Complete Freedom: The Writers Retreat

In this series of posts, I’m talking with people who are involved in the development of new musicals in various ways. One crucial element in the writing process is finding uninterrupted time to work, especially if you’re working as part of a collaborative team. There are a few artists retreats specifically created for musical theater writers: one of these is the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat, which was founded by Kathy Evans in 2011. (Last year, Rhinebeck welcomed #NMTWriters Joe Iconis, Kerrigan-Lowdermilk, Jenny Giering, Adam Gwon, Will Reynolds, and Tim Huang – and more!)

Their mission is “… to provide a sanctuary for musical theatre writers to develop their musicals in the heart of the Hudson Valley, and to promote awareness for the creation of this uniquely American art form.”

Prior to creating the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat, Kathy was Executive Director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre for nine years. NAMT’s annual Festival of New Musicals, held each fall, presents eight new musicals to an audience of industry professionals.

Rob Hartmann: What gave you the idea to start the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat?

Kathy Evans: I had been working at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre for nine years, and had worked with so many writers. I was also inspired by a book called Outrageous Fortune, published by Theatre Development Fund. It was a survey of not-for-profit theaters – about the state of not-for-profit theater and new work.

And one of the messages that came across was how difficult it is to make a living as a writer. It’s just so hard to get produced and licensed. And I felt like I wanted to work more with writers. And my husband and I had had a weekend home up in Rhinebeck for 20 years, and it just occurred to me – it’s so close to New York, and yet it really is the countryside. What a great place to get away and do nothing but write.

Another thing I heard from writers is how difficult the development process is, because you work and work and work, and you wait and wait and wait. And then you hope for that developmental production opportunity or that full production. And then when it happens, it’s crammed into a very tight time frame. Then you see your work, and then you leave. It’s very hard to get everyone back together to continue to work on it, especially if you’re a team of two or three.

So it felt to me like one week with a team together in a home where all they’re doing is writing would be very beneficial. I was familiar with some existing retreats. Of course there’s the MacDowell Colony and similar writers colonies. But most of those artists retreats are for solo artists, not for teams. I felt like I would be meeting a real need for the writing community – really contributing to the development of new musicals.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Stew, a Rhinebeck 2013 writer, and director Joanna Settle discuss the premiere of FAMILY ALBUM at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last fall.

RH: You never think it’s going to be as hard to get everyone all in one place as it is. I work with most of my collaborators long distance – we use Dropbox and Google Docs and Skype and all those things – but it’s not the same as being in the same place.

KE: Writers tell me things like, “We got more done in one week than we have in the last six months.” Being able to bounce ideas off each other – it’s just so much faster. And much more artistically stimulating.

One writer told me that she’d never felt so artistically free. I thought that was beautiful. Just to do whatever she wanted – and no one’s looking over her shoulder.

RH: Is there a presentation during the retreat?

KE: I call them “Meet the Writer” receptions. It’s not every week – we did five of the nine weeks last year. You really just go to a board member’s home, and just talk. It’s for our donors primarily. I sit with the writers, and talk with them about their piece and what they did this week. And if they want to, they perform a song or two. I leave it up to them. I keep saying, “Don’t worry, it’s very low key.” People get nervous – but afterward they say, “Oh yeah, that was really fun.” It’s very low pressure and fun. So that’s the only sort of performance thing that happens in the week.

And the writers don’t pay for anything while they’re there. We take them grocery shopping, make sure they’re fed. And we don’t ask for any percentage of future royalties from the writers. It’s not who we are, it’s not what we want to do. We just ask for credit.

RH: Considering your time at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, I wonder if you have thoughts about the direction that musical theater is going, or could go, should go?

KE: I love to watch it without opinion, because I think it’s such an exciting art form. That’s what blows me away about musical theater – it can be so many different things. So let it be those things.

When I started at NAMT in 2002, everyone was decrying the lack of originality. And look at what has happened in the last twelve years. It’s just astounding, really.

And who knows what will be next? I think it’s exciting. Don’t try to put restrictions on it – let the artists find what inspires them, and then find the audience who wants to go there with them.

Of course it’s an important part of the process to get other people involved – having a producer who is helping you or a director who is helping you think about structure and so on. But what we provide is complete freedom – and that’s important. Especially when you have two or three people who can’t even get in the same room together. It’s just amazing what can happen when they’re all cooking meals together. Some writers have told me they’ll be in the middle of cooking, and they’ll have to run over to the computer and write down an idea. That kind of fruitful creativity is so exciting to me.

Watch this video on YouTube.

The title song from Joe Iconis / Jason Williams / Lance Rubin’s ANNIE GOLDEN BOUNTY HUNTER, developed last summer at Rhinebeck.

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