“Trusting the Magic of Conversation and Collaboration”

It’s August, and I have just checked into my Airbnb in New York – right smack in the middle of the theatre district – and I text James. “Meet me at Central Park – it’s time to make some magic”. And that’s how the creation of this show begins, during a walk in Central park.

Last year, James and I set about to create our very first original musical together, “Ready. Set. Go.” We would conceive of it together, James would write it, I would direct it, Kelsey Fuller would musically direct, and then Playing for Others (PFO) would produce it with a 10-person cast of teen performers. It was PFO’s 10-year anniversary, and James and I had talked for years, at first jokingly, about working on a show together. If there was ever a time to try it, a 10-year anniversary was it. So, we did.

It was a whirlwind experience, creating a 90-minute musical from scratch in 7 months. But when the last audience member left their seat as the run completed, we were proud. Proud of the powerful piece we had made happen, proud of the entire team involved in bringing it to life, and proud that this was attempt #1 at creating something like this together.

It was just before the final performance, we were sitting together – me on the stairs and James on the floor – and we had the following conversation:

Jen: Are we doing this again?

James: I don’t know, are we?

Jen: Do you want to?

James: Yes…do you?

Jen: Yes.

James: Ok.

Jen: Ok. Well, I guess we’d better figure out what it’s about.

And so, fast forward to where this story begins…August 2017. James and I meet up in Central Park and after the initial “tell me about your life” convo, the big question is asked:

“What is this year’s show going to be about?”

After much walking and talking and throwing out random ideas to get the well pumping and remove the dirty water, we start getting some good ones. At the end of the day, we make a plan…

Tomorrow, let’s do 9am-1pm in front of a cork board, so we can sketch out specific ideas, then keep talking on  the subway into the city to see a 2pm show. Then afterwards, let’s walk and talk about what we just saw and if there’s anything we gleaned that we want to include in our conversation about our own work. Let’s also plan on revisiting the big questions we left ourselves with yesterday. Then we can grab dinner and talk about general life stuff for an hour, see another show at 8pm, and then talk/work the entire way back on the subway until we both crash into our respective beds for the night. The next day…let’s do it all again.

You see, we start with the most critical part of our creative process – trusting in the magic of conversation and collaboration. Neither one of us going in with an agenda, or closed ears, or looking to find fault in the other one’s ideas. Instead we go in with an openness, a willingness to trust each other, trust the creative process, and know that if an idea comes up and the next day we’re still excited about it, it’s worth keeping on the table. We know that the conversation may take many unexpected turns and, perhaps, at times, completely dissolve into writing an impromptu song about highly inappropriate things, but… this is part of the way we work! A lot of our sentences begin, “I know this is crazy, but stay with me here…” and “This is completely random, but what if we were able to…” and “Remember that thing you said yesterday? Well, I was thinking about it this morning, and it reminded me of…” We weave in laughter, joy, difficult questions, and trust.

Our experience last year taught us to trust that these early conversations – which might initially seem like frivolous chit-chat – are actually the cornerstone of the foundation on which awesome and dynamic collaborative works of art are made. These conversations in the park or in James’s apartment or on the subway or after seeing a show are where we learn how each other thinks, observes, processes, and articulates. We build a shared vocabulary, and we build trust. We’ve worked together as teacher and student, and as mentor and mentee, and as friends, but now we are working together as creative collaborators, which requires an entirely new language that is only established over time.   

Another thing that makes this process unique to PFO is that in addition to figuring out what the musical is going to be about, we are also figuring out how the musical is going to be. What kind of experience do we want to make for the teen performers, and for the audience? We need to know what the story is, and equally importantly, we need to know what’s at the heart of the story. We’re building the aesthetic of the piece – what it will look like, sound like, be about – and we’re building the ethic of the piece – the core beliefs and values happening behind the scenes. Most theater-making processes only focus on the aesthetic, but this Playing for Others, and we believe that the ethic is just as important to specify. Our work of making a new musical allows us to put that belief into action.

So, this year, after many hours of conversation and discussion, we emerged with a central theme: Forgiveness.  We’ll explore that core concept from 4 different angles, through 4 different stories that would ultimately be chopped up and shuffled together, with different parts revealed at different times for the audience.

It’s complicated and will rely much more on storytelling through scenes than the song cycle style of “Ready. Set. Go.”, but it’s exciting. It’s different. It’s a challenge. We often joke that if audiences show up expecting “Ready. Set. Go. Part 2”, they are in for quite a surprise!

We wanted to uplevel the process, challenge ourselves to create something new, different, and unique. And we wanted to share the process of creating this craziness with you. So, ready or not, we’re diving in and we hope you’re along for the ride 🙂

Creative goodness that is currently inspiring us:

Musicals –

Opening number to “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes

Come From Away by David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff

The Fortress of Solitude by Michael Friedman and Itamar Moses

 

Plays –

Indecent by Paula Vogel

Other:

Central Park (or any park will do)