7 Notes for Writers, from 3 Directors of Note

 by Timothy Huang

Timothy Huang headshot squareWriting musicals can be a lonely, hilarious, cringe-worthy, awesome, depressing, exhilarating thing. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of knowing you’ve written the next “Take Me Or Leave Me”, only to have colleagues in your workshop take it, stomp all over it, then leave it twitching in the streets awaiting EMS. But what happens after all that? What happens after you hammer out those bugs and you get your show into NAMT, or Yale or Sundance or The O’Neill? I sat down with three of my favorite directors: Kent Nicholson, Marlo Hunter and Laura Brandel and asked them about all manner of things related to the various stages of development.  Here’s what they had to say.

Tim: Let’s start broadly. When do you most enjoy being brought in to the development of a piece? First reading, workshop, festival production?

MH: Each stage has its advantages and challenges, but lately I find that I really do enjoy being with a project from inception or its first reading. I equally enjoy dramaturgical development and production, and given that the goal is to stage the show and not just have it read, these two elements are never really mutually exclusive in my mind. …there’s no shorthand for bringing a production design to life like having been part of the writers’ process from the beginning.

LB: First reading. Because I’m interested in development, it’s exciting for me to be invited into the process early. As an early career director, I will more likely be asked to continue with the project for a workshop or production if I’ve proven my value and invested in the work at its earliest stage.

KN: It doesn’t matter to me. I’m happy to engage in a piece at any point. My preference is sooner rather than later. Shaping the piece with the writer and the actors in a room is the fun part for me. But I feel like that never really goes away at any point in the process of a new musical.

Tim: Musicals nowadays can be linear, non linear [narrative], immersive, and (I have been seeing this a lot lately,) atmospheric experiences. What in your methodology changes from genre to genre and what stays the same? Do you have a genre preference?

KN: I have a narrative preference I guess… meaning I like pieces which have a strong point of view. I’m not as fond of musicals as purely entertainment. But that’s the “New Play Person” in me. As far as methodology goes, yes – I think it does change from piece to piece. My approach to the dramaturgy has to change, since each genre privileges different information. In a linear piece, narrative and story have to be clear and concise, in an immersive piece, the audience experience takes precedence. Form follows function, so I think it’s essential to ask what kind of story we are telling.

MH: Agreed. What’s critical to me, in terms of “linear vs. non-linear,” is there are real people and real stakes at the heart of the story. Whether it’s dramatic or broadly comic, I need to be able to unearth a clear want, a clear conflict, and clear central theme. Regardless of the form, my focus is always on ensuring the story is clear, the stakes are real, and the form is serving that story in every way possible.

LB: For me the biggest difference between a traditional production, atmospheric or immersive production, is the audience’s experience. When the audience sits in a theater with a stage before them, (in any configuration,) it is likely a familiar experience. They know their role. When the audience’s role shifts from witness to participant, it becomes the director’s job to keep the audience and actors safe, while still maintaining a theatrical experience and the world of the play. The productions I’ve enjoyed most allow their audience to feel a sense of freedom.  Successful immersive productions share the rules of the production before the play begins and set boundaries without the audience feeling limited or forced.

KN: Mostly, I think of directing as another form of storytelling and communication. I’m bridging the gap between acting and playwriting for the audience. So, a focus on storytelling, even in a non-narrative piece becomes important. But how that story is told, what’s important to tell that story, and how you want the audience to receive information changes from piece to piece.

Tim: I like to get super specific with what my characters are doing physically during a song moment. Sometimes I will be in process with a director or performer who doesn’t like what I have written in stage direction, and finds something else that works. How specific do you like your writers to be about this? How do you balance what I want versus what your performer needs?

MH: Ha, I know you do! I generally prefer very few stage directions, but the greater priority is that I understand what’s important to a writer and then find the best way to marry a performer’s instinct with the writer’s want and my own vision.  But it’s not just the director who needs to find some freedom within these stage directions – it’s the performer who has brought very specific and (hopefully) unique and surprising choices to the role and the moment.

