An Introduction to The 5th Avenue Theatre’s Writers’ Group

By MAKAELA POLLOCK

Often when I mention that I work with the Writers’ Group at The 5th, I get the response, “Cool!—So what do you guys actually DO?” The answer is both simple and huge. On the simple level, we write scenes and songs that add up to a whole musical, we give feedback to each other, we discuss what it means to create musical theater, and most importantly, we commit to being in the room with each other every other week in order to make that happen. Continue reading “An Introduction to The 5th Avenue Theatre’s Writers’ Group”

Spotlight on Beatsville

Beatsville, written by Wendy Wilf and Glenn Slater, appeared in the 2008 NAMT Festival. The show is now preparing for its world premiere in a co-production with NAMT member The 5th Avenue Theatre and Asolo Rep Theatre. This month, we caught up with the writers to hear about the work they’ve done on the piece since the Festival leading up to this premiere.  Originally printed in the NAMT New Works News.

What was the response to Beatsville like after the 2008 Festival?
We had a great Festival—our cast was spectacular, and made the show look fantastic—and we received a hugely gratifying outpouring of interest from various theatres and organizations who wanted to help us take the next step forward. We sort of fumbled the ball a little—we felt that we still had some writing to do, and weren’t sure what that next step should be, and then we got swept up in other projects. Luckily for us, when we were finally ready to move forward, there was still a lot of goodwill in the community from people who remembered it from the Festival, and they proved instrumental in helping us get the show back on track.

What work have you all been doing on the show since presenting it to the industry? Did the presentation at the Festival inform any of that work?
The version of the show we presented at the Festival stuck very close to our source material, and what we discovered there was that although that source was definitely a strong basis for a stylish musical, there wasn’t enough story to make it a satisfying evening. Through the Festival, we were invited to see a student production of the show at the Musical Akademie in Denmark—translated into Danish! We didn’t understand a word of it, but that actually helped us focus strictly on the architecture of the piece, and we realized that we needed to drastically re-think how the last two-thirds of it were structured.  We next spent some time at the Rhinebeck Writer’s Retreat and a retreat at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont (again, both opportunities that stemmed from the Festival), where we broke the show into pieces and tried to figure out how to put it back together. It was in Weston that we had our big “aha!” moment, and we tested the result in another student production, this time at NYU Steinhardt (yet another Festival connection!). There, director John Simpkins was monumentally patient as we overhauled huge chunks of the show in rehearsal (we completely rewrote the last twenty minutes just two days before our first performance). We brought the resulting version to the 2014 NextFest at The 5th Avenue for a 29-hour reading, and while working there with Director Bill Berry realized that together, we had finally found both the right shape for our show, and the right home for it.

You’re preparing for Beatsville’s world premiere in a co-production with Asolo Rep and The 5th Avenue. What has that process been like, and what does your partnership with those two theatres look like?
We feel incredibly lucky to have two theatres standing with us on this. It means that we get to take advantage of the wisdom and experience of two fantastic creative staffs, each of which have unique viewpoints to share—Michael Edwards, at the Asolo Rep, has been the “big picture” thinker, challenging us to take bold strokes in re-thinking who our characters are, while David Armstrong and Bill Berry at The 5th have been instrumental in helping us tighten, streamline and polish each moment. It also takes some of the pressure off of us; knowing that we will definitely have two productions within a short time span means that we can afford to take some risks and do sweeping rewrites at the Asolo, since we’ll have a chance to consolidate what we learn at The 5th. Finally, having the resources of two theatres has been a godsend – we’ve been able to conduct not only 29-hour readings, but numerous table readings and a three-week lab as well, all of which have gotten us closer and closer to where we need to be.
 
What have been some of the joys and challenges for you as a writing team as you’ve continued to develop the piece?

We’re not just a writing team—we’re also married, with two school-age kids, and by far the biggest challenge for us has been counterpoising our artistic partnership with our home life; separating writing time from family time is always a delicate balancing act, as is maintaining our very different individual voices while also speaking for each other in both the rehearsal room and civilian life. Any good writing team gets at least some of its spark from arguing and clashing; we have to be especially careful not to let that kind of adversarial energy leak into our “real life.” But that’s also part of the joy for us—the alive-ness that we feel when we work on this piece also infuses our marriage, and having a shared dream makes every step forward extra sweet. In some ways, the show is like our third child. (Shh, don’t let our boys hear that.)

