“Times being what they are…”

The past couple weeks I’ve been doing a lot of listening and hardly any posting. I’ve spent the last three days just sitting in front of my screen, paralyzed, processing what I’ve seen there. Trying to figure out what exactly I was feeling, what I could possibly add to the conversation that hadn’t already been said. This is what I’ve come up with, for whatever it’s worth: My life has been deeply, incontrovertibly shaped by expressions of Black joy and grief, and if I don’t acknowledge that, I am lying to myself and others.

They are a part of how I pray. I grew up attending a diverse Pentecostal church in L.A. on what was, at least then, the border between the majority-white suburb of Westchester and the majority-black suburb of Inglewood. The words and melodies I used as a conduit to commune with God were written and/or popularized by Mahalia Jackson, Andrae Crouch, Thomas Dorsey, and the Winans. These Black voices, singing of hope through deep suffering, are part and parcel with how I experienced and celebrated my connection to the Divine.

They are a part of how I think about love and happiness. My parents, being the aforementioned Pentecostals, were very strict about what music I was allowed to listen to. Anything on contemporary radio in the ’80s and ’90s was deemed too “worldly,” but since my dad was pretty much addicted to the Motown hits of his youth, we listened to “oldies” or gospel almost exclusively. Most of my childhood memories were set to a soundtrack of Black joy – The Platters, The Four Tops, the Temptations, and The Supremes. They are the songs I danced and goofed off and enjoyed myself to. They are the songs I nursed my first crushes to, the songs that still spring to mind when I think about what love is.

They are why many of my favorite art, artforms, and hobbies exist. Most people who know me know I love to dance. I’m not particularly good at it, but I love to do it. The music I most love to dance to is hot jazz and swing. The ways I most like to dance to that music are swing and tap dancing. None of these would exist without Black people looking to express emotions that didn’t fit neatly inside the European musical and dance traditions that surrounded them. I have spent hours and hours experiencing friendship, strengthening romantic connections, and expressing my own joy in forms created by Black bodies to music that sprang from Black hearts and minds.

They are part of the artistic practice that I’ve dedicated my life to. Yes, the first plays that attracted me to theatre were Irish, English, and French, plays by Wilde, Stoppard, Beckett, and Giraudoux – inherently theatrical works whose games with language captured my imagination. But the first plays to really move and disturb me, shaking preconceived notions and sticking in my head and heart for years were Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson, and Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. European linguistic whimsy started my flirtation with theatre, but Black theatrical imagination turned that flirtation into a deep, abiding love and affects the work that I write to this day. I’ve written a musical with songs in the idiom of 1920s jazz, an expression of Black joy. I’ve written a play about a rock song, and am writing rock songs for a new musical right now. Songs that stand on the shoulders of Sister Rosetta Tharp, Big Mama Thornton, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, to name a few. Not only has my life been enriched by these forms of Black joy and grief, I have used these forms to enrich myself, to build a career and put actual money in my own pocket.

Much of my life has been built on the foundation of Black people singing and writing about their happiness, their love, and their sorrow. So why has it been so easy for me to tune out Black voices when they give expression to emotions that aren’t as comfortable for me? When they speak plainly, when they can no longer expend the energy to dress it up for my entertainment? Do I, who have benefitted in so many ways from Black excitement and determination, not owe a debt? Do I not have an obligation to listen to Black anger, Black frustration and exhaustion, Black cries for equity as closely as I listened to their exaltations? Does my body, which has imitated Black motions on the dance floor, not have a responsibility to act for their relief? There is much in this current moment that I don’t know how to respond to. But I know this. I cannot in good conscience only choose to listen to Black feelings when they suit me. I have basked in their rejoicing for my whole life. Now I have to soak in their cries for justice, their shouts of consternation and protest. Even when it makes me uneasy. Especially then. Our country has spent centuries blithely singing along to black voices raised in laughter and love. It is past time we flipped the record over and seriously listened to the emotions painfully etched onto the other side. It’s past time to move our bodies to that music. Just think of the sounds we can all make together…