KN: I would say it behooves the writer to listen to what the actor has to say. They are the ones inhabiting a character. And they are the ones directly receiving audience feedback about that character in the moment. In terms of negotiating a moment between an actor and a writer when there is a disagreement, I ask that both parties think about what’s at the core of their choice making. Why do you see it that way?  Generally, if you can get to the core of why someone made a specific choice, you can find a multiplicity of things that do the same thing.

LB: I love when writers are specific. If given permission, I then use the writer’s intention to work out another idea that may serve the moment or performer better.  If the writer likes it, we keep it and move on. If they insist they need me to deliver what was initially on the page, I thank them for letting me try and then will come back in the next day with new ideas to do that.

Tim: We’ve all been here before: we have a song that, on paper and in workshop is absolutely hilarious. But when we get it to rehearsal it just isn’t clicking. It becomes a casualty of the alchemy of a shows’ disparate parts. This phenomenon irritates me to no end. Is there a pattern to why this happens? What can we as writers do to avoid this?

MH: I don’t know that you can avoid it. The truth is that it’s entirely possible that song is hilarious…it’s just in the wrong place in the show to be hilarious. It could be how we, as directors, are interpreting (or misinterpreting) it. It could be the wrong performers executing it. Or, it really just might not be that funny.

KN: Stop writing for music stands. This is the biggest danger in today’s environment of development. It is a wonderful thing to have so many opportunities to hear and listen to your piece, but how it plays at a stand is not how it is going to play in 3 dimensions. One has to continue to make the leap in their writing to the 3 dimensional version. It’s really hard to do!

LB: I also think the popularity of musical theater concerts is causing the trend of great character songwriting, but songs that don’t necessarily serve the narrative when they’re inside the musical.

KN: Yes. The song that stands alone really, really well because it tells a complete story – beginning, middle, and end, within the song itself: a play within a play. These songs often kill in performance during concerts, but rarely succeed in full production. As such, it kills the momentum of the show and then the musical has to create its momentum again.

LB: I’ve noticed a trend of writers sacrificing specificity so their songs can be easily lifted out of shows and used out of context in concerts, but in writing a musical the primary focus should be that the songs serve the story. When songs work out of context but not in rehearsal or in production, it’s sometimes because they’re inconsistent with the book.

Tim: I once worked with a director who did some hardcore dramaturgy on my show. They suggested a model for writing the rest of it that informed its structure, and a lot of what one character said and did in it. Technically every word and every note came out of my head, but without their input the end product might really have come out differently. So when the time came to discuss bookwriting credit, we shared it. At what point does dramaturgy become co-authorship for you? How do you protect yourself from that if your writer(s) are not of a sharing temper?

KN: I feel like this is something that is best left to the writer to decide. After years of work, and ideas that are clearly documented as being mine, and which remain in the final version, I might ask for some kind of credit. But if I have to ask, then there will likely be trouble, so it’s best if these things can happen organically, as they did in your case. Otherwise, make sure you are documenting things. Make sure you have proof of your various contributions. Then if there’s trouble, get a good lawyer or agent. But before you go down that road, really ask if you deserve it.

LB: If I am sharing notes, asking questions, providing supplemental information to serve your writing then credit me as the dramaturge. If I have profoundly changed the story through directing series of developmental readings and workshops I would like a “Developed with” credit. If the show is brought to me before there’s a draft, it’s just an idea, and I contributed major plot points and story structure I’d like a “conceived with” credit. If I contribute all of the above and begin writing the book, my words (I have never done this), then I’ll have a book credit, please.  I know Marlo excels at these conversations. I think she should teach a masterclass, “How to Claim What’s Yours: Directing a Musical in Development.”