Why should people get excited about the upcoming chances they’ll have to see Beatsville?
Beatsville drops you into the bohemian world of Greenwich Village’s beatnik scene, sets your neurons vibrating to a fresh, frantic be-bop score, and does it with a wickedly dark satirical edge that literally draws blood. It’s a gas, it’s the most, it’s right-on…and even after all the time we’ve spent working on it, there still isn’t any other show that sounds or feels quite like it.

Fostering and Supporting New Works with NextFest

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This past October, The 5th presented NextFest, its second annual Festival for New Works. Eleven new projects were introduced during the three week festival, at varying levels of evolution, from cold table reads and writing intensives to week-long workshops complete with writers, actors and creative members working together to revise and improve new musicals.

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Richard Andriessen, Andrew Russell and Marya Sea Kaminski working on The Rumble Within.

Three of the works at NextFest (The Long Game, The Rumble Within and Anybody Can Do Anything) emerged from another new works initiative, our inaugural Seattle Writers Group, which is a two-year program providing six writers the opportunity to attend bi-weekly meetings to share and discuss their work in progress.

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Some photos from Week 1 of NextFest.

NextFest also featured a writing intensive and table read of a new commission for The 5th’s education program, Adventure Musical Theater Touring Company (AMT). Free Boy, based on the book by Seattle historians Lorraine McConaghy and Judy Bentley, tells the true story of Charles Mitchell’s harrowing escape from Washington Territory in 1860 through the Canadian Underground Railroad. In a more immediate sense, the work completed on Free Boy during NextFest will be seen in spring 2017 when it is performed by AMT in elementary and middle schools throughout Washington State.

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Planning and organizing while working on new musicals sometimes takes up an entire wall.

“The 5th is committed to making sure that future generations will be able to enjoy relevant and compelling musical theater,” said Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry. “This year’s festival celebrates the richness and breadth of storytelling that is possible in musical theater.” For The 5th, the development and initial support of new works is just as important as the end product. Without the support and freedom to fully investigate and intensively examine these new works throughout the entirety of the creation process, they would never progress to the point of being ready to present on a stage.

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Our inaugural cohort of the 10-Minute Musical Project.

It’s also imperative to engage and instruct the next generation of writers and artists in all stages of musical development, which is why The 5th was proud to present the result of the inaugural 10-Minute Musical Project, a new education program. Designed for students ages 14 to 19, the program aims to empower local teens and support their future achievement by introducing them to the crafts and skills associated with songwriting, book writing, directing and the workshop process. Students participated as book writers, composers, lyricists, directors, music directors, stage managers, actors, marketing administrators and photographers/videographers. Following several months of work during the summer, these students culminated their program with a presentation of four original works at NextFest. To read more about the 10-Minute Musical Project, please visit: www.5thavenue.org/10-minute-musical-project.

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All of the cast and creative team members who worked on The Crazy Ones, one of the new works presented at NextFest.

NextFest is not currently open to the general public. Festival passes are a benefit of an Artist’s Circle Membership, offering access to behind-the-scenes interviews with writers, sneak peeks, special concerts, cocktail events and panels. To learn more about Membership before next year’s NextFest, please contact Development at (206) 625-1418.

To learn more about these and other musicals, please visit: www.5thavenue.org/nextfest.

The 10-Minute Musical Project: THE RECAP!

By ORLANDO MORALES, Director of Rising Star Project and Internships

This fall marked the premiere of the 10-Minute Musical Project, The 5th’s newest education initiative focused on empowering Washington state students (ages 14-19) and supporting their future achievement by introducing them to the process of writing, workshopping and presenting brand new musicals.

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This year involved 34 students presenting four original 10-minute musicals. Above, students rehearse Meant to Be, a new musical which explored the themes of high school romance and fire-breathing monsters.

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Students were involved in a three-week workshop and rehearsal process that culminated in a presentation on October 15, during The 5th’s NextFest: A Festival of New Musicals. Above, students rehearse Superficial, a new musical which reexamined the roles of heroes and villains and the trials of being stuck on a hero’s journey.

