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.

Musician With Story To Tell Seeks Playwright

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Storyteller and musician Chris Anderson, a northwest artist who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, reached out to the Salon to help him find a playwright with whom he can join forces to tell his story. We took a few moments this past week to interview Chris and find out more about this unique opportunity.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): Why did you contact the Seattle Playwrights Salon?

Chris Anderson (CA): In 2018 I was awarded a grant from the Artist Trust and one of the perks from the grant was an opportunity to perform my production, 1hr2manup at the Neptune Theater. I had been preparing my show for three months, but was only allowed to actually practice the full production in the venue on the day of the performance. Creating the show was a bit of a struggle because I had so many ideas and concepts, but I wasn’t sure how to tie them all together. After my Neptune experience I walked away relieved it was over, but disappointed that I wasn’t able to use that opportunity to fully showcase my idea, which was under developed. My hopes are to collaborate with an established playwright who will help me streamline my vision.

MOD: Tell us about the kind of artist you are, and the music you make.

CA: Miles Davis said there are two types of music: good and bad. I create good music. I’m not only a music artist, I’m also a music producer, photographer, videographer, spoken word artist, clothing designer, drummer, percussionist, music curator, interior design, visual artist, and art installation designer.

The instrumental music I make comes from a place of both happiness and sadness. I draw from many forms of inspiration and hope to inspire others with my instrumental music. My record artistries come from a place of wanting to bring awareness to my culture—to wake up and take control over our lives to better ourselves for future generations.

MOD: What kinds of stories do you want to tell?

CA: I have a million stories from my life, all personal—some funny, some serious, some inspiring, some life changing, some crazy ridiculous—but all helpful in a way. I like to tell real stories, relatable stories, helpful ,and informative stories. I want people to be able to walk away learning something new from my experiences. I want to tell the kinds of stories that bring people together to shine awareness on cultural differences through a theater setting. Black people have amazing stories living inside of them. I want to be a vessel that pours out our stories to other communities.

MOD: How do you envision a collaboration with a playwright?

CA: I see us talking out my ideas and formulating a production approach based around their experience in theater and my experience on major and minor music stages and venues. I envision us working together to sharpen my vision, presenting it as an extremely heightened experience while keeping it fluid to always represent the journey I am traveling.

MOD: What kind of playwright/collaborator are you seeking?

CA: I’m seeking an experienced playwright that wants to push themselves creatively with me as we grow my idea from a spark to actual production. I have many ideas, but I lack experience in creating the narrative flow that would be appropriate for the stage. I hope the playwright that I partner with is outspoken and provides the guidance needed. I believe at this time in my life it is important to surround myself with people who are experienced in their field of work and will inspire me.

MOD: What are your artistic influences, especially for storytelling with music, or music with storytelling?

CA: I was privileged to work with a playwright, sculptor, curator, urban developer, and recording artist named Theaster Gates twenty years ago in his loft as a performance artist. That time spent with him and his work has inspired me to use all of my mediums to showcase who I am as an artist.

MOD: How should interested playwrights contact you?

CA: I can be contacted through my management company at jisun@globalartistscollective.co and/or merri@globalartistscollective.co

MFA in Playwriting: Yes? No? Maybe?

Hey older playwright! Yes, you. You who attend Dramatists Guild and other playwriting conferences and meetings in great number, take local and national playwriting classes, and send your work to the Seattle Playwrights Salon in hopes of snagging a development slot. Meaning, older than the average age of college students at graduation (age 24) and graduate students (age 33). As in at least middle age and older. Maybe you, like me, came to playwriting in the middle of our lives, in the midst of or after careers doing something else. Maybe you don’t have a theatre degree in your history.

I’ve heard you talk about the lack of fellowship, residency, and development offers for “late artists” such as ourselves. I’ve commiserated with you about our lack of connections to the theatres, artistic directors, and directors who would love our work, if they only knew about it. I share your envy of those playwrights who form bonds with peer groups and teachers in graduate school that last their entire careers, and for whom, we imagine, closed and locked theatre doors swing open at a touch. Are theatres with good national and regional reputations really only producing new work by “emerging” playwrights in their twenties and thirties? Do we just imagine eye-rolls when we call ourselves “emerging” after forty?

And there’s that whole “improving our craft” thing: a class or two, when and if we can find them; putting together a writers’ group for support; seeing lots of theatre. It’s so scattered! Is getting an MFA in playwriting sometimes the answer? Or part of the answer? It may depend on what we’re seeking. For me, I’m seeking instruction in craft and technique; history and context; connection and bonding; deepening ability to see and hear and tell stories that matter; and practice, practice, practice. Is an MFA in playwriting for me? My MFA won’t change the theatre world, but can it give me what I’m seeking?

In this series of illuminating interviews we’ll hear from Todd Ristau, Program Director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA; Duane Kelly, a Seattle playwright who has self-produced two plays in the last two years, and has a second professional production of one of those plays this year; and Donna Hoke, widely-produced and frequently awarded playwright in Buffalo, NY, on their thoughts on the value of an MFA in playwriting.

