Reflections on VOW: The Directory’s Inaugural Workshop

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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This past weekend, my colleague Laura Josepher and I watched twenty gifted musical theatre students premiere a 90-minute collection of new musical “shorts” threaded together with solo songs from The Directory. The three sold-out performances were the culmination of a four-week professionally-run workshop, tailored for Marymount Manhattan College.

The workshop, our first of many, is a natural extension of The Directory’s mission to bring together writers, teachers and young performers. We engaged four award-winning professional writers (Russell Kaplan & Sara Wordsworth, Will Reynolds and Clay Zambo) to create four musical “shorts” – inspired by the Weddings/Celebrations section of The New York Times – for a cast of twenty students they personally hand-picked for the project. Laura directed and I musical directed.

Laura Josepher & David Sisco
Laura Josepher & David Sisco

The workshop began on Monday, January 6, giving the writers a couple weeks to flesh out their characters’ stories after a meet-and-greet and table reading of the drafted works in mid-December. We rehearsed on an Equity schedule (10 AM – 6 PM) and treated the singing actors as we would in any other professional situation.

Over the course of the workshop, not a day passed that we didn’t receive new pages or songs from the writers. We believe nothing prepares performers for an active career in the theatre better than the level of concentration and flexibility required in a developmental workshop. With no particular performer or performance to look to, the students had to strike out on their own, using the tools they’ve learned in their acting and musical theatre performance classes to create fully realized characters. More than one student commented on the challenge of sight reading new material everyday and having to memorize revised lines, sometimes before the end of the day. Yet we noticed marked improvement in these abilities during the four weeks.

VOW - Company
Company – VOW

In addition to the professional rehearsal schedule, the students enjoyed special masterclasses with industry-respected writers and performers, including: Jeff Blumenkrantz (URBAN COWBOY), John Bucchino (A CATERED AFFAIR), Joe Kinosian & Kellen Blair (MURDER FOR TWO), Barry Wyner (CALVIN BERGER) and actress Sam Tedaldi. Each masterclass focused on a certain aspect of musical theatre writing and performance while also giving students the rare opportunity of hearing the writers’ insights on their own work and process. Laura and I also led regular classes on how to develop a character and fully incorporate a healthy technique into a new song. In this way, we were able to build a bridge between the academic and the professional worlds, providing valuable tools to help students grow in their work.

Shannen Doyle & Chris Gornes, BLUE APRON
Shannen Doyle & Chris Gornes, BLUE APRON

Much of our cast of twenty were freshmen and sophomores receiving their first performance opportunity at Marymount. Because much was asked of them, each rose to create beautiful, specific work. As their work grew, often so did their character, as the writers were inspired to create more tailor-made moments for them.

Beyond helping students to grow in their work as singing actors, we are also teaching them to be dramaturgs – to look at a piece and ask smart questions of the writers to clarify moments they play in the show and, perhaps, help the writers themselves gain more clarity about their own piece. More on that in our next blog…

With kind permission from some of the participants, we’d like to share their thoughts on the workshop:

“The best part of this month has been working on something entirely new; there’s an amazing feeling that comes with originating a role and creating something for the first time with the beautifully talented cast like the one in VOW.” — Chris Gornes
 
 
“Getting a chance to work with the writers has been a blessing. Listening to them give feedback was great because it was a chance to hear what they were thinking when they were sitting down and writing the “shorts.” I am so used to receiving text and having to find a way to make it work. With the writers there you get a chance to do that and then hear what they have to say about what they wanted to see happen with a scene or character.” – Adam McDowell
 
 
“The collaborative process is an amazing one. Although sometimes it can be difficult, this experience, along with working hand in hand with the writers(s), has made it clear to me that the best art comes from collaboration and understanding.” — Alexandra Schwartz
Natalie Ortega & Anthony Ingargiola in THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING
Natalie Ortega & Anthony Ingargiola in THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING
“It’s been great learning how to adjust to a professional rehearsal process. As a senior, this is the kind of life I have to look forward to (hopefully) after graduation. I’m glad that I got a chance to experience the challenges of a demanding rehearsal process before getting into the real world.” – Elliot Halperin
 
 
“Through this whole process I learned a lot about myself as an actor. I feel that I have a clearer vision of the artist I want to be and what I need to do to get there. As I go out into the world, I take with me these lessons and know that I will use them in life. I feel more confident as an actor and person. For that I am so grateful!” – Tyler Andrew Jones
 
 
“The professional environment Laura & David set for us really prepared me for what will be out in the ‘real world’ and if every director and music director go about a production the way they did, then I’m looking forward to what the professional world has to offer.” — Ally Kupferberg
Company, THE WHOLE WORD IS WATCHING
Company – THE WHOLE WORD IS WATCHING

You can watch a trailer for the VOW workshop here

This workshop highlighted for us what we believe good theatre of any kind to be about: collaboration. We look forward to other similar opportunities to connect wonderful writers with talented students and create new work that nurtures and inspires!

If you’d like more information about the masterclass and workshop series, please e-mail david@contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 550+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.

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