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This year’s cohort included three student directors…

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…three student music directors…

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…and three student stage managers.

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A stadium full of screaming fans is hypnotized by the title character in KazooMan!

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A focused and dedicated team of 15 student actors brought the original work of their peers to life—dealing with evolving scripts and characters until the day of the presentation. Above: The cast of The Tragic Truths.

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The 10-Minute Musical Project bookwriters, composers and lyricist began meeting and developing their original ideas in June.

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This year’s cohort brought together a group of students representing 23 local schools as far away as Marysville-Pilchuck High School and as close as Rainier Beach High School.

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A final bow with NextFest creators Buzz and Beth Porter!


Read this post on the process and development the students in the project went through before the presentation phase.

To find out more about the 10-Minute Musical Project, visit our website.

NextFest Artist Spotlight – Greg Schaffert, Line Producer

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  1. What is your job in NextFest? Explain for us.

I’m the line producer. Basically, I make sure the writers are happy and that they have what they need to do their work. I also work on dramaturgy and story structure with the writers, directors and 5th Ave team, and basically make sure everything keeps running on track.

  1. What are the aspects of your work that excite you?

Working with the writers. Asking questions that stir ideas and guide (gently) to help THEM tell the story they want to tell. Helping them discover their story.

  1. How does producing a festival like this differ from working on a fully-staged commercial production?

At a festival, you get to work on many different projects and with many different writers, of all ages, as opposed to putting all your efforts into one project. Every day, there are challenges that need to be handled when producing on the commercial level. Time is very precious (expensive) and you need to continue to keep everyone on task and working on the “same” show. To be successful, the entire team has to be focused on telling the same story. As a producer, you have to be everything for every team member. The conductor. Driving the bus.

  1. Why is a program like NextFest important for new works?

NextFest gives the writers of the future the opportunity to hone their craft and develop their shows and learn all the skills they need to tell a story. Developing new works takes years and Festivals are a way to move the shows down the pipeline. Invaluable. And exciting!


Interview conducted by CHARLIE JOHNSON, NextFest Media Manager

To find out more about NextFest, and other New Works programs at The 5th, click here.

NextFest Artist Spotlight – Christine Sumption, Dramaturg

Christine served as a dramaturg for the writing intensive of Stanford Story (working title) which was workshopped last week.

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  1. What is a dramaturg’s job in the theater – in general?

In the new play process, a dramaturg is like a midwife. I support the playwright through the process, provide historical context, consult on the development of the dramatic action, serve as a sounding board and work to make sure that the writer has the circumstances that he or she needs in order to do their best work. I share ideas, ask questions, listen to the playwright’s intentions and mirror back what I see emerging from the work. While also being very clear that it’s not my play. I’m not the writer (it’s not my baby).

Every playwright is different. Every project has different needs. It’s the dramaturg’s job to be flexible in the service of the play and the playwright. Sometimes it’s a deeply collaborative process, while at other times it takes place at a bit more of an arm’s length. It depends on the relationships and the specific requirements of the project at each step along the way. There’s an intangible element of chemistry involved; playwright and dramaturg have to be a match, have to trust each other and find value in the working relationship.

In the production process, the dramaturg’s work continues to be about supporting the playwright, but may also extend to supporting the director and cast. I work in consultation with the playwright and director, provide concise written material that contextualizes the work (and may be useful to the theatre’s marketing and development staff as well as the Board). I serve as an extra set of eyes in the rehearsal process, keeping the playwright’s goals front and center and offering constructive feedback as needed. Just how active the dramaturg is in the production process relates significantly to the specific personalities of the artistic team and the particular needs of the project.

There are certain playwrights I would drop anything to work with, and Cheryl L. West is at the top of that very short list. She’s an amazing writer, a keen intellect and a genuinely good person, and her work is full of joy, dignity and deep exploration of human complexity. I always know when I work with Cheryl that we will roll up our sleeves, work hard, ask tough questions, tell the truth and have a ball. Laughter is a big part of the process.

