The Truth About Trolls: Insights into a Musical Collaboration

In May 2018, the Salon held a staged reading for Melodee Miller and Mary September’s musical, The Truth About Trolls. Written in collaboration with the Film & Drama Academy students at Orca K-8 school in Columbia City, this thought-provoking musical received a world premiere production at Echo Lake Elementary School in January 2019. The Salon caught up with Melodee and Mary last month to get their thoughts on working together to develop the lyrics and composition for the musical, as well as their experience collaborating with middle school students to develop the narrative.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): Mary, as composer, and Melodee, as lyricist, after the staged reading of The  Truth About Trolls at the Salon in May 2018, you’ve gone on to a full production of this musical performed by grade school students for an audience of their peers and parents. How important was the staged reading in the development?

Melodee: The staged reading was very important for the development of our script. For one, it gave us a deadline for the first act (and Melodee needs deadlines to motivate her to get things done!) For the students involved at Orca K8, they could see that what they were working on was bigger than a classroom project, it was something outside of school that would culminate in some kind of performance. Because of that, they were highly invested in the process.

The night of the staged reading, your questions were strategically poised to get the best feedback. The audience excitement and response gave fuel for going into the writing of the second act.  It was important to see that the show resonated with people. Even Dr. Tanisha Brandon-Felder’s (Director of Equity and Family Engagement, Shoreline Schools) constructive criticism about Mary’s ethnic music idea and cultural appropriation was incredibly valuable, as it simplified the musical development process.

MOD: How did you work together in creating the musical?  Advice for other lyricists and composers?

Mary: That we have similar values and world perspectives was critical in the partnership.

Melodee: There was a time when we were working together and Mary was uncomfortable, sensing a potential personal problem. She brought it up in order to make sure our relationship was healthy and continued to foster the writing partnership.

Mary: I did the same, treating minor issues as if they were catastrophic, in order to practice talking through conflict and promote transparency.

Melodee: Our advice for others, communicate to strengthen the relationship and work through conflict.

Mary: I was trying to not be anal and overbearing, but recognizing Melodee was the mother of four small children, she would schedule phone dates in order to keep the writing process moving.

Melodee: Having the freedom to work independently as well as working together was useful. Mary’s scheduling was useful in setting mini-deadlines.

Mary: In dealing with Orca K-8, we set our own schedule and sent it to Donte (our school coordinator) to make sure the students were there on Fridays. Michelle Hermann and Zelda Padmanabhan, teachers at Orca K-8, were invaluable with student communications.

MOD: You write for young audiences, as performers and audience.  Why did you choose this group? What do these audiences and performers want to see and perform?

Mary: My mission is to use the performing arts to tell the stories of those whose voices aren’t being heard.  If the child population in the U.S. were a pie chart, the public schools represent the greatest piece of the pie. Reaching that sector and their families, serves the largest sector of the population.

Melodee: The reason I do theatre with children stems from my own childhood.  I was floundering and lacked confidence, not knowing where I fit in until I found theatre in high school. Helping children find community and people who will cheer them on regardless of ability in this overly competitive world is so important to me. I wish I had that as a child. DandyLyon Drama is my platform to provide that for children as it is not an exclusive theatre; we’re not looking for the cream of the crop. Our mission is to provide a safe space for kids to grow creatively, compassionately, and courageously through theatre.

In regards to why this audience for this script specifically, one of the main themes is reaching across boundaries and being friends with someone who seems very different than you. This hot-button topic of “other,” when written in the format of a children’s story, allows people to receive the message more openly.  It empowers the children to tell the story and impact their friends and adults with an important message. I believe audiences are hungry for these kinds of plays. One Orca K-8 mom at the Seattle Playwrights Salon said her daughter loved being a part of Trolls as she is passionate about social justice issues. She’s been in plays that are simply fun, but she was happy to be a part of Trolls because it had more meaning to her. Children and families need more than just entertainment. There is more “meat” to this piece and kids can handle it and need more important subject matters to explore and share.

