Friday, August 18, 2017

Writers Go Through Musical-Writing Development in Festival

Kirsten DeLohr Helland and Janet Krupin in Afterwords (Sam Freeman)

The second weekend in August has become an annual summer ritual in Issaquah, Washington. Village Theatre produces the Festival of New Musicals. This weekend was the 17th such festival. After a rigorous process of winnowing down hundreds of submissions from all over, even a few other countries, they bring together writers of new musicals and top singing/acting talent from the region (and sometimes New York and Los Angeles among others) for what are termed “29 hour workshops.” They provide directors and music directors and it all culminates in a three-day celebration of musical creation.

This year, there was a musical about Nikola Tesla, one about a little-known burial island in New York City (Hart Island), a developing fantasy musical to be staged by Book-It Repertory Theatre this winter (Howl’s Moving Castle) and a zombie musical.

I was able to interview the women behind a new musical called Afterwords, focusing on a young woman’s quest to uncover more about a suddenly-killed mentor’s secret love life. When she inherits his journals, she then discovers the woman has also suddenly died, and is driven to connect with the woman’s two daughters. The musical has many themes about family and connection and legacy.
Zoe Sarnak wrote the musics and lyrics and Emily Kaczmarek wrote the book (script). We spoke about the process of collaboration, the trust writers have to have in each other, and teased apart some of the expectations writers have about this workshop process and whether their expectations were met.

Zoe is an eclectic musician whose background includes writing songs in Nashville, short movie musicals, and she’s also got a degree in molecular biology! Some of her songs can be heard here:

Emily focuses on play writing, musicals, and screenplays. Info can be found here:

Emily says, about how the two met, “We met about two years. Zoe needed a book writer with screen- writing experience for a 20-minute movie musical. I knew the form. I had some experience with musical projects with other composers.”

Zoe says, “Our learning curve was specific. There are two things that make a 20-minute movie musical: finding a short story that can be told in 20 minutes – as opposed to shortening a longer piece, and from moment one, you have to establish that this is a musical somehow, either finding interior moments that are set to music or another convention for music. In theater, we’re used to people breaking out into song in a way that movies are not.

“In the case of our collaboration, we got good at collaborating very quickly. ‘How do the book and music integrate?’ We were able to have those conversations that were thoughtful.”

Emily adds, “It was a great boot-camp project. And we just established a good working relationship.”

As they got to know each other and spoke about their different projects, Zoe showed a collection of songs to Emily that Zoe liked but had difficulty creating the proper framework for. Emily was able to coalesce around the idea and help flesh it out.

Zoe relates, “The best way to say it is to say that I wrote a piece that involved themes of loss and art called ‘A Lasting Impression’ but never quite honed the narrative. Emily had an idea and I trusted her to tear it apart and come up with something new. Some of the score is still integrated with new lyrics, but the majority is (now) new music and new story.”

Writing styles have to be meshed together. Zoe and Emily write differently, but when they bring their work together, they trust their synergy. Zoe describes, “I have a nook with a desk, computer, piano and guitar and I might read a scene or play piano or guitar or use Finale (a sheet music software) or tweak lyrics. I can’t control when I will have the best idea, but I can control making progress every day.”

Understanding that there are parts of craft that are just plain “work,” (like doing the laundry), Zoe says, “If you sit down and work every day you’ll get both laundry and inspiration done.”

Emily says, “I write in binges and fits and starts. If I’m on a deadline, I’m working every day but I’m most effective if I have a four hour chunk of time and I know I can sink in and stare for an hour and a half and then be in it. I go into my cave. I enjoy that.”

Zoe adds, “I have to allow time to hum to myself and have musical themes sit in my head until I’m writing a scene where I can say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where that theme comes in.’ I don’t often just write a song about heartbreak and try to make a moment that a character sings it. Some moments in this musical (Afterwords), we knew exactly what we wanted to accomplish and worked through it beat by beat.

“Finding a home for a song or monologue means that we already know that it’s just a draft. Because if I write a piece that feels like Kali (one of the daughters) and she feels this way and needs to end up feeling that way, we realize that this verse here  shouldn’t say this it should say that.”

Emily says, “You always have to compromise for the good of the whole. Collaborators contribute their piece and have to shape in service to the broader story. You can’t be precious about anything. If you collaborate really well, if it’s important to Zoe, it’s usually really also important to me.”