MFA in Playwriting: Yes (Part 1 of 3)

In this series of illuminating interviews we’ll hear from Todd Ristau, Program Director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA; Duane Kelly, a Seattle playwright who has self-produced two plays in the last two years, and has a second professional production of one of those plays this year; and Donna Hoke, widely-produced and frequently awarded playwright in Buffalo, NY, on their thoughts on the value of an MFA in playwriting.

First up is our interview with Todd Ristau on the right (and not so right) reasons to pursue an MFA.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): What are the most important reasons you know for getting an MFA in playwriting?

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Todd Ristau (TR): The only reason I can think of is that you honestly want to be a better playwright.  I hear a lot of other reasons given by people considering an MFA in playwriting, and I find them very frustrating.  “Because I want to be able to fall back on teaching.”  That’s a terrible reason to get an MFA.  “Because it seems like a degree from the right school is the only way to get past the gatekeepers and get produced!” That’s an even WORSE reason to get an MFA… you’d be much better off spending your money on self-producing.  “So I can have time to devote just to writing.”  Couldn’t you do that without getting a degree?  “To be part of a community of other writers.” Again, you don’t need a degree to do that… but, if you said you wanted to be part of a community of writers who are ALSO concentrating on being better playwrights, then I’d stand up and cheer. 

The amount of time and money you invest in a degree is only worthwhile if you are totally invested in learning how to do what you already love doing even better. Learning through exercises and focused coursework.  Learning through guided readings and exposure to other playwrights. Learning by interacting with established playwrights who are teachers and guest artists. Learning by working in an interdisciplinary way with other playwrights and actors and directors and dramaturgs and designers and technicians and everyone else who represents exactly the kinds of collaborators you might someday work with in the profession. That’s why you need to ask questions about a program’s pedagogy, philosophy, and not about brand affiliation. Before you can get any good out of anything you want, start by being clear about what you want and why you want it. If what you want is validation and a secret handshake to get past mythical gate keepers, don’t get an MFA. Sorry, I have feelings about this. Deep feelings.

MOD: Who seems to benefit most from an MFA program?  How about those who don’t benefit?

TR: There are people who are going to tell you that the people who benefit most are the ones who pocket your tuition. If you really feel that way, don’t get an MFA. See above for why I say that. The playwright who will benefit from an MFA is the one who comes in eager to learn and who is prepared to see their work as a blueprint for further collaboration with other artists and an audience. The ones who don’t benefit are the ones who have come to prove they didn’t need to learn anything but getting a degree is “just part of the game.”  Did I mention I had feelings?

MOD: Why did you decide to get an MFA?  What changed in your life and career because of it?

TR: Honestly, I didn’t have any of the high minded reasons I gave above. But, it was still a reflection of all of that. I was at Iowa as an undergraduate and I lived and breathed theatre. I was mostly acting, but theatre was this vehicle that just opened up my own life to me and helped me engage with other people in truly empathetic ways. And like my life was an improv game, I just kept saying yes to the offers that came to me. I joined Geese Company at 18, which was an improvisational mask work company doing Grotowski based pieces for inmates in prison. I toured with them for a year and performed in 170 prisons. Then I went back to school for a year and was asked to be in a garage band and go live in London for six months and I said yes.  Then I came back to school and my friend asked me to take a playwriting class with him because he was nervous about doing it alone. I wrote a one act for a midterm and another for my final. The teacher asked the head of the department what he should do if someone wrote good plays and the head of the department gave me a production slot to put both up as a night of one acts. It sold out all three nights. As a reward, I got to do a semester of the Playwright’s Workshop while I was an undergrad. I had to write another play. They put that in playwrights festival and everyone loved it, so they let me do another semester in the grad workshop.

I ended up doing five consecutive semesters of playwrights workshop before I finished my undergrad and then they gave me a $3000 scholarship to do my grad work at Iowa. Which I did. It wasn’t really a plan, so much as being open to my bliss or whatever calling me. Now I have devoted my life to helping other people hear and follow that same bliss. I’m constantly learning, advocating for learning and teaching. Exactly the way any playwright should be. I also really, genuinely love the administrative work of running a program, hiring good faculty and guests, and finding eager students. Nothing I am doing now would have been possible without my MFA, but it was never a career path. It was always a way for me to learn how to be more effective at doing the work that I love. 

MOD: If you could design the theatre world in the US from the ground up, God-like, what would it look like?  What part would formal academics play in this ideal world?

TR: I sort of feel like that is exactly what we’re doing at Hollins, so I’m not sure how to answer that question in the abstract. It would be a world where people support each other rather than compete with each other. It would be a world where the education was entirely subsidized so that nobody had to worry about crushing debt being one more thing keeping you from succeeding. It would be a world where success wouldn’t be measured in retweets or bank accounts. It would be a world where playwrights were as eager to go see plays by other people as they are anxious to get you to buy tickets to their own shows. It would be a world where access to training was easy and affordable and classes were taught by working professionals and never by people who resent or tear down their students. I guess it would be this world but where there is justice, generosity, and genuine collaboration. 

