Beyond Broadway: Long Distance Relationships

In earlier installments of this blog, writers Daniel Tenney and Rob Gardner both referenced the challenge of finding a writing partner when you live outside of one of the major theater hubs.

But what happens if you find a great collaborator—someone who shares your vision, where the creative chemistry starts to spark—and it turns out that you don’t live anywhere close to each other?

“Byron lives in Seattle and I live in New Haven.”

“Jafferis and I were both raised as only children, so we treasure being away from each other.”

That’s writer Aaron Jafferis and composer Byron Au Yong. And at first glance, you might expect it’s more than just geography that keeps them apart.

As a composer, Byron is inspired by the juxtaposition of nature, ancient ritual and cutting-edge technology that he finds in his Pacific Northwest home. His work draws on folk and classical elements in ways that feel surprising and avant-garde. One of his current projects is TURBINE, a composition for 88+ moving voices, commissioned by Leah Stein Dance Company and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, to premiere as part of the 200th Anniversary of the Fairmount Water Works in May 2015.

On the other hand (and the other coast), Aaron describes himself as a hip-hop poet and playwright. He draws upon the urban rhythms of his hometown in Connecticut. As an undergraduate, he majored in Arts and Social Change, and much of his work has taken the form of outreach, education and collaboration with schools, hospitals, detention centers and community organizations. Of course, that hasn’t stopped his work from being praised and performed across the country and internationally.

Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis (Photo: Julius Ahn)

Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis (Photo: Julius Ahn)

How did creators from such different worlds come together?

BA: “Aaron and I met during my audition for the Graduate Musical Writing program at NYU. I had questions about whether the [NYU] program would be the right fit, and [Aaron] was recommended as a current student to meet.”

AJ: “Bill Finn ran an optional lyric-writing workshop where lyricists and composers from different [years in the NYU program] mixed. I think Bill’s temperament didn’t quite fit in the normal songwriting lab, just like my rap and Byron’s new music weren’t completely at home, so Bill’s workshop was a good place for us all to explore. During George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wrote a lyric about Bush wearing his flight suit in his living room, watching the news. Bill gave the lyric to Byron to set. I don’t know if it was random, or if Bill knew Byron and I shared some aesthetic or political interests. Byron and I discovered that although we came to music theatre from very different places musically, we shared an interest in art as social action.”

BA: “After my thesis reading, Aaron and I met to discuss possible projects. He chose the one about a Chinese food deliveryman trapped in a Bronx elevator for 81 hours.”

That piece, titled Stuck Elevator, was premiered at the American Conservatory Theatre in 2013, and the two have continued to work together. Their current project is Trigger, a piece prompted by the Virginia Tech shooting. It is being written for 32 local singers, and will be premiered in 2017 to mark the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy.

Have there been any challenges to this long-distance relationship?

AJ: “We don’t collaborate much via email or skype or phone.”

BA: “We are focused on working when we are physically in the same place.”

AJ: “The one advantage of this is that it has forced us to be proactive in applying for residencies and workshops.”

BA: “Yes, through local funding sources in Seattle, a college where I used to teach, a museum where I used to work, and a masterclass with Adam Guettel at Intiman Theatre.”

AJ: “These residencies and workshops (Sundance, Yale Institute for Music Theatre, International Festival of Arts & Ideas, NYU Asian/Pacific/American Institute, Virginia Tech’s Center for the Arts, and others) in turn help us get a lot of focused writing done in a short amount of time, and help give our projects recognition and connect us with potential allies, producers, etc.”

BA: “We also make our own opportunities by setting draft deadlines for each other, then meeting for a few days in person after the deadline to share and discuss next steps.”

Aaron Jafferis and Byron Au Yong (Photo: Fred Hayes)

Aaron Jafferis and Byron Au Yong (Photo: Fred Hayes)

Have you ever wanted to collaborate with other people? Or found anyone in your area you wanted to work with?

BA: “Yes. Through attending performances, and word of mouth.”

AJ: “We also each collaborate a ton on our own with artists in all disciplines (mostly outside of music theatre) in our home cities. I produce a lot of my own work with Collective Consciousness Theatre here.”

In your work, both of you feature characters, stories and even musical styles that are not often seen on the musical theater stage. Has this been a challenge in getting your material seen and heard?

BA: “There are many venues open to live performance that includes music and theatre. Mainstream for some may be fringe for others.”

AJ: “There are some theatres and organizations for which telling stories not ordinarily told in mainstream musical theatre is a priority; in those cases our subject matter helps. For others, this is less a priority than bringing forms, themes, and subject matter familiar to their audiences; these theatres might be less likely to do our shows.”

BA: “We’ve presented in classrooms, community centers and museums, along with theaters. We go where our work will challenge and resonate with audiences curious about what we offer.”


What is your favorite musical?

BA: The one I’m at. Even if later I think the work is trash, experiencing a musical is a thrilling combination of talent singing/dancing/flying on stage, characters to figure out and storylines full of possibilities. I let myself be taken in a performance and can always admire the stamina of other audience members if the show is dreadful. Sometimes I relish seeing a mediocre musical to activate problem-solving on how to make a musical work.

AJ: My favorite musical is West Side Story. Personal story with big socio-political stakes, all kinds of race and language issues, and a beautiful score.

What is a dream project of yours?

BA: The ones I’m working on.

AJ: I dream of a 3-way collaboration in which Sherman Alexie is bookwriter.

BA: What?! Alexie lives in Seattle. Let’s make this happen.

As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?

BA: Being part of creative teams thankful to be in the room together, and hearing sounds play in new ways.

AJ: Success means I’m part of such an amazing, hip-hop-flavored literary and artistic movement in New Haven that young people don’t die violently here anymore.

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