The writers speak about having gone a “29 hour workshop” (where the singers rehearse for 29 hours – by union contract) in March in New York. Emily explains, “We got feedback. We learned to pay more attention to Jo’s arc (a lead character) through the show. Specify and raise the stakes on her motivation and her driving want. We spent a lot of time and energy talking about that. We landed on this idea about her guilt about Jimmy’s death. Guilt is a driving force. We (then) structured for guilt to be the biggest driving force in the beginning.

Zoe says, “We were working on having her look for these answers. We were trying a new way in and hadn’t seen it yet.”

In working toward the opportunity to hear the piece at Festival, Emily says that she rewrote a good 70% of the book before the August 1 deadline for sending in the current version of the piece. Both knew, also that they would be listening for aspects they thought needed changing during rehearsal and were ready to tweak things here, as well. They discuss what they expected to accomplish at Festival.

Emily says, “We knew Brandon (Ivie, the primary head of this program at Village) and of course think he’s smart. We were excited to be a part of (Festival). Village is special because it feels rigorous and professional and also communal and intimate. That combination has really served the work and we’ve been really joyful. We had high expectations and they’ve been met. It was gratifying to see rewrites we’ve done come to fruition and be successful.”

Having revamped 70% of the show, they were intensely interested in finding out what works. Zoe says, “Any time you’re in a workshop, you’re still in beat-to-beat (mode). Until you hear it out loud, you can’t know how it works. It wasn’t a closed document. We came here and everyone learned the music and at that point, we wanted to tweak what we had heard so we did a mid-week rewrite.

“We made two specific changes: I had written a song that was a back and forth between two characters. Both want very different things and at the end of a song they want the same thing. The original draft had three ‘flips of power’ and we realized it could be done with two flips. If it can be done shorter than efficiency is important.

“In another song, Kali opens back up from being closed off and Jo helps open her back up. When we heard that song out-loud, we realized that at the end of Act 1, she opens up too far too soon. The song used to have the word ‘love’ in it. (Instead) I put in hints (of change that is coming) without opening up the floodgates.”

Emily says, “When we go into a room with actors, they are really smart and will tell you if a line feels inauthentic. Or if they trip up on it (as they deliver the line), that tells you (a change is needed). I made lots of line edits. A lot of times it’s about cutting or (making it) simpler and clearer. The mother has a monologue and we discussed it a lot and wanted to keep the text but be more specific about what it meant for the daughters. It’s the place that they finally turn to each other and commit to being there for each other. I rewrote the lines the sisters say after they read the monologue.

“I think we achieved what we hoped. We saw a reading that taught us that the story works. Moving forward, we’re looking forward to a developmental production (where there are sets, costumes, musicians, and the actors memorize the piece) to put it on its feet. Zoe’s music is so pop, rock, hip hop, folk informed that we’re hoping to have band in the pit.”

As for what they wish in the future for the piece, they want it to be the best it can be, first. Emily says, “We want the story to get told and audiences to see it on a scale that is fruitful for us. So that Zoe hears the music she wrote and I have a story that is as nuanced as I dreamed.”

Zoe adds, “We want to make something resonant and allow it to be done at a high professional level and see it fully realized.”

Emily continues, “It’s like your kid: you have all these hopes and dreams and plans and do your best to shape them and (then) they find what they want to be. You make what you make without apology and put it into the world.”

If they had any advice to give to other writers coming to Festival, it would be, as Emily says, “Anytime you’re going through a developmental moment, it’s good to go in with goals and a clear sense of what you’re trying to learn. We approached this ‘29 hour’ differently than other ‘29 hours’ we have done because we’re in a different place. It’s good to have a plan.

“As we were watching the (performed) piece, I had an idea during one of the songs to raise the stakes and make it more gut-punchy. It’s an easy fix, but I had it watching the reading. There are things you can’t learn until you hear a table read, a concert or even until it opens. You have to be curious.”

Zoe says, “One thing about being a writer that is gratifying and comforting, is that in the end you can still write more. You became a writer because you want to write and it’s what grounds you, and when things are out of your control, you still can write. It’s what is really lucky about what we do. There’s joy in the creation of what you make!”

If you want to join the fun next year, you can go to and click on the link for Village Originals.
Emily Kaczmarek and Zoe Sarnak (Melodie Jeng)