What Happens at a Writer’s Retreat?

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In October of 2018, The 5th Avenue Theatre proudly hosted its inaugural First Draft: Story Summit, inviting nine writing teams (including five local teams) comprised of womxn, gender-non-conforming, and non-binary folx. Shortly after, we announced four First Draft Commissions.

The commission-ees have a year to write a complete first draft of their musicals with support from The 5th. At the end of the cycle, The 5th will produce a one-week reading with a final presentation in New York City, giving the commissioned teams the opportunity to showcase their work to national industry leaders.

The support provided by the theater includes two writers’ retreats. A writer’s retreat grants writers with what seems like simple enough resources to provide, and yet they are the most elusive for musical theater writer and creators: space and time.

“Space and time—it’s the number one thing we hear from writers we work with,” said Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry. “In order to move their stories forward, they need space and they need time to create. We’re thrilled to provide writers with these resources so that we can foster a concentrated burst of collaboration and creativity. This is where writers really lay the foundations upon which their musicals are built.”

Last week, the writing team behind Here and Their, a funny and poignant new musical about coming to terms with your own identity in a small community, spent seven days sequestered in a home on Vashon Island, immersed in the world of their musical. Jasmine Joshua (they/them) and Alexei Cifrese (she/her he/him) are local artists, but their third, Heather Ragusa (she/her) is based in Los Angeles. Working together in the same physical space is a thrill that has only happened once before—the Story Summit last fall.

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“I have a full time job as a barista and an even fuller time job as an actor and a draglesque artist, so my day-to-day life is a nightmare of a juggling act,” Cifrese said. It’s very rare I focus on one thing. So, knowing that I was going to be granted time and a beautiful place to work on art with people I love was a big light at the end of a tunnel.”

Over the course of seven days, they built the story up, tore the story down, and rebuilt it. Characters were assigned storylines, were reassigned storylines, were cut entirely, and revived. The team broke Act 1 and Act 2 into the major beats and taped them onto the picture windows looking out over the water. Character arcs were added in color coded notes and marks. Pages were torn down and rearranged. Pages that represented moments that were ultimately cut from the show but were near and dear to the writer’s hearts held a place of honor, taped up on an opposing wall in memoriam.

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Joshua said “Coming into this retreat, we had like 80% of the script already written and about six or seven songs. So we had a lot going in that we had already figured out. So coming in, we did a full read-through of what we had with all three of us in the room and basically realized that our stakes weren’t high enough and our problems weren’t big enough. So we completely ripped apart Act 1, which of course then trickled into Act 2.”

Preeminent Seattle director Allison Narver was onsite throughout the week to provide support as a dramaturg and “caretaker” (read bread baker and lasagna maker extraordinaire). “It was like living with Yoda, the Bionic Woman, Ina Garten, and Oprah for a week,” Ragusa said. “We couldn’t have moved forward without her.”

Joshua agreed. “She was so supportive and positive and it was nice having someone who has an incredible breadth of experience to guide us and reassure us when we were on the right track. And to ask questions! I love questions. Allison asked great questions.”

After an intense week of development, the writers emerged from their island retreat, bleary-eyed, with a new draft of their first act with several scenes from the second and a number of songs recorded. “I feel like the show is now very much alive,” Ragusa said. “It has a rhythmic pulse, and it developed a complexity I wasn’t expecting from its first conception. This means I really get to play with styles and sounds, because there are so many feelings to evoke in this script.”

Cifrese agreed. “We figured out what our story was about, who our characters were. Everything came into laser focus. We know what story we want to tell and more importantly, why we need to tell it. Now we just need to finish writing the damn thing!”

“It’s been an unreal experience,” Joshua said. “It’s a really special thing to have the space and the time to create something—focused, isolated time. It’s something that I’ve never had before, and it’s something that I will crave and cherish.”





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