Much Ado about King Lear

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So there’s been a meme going around during coronavirus quarantine to the tune of “When Shakespeare was quarantined during the plague, he wrote King Lear,” presenting this fact as a level of productivity for us to aspire to. There have been all sorts of hot takes on whether this is at all a healthy pressure to put on ourselves in a time of crisis, but there’s one aspect of the argument that I’m not sure I’ve seen addressed. At the time, (if I’m remembering my history right) William Shakespeare was already a blockbuster playwright and an established shareholder in a successful theatre company that he wrote for pretty much exclusively. Which is to say, he had money in his pocket and institutional support, and knew that it was basically a done deal that whatever he wrote during the theatre closures would get performed and earn him more income when the playhouses opened back up. So the faster he wrote, the quicker he would start making money again once things blew over.
 
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve actually been pretty damn productive during this thing. Working on two different projects at once, getting a decent chunk done every day or thereabouts. My secret? Just as the virus was starting to spread internationally, I received a grant that gives me just enough per month to keep food in my belly, the internet on, and a roof over my head. Also, both of those projects aren’t on spec (the way I usually wrote before this), they’re commissioned by theatre companies who are actively awaiting the scripts. I don’t have to worry about basic things so my brain is free to create. I’m INCREDIBLY lucky.
 
So if you’re out there wondering where your next meal is coming from, or having to go out and risk your own health and the health of those you love every day just to know where that meal is coming from, and are still able to put anything at all out into the world, I stand in complete awe of you. And if you can’t get anything to come out of your brain right now because it’s processing grief and worrying about much more basic needs, there are seasons for everything so be gentle with yourself. I know a lot of that has already been said in a dozen different ways, but just thought I’d add my voice to the choir saying, yes, situation and context matter here. Be faithful to yourself in the way your particular circumstances dictate. Don’t strive to be Shakespeare. Be you. The specific, lovely, messy human you are. Let this time deepen your understanding of who you are individually and how that ties into who we are collectively. That’s the gift you can give the world right now. It’ll probably contain fewer archaic words that don’t mean what they used to than King Lear, and for that we can all be grateful 😉

Of phantoms, moments in the woods, and the surprisingly fruitful argument over spectacle and substance in musical theatre

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Earlier tonight, I was lying on my bed, scrolling through youtube to see if there were any new insightful interviews with or commentary on Sondheim’s writing process, as one is wont to do when they can’t actually go outside and do anything. One of the videos that came up was the complete broadcast of the 1988 Tony Awards. It was then that I was reminded that Into the Woods and Phantom of the Opera came out in the same year and competed for most of the major awards. I’m not entirely sure why that struck me as so strange, but it did. And maybe strange isn’t the right word. Maybe I was struck by it because in so many ways, it feels emblematic. They’re such entirely different ends of the musical theatre spectrum that I never think of them together, much less think of the fact that their original audiences were processing them at the same time. Two fairly recent trends – the giant mega-budget megamusical full of visual and vocal pyrotechnics and the smaller scale musical as vehicle for revising and reevaluating the stories our culture tells itself – each reaching their full expression in the same Broadway season.

And looking through the nominees and winners for the ensuing years, it feels like the two shows began an argument about what the musical could (and possibly should?) be, a continual seesaw from big sparkly solidly crafted crowdpleasers with soaring melodies to more musically and philosophically daring and adventurous explorations of the myths that mold our society that continues to this day (and includes the rather surprising awards defeat of Wicked, which may very well be the exact center of the venn diagram between the two).

The Best Play nominees of 1988 are almost more mind blowing in their own way- David Henry Hwang, August Wilson, Lee Blessing, and David Mamet all putting new works in front of audiences- two about the elaborate ritual dance of power between white men and two diving straight into the thorny thickets of race, gender, and the painful legacies of othering. What a wild year that must have been.

