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.

The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview with Jerome Gentes from Musical Café

Barbara Jwanouskos chats up Jerome Gentes about creating new musicals and singing your heart out.

You don’t often hear about new musicals being developed – or at least, I don’t, which is why I was super excited when I met Jerome Gentes to learn about Musical Café – a development program for musicals written by Northern California creative teams. The process for creating and developing a new musical, however, is a lot of work and brings a lot of artists together from highly talented writers, lyricists, composers, actors, singers, and musicians – what is required to put on a good musical is a lot of dedicated, focused hard work. Jerome and I had a chance to chat about Musical Café and new musicals in the Bay Area. Here is a little taste to get you ready for Musical Café’s Spring Showcase this Sunday.

Jerome Gentes

Jerome Gentes

Barbara: Tell me about Musical Cafe — what do you do and how did it start?

Jerome: Musical Cafe is a quarterly concert recital showcase of new musical theater works-in-progress. This Sunday’s showcase is the second of four we’re doing this year.

With the showcases, we offer a chance for Northern California writers and composers to present new musical works in the making. Because there are typically fewer opportunities to develop new musicals as opposed to straight plays, we wanted to create a chance for new work to be seen and heard. There were a lot of people quietly working on new musicals around the Bay Area, and the platform we wanted for ourselves is something we realized could be helpful for others. And it’s astonishing how many of us are here in the Bay Area. Not all new musicals come from New York!

The core group came originally came together because of Anne Nygren Doherty and Not Quite Opera/New Musical theater of San Francisco. She had a wonderful series called Round One Cabaret, and later pulled a group of us together back in late 2012 to build a show. After we did one, some of us wanted to try it again. In the time it took us to really get going on another show, other collaborations and projects formed along the way. Eventually one of the composers suggested we try to create our own showcase presentation of the various projects we were all working on, including the group show. Through Sandy Kasten, we had a connection to Play Cafe, and with its help and support, and the help of a generous grant from the Sam Mazza Foundation, that evolved into Musical Cafe. We’re entirely volunteer-run, and have only come this far with a lot of help and support from people who love new musicals as much as we do.

Barbara: What is your background in theater?

Jerome: Sandy was an actor when she was young. Recently she’s studied musical theater and lyric writing at the Academy for New Musical theater in Los Angeles. Richard Jennings, one of the other key production team members, has been composing for years, from music for various regional theaters and dozens of Shakespeare productions to musicals for adults and kids. I did the usual let’s-put-on-a-show stuff when I was young, then wasn’t involved in theater for many years except as an audience member. In college I dabbled in playwriting, and read a lot of published plays. And in grad school I attended many of the developmental readings of my friends in the theater department and saw a lot of theater. An improv class about five years ago really reignited my engagement in theater, and since moving to the Bay Area in 2011, it’s been almost nothing but, from acting bits to lots of writing and now this.

Barbara: As someone developing a new musical, what does Musical Cafe offer?

Jerome: As we see it, the key thing that we offer is a platform for creatives to present book material as well as musical material in a concert recital formal. Musicals are often development-intensive, and the process can be long. We wanted to offer a chance to present parts of work that’s still in development–some of our shows are necessarily fully drafted–to a live and appreciate audience. Musical Cafe also offers connection to and community with others involved in the creation of new musical theater works–writers, composers, directors, actors, musicians. If anyone’s interested, the submission period for our summer Showcase, which will rotate back to the East Bay, is open until May 15th. More info is available at playcafe.org. And we’re planning to be back in SF in October.

a Musical Cafe rehearsal

a
Musical Cafe rehearsal

Barbara: What might we expect at the Musical Cafe Spring Showcase?

Jerome: Great singing and acting, for one thing! Each team presents a twenty-minute section of work. With the help of our volunteer submission committee, who vetted all the submissions we received this past winter, we gradually shaped a program of selected songs and scenes from four new musicals that explore a wide range of subjects and themes–from adolescent angst to the discovery of creative passion to adaptations of classic literature. From piece to piece, the music spans a variety of styles.We encourage each creative team to present material from the entire play, so the various songs and scenes you’ll hear might be opening numbers, “I-want” songs, transitional dramatic material, and so on. And of course, there’s fantastic singing and acting! Each team casts its own presentation, but teams sometimes share actors. We also have a talented musical director, Phil Surtees, who provides the piano accompaniment during rehearsals and at the show. He’s even playing the guitar in one number. And did I say great singing?

Barbara: What has been the most surprising musical production here in the Bay Area in the last few years?

Jerome: I enjoyed the recent musical takes on Wozzeck and Twelfth Night at Shotgun very much, and Triassic Parq was a fun, crazy romp. Richard enjoyed 100 Days, which I unfortunately missed. I just saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, of all things, at Stage 1 down in Newark that had some of the most spectacular young voices I’ve ever heard. But the piece I keep mulling over the most is An Evening with Meow Meow. I loved its deceptively familiar start as a traditional cabaret, and how Meow Meow began deconstructing the show and even her own persona, going further and farther into the meta-ness and the deconstruction while still expanding and evolving the piece and her character at the same time.

Barbara: Do you have any thoughts or advice for those starting out and wanting to write music, lyrics, or the book for a new musical? Are there any special considerations?

Jerome: Sandy encourages beginners to see a lot of musicals, and different performances of the same show. And to learn their craft. To that I’d add testing your craft as you are learning, and staying committed to exploring different kinds of music and theater and musical theater, from the most traditional to the most non-. Richard says that you must be willing to find opportunities to see your work performed by different players so you can test how strong the material really is. And that you must be willing to rewrite and to enjoy the creative process. In all it’s ups and downs. Above all, the three of us enjoy the experience of musical theater–theater, period–as a collaborative creative form and collaborative creative process. Good collaborators are essential. Great collaborators are a gift, a treasure. And certainly a project like Musical Cafe can only be done as that kind of team.

Musical Café’s Spring Showcase will be held this Sunday, May 3rd at Stage Werks Theatre at 446 Valencia Street in San Francisco where you can hear four new musicals in development. Submissions for their Summer Showcase are open until May 15th. For more details: http://playcafe.org/2015/01/25/call-for-submissions-to-musical-cafe-showcase/.