An Interview with Katya Stanislavskaya

Katya Stanislavskaya is an amazing composer, lyricist, musical director, and educator. She is currently the Program Director of Musical Theatre at Western Carolina University (my alma mater) in addition to continuing to work on her own material. I am always interested in industry professionals who strike the balance between being an educator and an artist, so I made it a point to get in touch with Katya. Check out her wonderful answers below and be sure to check out her website for more information and news!

Jessica Humphrey: Give us a little background on yourself – when did you know you wanted to be a composer?

Katya Stanislavskaya: I think I wanted to be a lyricist long before I wanted to be a composer (I write music and lyrics, and sometimes the book, for my shows). I was involved in classical music from an early age and had plenty of musical outlets, but my close second passion was words. In the Soviet Union, my poetry was published in newspapers. When I came to America, I had to take a pause as I was learning English, but pretty soon I started writing again. It took me until my early 20s to realize that I was writing song lyrics rather than poetry.

JH: I know you have your Masters in Music in Piano Accompanying from Temple University, and then another Masters in MT Writing from Tisch, but in terms of teaching, when did you make the switch to focus more on teaching musical theatre for a BFA program rather than music directing and such for a music program?

KS: Actually, I always wanted an academic job. I think I just like being in college! The song “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” from Avenue Q makes so much sense to me. I started applying to academic jobs as soon as I finished my first masters (in Piano Accompanying). Originally, my dream was to be a staff accompanist, and my first job was as a staff accompanist at Westminster Choir College in NJ. But at that point, I was already smitten with musical theatre, and that was my strength. I considered going for my DMA in Collaborative Piano, but then I started writing for musical theater and veered over to the MFA side. My degree from Tisch ended up being the terminal degree in Theatre that I needed in order to teach.

JH: What challenges do you come across when trying to balance a professional life in the industry and teaching?

KS: Time. The issue is always the “when.” Summers and other breaks are great for sitting down and writing. But as soon as there is a development opportunity, schedules get tricky. Especially because, as music director, I am working on a show for half of each semester, and as program director, I am on a lot of committees, etc. Many great opportunities are during the academic year, so…

JH: How do you stay current while living in Western North Carolina?

KS: In a nutshell, I go back to New York, and also to Philadelphia where I lived and worked for many years. I try to schedule a reading, concert, or a music directing opportunity while I am on academic breaks. If nothing else, I try to see lots of shows!

JH: Where do you draw inspiration from for a new musical?

KS: My current musical, RESIDENT ALIEN, is very personal to me, and I feel a little emotionally depleted. I’ve been writing this piece alone, so now, I am starting to collaborate with other artists. While I regenerate new ideas, I am happy to support my collaborators’ ideas.

JH: What do you think are some of the challenges or even benefits of being a musical theatre composer today?

KS: Writing is something that you can do anywhere, any time. I also find that there are so many talented, enthusiastic, and generous performers who will sing your pieces for free. So writing, and even performance (in a concert venue), is not a problem. The problems arise if you expect to actually make money from writing. Very few people are able to make a living exclusively from being a writer. If that’s the goal, one can end up being very disheartened. If it’s your passion and you also love your money-making job (like I do), it’s really a joy.

JH: Do you have any advice for those looking to go into teaching for the musical theatre?

KS: While you are young and unattached, take every opportunity that will advance you professionally – even if it’s unpaid. Your resume won’t list whether you got paid, it will list the cool gig you’ve done. Beef up your resume before you have serious responsibilities, like spouses and children – because once you have a family, you will need to provide financial support and be geographically stable. Take risks while you can!

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