In a way, reviewing this history gives me hope for the future of theatre. I feel like the dominant narrative about Broadway theatre (and musical theatre especially) is one of true depth and innovation being pushed out in favor of crass, commercial shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator. But looking through the Tonys nominee list from 1988 to now just doesn’t bear that out.

Sure, some years have been thinner than others (looking at you, 1989 and 1995), but the conventional narrative completely ignores the fact that A) Many of the big commercial shows of the last twenty years are a lot more genuinely entertaining (and sometimes even thoughtful) than they’re given credit for, and B) More literary revisionist musicals that experiment with narrative and musical forms have undergone a major renaissance in the last decade. Just the last five years (heh) has seen shows as complex and varied as Fun Home, The Visit, Hamilton, Bright Star, Shuffle Along, Waitress, Dear Evan Hanson, Come From Away, Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and Hadestown. And that’s not even counting the fascinating off-Broadway experimentation of Lortel nominees like this year’s very challenging big hits A Strange Loop, Soft Power, and Octet.

Ultimately, Phantom and Into the Woods basically split the awards that year. Phantom made off with the more production-oriented Best Director and Best Musical awards while Into the Woods laid claim to the creatively focused Best Book and Best Score categories. And really, neither show’s legacy has completely triumphed over the other. Phantom ran for a billion years, while Into the Woods flourished in countless regional, community, and school productions in a way that its rival’s enormous scale never could. And rather than shrink the sorts of shows we see now, in a way their two entirely different views of what musical theatre is may actually be symbiotic – shows like Phantom pull in new audiences with their wide appeal and shows like Into the Woods give those new fans weightier material to chew on as they mature and keeps them coming back. At least, that’s how it worked for me. So in this time where so many of us are fretting over the future of theatre after the pandemic, it might not hurt to take a look at our recent past and realize that it may have been a lot more varied and innovative than the popular doomsday narrative might lead us to believe, which could (dare I say it) actually bode well for what comes next.

On New Processes and New Adventures

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I’ve been working seriously as a playwright for a little over a decade, and yet last week managed to provide me an entirely new experience as a theatre maker. I’ve written some pretty weird things over the last eleven years, but the weirdness always emerged from the traditional process – playwright sits alone in a room for months wrestling with words on a page, then bursts out of said room with a draft of a script and a desperate need for companionship, so she gives the script to actors, who are much more fun to hang out with than a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen, and those actors do all sorts of emotionally vulnerable things to bring the script to life. I know a lot of folks who have done, or even specialize, in devised work where the director, playwright, and actors all start in the same room together from the get-go, but had never been involved in a process like that myself. So I was both excited and slightly terrified when The New Colony in Chicago selected my idea for a punk rock musical about early 1800s intellectual and activist Margaret Fuller for one of their workshops this year.

One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the rehearsal room two Sundays ago was how much I tend to rely on my writing to make first impressions for me. Usually, going into a rehearsal process, the actors who have been cast have already been sent the script and have read at least some of it before meeting me. I hadn’t realized how much I counted on that to legitimize me as a “professional playwright” and someone worth collaborating with until I started shaking hands with actors who had no reason beyond a four page outline with character descriptions they’d been given to trust I knew what I was doing. Even worse, it turned out that some of what I’d written in that outline was actually inaccurate to the historical record. Even so, the amazing actors we’d gathered dug deeply into their characters despite my initially shoddy research, and unearthed some amazing, incredibly contemporary human moments from the this group of women mostly relegated to footnotes in history.

Ultimately, the New Colony’s method of having actors bring in their take on a character for the playwright and director to listen and respond to before writing a word of actual script is as perfect a match of process to material as I can imagine. The play (at this point at least) hinges on Margaret Fuller’s famous Boston Conversations of 1839 – 1844, one of the first intellectual discussion groups specifically for women in the country. Often during those sessions, a particular word or concept would come up as a sticking point and Margaret would task all the women present with writing a short essay defining or elaborating on that concept to present to the others at the next session. So the thought that we’re building this story through a method very similar to the one used in the meetings this story is about is very meaningful to me. And the material I’ve already gathered from these incredible folks on this journey with me has got my brain absolutely spinning with ideas and germinating songs. Can’t wait to keep going with this crew, and to see what we actually end up making together.

