Tuesday, May 15

Workshopping musicals, dodging tornadoes.

I'm back in New York after spending some time in Oklahoma workshopping a musical of mine. It was a great trip, for both theatery and non-theatery reasons.

First, the theatery reasons, for all you theatery people. (The theater weenies, as Dan Trujillo likes to call us!) This was the third workshop this particular show has gone through, though this was the first one outside of New York, and the first one through a university. While development opportunities through universities are not usually something emerging writers tend to hear about or think about, the merits are many, which I hope to expand upon here a bit.

There is a real thirst for new work in these university programs. Both from the student actors, who want to work on new stuff, to the department faculty and adminstrators, who want their students to work directly with writers in a workshop situation, which is very smart preparation for what's actually going to happen in the real world. I was supremely humbled and honored to discover that we were following on the heels of John Bucchino, Jeanine Tesori and Neil Bartram, the other guest writers the university brought out to work with the students -- all great writers whose work I love and admire -- and the fact that these students were so invested in the work of these writers is a testament to the fact that yes, Virginia, there is an excitement for new musical theater out there somewhere.

I think the unbridled nature of the enthusiasm for new work at a university has a lot to do with the fact that it's not in the business of producing shows. They're looking for interesting work that will challenge their students without the confinements of a mission statement or a financial bottom line. At the same time, they're very invested in the craft of the writing, the richness of the material, the viability of the work. That combination makes for an exciting environment, both nuturing and challenging, in which to work on a show.

The whole experience of working on a show in this environment was really eye-opening to me. Of course there were the usual Things You Learn When You Watch Your Show ("Oh, let's cut this scene, do we need it?" "Oh, this verse is slowing things down, telling us things we already know." "What was that?? Let's rewrite that part." "Oh, wow, that moment really works."), but those things aren't very interesting to you all, I'm sure. For me, the big lightbulb moments happened just in watching these students perform the material. Our previous workshops of the show have had largely the same cast members, with us being very hands-on with them as far as finessing the material. These students, all brand-new to the show, were so amazingly talented and professional that they knew the show note-perfect from the first rehearsal, so we really got to let them fly with it. And that really was the most educational and inspiring part of it all. We got to see what actorly information is inherent in the writing, and what parts needed clarification. The audience was so diverse that we got to see what resonated with a 20-year-old and what resonated with a 60-year-old, and that, in fact -- hallelujah! -- things resonate with both.

And, frankly, it's not just the merit of a show that will get you that feeling. It's often so hard in New York to get people revved up about workshopping a new show, because everyone's done it a million times and chances are they've had a bad experience with it somewhere. They're wary. (Musicals in particular, because there's so much friggin' work involved.) But when everyone involved in the process -- the writers, the performers, the audience, the facilitators -- brings their excitement to the table, it really makes a difference. And not in a blinding, rose-colored glasses kind of way; it actually clarifies a lot of the process and sharpens your focus on the work. Because you don't have to spend all your energy trying to convince people it's good. You can actually look at it and evaluate it more honestly, question it more freely and alter it without hesitation.

On top of that, it's amazing to see student performers grow as they perform your work, that your work can be a vehicle for growth like that. It re-affirms what you hope to do as a writer (or what I hope to do, anyway), which is to create something through which people (audience, actors, whoever) can grow a little bit, somehow, some way. It can take getting out of New York for a spell to remember that.

And then there were the tornadoes.

Well, tornado, singular, I should say. And it was 30 miles from where we were staying. But still, it was very exciting for this East Coast boy to have a swirling vortex of air attacking the land nearby.

The rumors are true that Oklahoma is very flat, as if the land is lying prostrate to Mother Nature, arms open to her every whim. And Mother Nature is a crazy bitch. The thunder is so loud, and it echoes down the plains, shaking hotel walls and setting off car alarms. The meteorologists on the evening news are unlike any evening news weathermen this East Coast boy has ever seen. They remind you that meteorology is, you know, a science, not just filler between local news and sports. They are hardcore.

We're watching TV one night, when the TV starts beeping and screeching at us. I wonder if there's a fax coming through. But it's the Emergency Broadcast System. This is the first time I've heard the Emergency Broadcast System without the "This is a test of..." coming before it. We flip the channel and watch as the meteorologists call up maps of the area on the screen. With one mouse click, they can display the windspeeds at any given point (65mph! 78mph! 116mph!); with another click, they can display the names of roads, calling out particularly dangerous intersections and instructing residents to move to their storm cellars. We were glued to the weather report like it was the season finale of Project Runway.

New musicals, rotating columns of air, who could ask for anything more? As we got in our car for our early morning flight home, I noticed that there was, in fact, a bright golden haze on the meadow, which was a lovely and appropriate way for Oklahoma to bid us adieu.

Sunday, May 6


I'm off to Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, to do a workshop of my Ethan Frome musical. I'll try to blog here with any interesting (or not-so-interesting, as the case may be) insights about workshopping a new musical.

'Til then...