  1. As a dramaturg, how does your job differ when working on a piece in the early phases of development- like Stanford Story – from working on an already-complete play?

I’ve done a substantial amount of work on Ibsen, Shaw and Shakespeare, as well as on the work of contemporary writers whose plays are being produced for the second, fifth or tenth time. In those circumstances, the primary working relationship is generally with the director of the production. I analyze the play in depth and detail, investigate its production history and research its historical and cultural context in an effort to provide a solid foundation for the director in developing his or her approach. Sometimes the research is primarily text-based, while at other times it’s mainly visual or auditory.

I do my best to anticipate the questions that may arise in the rehearsal process, making active use of traditional research methods (libraries, archives, online databases, etc.) as well as seeking out the input of experts in various fields. In 2002, for example, I was the production dramaturg for Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen at Seattle Repertory Theatre, a play about the relationship of physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Since I possess only the most modest understanding of physics, I sought out Mott T. Greene, a MacArthur Award winning science historian, who was able to not only enlighten the artistic team about the scientific principles explored in the play but to help us all understand why this meeting of Bohr and Heisenberg was so significant. He helped us see them not only as icons but as men.

Through the rehearsal process on an existing play, I keep my eye on the big picture, noticing how the story unfolds onstage, and offering observations as the work progresses toward production. It’s useful for the director to have a fresh set of eyes on the work, to get response from someone who understands what he or she is aiming for but hasn’t been in the room every day.

  1. Why do you do dramaturgy? What aspects of the work excite you?

As a dramaturg, I’m a kind of professional question-asker. I love the pursuit of understanding through research, discussion, and the exchange of ideas. I spend my days exploring history, literature, art, music and humanity, and discovering how much more there is to learn. What could be better than that?

And I love playwrights. I love their ability to make language sing, to take human experience and mold it into a dramatic form that has the power to inspire, move, challenge, offer insight or call us to account. I consider it a privilege to support the work of artists who are engaging in meaningful questions about the world we live in.

  1. What was your preparation process for this writing session?

When I joined the project in late June, early July, my first task was to dig into the factual background of the play. I read whatever I could find about the ATO fraternity at Stanford and the furor that erupted when they challenged the white, Christian clause of the national organization in the early 1960s. Lucky for me, Stanford has excellent libraries as well as generous archivists who shared documents from the period. From there, I branched out into the history of American fraternities and the process they went through in the mid-20th century to become more inclusive. That naturally turned to a larger exploration of what was happening in the U.S. during that time period, in society, politics, music, television, you name it.

Cheryl and I met regularly to talk about the aims of the project and what would help her create a dynamic world for this play. It was important to her from the beginning that this not be a superficial, self-contained story. (“Gee, isn’t it great that these fraternity guys at Stanford in the early 1960s invited Jewish men to pledge?”) She wanted to create an experience that would not only tell the story of what happened at Stanford, but what was happening in the country as a whole during that time. She wanted to spark audiences to consider how events then relate to the world we live in now.

In April of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a huge crowd at Stanford, urging them to join the movement for racial and economic justice. “Human progress never merely rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” he said. “There is always a right time to do right . . . and that time is now.” It was a galvanizing moment for students, many of whom joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi for Freedom Summer that year. For Cheryl, those historical events provided a crucial foundation for the combination of heightened stakes and purpose to drive the characters in her play. The events of 1964 provided an opportunity for her to speak to the idealism of the Stanford students as well as their relative innocence about the world beyond their relatively privileged existence.

I compiled the highlights of my research into a booklet for the artistic team to prepare for a trip to Stanford organized by Stanford alum Jim Towne, so they would be prepared to meet with ATO alumni and learn about their experience in the early 1960s. Then, when they returned from Stanford, I supported Cheryl as she developed a preliminary outline of the play and some scenes to launch the work. We walked into the writing retreat with a framework for the project and open minds about how it might grow and change.

  1. Any time periods you love to work in? Any you despise?

For me, it’s less about time period and more about the people involved in the project and the depth of their thinking. I’m interested in work that embraces the full expanse of humanity.


Interview conducted by CHARLIE JOHNSON, NextFest Media Manager

To find out more about NextFest, and other New Works programs at The 5th, click here.