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/.

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Introducing The Directors Of Pint Sized IV! (Part Two)

Pint Sized Plays IV is more than halfway through it’s run! This year our excellent line up of writers is supported by an equitably awesome line up of directors, so we thought we’d take a moment to introduce some of them and find out more about who they are, what they’re looking forward to, and how they brought so much magic to this year’s festival.

Tell the world who you are in 100 words or less.

Tracy Held Potter: I’m a writer/director/producer who recently discovered that I have to create inspirational mantras that are the exact opposite of the inspirational mantras that I used in high school. I run All Terrain Theater (www.allterraintheater.org) and Play Cafe (www.playcafe.org) and I’m a co-founder of the 31 Plays in 31 Days Project with Rachel Bublitz (http://31plays31days.com). My biggest projects right now are directing The Fantasy Club by Rachel Bublitz and getting ready to move to the East Coast for a fancy-pants MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Jonathan Carpenter: Formerly a biologist and Bostonian, I’m now a San Francisco-based theater director. I love bold, new plays that sometimes have music and sometimes don’t happen in traditional theater spaces at all.

Colin Johnson: I am Colin and I like telling stories and stuff.

Colin Johnson: What A Rebel

Colin Johnson: What A Rebel

How did you get involved with Theater Pub, or if you’re a returning director, why did you come back?

Tracy Held Potter: I saw several Theater Pub shows in the past year and loved them, especially Pint-Sized Plays, and also got to run sound for Pub from Another World, which was extremely fun. “Audrey Scare People Play?” Whaaaaaat!

Jonathan Carpenter: This is my first time directing for Theater Pub! I met Meg O’Connor at an event for the SF Olympians Festival. She mentioned that her friend Neil (Higgins) was looking for directors for the Pint Sized Festival. A few days later, Neil and I were emailing each other about the line-up for this year’s festival, and not too long after I was on board to be part of the Pint Sized directing team. I had always been really interested in Theater Pub, and so when the opportunity arose to get involved, I jumped on it.

Colin Johnson: I got involved through the fearless producer called Neil, whom I’ve worked with during the last two years on the SF Olympians Festival.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Jonathan Carpenter: There’s nothing better than being in the rehearsal room and digging into a script with actors, so I would say that my rehearsal time with Jessica (Chisum), Lara (Gold), and Andrew (Chung) was the most exciting part of the process for me. Multitasking (by Christian Simonsen) is a deceptively tricky play. You have to keep asking yourself, “Wait, what the hell is going on here?!” All three actors were really smart about figuring out what makes these characters tick. I had a blast bringing the play to life with them.

Colin Johnson: Analyzing and then over-directing the crap out of a one page script. Sometimes the greatest challenges come in the smallest packages. Oh, and also practicing a musical number with a drunk llama.

Tracy Held Potter: Getting invited to direct for Pint-Sized plays and then finding out that I was going to direct a piece by Megan Cohen were freaking awesome. I still relive moments from watching Megan’s piece from last year, so this really has been a thrill for me. I also loved rehearsing with Charles Lewis III, Caitlin Evenson, and Jessica Rudholm … and I won’t lie that sewing the knight props and costumes in the middle of the night was pretty special as well.

What’s been the most troublesome?

Tracy Held Potter: Keeping things simple with this brief yet epic play. I tend to work on projects with a minimal amount of props and set design, but there’s a part of me that wants to go all out with this one: more rehearsals in the space and more elaborate costuming. I got to work with a great cast and I we pulled out a lot of interesting material from the script in a very short period, so I can’t really complain, though.

Colin Johnson: Troublesome? I don’t know the meaning of the word, I say! But I suppose rehearsing with a drunk llama can have its setbacks.

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting was probably the trickiest piece of the puzzle for me. There are, of course, so many wonderful actors in the Bay Area; the only problem is that they’re so wonderful that they’re always cast in multiple projects! The Theater Pub performance schedule is great because Monday is usually a day off for actors, so it’s possible to do Theater Pub along with other shows. But it doesn’t always work out. I lost a terrific actor that I was really excited to work with because it turned out that she was needed for rehearsals for another project during the final week of Pint Sized performances. And then when I had to find another actress for that role, there were several other wonderful folks that I couldn’t use because we couldn’t find common free times to rehearse! It all worked out beautifully in the end – thanks to Neil’s guidance, persistence, and huge network of actor friends – but there were some moments where I was really banging my head against the wall.

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting Clusterf**k Survivor

Jonathan Carpenter: Casting Clusterf**k Survivor

Would you say putting together a show for Pint Sized is more skin of your teeth or seat of your pants and why?

Tracy Held Potter: I would say “seat of your pants” because I have sensitive teeth and the other metaphor makes them hurt.

