Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Meet The R&D: Maggie-Kate Coleman

Maggie-Kate Coleman, an artist in this year's R&D group, shares her unique developmental process.

Hello, my name is Maggie-Kate and I am a musical theatre writer.  There.  I said it. I’m still not sure how this happened.  And I’m not sure that I’ll ever be totally comfortable calling myself that.  Usually I call myself a playwright - not untrue, but sort of a lie of omission, because, hey I write a lot of lyrics too. Sometimes I opt for the all-encompassing and slightly vague “writer” and sometimes, depending on my motives, generalize even more and refer to myself simply as a “theatre artist.”  The truth is that I am just profoundly uncomfortable with people singing at me. Especially if they happen to be singing about their feelings. It’s just bizarre.  Am I right?  And singing and dancing?  Forget it. 

But I have written musicals in the past, and I am currently writing a musical in collaboration with composer Erato A. Kremmyda and Director/Choreographer Sam Pinkleton. And I assume that I will continue to write musicals well into the future. Sam once described us as a team of folks who all allegedly work in musical theatre by trade but tend to have a difficult relationship with the form and a lot of its output.  We’re not allowed to complain about it if we’re not working to change it, however, and aiming to make something as messy, huge, and impossible as this project seems like a good start. 

Why would three people who are somewhat uncomfortable with musicals want to write a musical together?  Well, first of all, the fact that musicals are bizarre and unnatural by nature gives you a lot of freedom as a creator. People are singing, so we’ve already tossed any semblance of realism out the window. So, if for example, you want to create a piece of theatre that is purportedly about Marie Curie and her life and work but probably actually about America’s long and troubled relationship with kitsch and terror in the post-nuclear era, and, if for example, you want to set it in an abandoned amusement park with attractions exploring the devastating (though indirect) repercussions of her work, specifically the five occasions post-Manhattan project when life has been threatened on a wide-scale by atomic devices (the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the outdoor testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada and the South Pacific from 1945-1980, the reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the reactor explosion at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, and the multiple reactor failures at Fukushima in Japan in 2011) – if that’s what you want to do, then it seems pretty obvious to us that a musical is the way to go. Plus, we need each other.  We can’t create this monstrosity alone.  We’re a team of folks who sometimes if we’re honest about it are really just writing/composing/directing/choreographing because it gives us a legitimate reason to delve into a giant, messy pile of research, ask questions, and see what it’s all about. 

So what’s our process?  What we don’t do is sit down and make an outline of events and actions and say, this is the song moment where Marie discovers radium and this is the love ballad between Marie and Pierre.  We do a lot of research, we ask a lot of questions, we make a lot of lists, mostly on large sheets of butcher paper with sharpie.  Like this one:  

I also sometimes make collages.  This is largely a stalling tactic that keeps my hands busy and makes me feel productive when I don’t know what to write. It’s also a way of avoiding writer’s block, which is mostly about being afraid to write bad stuff. Since I am in no way a visual artist, I don’t have the same qualms about making bad collages that I might when I go to the dark place and worry about making bad writing and/or bad theatre.  Plus it’s a helpful way for me to hone in on how the piece feels or should feel.  Tone is super hard to describe in words, and it’s easier to show what it’s supposed to feel like than describe it.  Or at least that’s what I tell myself to justify the time spent making collages instead of writing. 

As a team of three, we give ourselves a lot of assignments in order to generate a giant pile of source material that is ours, and not dry, academic or biopic in nature.  We use a random number generator to determine who is doing what in order to break down the roles of writer, composer, and director/choreographer so that we all share ownership of the piece equally.  Here are some of the early assignments:

1. Make a list of what Marie would cook during the day.
2. Design some radiation related tattoos.
4. Find the most boring piece of Curie-Related writing – 1 page max
5. Find Pierre and Marie’s favorite (post 1980s) dance song.
6. Build a giant Pierre or Marie using 10 people (like Voltron or Lion King Dad Face).
7. Make a list of 50 things that wash up on the shores of distant lands after Tsunami.
8. Come up with a game for Russian Children to play in a playground after Chernobyl.
9. Write a scene in which Godzilla comes to dinner at Marie and Pierre’s house in the style of kitchen sink American realism.
10.Write the worst version of a love scene between Pierre and Marie Curie
11. Come up with a game for Russian Children to play in a playground after Chernobyl.
12. Explain the history of French music in 1 page or less.  Do NOT research first.
13. What time of the day would Marie and Pierre have sex and where?
14. Make a list of actual celebrity biography titles.
15. Make a video of yourself listing as many elements from the periodic table as you can recall.  Do Not Cheat.

What comes of all this?  A lot of stuff that I’m definitely not going to share with you under any circumstances (except for #7 which you’ve seen above).  But it led us to think about a lot of things we might not have thought about if we just sat down and wrote an Opening Number with capital letters and an “I want” song. For example, it led us to an image of a roller coaster submerged off the coast of New Jersey post-Sandy, which led us to the Golden Age of theme parks in America, which led us to think about how American culture is still so saturated with the colorful, kitschy images of the Atomic era that we often dismiss the reality that we (humans, earthlings) have put ourselves in the almost incomprehensible position of trying to find a way to mitigate the risk of living in a world we are undeniably turning into an apocalyptic wasteland, which led us to wonder who might be the radioactive superhero we can turn to save us from the horror we’ve created?  Is it Marie Curie? With jazz hands?

Thanks for sharing, Maggie-Kate. For other posts about our R&D Group artists, please click HERE!

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