MH: Ha! This is a looong conversation and one that I am willing to have at any time, as it is very important to directors who develop new work from early stages. One of the trickiest things about this issue is that it’s not something you can literally quantify – and therefore challenging to discuss at the outset of a collaboration. How do you say “Hey, listen, so if I contribute X amount of ideas that ultimately inform the DNA of your piece, I get X credit”? You can’t. It’s interesting, though, that you use the word “authorship” here. In most instances I would say a director who ultimately deserves shared bookwriting credit has to have contributed substantially to the structure of the story, the arc of the characters, the shape of the whole in a definitive way. More often than not, what a director feels he/she has earned when they’ve shaped a libretto in that way is a “Developed with” credit that will memorialize their contribution to the project in the event that they don’t (and likely won’t) direct every production of it in the future. And, of course, a subsidiary of the authors’ income for the piece.

LB: After six years of development with your director, your producer asks you to work with “A-List Broadway Director.” You will say yes. Your names are now on a marquee. You’re both receiving accolades and making bank. What happens to the first director who worked and contributed toward your show’s success for little to nothing for six years? We have invested in you, invest in us by crediting us.

KN: Asking for a piece of the writer’s subsidiary going forward is tricky. At what point do we, as directors, deserve it? The writer is also working for 6 years for little to nothing. Probably more so than directors. Many developmental organizations pay the director a small stipend but not the writer. Is it 6 readings? 1? At what point has your contribution been so great that the piece, in its final produced stage, is essentially the same as where you left it? I differ from my colleagues here a little bit because I don’t think I, as a director, ever deserve a subsidiary beyond the one that my union tells me I get when I direct a commercial production. Which isn’t to say that I won’t get one should the writer determine it, but I think it’s really the writers decision. Producers, directors, development organizations all want a piece of the writer’s subsidiary. So much so, that there is rarely a back end for the writer who ends up never making a commensurate amount of money for the time it took to develop the piece. A writer’s life is about waiting for the back end. At least a director often gets a fee. So I would argue these are the things that need to be taken into consideration before you ask for a piece of the writer’s pie.

MH: I’ll leave this one on a positive note – I very recently was involved in a collaboration where the writers offered me a collaboration agreement and a subsidiary without my even having to ask. Nor did they ask their agents (who are notoriously averse to collaboration agreements with directors); they just handed our signed agreement over to them. While of course I was already giving my all to the project, a gesture so generous, that so clearly says “we value you”, not only deepened our working relationship, but ensured that I will prioritize their project should there ever be a conflict with another show.

Tim: In my experience working with all three of you, I know that authorial intent is high on your list of priorities. Thanks for that. I also know that sometimes my intention for a piece works at cross purposes with moments that are just really cool and show-offy. It might be a particularly witty rhyme or a really satisfying key change etc. How do you approach your writer with this “challenge of conflicting ideals?”

MH: You can have all your satisfying key changes and your clever rhymes as long as I understand how it serves the story, how it serves the moment, and that the actor understands why he or she is doing or saying said cool or show-offy thing.  I think you know I’d say exactly that to you in the room. ☺ I really have to understand why you’re riffing on that particular syllable or I’m sorry, we won’t be able to allow riffing in our establishment. #RiffPolice

KN: For me it boils down to story. Often, a song or a moment gets in the way of effectively telling the best story. Sometimes this is OK. But one must pick their moments and their battles carefully. A show can only handle so much of that before it goes off the rails. In which case, I think it’s about really picking and choosing which moments you prioritize in telling the best possible version of the story that the author/composer wants to tell.

LB: I always want to try the idea in front of an audience first. Sometimes something that’s satisfying to the writer is satisfying to the audience for the same reason. If it is only satisfying to the writer, however, I tell them as smart as their idea is it’s not helping us tell the story. In the end it’s the writer’s choice.

Tim: Finally what, if anything, do you encounter in new musicals regularly that you wish you didn’t? Put another way, what do writers of new musicals presume that they shouldn’t? Please feel free to use your experience with me as an example.