MOD: Do you have plans for future musicals?

Mary: Absolutely! Home (or lack thereof) is a theme that resonates (our family lives in an RV).  I was talking about that and mentioned beetles with my 11-year-old son, Solomon, and he interjected, “It has to be about turtles and snails because they carry their home on their back!”

Melodee: Yes! I don’t know what they are, but yes!  The concept of home is “burbling” right now.

MOD: Ideally what do you need in order to write and compose effectively with another person?  What should an aspiring lyricist or composer avoid – traps you can warn about?

Mary: Practically, MuseScore or other notation software, simple phone technology such as voice recordings to sing or play into and share by email. Dropbox to save and share video, audio, and text files.

Melodee: Google docs for collaboration, know when to reach out for help.  Technical support and resources, Zoom conferencing. It’s nice to have the technology to work together remotely. Avoid feeling trapped into doing a part of the process you don’t want to and could give to someone else to do.

Mary: Decide upfront and/or talk regularly about the priorities of who gets credit for what and how are royalties shared.  In our case, 50/50 has always been agreed upon. Regarding Tanisha’s feedback - it was excellent. Take good feedback seriously even if you are feeling precious about what you’re going to have to cut and/or rearrange. Don’t be so married to your original idea that you don’t adapt according to good feedback to make the storyline (or anything else) stronger.

Melodee: Getting constructive feedback is always scary for me.  I was very nervous about the Salon because I didn’t know anyone or how it would all go. But I soon realized it was a safe space to share and receive outside feedback. I was also nervous about putting my script in someone else’s hands. Having Melani at Dandylyon Drama go through the script early on and suggest edits and bounce ideas back was so important though. And I trust her.  All these processes were so important for my growth as a playwright. So I guess I would say, get feedback, and choose wisely who and where you get it from.  

BIOS

Melodee Miller is a Teaching Artist, Director, and Playwright

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Melodee loves kids, loves theatre, and has the energy and creativity to match! She holds a BA in Theatre from Seattle Pacific University and is a Director and Teaching Artist with Dandylyon Drama. Some of her favorite shows from over the years are Pirates of Penzance, A Murder is Announced, Dr. Doolittle,  and The Amazing, Ever-Changing Alice in Wonderland. As a playwright, she wrote her first full-length musical, The Truth About Trolls, which had its world premiere in January 2019. Melodee is passionate about connecting people to each other’s stories and her love of children carries over into her work as a volunteer Child Ambassador for World Vision.  She has traveled to Rwanda, Uganda, and Guatemala to see how children and communities are being educated, equipped, and empowered to tackle their root causes of poverty and advocate for change in their home countries. Currently, you will find Melodee and her husband of 14 years traveling around the United States in a 30 ft motorhome with their four children learning to live simply, meeting families of various backgrounds, and exploring intentional communities.

Mary September, Music Director and Composer

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Mary is the composer of The Truth About Trolls, a musical about prejudice and reconciliation loosely based on the folktale The Billy Goats Gruff. With a BA in Music Education and an MA in Musical Theatre Direction, she has worked in countless venues locally and abroad, ranging from choreographing for UNHCR’s Youth Day in Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi, to playing the trombone as Agatha in 5th Avenue Theatre's Guys & Dolls, to teaching musical theatre to Irish gypsy “traveler” kids in southeast London. Mary’s husband, Patrick, is from Cape Town, South Africa; they met in Maputo, Mozambique; were newly-weds in London, UK; and their son was born in Lilongwe, Malawi. As an immigrant herself, mostly (unintentionally) undocumented, in her years abroad, and as the wife and mother in a mixed-race, multi-national family, Mary finds herself in the position of being an advocate and author where her most powerful tool is her own story of falling in love and living abroad, forced migration, and family separation. She believes the combined elements of acting, singing, and dancing are an incredibly powerful medium for amplifying the stories of those whose voices aren’t being heard.