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.

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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.

 

The Ones that Grab You

So I walked into Left Bank Books one afternoon, with no clue of what was about to happen. Actually, walking in was my first mistake. For creative folks, a good bookstore is a dark, knotted forest where new ideas lurk in the shadows, waiting to pounce. But I paid no heed because I thought I knew what I was doing. I had dropped by to pick up a Specific Book as research for a musical I’d been thinking of writing for some time. I found this Specific Book fairly quickly, and headed over to the counter to buy it when I got greedy. For Left Bank Books also has a basement. And in that basement are used books for really good prices. And I was just broke enough that I couldn’t resist going down to check if they had the Book used so I wouldn’t have to pay full cover price. Which was my second mistake. And yes, at this point it serves me right for being cheap. (What can I say? Writers gotta eat. Occasionally. When we’re not too distracted to remember to)

Turns out they did in fact have said Book used. But in hardcover as opposed to paperback, so the price difference was negligible. And that’s when I saw it. The Clearance Rack. Paperbacks, $1, hardcovers $2. At this point, I think we’ve established the lengths I will go to for inexpensive reading material, so yes, I went right over. Mistake number three.

Not much there at first glance. Mostly Self-Help, Cook Books, and a smattering of medical texts. But on the second shelf, there was one tall, stately hardcover. Its title mentioned the Seneca Falls Convention, something I remembered hearing the vague outlines of as the beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement, but didn’t know much about in depth. Even I can afford a book for two dollars, so it came home with me, along with its more expensive cousin.

I started reading it on the train ride home, and was immediately pulled into the lives of these incredible women I’d barely heard of (Elizabeth Cady Stanton) or didn’t know existed (Martha Coffin Wright, Lucretia Mott, Abby Kelly, the Grimke sisters). What they were up against, the courage it took to fight against it in an age where women just speaking to mixed-gender audiences was an incendiary act that incurred mob violence; it all struck me with a force that made me feel like I’d been hit by a train as opposed to just riding one. Why hadn’t I heard this whole story before? Why was it relegated to bookstore clearance racks instead of classrooms and bestseller lists?

I got off the train, and kept reading during my 20 minute walk home (really not as dangerous as it sounds when you get used to it). By the time I reached my apartment, I was writing a musical in my head, but not the one I had gone to Left Bank to purchase a research book for. A new idea had reached out and grabbed me, and wasn’t going to let go. So that’s the story of how I came to be writing a Riot Grrl punk opera about an organized movement birthed out of a Quaker tea party on a Sunday afternoon in 1848. Moral: be really, really careful when you walk into bookstores. Because you might be walking into an ambush.

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.

Bet on the Kiss

One of the secret pleasures of writing your own plays is that you get to use them as a way to try and fix the things that annoy you in other people’s plays. Case in point: As I’ve often mentioned, I’m a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, and his works were a major influence on my play, “An Invitation Out,” but something he did in one of his early comedies has always bugged me.

At the end of Act One of “A Woman of No Importance,” witty Mrs. Allonby challenges the dandyish Lord Illingworth to kiss a visiting American puritan named Hester Worsley, and Illingworth gladly accepts. But once the challenge is made, Illingworth and Hester are never actually onstage at the same time, no tension is built, and their tete-a-tete happens entirely offstage. Hester just runs on yelling about how she’s been terribly insulted, other plot mechanics kick in, and that’s pretty much the end of it. Which has always struck me as a huge missed opportunity. There was an interesting scene that happened out of our view, I was sure of it, and the fact that I would never get to see it continued to irk me every time I picked up the play. But as I worked on “Invitation,” I noticed that a few of my characters had some surface resemblance to Wilde’s trio – there was the witty young lady, the dandyish gentleman, the awkward outsider in their midst – and I suddenly realized I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to write my own version of the scene I’d been dying to read for years.

I started with the same basic situation – the lady bets the dandy he can’t get a kiss out of the outsider – but since the similarities between our characters were superficial at best, my dandy’s attempt to get that kiss became a much different scene than the one between Hester and Lord Illingworth that I’d been imagining for so long. As I went through various drafts of the play, that scene always stayed in, but in each draft the answer of who exactly “won” the bet became murkier and more complex, and I began to think that maybe Mr. Wilde was on to something when he decided not to open that can of worms. Even so, it’s still one of my favorite scenes I’ve written. So if you happen to come see my play next month, you’ll have to let me know if you think it was, in fact, a good bet, or if Oscar was right all along and I should have left well enough alone.

Seasonal Anxieties of the Third (fifth?) Kind

When I first saw the full line-up for the Mustard Seed Theatre season that my play would be a part of, I felt a bit like the odd girl out. There was “Human Terrain”, about the relationship between a U.S. Cultural Advisor and an Iraqi woman during the Iraq War, then “All Is Calm” about the Christmas truce of 1914 during WW1, followed by “White To Gray,” a tragic cross-cultural romance in the shadow of Pearl Harbor and the opening days of WW2. And then there was me and my very silly play about online dilettantes in gravity-defying dresses who talk funny. Cue the song from Sesame Street – “one of these things is not like the other…” But as the months have gone by, and I’ve had the chance to see each production, I’ve started to think my play may not be as out of place as I had expected it to be.

A glance at the poster and synopsis for An Invitation Out makes it fairly clear that I wrote it with modern technology on my mind, but may be a little less clear about what was in my heart. I conceived and wrote the first two drafts of the play at a pivotal time in my life, when I was finally coming to terms with being transgender and what that meant for my future while simultaneously wrestling with the legacy of my strict Pentecostal Christian upbringing. It was a period marked by long stretches of feeling like a stranger in a strange land pretty much everywhere I went. And in a way, the online/offline worlds of the play became a way for me to discuss the experience of venturing outside of a world-view you’ve grown comfortable with, and the rewards and consequences that come with such a step. A technological setting seemed a perfect way to examine it, too, because the internet has given us open access to all sorts of new conversations while also giving us the tools to be more closed off from other voices than ever before. Social media algorithms learn how to give us the news sources we like; the confines of post, comment, and tweet lengths make our arguments more brittle and two dimensional; and we can barricade ourselves away from views we don’t like with a simple click of the “unfriend” button. So you can imagine my relief when each of the plays before mine this season turned out to be about people reaching across cultural and ideological divides in order to connect with another human being. At its core, that’s what An Invitation Out is about too. And just like that, I didn’t feel like such a stranger after all. There were four of us, all from very different places, asking the same question. Although I’m pretty sure my version of the question still has the most jokes about blogging, greased ferrets, and sentient computer programs named Astrid. Which is probably for the best.