Salon Playwright Hits it out of the Park with First Play

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When James Eychaner of Olympia made his first-ever submission of his first play, the ten-minute One Fine All Hallow’s Eve, to Seattle Playwrights Salon in July 2017, he and the play began a journey that revolutionized his thinking about his art, the theatre world, and the possibilities for him as a “late artist” (informally defined as one who begins making art in middle age or afterwards). Here’s his take on writing plays, submitting one’s work, and expanding one’s horizons.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): What happened as a result of submitting your first play to the Salon?

James Eychaner (JE): The opportunity at Seattle Playwrights Salon was a Godsend. Not only was it my first real encouragement (Hey, maybe I can write!), but it turned out to be an important practicum in theater. I had to really step it up to find actors, work with them on the script, gather props, etc., and finally get everything together for the staging. [Editor’s note: The Salon now engages directors for our plays, who do the work James did himself in 2016.] I then submitted the play to the Smith and Kraus competition in 2018. First place plays, including mine, received the "Standing Ovation Award," meaning publication in the book Best Ten Minute Plays of 2019. To me, the big deal is national exposure and the right to call myself an award-winning, published playwright. I submitted "All Hallows' Eve" thinking it must have some redeeming qualities. It turns out my play was among a handful selected from over 1,000 submissions.

MOD: Why did you start writing plays?

JE: I made a living with my writing skills before retiring from state government. I started writing plays about three years ago, after taking a theater course offered by playwright Bryan Willis. I had some early, terrible scripts read locally. I then went on to take playwriting classes from South Puget Sound Community College. "One Fine All Hallows' Eve" grew out of a class writing exercise and was read by college acting students at the end of the course.

MOD: What are you working on now?

JE: We'll see what happens with "All Hallows'." Since then, I have written a number of ten-minute, one act, and three act plays. Some of them are on New Play Exchange. I am currently in the planning/outline/scheming stage of what I think will be a 90-minute script on the theme of betrayal, especially how older people experience the betrayal of their bodies.

MOD: What’s your advice to other new playwrights?

JE: Write because you have to write. There is little or no money in playwriting. Submit work to appropriate venues and keep track of what you submit. A 1% or 2% response/success rate of submissions to acceptance would be outstanding. And it's not how good you are, it's really who you know. So, work to meet theater people.

My own strategy is to write the best I can, submit to contests, and hope for the best. If my dream were to come true, publication in Best Ten Minute Plays of 2019 would bring me to the attention of an agent or theatre that wants to know more about me, wants to produce my work, or commission a play.

New Theatre Company in Town Brings Plays and Philanthropy Together: Play Your* Part Starts Off with a Three-Production Season

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Play Your* Part hit the ground running in 2018, opening 2019 with a staged reading on immigration themes with an additional three full productions already scheduled for the remainder of the year. The Salon’s Margaret O’Donnell interviewed Play Your* Part founding Artistic Director Michael Raimondi for his take on why he started the company, and plans for the future.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): You started a new theatre company in Seattle last year! What is your inspiration for “theatre that inspires action”? What makes your company different from other theatre companies in Seattle? Why Seattle?

Michael Raimondi (MR): Play Your* Part formed when I moved to Seattle after spending 16 years in New York City working in theatre and film while also managing a franchise of an education company. When I arrived in Seattle I decided to learn as much as I could about the theatre scene and came to realize that if certain hurdles can be traversed, Seattle might be a viable place to begin a company and use it as a template for how I envision growing Play Your* Part in the years to come. I have always believed that theatre can be a catalyst for social change, but what I felt was missing was the connection between the inspiration someone may feel after experiencing a moving piece of theatre, and what they then do with that inspiration. Play Your* Part aims to connect its audiences with other nonprofit organizations by partnering with them as consultants, as beneficiaries, and as educational partners so folks know what they can do to help reduce violence and increase equity here in Seattle, and around the world. Play Your* Part is a theatre and philanthropy company, working with a different nonprofit in this fashion for each production.

MOD: What are your personal plans (acting, directing?) for Play Your* Part for this year and next? What do you have coming up in May and beyond?

