The Real World Theater Edition: An Interview with Evangeline Crittenden

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us an interview with the mind behind a new musical being developed in the Bay Area.

This week I had the honor of interviewing local writer and performer, Evangeline Crittenden about the new musical she created along with composer, Nick Rattray, called Philia. I have always been fascinated by musicals and the use of song in theatrical performances, so I was very much intrigued when asking Evangeline her thoughts on process, especially as it pertains to incorporating music into the world of the play.

For more information on Phila, check out their website at http://www.philiasf.com/#about-marquee where you can find videos and previews of the songs, themes, and inspiration behind the work.

Barbara: How did you get involved in theater? And specifically writing musicals?

Evangeline: I’ve been doing theater since I was a wee one. I grew up primarily acting but I’ve come to realize that actors often are puppeted around the stage, exploring themes that other people project on them, rather than themes that they are interested in exploring for themselves. I want to have my voice heard, and I want a say in what I create.

Musicals specifically? I’ve always loved music and singing. If you look at human history, it’s actually strangely anomalous of our current time to divorce storytelling from song. Mostly, these two things have gone hand in hand. But, modern musicals are, for me, largely disappointing. There is a certain plastic aesthetic that I find emotionally impermeable, and the style of the music doesn’t resonate with me. Philia is my first fully-fledged musical, in a more conventional sense, but every project I’ve ever directed has used music in some form. Music touches deeper parts of story and emotion that are often untapped by words alone. (When I saw Banana, Bag and Bodice did Beowulf at Shotgun Players, I realized how rad a play with music can actually be.)

Evangeline Crittenden and the composer Nick Rattray, performing an excerpt from the show at Tuesdays with Writing, a monthly salon for new works, hosted by Elena Marx at the Clock Factory in Berkeley. Photo credit: Wesley Newfarmer.

Evangeline Crittenden and the composer Nick Rattray, performing an excerpt from the show at Tuesdays with Writing, a monthly salon for new works, hosted by Elena Marx at the Clock Factory in Berkeley. Photo credit: Wesley Newfarmer.

Barbara: What was the inspiration behind Philia and what drew you to wanting to explore it in this medium?

Evangeline: Philia is based on a short story by Traci Chee, entitled “Philematophilia,” which was published in her short story collection Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs. Traci had the idea of connecting and collaborating with various artists (filmmakers, illustrators, etc.) to create work that was connected to and inspired by her stories. When she told me the premise of “Philematophilia,” I fell in love. It’s brilliant: a young woman’s magical kisses transform everyone she meets, but she gets labeled and criticized for kissing too many people. Traci called it a kind of “King Midas” story; a magical ability to transform or alchemize one’s surroundings ultimately backfires.

I love the story because it shines a light on the paradoxical reality that transformation can drive people away from each other, even if that transformation occurred through their relationship. I also love that Traci’s story is divided into smaller sections with different ‘philias,’ or loves for things. But if you look up these words, many of them are pure invention, based on words for fears (or, ‘phobias.’) I am deeply inspired by the idea that our language supports articulating fear but not love.

I wanted to make this project a musical rather than a regular play because the imagery in the short story is colorful and variegated and fanciful. It skips from fairytale imagery to a modern high school to a dream world; this, to me, demanded music in order to be fully embodied in performance.

Barbara: How is writing a musical different (or the same!) as writing a new play?

Evangeline: Writing a musical is tricky because the collaborative effort of writing is spread between more than one mind. In working with the composer and lyricist for the project, Nick Rattray, I have been grateful to discover how many ways our artistic values overlap. But we had many necessary conversations about how to best weave the music through the story, and what function the music serves in a given scene.

Barbara: What has been your process of creation with your collaborators?

Evangeline: Perfect segue! So, the process started three years ago, and I began by simply adapting the text of the short story for the stage. I cut certain parts, added others, and re-arranged the order, but the bulk of the text (aside from the lyrics, which Nick wrote) was Traci’s words. She handed me the story wholesale to make whatever I wanted out of it.

Then, in the summer of 2014, I began adding more scenes (and Nick added more songs) to expand the story and more deeply explore the scenes. We performed this version of the show as a workshop and received a lot of useful audience feedback. Through this, Wesley Newfarmer (the Associate Director) has been there to offer critique and to direct the scenes I’m in. (I perform in the play as the Witch, an omniscient, narrator character.)

I have spent the past year honing the script with Traci’s dramaturgical help and continued input, and listening to various drafts of Nick’s songs. We began rehearsals with a somewhat finalized script in June, and have continued to refine it through the rehearsal process.

Barbara: Anything in the process of creating the piece, performing during Fringe, or the staged readings that was a challenge? An opportunity to explore something you didn’t necessarily think of initially?

Evangeline: The challenge has been for me, choosing which direction to go: do I succumb to my desire for the abstract, or do I tell a clear story? The very first version of the play, at Fringe 2013, was fragmented and abstract, mimicking the patchwork tone of the short story. As I’ve moved forward, however, a clearer narrative has emerged. I never would have imagined this. But, in deepening the characters, it became clear that narrative was a way for the audience to invest more deeply in the story.

Barbara: What are you looking forward to most about this production?

Evangeline: Seeing the cast take ownership of the world of the play, and enrich it with their own rich imaginations. (We’ve been running for two weekends already, and it’s already happening!)

Barbara: Any advice for others that would like to write new musicals?

Evangeline: Hah. Um, find people who speak your language, who love the same things you do. If your collaborators understand where you’re coming from, you’ll have the freedom to stumble and experiment, which is a necessary part of the process.

Also, allowing ample time for workshopping is crucial. This project took three years to develop, and if we’d tried to do it on any shorter of a timeline, it just wouldn’t be as rich and complex and developed as it is. Music takes time to create, plays also take time, and it takes time to find effective ways to meld them together.

Derricka Smith (currently playing Helena) and Tim Silva (who was in the first two versions of the show). Photo credit: Wesley Newfarmer.

Derricka Smith (currently playing Helena) and Tim Silva (who was in the first two versions of the show). Photo credit: Wesley Newfarmer.

Barbara: Any shows around the Bay Area that you’d like to shout out or check out?

Evangeline: I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m excited about Trixxie Carr‘s performance at NCTC, Salome, Dance for Me. It looks like it will be imaginative and sensual, and I’ve met her once and she seems rad.

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