Open letter for MTF.NYC, Fall 2014
To the supporters of the Musical Theatre Factory,
This afternoon I’m writing from Caffe Trieste, an Italian espresso shop in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Since early this morning, I have been retyping the libretto of my musical The Disappearing Man, inputting changes I made last week during the New Works Festival at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley where the piece was work-shopped and performed.
My back is against the wall and I am facing out into the room. Over my head there’s a black and white photo of Francis Ford Coppola editing the script of The Godfather at this same table. Opposite there are two classical guitarists playing a strange mix of flamenco, surf and ranchero music for a woman in her sixties who seems a little drunk and keeps requesting Beatles covers. Behind them hangs a photo of Leonard Cohen, with a full head of hair, serenading a few espresso drinkers circa 1970.
Neither Coppola nor Cohen made this café famous. Maybe they also thought to themselves, “This place is not be what it used to be.” Like me, they were pilgrims hoping to write, sing and drink coffee in the place where the Beat Generation was born.
If you look out, past that beautiful Italian woman haranguing the barista because her husband got the wrong piece of cheesecake, through the window, and across the street, you see the front of City Lights Booksellers.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded the bookstore in 1953 and when his business partner left two years later the poet, translator, critic and teacher found himself in control of a building in the middle of San Francisco. There was an empty room in the basement where he liked to entertain his friends and fellow poets and soon decided to found City Lights Publishers.
It is no coincidence this is where I chose to spend my day-off before returning to New York. I have often dreamed about the meetings in that basement, Caffe Trieste and Vesuvio’s, the bar across the street. It was a moment where writers believed in each other and acknowledged they didn’t have a place in the publishing industry, as it existed. By working together, they invented a new way of writing to the world. Ferlinghetti published early works by Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, Charles Bukowski and others, the writers who were later called the Beats, and City Lights became known as the place to hear their collective voice. Ferlinghetti turned a physical space into an epicenter of culture and changed the form and business of poetry forever.
I was first introduced to Shakina Nayfack by William Finn. Bill had invited me to perform at a concert of songs by emerging writers at Barrington Stage Company. Shortly after I arrived in Pittsfield, Bill told me I should meet the director and aptly added, “You will understand each other better than I understand either one of you.” He was right. Shakina and I got to know each other while working on the concert and I agreed to give her a ride back to New York City where I lived and she was about to move.
On the road (wink), we traded music. I played songs from The Disappearing Man and other projects I was working on and Shakina showed me Junk: A Rock Opera and some original tunes that would lay the foundation for what is now A One-Woman Show. We talked about breaking into the business and about stories we wanted to tell.
While our taste and aesthetics are quite different, Shakina and I share a basic mission. We want to make art about revolution. We want to make art that is revolution. We want to make theatre that leads people to make concrete change. We are not interested in entertaining so much as moving, influencing and transforming.
The next time Shakina and I met, we got take-out in Chinatown and walked down to the steps of then-vital “Occupy Wall Street.” We continued the conversation about what the purpose of theatre should be and wondered whether the political theatre of OWS would turn out to be entertainment, or if it would inspire concrete change. We both had the feeling that it was too tidy to be revolutionary.
Now that all is said and done, it seems the movement made more Twitter, Facebook and blog posts than lobbying victories. It was a beautiful series of evocative statements and public demonstrations, but lacked the united vision necessary to consolidate political power. The protesters were not united by the specific demands, but by the desire to be part of a protest. OWS quite effectively made itself known but was unable to translate a public voice to political action.
That said, the fact we have all heard of OWS reveals something crucial about the world where we’re coming of age as artists. Gatekeepers are no longer needed to help ideas reach a national arena. Via the internet OWS protestors were able to speak to everyone in New York, and eventually in the United States without money, institution, or established politicians. Word of mouth now functions at lightning speed and can easily bypass tastemakers. If this is true, why should theatre be any different? Why should we wait for someone to decide we are worthy of the grant, workshop or production? Why should we use their names to get our ideas out into the world?
Here lies the foundation of my friendship with Shakina, and the beginning of the Musical Theatre Factory. People making theatre should be the ones who decide what theatre is made. We hereby decide to unite around content, and to stop leaving our fate as artists in the hands of others. We are making theatre, therefore it will be made.
In 2012, Shakina and I began putting theory to practice with The Disappearing Man. I had written a musical and she needed something to direct, so we co-produced a 29-hour reading. We both worked on fund-raising, booking, casting, publicity, box-office, and still thinking outside support is needed to give a musical legitimacy credited Shakina ‘producer’ and myself only ‘writer.’ We worked together, but pitched the idea that we were separate entities and Shakina was ‘producing’ my work. In the workshop we brought in a group of actors with established skills and reputations, did a significant amount of creative work, but also put a lot of effort into sharing the work with the theatre industry in New York.
Following a similar mindset, we presented the music from the show the following month at Joe’s Pub. Again, we pitched it as Shakina’s presentation of my work. While our first reading involved an intense workshop process, the Joe’s Pub show was far more of a showcase.
After the Joe’s Pub concert I did my own re-working of The Disappearing Man. I went to a residency at SPACE at Ryder Farm, re-wrote scenes and songs and lyrics and came back in the fall with a much cleaner, more efficient draft of the show. When I shared it with Shakina, we decided it was ready to perform, not because it had received acknowledgement from an institution, but because we were proud of the material and wanted to share it with the world.
We partnered with Cloud City, an independent performance space in Brooklyn and raised the funds to hire a music director/arranger, actors, designers, and build our sets, sound and lighting systems in the space. We built the set. We built the risers where the audience sat. We built the bar. We booked the opening acts. We publicized the show and sold-out all the tickets. The financial resources were limited but the generosity of the artists involved made an incredible production possible. The actors, designers and stewards of the space endorsed the work with their time and talents, we bypassed the trap of ‘getting produced,’ and instead ‘produced’ our own work, immediately.
