1. Estate is, in your words, a “Variety Show.” What appeals to you about that form? How does it relate to the story of your play?
Thinking about variety shows gave me an initial way into this material, particularly as a way to explore using music. Once I got further along I was able to pull out the convention and shape what remained more organically. It’s in the DNA of the play, but to describe it as such is now a bit of a misdirection.
A creative spark for me from this form was how an audience would come to identify with the performers, like Carol Burnett for instance; then when she was in a skit they would see both her and the character she was playing simultaneously. These layers fascinate me in their inherent theatrically, their relationship to the audience and because they speak to the different roles we find ourselves cast in life: sister, brother, mother, father, best friend, co-worker, etc.
2. Does Estate mark or point to a development in you as a dramatic writer? If so, can you talk about the changes?
Like many playwrights, for me each play marks a point of development, a fresh opportunity to find one’s own way to tell a particular story. I like to think I know very little when I set out, it keeps me continually curious and engaged with the play itself.
I’m a habitually slow playwright. I like periods of intense concentration, followed by time away to then return. This play however was written towards a production slot, when I set out last April I knew that it would be performed the following February in Shapiro Studio. So time became a very active factor, it kept me at my desk pounding away.
Also, for this particular play, I began each draft back at a blank page. If I wanted anything from a previous draft, I had to retype it. Three consecutive “do overs.” By the fourth draft, I knew what the play wanted to be and could concentrate on internal strengthening and clarification. By this time, we had our amazing cast, so I was dreaming them into their parts.
3. The action of Estate centers itself around a family, the touchstone of American (possibly all) drama. What responsibility does a playwright have, if any, when writing about the family, given its high profile in American drama?
Golly, there’s a question. I think because I began this play with a variety show in mind, I kept myself safely away from the notion I was writing an American family drama and all the responsibility that might entail.
4. Estate is a play that contains songs that you wrote, a phenomenon that appears regularly in your work. How does music function for you, both in your writing process as well as the theatrical experience?
I don’t think of myself as a composer per se, music comes out of the world of my play from the characters themselves. It exists to serve the play (even if it’s being performed during intermission). Estate is my most completely realized play with music and it’s the first time I’ve had the absolute luxury of a music department. One of the many reasons I was gunning to work with dramaturge Jay Jaski was I knew he knew far more than me about music and musical theater. Since the complexities of this play require a full time dramaturge, Jay brought on music supervisor Aaron Gandy. Aaron separated my music out away from the play (I had thought of them as inseparable) and asked me insightful questions, helping to shape my musical impulses and ideas. Then Aaron brought on Eli Zoller. Eli took my melodies and transformed them into richly colored music, lending his own talents as a musician (he’s far and away a better guitarist than me and is able to add uke and banjo to the mix).
I wrote many of the lyrics for these songs before taking Deborah Breevort’s Lyric Writing class this past fall. Her class gave me a formal approach to lyric writing which I was able to apply in my rewriting process. I began to think about how to fully integrate my songs into dramatic action.
I feel I’m ending this process with many more musical tools at my disposal. All that remains is to see how all these new (to me) musical ideas function for an audience.
5. What have you learned about Estate in its move from the page to the stage?
Estate was in many ways a really, really hard, complicated, painful play to write. It’s uncomfortable working outside of one’s comfort zone. Lots of tears of frustration were shed on the pages of this venture as I sat alone at my desk. I felt for much of the time while writing as if I were running down a sandy beach on a pitch-black night with some immense terror close on my heels, always about to swallow me. Such fun.
However, the rehearsal process, in stark contrast, was nothing but joy. I feel the play passed safely out of my hands and now belongs wholly to the stage where the talents of my extraordinary and heroically dedicated cast, musicians, crew and the genius that is Jimmy Maize give it a life richer than my wildest dreams.