MOD: For those who don’t have the money for MFA programs (upwards of $50,000), how do you recommend they approximate the experience?  Is it possible?

TR: That’s a great question, and I don’t have an answer. But, again, Hollins is not designed to be an ivory tower with a moat and a fence of poisoned brambles to keep people who can’t afford to get in on the outside. Maybe you can’t take classes at Hollins because you don’t have an undergrad degree or you can’t afford the tuition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get something out of connecting with us. We partner with Mill Mountain Theatre so that we can bring lots of our programming to downtown Roanoke, and we offer it free to the public in most cases. In part, because I want our students interacting with the very public they are training to serve! 

Beyond finding a new play development program like Hollins to hang around with, I would recommend you find a theatre that does stuff you like and volunteer to read scripts, to sweep floors, to usher, to do anything you can to just be in and around theatre. Breathe it in and breath it out and you’re going to learn stuff. But again, back to my first point… if you are going there to try and scam them into doing your play, forget it. If you’re not going there to learn more about theatre so you can do it better, all the networking in the world isn’t going to help you. And  GO SEE PLAYS. And pay for the privilege. If you won’t pay to see a play, why do you think anyone will pay to see yours? If you’re not buying tickets, you can’t be that surprised that theatres are closing. But, when you go, make notes in your playbill of the people whose work you admire. Try to get to know that actor or that director or that designer. Give them your honest positive feedback and hope they ask you how you’re connected to the theatre. When you tell them you are a playwright don’t just shove a script in their hand, say “I hope I have a production someday that would merit the talent of a designer like you. You really know how to support the text with your work!” That’s the kind of thing that will get them interested in asking to see YOUR work. That’s how you build a circle of people who you want to work with and hopefully want to work with you. That’s how you get a director to drop your name when an artistic director asks what projects they’d like to work on. Anyway, my advice always seems to boil down to honestly wanting to be better and do your best to not be a jerk.

MOD: OnStage Blog.com lists their top ten playwriting programs 2018-19. All are two- and three-year full-time programs, expensive, and highly selective. For those who can’t go to school again full time, don’t or don’t want to get into a top ten school, and/or don’t have the funds, is attending a less well-known school a good idea?

TR: Please do not pick your MFA based on a top ten list. Ask yourself what is the criteria for how they rank the schools and then compare it to the criteria you have for what a school is offering that will best help you achieve your personal, artistic, and professional goals. Oh, you haven’t made a list of your personal, professional and artistic goals?  Start there. Then ask the schools in your price range how they can help you achieve those goals. Trust me, they will be honest. It won’t do them any good to have you go there, spend all your time complaining to them about how they aren’t as good as the big name schools and then have you going on playwriting forums and telling people that MFAs are a huge waste of time. 

When I’m looking at applications, I give a lot more weight to the letter of intent and the explanation for why someone thinks Hollins is the right choice for them than I do their writing samples. That letter of intent is how I figure out if we are going to be a good fit for each other. If it sounds like you would do better in a different program, I will tell you.  If you don’t think we’re prestigious enough, please tell me! I want our program to be the place you chose to become a better playwright, not the program you settled for. And I tell everyone, theatre is a maddening, thankless, expensive way to go broke. You’re not coming to Hollins to get a job. You’re coming to Hollins to learn how to be the best playwright you can possibly be. That’s where it starts. That’s where it never ends.

MFA in Playwriting: No (Part 2 of 3)

In this series of illuminating interviews we’re hearing from Todd Ristau, Program Director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA; Duane Kelly, a Seattle playwright who has self-produced two plays in the last two years, and has a second professional production of one of those plays this year; and Donna Hoke, widely-produced and frequently awarded playwright in Buffalo, NY, on their thoughts on the value of an MFA in playwriting.

Second in our series is Duane Kelly who shares an intriguing alternative to pursuing an MFA.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): Did you ever consider getting an MFA? How might it have changed your approach to playwriting?

Duane (right) with director Andy McGinn, on the set of his self-produced play “Visiting Cezanne”

Duane (right) with director Andy McGinn, on the set of his self-produced play “Visiting Cezanne”

Duane Kelly (DK): I never really considered an MFA program for myself. If I were a younger aspiring playwright and considering a two-year MFA program (estimated tuition $30,000), I think I could learn more by investing $5,000-$10,000 in self-producing one full-length play. For example, taking the play from early draft through development and rewriting phase (say three-four months) through producing—finding a venue; hiring a director, designers, actors; design process; rehearsals; closely observing the audience reaction (say another three-four months). One might learn more and become a better writer faster by investing $10,000 in one year of self-producing than spending $15,000 for one year of an MFA program.

As for myself, I went to grad school in English Literature at the UW 40+ years ago and have never seriously considered taking an MFA writing program. After co-founding Red Rover Theatre Company with John Davenport, I have in the last two years self-produced two new full-length plays. One of them, Visiting Cezanne, is receiving a second professional production (opens Feb. 15, 2019) ) at the Burien Actor’s Theater. I am planning to self-produce a third new full-length this fall in Seattle, under the Red Rover umbrella.