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I skyped in last night for the first read through of Earworm at the Campfire Theatre Festival in Boise, and I’m so excited! This is a great cast with some amazing chemistry right off the bat – gripping acting even at the cold read stage, lots of laughter, and some lovely time sharing the songs that have changed and shaped each of us. Arrggh, really wish I could actually physically be in the room for this one, but no, I had to have a botched emergency root canal that kept me from attending the festival as planned. Sigh. If you happen to be lucky enough to not have financially debilitating dental surgeries, and are in or near Boise, check it out. You’re in for a show!

Stuff I’m watching/reading this year pt 1

Really quick, because I’ve not updated in WAY too long, I thought I’d actually try to keep track of things that really ring my creative bells this year. This last month there have been three big highlights –

The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe (I’m late to the party on this one, but it’s wonderful and quietly groundbreaking, I think.)

Russian Doll – A surprisingly beautiful, optimistic story with deliciously sarcastic candy coating.

The Lion – a gripping, emotional one-man musical tour de force that caught me entirely by surprise.

A New Year, a new stab at blogging semi-regularly!

It’s a strange thing to finally come up for breath after a busy year and realize your last post about anything that’s happened to you was more than twelve months ago. So here’s hoping I can do better this year. At least it’s a fairly low bar to clear!

Anyhow, here’s a quick catch-up on one of my favorite events of the past year:

Back in June, I had the immense honor to have my play, An Invitation Out, presented as part of the Benchmark Theatre Fever Dream Festival in Denver, Colorado. It was a great read of the script from a really talented cast. It’s only the second time I’ve seen it on stage, and I was particularly struck by how much of the dynamic of the show transforms with different actors in the roles.

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The festival itself was especially thrilling for its audacious gambit of performing thirteen total plays in three days with the same ensemble of ten actors. I saw all but one of the pieces over the course of the festival, and I’ve never had an experience quite like it. Rather than just seeing these insanely talented folks embody my characters, I got a guided tour through a large swath of what they as actors were capable of. Every time I sat down in that theatre, I was surprised by someone jumping out of the “type” my brain had subconsciously categorized them in. In that way, the festival really was more than the sum of its parts and stood out to me as a truly rare achievement.19149199_478019029200062_7160786860738109608_n

Benchmark’s a really delightful company, and I can’t wait for an opportunity to get back to Denver and see some of these wonderful folks again.

Cast Recordings To Listen To After Hamilton Has Blown Your Mind – (very belated) Part Two

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Good lord, I just noticed it’s been almost exactly a year since I wrote the first part of this. It’s been a pretty crazy year, and a ton happened that I was apparently too busy to blog about. I’m going to try to be better at that this year, and so in that spirit, I at long last present to you my number two show for folks looking for more of that Hamiltion high going into the New Year.

2. February House

So you loved Hamilton’s heady story of a man who wrote his way to the top, then back down again, but you’re more into Sufjan Stevens and Fleet Foxes than hip hop? Have I got a show for you. Based on Sherilll Tippins’ book about a 1940 attempt at artistic communal living in Brooklyn involving the likes of W.H Auden, Carson McCullers, Erica Mann, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Benjamin Britten, February House is a stunning introduction to a new and unique voice in American musical theatre. Gabriel Kahane takes a show filled with 20th century arts titans, and manages to create an warm, intimate score around them. It’s hard for me to think of a musical theatre song in recent years that matches the achingly lovely “Coney Island,”or a comedy number funnier than Benjamin Britten and his lover Peter Pears turning the discovery of “Bedbugs” into an operatic tour de force.

