Lockdown lightbulb moment creates new business

By Stephanie Edwards

A lightbulb moment in lockdown launched an entertaining new business that’s helping children boost their creative skills and confidence. Stephanie Edwards speaks to two enterprising RCS graduates on how they developed a business over Zoom amongst the chaos of 2020.

Make Your Own Musicals is a new venture which creates activity packs for young people to write, rehearse and perform their own mini-musicals at home.

Behind it are musical theatre creatives, Jonathan O’Neill and Isaac Savage – who met during their BA Musical Theatre studies at RCS – and Adam Lenson, a London-based director, producer and creator. Graduates Jonathan and Isaac take Stephanie Edwards on their musical journey.

How did Make Your Own Musicals come to life?

Jonathan: When lockdown hit, we were in the middle of City of Angels at RCS. We did one performance and the run had to be cancelled. After that, it was the Easter holidays, which meant a lot of free time, which isn’t common.

I attended an industry Zoom meeting for people in the new musical theatre profession and one of the things that came up was musical theatre and education. During the meeting, I had the idea to create activity packs for kids to write their own musicals at home.

I pitched the idea to Isaac, and he loved it, so I contacted the organiser of the Zoom meeting, Adam Lenson, to ask for advice. I told him about the idea and he decided to join us.

Part of the idea also came from teaching at the Glasgow Acting Academy. I wrote a song one day with the kids and realised that there was nothing to help them write their own material. From there, we developed our prototype pack and refined it before launching our website. We’ve introduced new packs and features and we’re just doing everything we can to make sure that the packs inspire creativity and confidence and get young people using their communication skills.

Isaac: The packs are structured to take them through every element and while they are designed for kids, it’s also the same process we use for writing musicals.

Jonathan: Children don’t have to be able to play a musical instrument or have any musical experience to write songs – it’s incredibly accessible. It gets them involved in a fun way. We give them the basics of melody and lyrics – a good start if they want to go on and learn an instrument or write their own music.

We’ve received videos of the children performing and seeing them so excited when they get to sing and dance reminds us why we started it. It feels like we’re giving them the opportunity to do that, whenever they want.

A child singing into a mobile phone

What’s it like launching a company during a global pandemic?

Jonathan: We saw companies either completely shift their process or just go quiet whereas we tried to make something positive come out of it. In some ways, it’s been harder than we thought even though the inspiration came from lockdown. We’ve been trying to do the best we can with getting the word out but you have to spend money on marketing to get the returns so we’re slowly building our audience. Any new company takes a while to build trust and awareness but we have a few West End performers on board which is a vote of reassurance and taking part in Converge (the Scottish Academic entrepreneurship initiative) has helped.

How do you work as a team?

Jonathan: Normally one of us comes up with an idea, we brainstorm what could happen, the style of music, go away and work on it and keep checking in via Zoom.

Isaac: Jonathan and I worked together in person before Covid so we’re really in tune with each other. It makes it easier when we have to work apart.

What support did you receive from RCS?

Jonathan: We received so much support from RCS. I’d spoken with Research and Knowledge Exchange Manager Deborah Keogh in the past about a different idea and was given information and resources. That gave me a head start when lockdown happened. The support, advice and contacts have been invaluable for keeping us on track and giving us the extra push to keep going.

Also, Noisemaker (multi-award-winning writing partnership of RCS graduates Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie) has been so supportive and, like mentors, they’re always happy to give their time and advice.

How did it feel to make the final of Converge, which shines a light on Scottish Academic Entrepreneurship?

Jonathan: It was an amazing experience and I learned so much. I had entered another big competition and wasn’t successful, so I filled out the Converge application and didn’t expect anything. I thought, ‘I’ll just see how it goes and do my best’.

I was so surprised when I got the email about going through to the semi-finals. Without the business support, I wouldn’t have any of the knowledge of how to write a business plan or forecast our finances. It made us think about the nitty-gritty side of the business.

Getting through to the final was amazing. I had to prepare a professional pitch and a ten-minute interactive pitch. We got a real picture of our company’s aims and goals and what our future could look like. Although we didn’t win, it’s an experience that I’m so grateful for. It broadened our connections in the industry and entered us into the creative business world.

How did your RCS education help you on Converge?

Jonathan: It set us apart, especially on the pitching side. It helped us go in with confidence and creativity. We’re so used to public speaking because we perform on stage all the time. We could present our ideas in a clear and fun way.

Isaac: RCS helps you make big, bold choices.

What are your favourite memories of studying at RCS?

Isaac: For me, it was the production of Assassins in 2019. There’s the excitement of going into third year and it goes ridiculously fast but you’re putting everything to use after the years of preparation.

Jonathan: I agree. It was such an amazing show to work on — it was dark, funny and political.

One of the best things about RCS was the opportunity to get creative in things like Bridge Week. It allowed us to try out new things in a safe space, with a budget and collaborate with new people, especially with our second-year project Tanya: A New Musical that we wrote together.

We worked with around 30 or 40 people from so many courses and disciplines. We sort of made a little family and it was just so inspiring. I was so proud of what we created throughout that process. For me, I think that’s what RCS stands for, it doesn’t make these musical theatre machines that just sing and dance and can do triple pirouettes; RCS gives you the tools to create new work and collaborate. We wouldn’t be writing together if it wasn’t for RCS. It developed us as artists, rather than performers.

Isaac: I wouldn’t be writing at all if it wasn’t for RCS.

What’s the dream?

Jonathan: Writing musicals for the West End whilst also doing Make Your Own Musicals.

Isaac: Seeing Make Your Own Musicals as an app, a subscription service but also a free app version with games and little mini masterclasses and webinars. It’s getting kids on the screen to get them off the screen!

We recently launched a panto pack where you’ve got the option to get your whole family involved. After Christmas, we’re developing a structure to work with schools and, later on, adult packs for dinner parties.

Make it Happen Lockdown Fund

The Make It Happen Lockdown Fund 2020 is a source of support and resource for graduates to begin to undertake the development of new ideas and to support them in finding their place within this evolving context of the performing and production arts.

The Make It Happen Lockdown Fund is an investment in emerging artists from RCS to develop their ideas. 40 awards have now been made to the Class of 2020.

Awardees include:

Charlie Galloway, Megan Adair, Joseph Regan, Fraser Scott, Alexander Waddell, Tiernan Courell, Islay Gray, Stuart Bramwell, Rufus Elliot, Jodie Li-Smith, Ellen McNeill, Calum McIlroy, Rhona Macfarlane, Fergus Hall, Neil Wood, Chloe Bryce, Alia-Lauren Clain, Jonathan O’Neill, John Dew, Peter McNeil, Alistair Ritchie, Neal Clark, Anna Garvin, Isaac Savage, William Parker, Valerie Barr, Minnie Crook, Isla Ratcliff, Tessa Henderson, Filip Holacky, Daniel Brown, Olivia Tomasovic, David Ronan, John Whittle, Katrin McNaught, Jack Heydon, Craig McCorquodale, Yutong Zhang, Lawrence Boothman, Shakara Ahad.

Alongside the Make It Happen Lockdown Fund, RCS is also running a Make It Happen Mentoring Scheme. Graduates selected for the Mentoring Scheme will receive three personalised mentoring, advice or support sessions with professionals in their field.

Graduates selected for the Mentoring Scheme include:

James Heathcote, Tzejia Hiew, Jocelyn Pettit, Marin Searles, Beca Tegryn Davies, Keena Wildman.

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