YOU may think that a job where you don’t have time to sleep for three weeks might be a bit of a pain.
Not so for Katie Doherty, whose role as musical director for Northern Stage’s play for the under-sixes marks her favourite time of year.
“I had three weeks to write the music for The Little Detective Agency and the Case of the Festive Thief,” she says.
“I don’t sleep and it is very intense. It really is 24/7 and I have tended to pull all-nighters.”
Playwright Susan Mulholland completed her draft script for the Christmas show in July and it went through several stages before the rehearsal draft was completed.
Katie, 29, adds: “I don’t write any music until rehearsals start as a week into rehearsals the play could be a completely different beast.
“Also, I don’t know who has been cast until the first day of rehearsals. The cast have to sing the songs twice a day, every day, for a long time, so it is important that the tunes suit their vocal range.
“I talk to the cast about what they are comfortable with and try to get a sense of what they might be petrified about!”
Katie then has under a month to write original music before it is recorded in the studio and rehearsed by the cast whose live singing is accompanied by a backing track in the show.
She says: “I did some seat-of-the- pants rewriting in the last rehearsal to change ‘I want to be a hippopotamus’ to ‘I don’t want to be a hippopotamus’.
“And this year we did the recording in two days, but it is always skin of the teeth. We were still recording less than a week before the first performance of the show.”
While writing and rehearsing for Northern Stage in the daytime, Katie was also performing a show at Wallington Hall with the November Club during the evenings. Having composed the music for promenade show Teacups, Zebras and Dancing Kaisers, she was playing the part of Lady Trevelyan.
Katie, who now lives in County Durham, says: “It is only a four-week period so you know there is light at the end of the tunnel and I love doing the Christmas show.
“I really look forward to it and it is my favourite project of the year. Taking yourself back to being six again is good fun.”
She is aided by her nieces, Hollie, 12, and Ella, 10, who recorded backing vocals for last year’s show, Shhh... A Christmas Story, and again for The Little Detective Agency.
Katie says: “I spend a lot of time with my nieces. I do schools projects and teach children privately too. So I have lots of inspiration and I also send all my songs to Hollie and Ella first so they can tell me if they are rubbish or not.”
She adds: “I felt it really added to have children singing, as hopefully the songs are singable. That’s a key thing for me. I would like there to be something in the show which people can sing on the journey home.”
This is the third year in which she has worked closely with the Northern Stage under-sixes team and director Mark Calvert.
Katie, who studied on the folk and traditional music degree course at Newcastle University, says: “Mark gave me ideas of sounds he wanted to infuse into the show. He had been watching a lot of Famous Five and Scooby Doo before this show.
“Very early on he said he wanted it to have a proper Northumbrian theme as the play is loosely based on Holy Island. My background is in traditional music and there’s a wealth of traditional musicians here so that was easy.
“The jigs and reels which are common to Northumberland are great for children to bop up and down to. And the bip-boo-diddle-diddle-oo song is meant to echo the sound of Northumbrian pipes, which might be lost on six-year-olds... but it is all osmosis.
“I was pleased when Mark said he wanted a traditional sound as music on the TV is mostly synthesised for quickness and cheapness.
“For a lot of children’s theatre, the music is all on one instrument. There are amazing programmes which can give you a whole symphony orchestra! So the way I do it is a long way around.”
Katie also worked alongside Susan, deputy director of Northern Stage’s participation programme, who has written the last seven Christmas shows for little children.
The Little Detective Agency is the adventure story of Lucy and James who are on the trail of villainous Christmas present thieves and they must follow the clues to discover the stolen gifts, find their Granny and trap the thieves before Christmas Day.
Katie says: “When you are working from a story there is so much imagination there already and so much to feed from. It is a team effort and Susan will spot opportunities where a song could replace text.”
My daughter particularly liked the lyric ‘Don’t stick your toes up her nose,’ which Katie says she “nicked from Roger McGough”.
“I love the silly stuff like that. It makes me think of being six. I was the youngest in my family and a bit mischievous. My favourite book as a child was Demon Daisy’s Dreadful Week. She put cooking apples in the tumble drier and picked flowers in the park to give her mum. I do a lot of reading to get ideas.”
Katie is spending the weeks before Christmas on tour with Broom Bezzums, a German-based British folk-rock duo. And in the new year she is working with the November Club theatre group again on a new promenade show called Dr Mullins’ Anatomy of the Theatre Royal.
Meanwhile, there’s a case to solve over at Northern Stage...
:: The Little Detective Agency and the Case of the Festive Thief runs at Northern Stage, Stage 2, until January 5, www.northernstage.co.uk or 0191 230 5151.