In many ways, February House feels a lot like Rent for adults. It maintains the themes of community and artistic as well as sexual independence, but does so in a way that’s less colored by the defiant naivete of youth. A major plot point of February House, for instance, is just how the characters ARE going to manage to pay the rent. Its ending is also more downbeat in a way that feels very true, with the whole experiment falling apart, but going on to inspire great work in those who attempted it. I also fully anticipate that, in light of this year’s election results, February House’s central debate about just what responsibility artists have to respond to the political environment around them is going to feel very timely indeed.

As with most of the shows I’ll be talking about, I haven’t actually seen February House (Yay life in the Midwest). And having only experienced the cast recording, I can’t speak to the success or failure of the show’s book, which from reviews I’ve read seems to have its problems. Regardless of any dramaturgical missteps, though, the musical storytelling  on display on the album deserves a large hearing. So if you’re a musical theatre geek looking for that one buried gem that you haven’t heard yet, this is very good place to start. A story of artists trying to create a small-scale Paradise for themselves where they can live and love freely that manages to be both buoyant and melancholy, February House is must-hear cast recording, and perhaps, a great show for smaller theatre companies to start taking a chance on.

Here’s some video to take you down the rabbit hole:

http://www.playbill.com/video/highlights-from-february-house-at-the-public-theater-com-223964

 

 

Cast Recordings to Listen To After Hamilton Has Blown Your Mind Twenty Five Times- Part One

0245_151205_ARTCometDressEESo okay. Let’s get the agreed-upon bits out of the way first: the cast recording to Hamilton is a game-changer, an instant classic, and also a highly addictive listen that keeps its emotional punch through numerous consecutive plays. But what do you do after you’ve listened to it so often that you (as I did this morning) wake up wondering what the French phrase “casse-toi” in Lafayette’s first rap means? Here’s my first of four blogs about other cast recordings that scratch that same itch in different but still satisfying ways, as well as one that, on the surface, is pretty much the antithesis of Hamilton- a thoroughly traditional book musical- but manages to subvert the form in new and dangerous ways.

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

If Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is, as some suggest, the Second Coming of musical theatre, then Natasha, Pierre is John the Baptist. In 2013, two years before Hamilton would begin its initial run at the Public Theater, Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin set up a giant tent in the New York’s Meatpacking District, created a 19th century Russian supper club inside, and set their actors loose in and around the audience in this immersive electro-rock opera based on a 70 page sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One could certainly make that case that Natasha, Pierre’s use of anachronistic dance and hip hop beats to tell a story of love and honor from long ago helped to pave the way for Hamilton’s ecstatic reception by critics and audiences.

But in other ways, Natasha, Pierre remains a bit more prickly and experimental. Malloy hews to the language of the novel so faithfully that he throws out rhyme scheme altogether for about two thirds of the score. It’s a striking effect that gives the songs a real sense of danger, freedom, and complexity, but also keeps them from sticking in your head as easily as Miranda’s skillful couplets. Still, Malloy’s work has its own distinct pleasures, mixing a multitude of styles – a bit of Russian folk here, a Lilith Fair guitar ballad there, a crazy Tom Waits-esque stomper just to keep things interesting- to achieve very clear, memorable voices for each character, and his use of electronic beats is thoughtful and dramaturgically satisfying (they enter with a particular character, and leave with him, too).

One of the things that sets Dave Malloy’s creation apart is its incredible collection of roles for women. Miranda makes a concerted effort to give his female cast more to do than just pine and fall in love, and the last song of Hamilton is a real triumph in that regard, but the story he’s working with demands that the Schulyer sisters are kept mostly to the side of the main thrust of the narrative, and he’s very smart about how much he can fight against that restriction without stalling the progress of Alexander’s journey. Malloy’s source material, however, gives him all sorts of room to create powerful roles for women, and he does so with relish. Natasha is a powerhouse of a lead role, and though she starts off as a lovesick ingenue, the journey she goes on is not the one the audience is probably expecting. Sonia also has a surprisingly satisfying arc, (and gets what’s probably the best song in the show. At least, it’s one of the ones I find most consistently moving.) And the supporting roles of Marya, Helene and Princess Mary are each rich with their own distinct musical moments and complexities.