MR: I will be directing the full length shows within our first full season, this year, of which there are three. Opening our season we will be presenting Mae West's 1927 play, The Drag - A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts in partnership with Gender Justice League performed at Gay City celebrating Pride month in June. Originally banned for indecency, The Drag ran for only ten performances and never made it to Broadway until Mae West rewrote it with a heterosexual leading man and it became a smash hit. Our production will reimagine the original incorporating live, original music by Elisa Money, choreography by Moscato Extatique, Adam Brozowski, and Levi Hawkins, costume design by Pete Rush, and draw the audience into a black and white film come to life before their eyes. The second half of the play opens with a technicolor drag ball, but ends tragically, hopefully helping our audiences to recognize how far we have come for LGBT rights, yet how much further we have to go.

In July, we open Oedipus the King benefiting Investigate West to be performed against the facade of St. Mark's Cathedral. This production will incorporate original half masks, designed by Joe Osheroff of Homunculus Mask Theatre, for the ensemble in the chorus from where the feature characters emerge, and use ASL as a base for the choral movement. Exploring the timelessness of the play, we will pull references and archetypes from various religions and cultures that help the audience best identify with each character, while highlighting the tragic story.

Beyond that we have a world premiere play slated for September/October to be performed at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in West Seattle and two more one to two night events we will premiere at the University Heights Center Auditorium where we rehearse.

MOD: What would you kill to direct?

MR: As a director I consider myself a keen listener and ultimately a conjurer of life out of text. I'm less interested in what is popular, and more interested in what is relevant. I'm interested in telling the stories of communities who are not being invited to participate. I'm interested in new plays based on true accounts, juxtaposed with classic works. I would love to direct operas - Rigoletto or La Traviata. I would love to direct Streetcar Named Desire. I'd love to direct new work currently being developed; Shakespeare, Greek plays, musicals, kitchen sink dramas, slapstick comedies ... and in each expose the heart, humor, and humanity we can all relate to and do so only when the stories are relevant and urgent and immediate.

MOD: What have been the biggest challenges so far for Play Your* Part? Successes?

MR: The biggest challenge we face is financially fulfilling our mission to build toward a sustainable wage model. We are proud to pay competitive stipends to our performers, artists, and technicians right out of the gate, but we have a long way to go. Being such a young company we rely on our private donors for support, while we submit grant applications and continue to form a track record of necessary and viable work, proving our worth for larger gifts that will sustain us. The biggest successes come as a result of our partnerships and dedication to philanthropy. Check out our 2018 Impact and 2019 Season Announcement video here for more on what we have already accomplished and what we aim to do this year.

MOD: Is Play Your* Part a new play incubator?

MR: Play Your* Part regularly commissions playwrights to create short plays. We have two models for short play development we have found to be intriguing, interview based plays where playwrights are commissioned to interview a subject and write a play based on a true story, and our 30-second play festival where playwrights create a short play consisting of five 30-second scenes. Six of those plays are written and then performed in under half an hour in a sketch comedy format. The staged reading series we just did was an interview based play format and from that we have identified two plays we are interested in further developing.

MOD: What is your background and that of your collaborators?

MR: I hold degrees in Directing from Chapman University and Acting from The Actors Studio Drama School. My collaborators have backgrounds in production, technical theatre, marketing, PR, casting, office and administrative management, accounting, graphic design, and development. Play Your* Part is a working board of 16 with five advisory Board Members, and 11 staff/volunteers. Believe it or not, we are still in need of additional support. Anyone interested in helping out as a volunteer or inquiring about positions available can email us at info@playyourpartseattle.org.

MOD: Dreaming big, how do you see synergies in connecting with other theatre companies? Specifically, what kind of companies?

MR: I would love for us to partner with companies sharing in our mission to reduce violence and increase equity around the world while employing and supporting local artists. London, New York City, and Mexico City are the three places I am most interested in exploring these partnerships and creating a presence for Play Your* Part over the next three years, with four more cities on the horizon. The Public Theatre in NYC and London's National Theatre are on our radar.

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.