Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Crossing a great divide

The racial divide, that is.  I'll explain.

This week's assignment for my Libretto 1 class at ESPA is to write a musical scene incorporating a pop song, where the characters sing the song as part of the story (jukebox musical style, think "Mama Mia" or "Jersey Boys").  She gave us a list of songs to chose from.  Given that I never listen to pop music, the only song on the list I was familiar with was Cee Lo Green's F*ck You.  I happen to think that is a great song, and really wanted to use it, but didn't think I could -- how can lily-white me write a scene with black characters?  But after listening to all the other songs on the list, I really couldn't stand any of them, and also decided that, heck, this is just an assignment for class.  Class is the perfect place to stretch myself and go outside my comfort zone. So I decided to try.

You may be wondering why I feel that a scene incorporating that song has to use black characters.  It's not because Cee Lo Green is black, it's because the song contains a certain "n" word that white people don't say unless they are the sort who like to wear pointy white hats.  That's a line I certainly am not interested in trying to cross.

But here's the thing.  Writing for black characters makes me nervous.  I'm afraid of coming off as racist.  (Heck,  I feel nervous even writing this blog post, that just expressing the fact that I feel nervous writing black characters sounds racist.)  Will it seem racist if my characters fall into any black stereotypes?   When there is a line like "I lie and beg and cheat and steal" in the song, is it ok to have a character who tried to steal something to impress his girlfriend?  Can I use black slang (I kinda figure any characters using that "n" word would probably also use other slang terms)?  Or if I try so hard to stay away from any stereotypes that my characters don't seem black at all, will that be it's own kind of racism because I'm denying the black experience? 

(I feel a compulsion to try to defend why I am not racist, but to avoid the "some of my best friends are black people" cliche, I will refrain and hope that I am not misinterpreted.)

My discomfort is not only about appearing racist; this is also just something that is outside the realm of my personal experience (and it is always easiest to write what you know).   If I were writing something for mass consumption with black characters (as is the case with the full musical I want to write), I would certainly have someone on my creative team who could help authenticate those characters.  But for now, I will just have to hope my class of white women and one Asian man aren't offended, or that at least it can spark an interesting conversation.

I wish it were easier to have an honest, open dialogue about black-white race issues in this country.  I wonder how long it will be before we get there.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing lyrics is HARD

This week I began my libretto writing class at Primary Stages ESPA.  Why?  Why aren't I just focusing on the rewrite of BREAKING PAIRS?  Why dive into a whole new realm? (I keep asking myself these questions).   The main reason is this: musical theater is the art form that has most excited my passions ever since I saw Patti LuPone perform Evita when I was 7 years old.  As a musician, a singer, and now a writer, it would seem a shame not to try my hand at this most challenging and yet ultimately transcendent art form where I can put all of those skills to use.  I also have an idea for a musical which I think is a pretty great one, but don't really have any idea how to begin writing it.  So, here I am, studying the basics of  writing a libretto with Kait Kerrigan, a woman who has already (at age 30) reached the highly enviable position of making her living as a musical book and lyric writer. 

We had an assignment before the class even began, to turn something we had previously written into a musical scene (complete with lyrics, if possible).  The only lyrics I had ever written before were a few lines of parody lyrics for my cabaret shows.  I was more than a little intimidated, but I wanted to give it a try.  After all, the point was for the teacher to see where we were starting from, so who cares if it sucked?

While the lyrics were no great shakes, the scene didn't completely suck.  I knew a few things instinctively -- there is a lot less talking in musicals than in plays, so I had to severely condense the dialogue (a great exercise in economy of language, which is important in playwriting too).   Also, the most impassioned, important parts of the scene need to go into the song -- after all, whatever they are singing about has to be important enough that merely saying it didn't suffice.  This is an even more extreme exercise in economy of language, as you have to get at the crux of what the character wants/feels in just a few short lines, while following a rhythmic structure and (ideally) making them rhyme.   I didn't get to the rhyming part yet, but I did manage to keep the lyrics in a rhythmic structure, thanks to the insipid little tune that popped into my head as I began writing them.  (Next time, I will try what was apparently Oscar Hammerstein's trick: using the tune of an existing song as the structure for a new set of lyrics, just not telling the composer what that song was.  At least then I'd have an interesting song in my head.)

It was much, much harder and took much longer to put the characters' thoughts into lyric form, and I'm not sure I'm great at it.  But while I did find it very frustrating, I also found it kind of fun -- I like working within constraints; I think it can foster more creativity when you have to make something work within a given set of parameters rather than just being free to do whatever.  Perhaps as I learn more about this, I'll get better at it so I can enjoy it more. 

We shall see where this takes me.  I just hope I can organize my time such that I can complete the homework for this class and get my rewrite of my play done by the end of April.  Wish me luck!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Short Form vs Long Form

When I first started my full-length play last year, I was a little nervous about the prospect of writing in long form.  All the plays I'd written thus far had been 10-page shorts for my play-writing class; a form I had grown to know and understand pretty well.  The idea of writing something 10 times that long was more than a little daunting.  But I embraced it and grew to love having the time to develop the characters and to let their backstories creep in, little by little, throughout the scenes. 

This week when I undertook a 10-page writing assignment to submit for the new "Detention" series at ESPA, I discovered that I have gotten so used to having time to explore and develop characters, that I was having trouble getting to the real action of the scene in just 10 pages.  I mean, I was just barely introducing who these people are!  And they don't even really know themselves yet!  I wrote too many pages, and had to cut out a lot of things that I really liked, but that only showed character and didn't move the story ahead.  In the end, I think I was able to condense most of what I wanted into the 10 pages, by careful choosing words and letting go of things that were fun but not integral.  If I had another week, I would streamline it even more, but alas it was due at noon today so I had to submit it as is.

This process has made me realize that I'd like to get back to the short play form -- I think it is a very important writing exercise, to get to the crux of the conflict instantly, to be able to reveal who your characters are in as few words as possible. Plus there are countless places to submit short plays to for festivals and such, and I feel I'm a much stronger writer now than I was a year ago.  I need some new material so I can take advantage of some of those opportunities.

And thus I add another goal to my list for the year: to write 4 new short plays this year (one per season).  Now I just need some subject matter....

Thursday, February 3, 2011


I just had one of those moments: one of those moments when I realized how incredibly wonderful my life is.

This evening sent out an email blast to my mailing list about all the various events I have coming up in February, including an all-new kind of performance for me on an electronic music concert, two different singing classes I'm teaching, and my new writing venture with my upcoming libretto-writing class at Primary Stages ESPA.  Within less than five minutes, two people had emailed me back, one saying:

"Congratulations! You sound wonderful" 

and the other

"I think you are wonderful." 

This coincidence made me pause and go back and re-read my email.  Just glancing at it, I noticed the three section headings: performing, teaching and writing.  And I realized, my entire life is in the arts.  I may not be famous, I may not be making my living writing or performing, but I am living my life as an artist, completely.  I'm getting to use all the artistic sides of myself, my teaching, my singing, and my writing -- how incredibly wonderful is that?

If you'd like to share with me in any of these aspects, please come to my performance next Tues the 8th at the Parkside, or check out my free singing seminar on the 16th, or keep reading my blog (and pass it on to your friends) to hear about my writing ventures.  Thank you for being part of this journey -- it's truly wonderful to share it with you.