Jonathan Carpenter: Pint Sized is definitely a seat of your pants kind of endeavor. You’re making theater that’s going to happen in a bar where anything can happen. Someone could walk through your scene to go to the bathroom. A noisy garbage truck could whiz past Cafe Royale. Who knows, an especially drunk audience member might even try to get in on the action. So, you have to stay adaptable and be ready to fly by the seat of your pants. But that’s also what’s so exciting, right? Live theater!

Colin Johnson: I’d say seat of the pants is a better term. When you perform in public, especially a bar, you must be prepared to adapt and circumvent logistical problems at a moment’s notice. Skin of the teeth makes it seem like we’re barely hanging in there, which is untrue. This production has actually been one of the most tightly coordinated and relaxed projects in a while for me.

What’s next for you?

Colin Johnson: Next, I’m writing a full-length adaptation of Aeneas’s tale for SF Olympians: Trojan Requiem (titled Burden of the Witless) in November. I also have a recently-completed independent short film that will hopefully be making festival rounds this year. And most likely directing a Woody Allen One-Act early next year in Berkeley

Tracy Held Potter: I’m directing and producing a HILARIOUS sex comedy by Rachel Bublitz called The Fantasy Club that we’re premiering at The Alcove Theater near Union Square from Aug 2 – Aug 11 (http://fantasyclub.brownpapertickets.com). It’s about a stay-at-home-mom who faces the man she’s been fantasizing about since high school and has to decide between her marriage and making her fantasies come true. I’ve spent a lot more time on Google researching underwear and logo contraceptives for this show than I have for anything else. In August, we’re also relaunching the 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge and rehearsing for Babies, the Ultimate Birth Control: Terrifyingly Hilarious Plays about Parenting for SF Fringe (http://www.sffringe.org), which both Rachel and I wrote pieces for. In the midst of all this, I’m going to finish packing up my family to move to Pennsylvania. You know, taking it easy.

Tracy Held Potter: Taking It Easy

Tracy Held Potter: Taking It Easy

Jonathan Carpenter: I’m about to begin rehearsals for the west coast premiere of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon, which Do It Live! Productions will be producing in A.C.T.’s Costume Shop theater in September. And after The Golden Dragon, I’ll be directing readings of Jeremy Cole’s On The Plains of Troy and Madeline Puccioni’s The Walls of Troy for the SF Olympians Festival.

What are you looking forward to in the larger Bay Area theater scene?

Tracy Held Potter: I’m looking forward to “A Maze” by Rob Handel and produced by Just Theater at Live Oak Theatre, which just opened. Rob is the theater teacher for my new grad program and I’ve heard great things from people who’ve already seen it (phew!). There are a lot of shows that I’m really sad to be missing because I’ll be out of the state, but I’ll be catching all of Bay One-Acts and at least a couple of SF Olympians shows towards the end of the festival.

Colin Johnson: BOA is always an amazing fun time! As is the Olympians! They’re both a great conglomeration of all the best the Bay indie theatre scene has to offer! And great folks!

Jonathan Carpenter: Oh my gosh. I’m a huge nerd, and I just can’t wait to see Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep. I mean, it’s Gandalf! And Professor X! AND they’re doing No Man’s Land! I have loved Pinter ever since I first dove into his plays a few years ago while working on a production of The Homecoming. They’re so juicy. So I’m really looking forward to that production. I’m also really excited to check out Rob Handel’s A Maze at Just Theater this summer. I read a draft of the play about three years ago, and I was completely enthralled. It read like a comic book, and I was totally fascinated to imagine how you might stage such an intricate play. I’ve heard great things about the production, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Who in the Bay Area theater scene would you just love a chance to work with next?

Jonathan Carpenter: Woah! It’s way too hard to pick just one artist! Can I say “all of them”?!? Well…actor Reggie White is probably at the top of my list. He’s been a friend of mine for a couple of years now, and it seems criminal that we haven’t done a show together yet.

Tracy Held Potter: I can’t count how many actors, directors, stage managers, writers, and other theater people that I got to work with this year who I really admired. I have so many theater crushes here that it’s crazy. With that said, I would fall out of my chair if I got to work with Desdemona Chiang on one of my plays.

Colin Johnson: I would love to have a rematch of my 2012 Olympians knock-out, drag down fight with Jeremy Cole. But most of my Bay Area dream collaborations have been fulfilled, with hopefully more on the horizon.

What’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale?

Jonathan Carpenter: Whatever stout they have on tap.

Colin Johnson: I’m a fan of the Marin Brewing Company IPA. But if I’m expected to be productive, a Cider or a Pilsner.

Tracy Held Potter: I don’t really drink that much so I like to order soda or tea, but last time the bartender made me a limeade which was pretty good. There are photos of me on the Theater Pub Facebook page drinking that, if anyone’s interested.

Don’t miss the last two performances of Pint Sized Plays IV: July 29 and 30, at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale! The show is free and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early because we will be full!