It was first during the fund-raising period for The Disappearing Man that we decided to work under the name Musical Theatre Factory. Using a moniker and calling ourselves a collective meant acknowledging that all the artists who worked on The Disappearing Man and all the people who gave small amounts of money on Kickstarter were “producers” of the show. MTF is first and foremost a collective of like-minded artists who have come together to make theatre, and that is what we did.
In the middle of a polar vortex, in an actual factory, way off the beaten path in Brooklyn, The Disappearing Man sold out every night of its run and extended right up until another show was due to move in. There was a warm glow in the space and the feeling that something special had begun. I was proud to show up and watch my musical every night.
Following the success of the Cloud City production, The Disappearing Man was selected for a workshop here in California at Theatreworks Silicon Valley. Shakina moved on to write her One-Woman Show, successfully crowd-funded gender confirmation surgery, and both of us got new agents as theatre writers. By empowering ourselves, we have changed our relationship to the gatekeepers of the theatre industry. We are no longer trying to get a foot in the door, but are working.
MTF has been given a new workspace in the heart of the New York Theater District where we built a black box theatre and Shakina has assembled an incredible volunteer staff to manage, fund, publicize, cast, design and even bartend the workshops, readings and concerts of musicals written and performed by MTF artists.
Much like the moment in 1955 when Ferlinghetti found himself in control of a space in downtown San Francisco and decided to become a publisher, we have inherited a workspace and have the privilege and responsibility of deciding how it should be used.
As I’ve said, my friendship and artistic partnership with Shakina is grounded in the belief that art is revolution. We are not interested in entertaining so much as moving, influencing and transforming.
In his book on lyric writing Stephen Sondheim writes, “content dictates form.” Even in a moment of changing the system established by artists of a bygone era it appears useful to acknowledge the things they did well. I’ll repurpose the Sondheim maxim as follows: “to present revolutionary content we must revolutionize the way we work.”
In transitioning from construction of the physical space to building the organizational structure, our conversations always begin with a Marxist vision of economic development. Marx insisted that in order for a society to prosper we must, “put the means of production in the hands of the labor.”
The literal application of the word production to theatre is too good to be true. In theatre, putting production in the hands of the people who labor means i.e. empowering artists to produce their own work. We are the ones who decided to spend years writing. We are the ones with the ability to make work that is vital and original, and we should be the ones to decide what work succeeds at doing so, therefore which work should be seen, heard, produced and recognized as outstanding.
Until now, we have all hidden behind the passive goals of getting produced or booking a role. There is a dream (and yes a dream that can be fulfilled) that with enough effort our work can be accepted as legitimate and given voice as artists. This depends on someone who does not write, act, direct or design, but does have access to money or institutional backing deciding a piece of writing or an actor’s audition is good enough.
Unlike Marx, I don’t think it necessary to do away with all capitalism. While commercial producers, Broadway, the TONY awards and non-profit theaters have to pander to their investors, donors and subscribers, all of these organizations also employ hardworking and talented artists in every aspect of theatre making. They keep us alive and make the dream of syndication, a reality. That said, while these organizations do occasionally produce work that is vital and original, it is not their goal. Staying in business has to take priority.
It is disheartening to see that productions, workshops and awards are always given to musicals with great branding and sometimes given to musicals with great writing. Audiences don’t expect emotionally, intellectually, or politically challenging work from musical theatre, so producers don’t look for that kind of work. As a result, writers remain broke until they adapt a syndicated movie for the stage, or write a book piecing together old songs, neither of which is a way to tell a new story. Actors tend to feel insecure until they have booked a high paying or highly visible job, and are therefore encouraged to avoid challenging material. It is a shame that the people who give cultural voice to our country, our city and our generation find themselves in this position. We should be proud.
The founding of Musical Theatre Factory is an opportunity to organize the laborers in our field and change the way that our business works—even if only within one enclave. We have the opportunity to create a space where: without doubt, we know that the work represents the opinions of the people making it, and where we can continually challenge each other to say something relevant about ourselves and the world around us, something we can be proud to say represents our generation of artists.
We give ourselves permission to take risks and write musicals that might not be ‘commercially viable’ in the eyes of producers and institutions, but are truthful and affecting. We must, as Ginsberg puts it in Howl (the first publication from City Lights), scribble “all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning [will be] stanzas of gibberish.” If we are ever going to create art with meaning, we must risk crashing and burning knowing we have put our full effort towards vitality as opposed to commerce.
There are obstacles for sure. One is finding a space to work. We just did.
Second – Unlike poets, theatre writers need actors to perform their material. Actors need work to perform. We can give this to each other. We don’t need to wait for someone to advance the money or put up the show. We can work and make the work seen. We can come together to decide to give voice to ourselves.
Already this summer, we have built an incredible group of resident writers and actors who are interested in making new work and want to contribute to alter the voice of musical theater. We have a system where writers develop musicals amongst peers and decide themselves when a show is ready for a reading, workshop or production. In a few months, we have participated in the development of twenty-one new musicals including two of mine.
The writers at MTF know who they’re writing for and walk into readings and productions with actors who already feel ownership over their roles and have a strong take on how they want to read them. The actors don’t audition and prove that they are good enough, or compete for limited roles on a financed production, but decide themselves what is produced and what they want to work on. We are at the beginning of something new. It is an alternative way of working. By changing the way we work that we make musicals that are vital, original, and dare I say, revolutionary.
Ginsberg, “saw the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the…streets at dawn,” but not us. We will not be destroyed. We will make the voices of our generation heard.