give each other confidence in that way.
CM: And you push each other!
SG: Exactly. Absolutely.
CM: If I was on my own, writing a musical, the writing would not be half as good. It’s only because we’re trying to make each other write the best we’ve ever written. And I’m trying to not only write for myself and the audience, but I’m also trying to write the best thing for you as well. So I do think that we’ll get the best part of each other out of that.
SG: I do think that it’s being alone, I think it’s something difficult as an artist out on your own, it is hard – it’s hard to keep momentum, to keep courage, but when you do have that other person –
CM: – even in those hard times, those stressful moments –
SG: – it’s okay, because it’s just a stressful moment. In short, it’s because there’s two of us.
HS: What advice would you give to someone who’s where you guys were when you first met?
CM: Don’t try to be anything you’re not when you’re a writer. Write from the heart. Only write something you connect with and want to tell. Don’t think “I know what a musical is,” because we don’t follow a form. Try and find your own voice, try to be original, but mostly don’t be afraid of making mistakes while you’re learning. And I think we’re absolutely learning.
SG: Totally. Get it wrong. Allow yourself to be inspired by other artists – by other writers, by other stories. But don’t try to emulate them. Just find yourself. Be inspired, but don’t emulate.
Scott trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and now works as an actor, writer and director within the UK and internationally. Alongside composer Claire McKenzie, he runs multi award-winning musical theatre company, Noisemaker. Together Scott and Claire are dedicated to creating and developing original and innovative musical theatre. Previous work includes The National Theatre of Scotland, The BBC, Chichester Festival Theatre, The Royal Lyceum, Clerkenwell Films, Dundee Rep and Starz.
Claire trained in composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and now writes music for theatre throughout the UK. Claire has worked for theatre companies such as National Theatre of Scotland, The Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, Dundee Rep, Citizens’ Theatre and was recently nominated for a BAFTA New Talent Award for Original Music. Alongside writer Scott Gilmour, Claire runs multi award-winning company, Noisemaker, who create and develop original music theatre in the UK and internationally.