LB: New musicals get stuck in development hell. Writers can feel that because no one’s producing their work, they need to keep “improving” it. Stop rewriting your work just to people please, or develop for development’s sake. There comes a point when you’re not making it better, you’re just making it different. Once your musical becomes what you want it to be, move on. Write your next show.

MH: I find that a lot of younger, greener writers do not take production or theatricality into consideration when they’re writing. In other words, I’m reading a movie musical. With jump cuts and location changes that are somehow instantaneous.  You’re writing for the stage specifically. Consider how you will keep telling your story between scenes. Have a concrete sense of why this is a play and not a movie, and how it’s being a play will serve the story.

KN: Mostly, it’s about hanging on to old ideas and not really thinking through how one moment of change might need to affect another. This can impact process one of two ways: either, the writer is unwilling to change a song because they are in love with it, or they change a song without thinking through the other ramifications in the score. Musicals do simple things really, really well. When you look at most musicals, they are very simple stories and very well told. Be careful about how much you are taking on in your piece.

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NicholsonKent Nicholson’s New York directing credits include: 9 Circles (The Sheen Center), Long Story Short (Prospect Theater), Five Flights (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), Wet (Summer Play Festival), and Marry Harry (NYMF, American Theater Group). Regional:  Amadeus (South Coast Repertory), Light in the Piazza (South Coast Repertory), How to Write a New Book for the Bible (South Coast Repertory, Berkeley Repertory, Seattle Repertory), Cubamor (Village Theatre), Lizzie (Theater Under the Stars, Village Theater), Grey Gardens, Vincent in Brixton, Ambition Facing West, and  All My Sons (TheatreWorks), Saint Ex (Weston Playhouse), 9 Circles, The Good German, and  Jacques Brel (Marin Theater Company), Small Tragedy and Satellites(Aurora Theater Company). He created the New Works Initiative at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and The Uncharted Writers Group at Ars Nova. He currently serves as the Director of Musical Theater at Playwrights Horizons.

HunterMarlo Hunter is a director & choreographer with a focus on the development of new musicals and plays. Marlo has directed, choreographed and developed new work at Second Stage, Long Wharf, Williamstown, Roundabout, Sundance, Pittsburgh CLO, Playwrights Horizons, Bay Street Theater, NJ Rep, and The Lark in residence at NY Stage & Film, among others. Director & Choreographer, Carner & Gregor’s Unlock’d  (Callaway Award), Drama League residency alumna, and a 2016 National Director Fellowship Finalist. She is Co-Conceiver & Director of The Theatrical Culinary Project  – an immersive play in development with Chef Carla Hall (Top Chef, The Chew), and playwrights Jeff Augustin, Martyna Majok, Daniel Pearle, and Julian Sheppard. She is currently developing new musicals by Michael R. Jackson & Anna K. Jacobs, Timothy Huang, Julianne Wick Davis, Sam Carner & Derek Gregor, and Kevin Hammond & Kristin Bair. www.MarloHunter.com

BrandelLaura Brandel: NYC-based director/choreographer of new musicals, plays, and devised work.  Artistic Producer,NYTB’s New Works Series (2008-2016).  Director of Dramatists Guild Fellows Presentation (Playwrights Horizons).  Directing: Mackenzie & The Missing Boy (NYTB,MTF), The Good Girl and Body and Soul (Manhattan MT Lab), Deux Femme (The Lark), Missing Karma (Samuel French OOB-Festival), A.R.T./New York Gala honoring S. Epatha Merkerson. Choreographer: Cry Eden (Access Theater), Hit the Wall (Barrow Street), a cautionary tail(The Flea). Consultant to Larry Keigwin on Rent Off-Broadway, Assistant Director Doctor Faustus (CSC).  Member SDC, 2017 Drama League Leo Shull New Musicals Directing Fellow, Lincoln Center Directors Lab, DNA’s Choreolab. BA in Dance/Dance Education from Hunter College. www.LauraMovesPeople.com.

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