My favorite part of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, though, is its deceptively simple plot. As opposed to Hamilton’s epic rags-to-riches-to-disgrace narrative, Natasha, Pierre looks through a smaller lens, and basically consists of a studious man’s midlife crisis juxtaposed with a young woman’s first teenage explosion of love and sexuality – with all the confusion and impaired decision making that goes with both stages of life. While both wild and bombastic in places, Malloy’s score has the guts to climax with a quiet moment, and in the end, the show becomes a testimony to the power of one simple, humane act of kindness and empathy. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 may be less instantly catchy than the breakout success that took some of its innovations to a different, more audience-friendly level, but it more than rewards the time and attention it asks of its listeners. Check it out.

Hamilton fan bonus: Want to hear more of Philippa Soo, Hamilton’s Eliza? Well, you can, ’cause she sings the role of Natasha on the cast recording, and yes, she’s just as brilliant here.

Here’s some video if you feel like diving down the rabbit hole.

 

So This Is A Thing That Is Happening Now…

I just checked my computer for verification, and it tells me that I created the document that eventually became An Invitation Out on Wednesday, December 9th, 2009. Which means I’ve been working on this script in some form or other for a little over five years now, hoping that one day it would fully exist. See, just like a tadpole is not yet a frog, a script is not yet a play. There is still more growing to do, a few more appendages to acquire. You can dot the last i, type out the final stage direction, but you didn’t write those words to be read. You wrote them to be seen and heard, and for that you need other people.

Deanna Jent read one of the earliest drafts of my script back in 2011. At the time, it was precisely one bazillion and eight pages long, and full of ideas that were interesting in theory, but pretty much a mess in practice. Yet even in that state, she saw something in the sprawl, believed in it, and decided to take a chance on me. In the summer of 2013, she had someone unexpectedly drop out of a playwriting seminar she was teaching, and invited me to fill the empty slot so I could work on the script in the company of other playwrights. It was perfect timing. I’d essentially been working in a vacuum, and had reached the end of where I could take the script alone in a room by myself. 8 weeks later, I walked out of that classroom with a completely new ending, a tighter focus on what the story was, and a host of connections with actual human beings. Deanna said she might be interested in producing it for Mustard Seed Theatre if I’d be open to making some more revisions. I kept at it, and in early 2014, I got the official good news: the play I’d been working to see onstage for what seemed like ages would be a part of Mustard Seed’s 2014/2015 season. At the very end of it. So, four years of waiting down, one to go.

For most of the last year, this upcoming production hasn’t seemed quite real. I’d spent so much time thinking about it that it became more of a fuzzy idea that people would ask me about occasionally, a theory rather than a tangible fact. But then, early this February, we had the first cast read-thru. I entered the theater, and there it was – the tables pushed together with clusters of chairs around it, the stack of scripts, the pencils, the cups of coffee – all the signs of a rehearsal process. Suddenly, there were tech people talking about how on earth to make the things I’d written actually work, the sounds of actors chatting in the lobby. Then Nicole came in – an actor and good friend who’s been in both of the other shows of mine that have been performed so far. On the way to her seat, she gave me a huge hug, and just like that, it didn’t seem like only a script anymore. A play was coming together. With my arms around her, it finally flashed through my mind. “So this is a thing that is happening now.”

March 24th was our first rehearsal. Before the actors arrived, Maggy and Katie – our S.M. and A.D. – snuck me into the theater where our crew were already hard at work on the set. It seemed gigantic. Even in pieces, it was already grander than I had imagined. I just stood there and stared at it all until Maggy asked me what I thought, bringing me back to lucidity. All I could stutter out was “All of this is here because of something I wrote down on a piece of paper once.” The implications of that seemed enormous, but Maggy and Katie just smiled.

A script is not yet a play. You can dot the last i, type out the final stage direction, but it doesn’t become real until other people pour in their talents, their time, their passion even when it’s very difficult work. “This is a thing that is happening now.” But it doesn’t happen alone.