When Workshops Work. And Don’t.

I shouldn’t be writing this. I mean, every writer who’s ever been part of a writers’ workshop (such as ASCAP & BMI Musical Theatre Workshops, Dramatists Guild Fellows, etc…) has had these thoughts. The only difference is they usually don’t sit down to write about it. I’m choosing to because it’s an important reality in our business. And I believe workshops can be the best and worst thing for your musical (not to mention your peace of mind).

Below are solely my opinions of the joys and challenges of a workshop experience. None of these points are specific to a particular workshop, as I’ve been part of more than a few in my day.

Let’s start with the good stuff.

PROS

Community Feeling 

Not surprisingly, writers often work in isolation. It’s a relief to see friendly faces who get how hard it is to do what we do. I mean, seriously. It would be easier to shuck corn with your feet than to consistently write songs that “land” (as we call it), let alone write an entire musical that works. We need to stick together and support each other whenever we can. And there’s nothing that gets me out of my funk faster than seeing my colleagues doing work that inspires and challenges me.

Conversely, seeing things that don’t work in the workshop (and it happens to all of us often) is also helpful. Having to articulate why a song may not have been received the way the writers had intended is a great skill to have. It sharpens a writer’s dramaturgical tools and might help them avoid similar issues in the future.

I’ve developed life-long friends and found gifted collaborators in the workshops I’ve been part of. That’s worth the price of entry right there. By the way, most workshops are free and some even give you a stipend.

Making Connections

Do you know Sarah Corey? Sam Heldt? Jason SweetTooth Williams? You should – they’re all phenomenal performers. And I met each of them in a workshop or through workshop colleagues who recommended them.

I learned about grants and residencies I should apply for because colleagues mentioned them to me. I was able to begin building ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com because of the strong network at BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. People often post jobs in workshop e-blasts or in Facebook groups. You never know where those things might lead. Workshops will usually have regular presentations of members’ work. It’s a great way to get your songs heard.

If you want your finger on the pulse of the industry, be part of a workshop.

Having A Deadline

It can be very helpful to have a deadline so you don’t wallow in “the idea is on simmer” mode. Sometimes the muse needs to be chained to the desk and helped along with a big pot of coffee. Workshops can provide much-needed structure and help the writer keep on task.

The ABC’s of Writing

We all need to be reminded of the craft of writing. There are tons of different types of musical theatre songs (I Am, I Want, Charm Songs, etc…) and so many different ways to goof them up. You’d think once you’ve learned your lesson on one song, you’d never make that mistake again in another. Not true. Each song is so specific to a show (hopefully, anyway) that writers sometimes develop a bit of an amnesia because those rules now apply to a different set of characters in different situations.

There’s a reason Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof and a handful of other musicals are keenly studied and often resurrected: their craft is considered above reproach. Living up to that level of craft is, as I said, very difficult. Workshops help remind writers of the fundamentals of writing, which can make us better storytellers.

OK, now hold these positive things in your mind while I wax unsympathetic about the ways workshops can be a challenge.

CONS

A Lack of Context

Because writers sometimes present just one song at a time and have to “set it up” for the workshop moderators and their peers, the song can sometimes be lost in translation. Some moderators are particularly good at getting a sense of the song’s context and making comments based on that information, but despite best efforts, that doesn’t always happen. And what “reads in the room” may not always work when in context of the musical.

Do you begin to understand why writers can be so tortured?!

The best defense against this issue is a great set-up. Still, sometimes the best set-up in the world won’t give you feedback that’s applicable to the song’s context.

Sometimes Prescriptive

A + B does not always equal C. Yes, plenty of theatre songs were written in AABA form (“Someone to Watch Over Me,” for example), but that doesn’t mean a song with an extended B section doesn’t work. My collaborator Tom Gualtieri and I often say to each other “form follows function.” The dramatic arc of the song, in our minds, dictates the song’s structure. Sometimes that’s AABA. Sometimes it’s a hybrid of other well-known song forms. Sometimes, based on the character and situation, even half rhymes are appropriate (look out for Tom’s blog post on this in the coming weeks).

But bring that song into a workshop experience and alarms can start going off.

Structure in a song is extremely important because it provides a framework to allow the audience to get a clear sense of the character’s journey in just one listening. But sometimes standard song forms limit the ways in which that journey is taken. I have always believed that if you remove one structure (tonality, for instance) you must replace it with another (a tone row – something you’ll never hear me write, don’t worry…). As long as there’s a framework in place, the song should still be structurally sound.

I have personally found that messing with song structure has created rather negative reactions in a workshop situation. Write something in 5/8 and heads might explode. Well, I’m sorry, but there’s a reason it’s in 5/8! And if the lyric still lands on the ear, I fail to see the issue. Still, it’s enough to freak out 4/4-lovers (and hey, 4/4 is great too…) and the comments can seem more a judgment than a critique.

Rules are meant to be broken. Study the rules, then break them. Thank God there are writers out there that keep doing just that (Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda, I tip my hat to you, sir!).

Where’s the Problem?

If it’s true that workshops help writers sharpen their dramaturgical teeth, it’s also true that we’re looking for “a problem” to solve. It’s usually not malicious, but it’s nice to feel “right” in front of workshop colleagues (not to mention impressive moderators).

I often get that “blood in the water” feeling whenever there’s a sense something’s not working in a song. There’s something about a group dynamic that can send people into a “feeding frenzy” of prescriptive ideas on how to “fix the song.” I’ll be the first to admit I’ve gotten caught up in the frenzy myself. That said, it doesn’t always honor the writers’ work or spare their feelings.

And since we’re (I mean I’m…) clearing the air…

THE COMPOSER IS A DRAMATIST TOO!

How many times have I presented a song in front of a workshop with a collaborator and the class only directed dramaturgical concerns to my lyricist? Composers have just as much investment and say about the arc of a song as a lyricist. Workshop members should remember that collaboration means that both lyricist and composer are well acquainted with and deeply involved in each other’s craft. Please engage both when giving feedback.

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There are lots of good reasons to be a part of a writer’s workshop and plenty of good reasons not to go. I try to strike a balance and keep the following in mind:

  • People in the workshop (generally) want you to succeed. There will always be exceptions, but hopefully we remember we’re all in this together.
  • If you’re not feeling it, don’t go. There are going to be times when being part of a workshop community is not your best option. Listen to your inner voice. Go when you can to be supportive of others. Don’t go when the room feels like not the safest place for you (regardless of whether or not it actually is). But go often. Others need your support. Be the change you want to see in the workshop.
  • Know when bring a song into a workshop setting. And when not to. If a song is half-baked but really means a lot to you, that might not be the right time to put it in front of a workshop audience. Yes, a workshop should allow you to try out new things, but only you can know if you’re truly prepared to receive criticism.
  • Take feedback with a huge grain of salt. Sometimes you actually know what’s better for your song than someone hearing it for the first time. I don’t suggest being willful and throwing all your feedback away, though. Write down or record it and look and listen to it later. Things I silently railed against in a workshop became manna in the desert as I began rewrites. And sometimes feedback you get will only confirm what you already suspected. But the only way to know for sure is to put it out there.

Sometimes workshop experiences will be illuminating and uplifting. Sometimes you’ll want to be like Carrie and belt a high Q# while obliterating everyone in the room. It’s all part of the process. Keep your ego in check, listen to the inner voice and stay in the ring. At the very least, you will develop relationships with other writers who are making a career of trying to get it right. But chances are you’ll also become a smarter writer in the process.

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2 thoughts on “When Workshops Work. And Don’t.

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