Theater Is Life Times Ten: The Producer
In this series of blog posts, I’m having conversations with people who are all involved in different facets of creating new musicals. This week, I talked with Kevin Moore, the Producing Artistic Director of the Human Race Theatre in Dayton, Ohio. I have worked with Kevin many times, and have always appreciated his forthright approach to producing new musicals. Besides premiering new works at his own theater, Kevin is involved with championing new musicals in his role as co-chair of the New Works Committee of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre.
Rob Hartmann: So, what was your impulse in starting to do new musicals?
Kevin Moore: What started us actively workshopping new musicals was the fact that shows that we wanted to produce were newer pieces – and we weren’t getting an audience for new work. People attend what they know – so we wanted to get the audience engaged at the ground level. That was the genesis. And now, 12 or 13 years into doing it, our audience has grown up with it. They’ve become very savvy. They feel like they’ve contributed to each new piece. They want to meet the writers, talk with them. They really feel like they’re being heard. It’s a great way to build an audience.
RH: What do you respond to in new work?
KM: For me, personally, there’s got to be an emotional hook of some kind. It can be very different from show to show – but it has to engage me somehow, both from a heart level and a head level. Often it’s the music that I engage with first. For me, there’s got to be a melody – not “writing for writing’s sake” – not a lot of patter attached to notes.
RH: I call it “the music chasing the words.” The writers are so focused on the lyric, they’ve forgotten to give music its due power. A melody says a lot – and when things become so dense word-wise – I often say, this is words and music happening simultaneously – but they aren’t a song yet. You haven’t granted music the full power it can have.
KM: Exactly. Yes.
RH: What makes for an effective workshop?
KM: What I love about the process is, for one, making sure that the writers are there and part of it. Some people do workshops without the writers there, and that’s fine… but I think the value of a workshop is having the writers there. It’s giving them the space to hear the work, and the time to go away and come back with something else. I build my workshop schedules along the lines of, “Here’s the days where we learn music, and then we play with the script, and here’s when we’re going to do a full singthrough/readthrough to hear it all together.” Then I give them a space of a couple of days where they can work, and then come back in with some rewrites and new ideas. They’ve heard something that didn’t come off the way they thought it would, or what they heard inspired something else.
To me that’s part of the excitement: when they hear it, and say, “Ohhhh! Oh, I didn’t think about that…” Because suddenly they’re hearing someone else’s interpretation of what those lines are. And is what they want to be heard actually on the page? Or is their interpretation only in their head, and not yet communicated on the page? And how do we fix that?
RH: I would say there’s actually set of behaviors or a set of attitudes that will bring writers to success in a process like this. You have to be open, but you have to not lose sight of what it is you came there to do. Being closed off, or overly attached to one particular idea doesn’t serve you well, but at the same time, being wishy-washy doesn’t help either.
KM: The last thing I ever want to do is to bully a writer into changing something. I can express my opinion, if I think something’s not working. If they feel that they definitely need to do that particular thing, then my job is to say, “Well, you know, is it really saying this? Is this what you’re hearing?” It’s like therapy at times in the process, when you hit a stalemate of “I’m not hearing this.” “What aren’t you hearing? What are the words that are missing? What are the images that you’re looking for, and do we have the right words, or have I misunderstood what you want? Am I reading something into it, and if I’m reading this into it, might some other director read that into it?”
RH: One of the things that I say most often to writers about workshops is: relax. I mean, writers have secret control fantasies – that’s why we’re writers. But the great thing about theater is– it could be different tomorrow. You’re trying it this one way today, just to see what happens – and it’s not forever. Like in an improv scene, you just need to be open to what may happen.
KM: And know that the reading is not the end product.
RH: Other advice to writers?
KM: If you’re going to write something, you’re writing it because you have to. It’s something that’s got to come out of you. “I need to say something with this. This says something to me.” “I either have an original idea, or I’m adapting something – I’m adapting this because it’s really important to me that this be communicated in a different way.”
And keep in mind the intelligence of their audience. You don’t have to dumb it down. As long as the character is honest, an audience will go with it. Once they’ve established a relationship with that character, they’ll accept what that character does, even if it’s extreme. Because theater is life times ten. It’s extreme.
Composer Greg Coffin talks about workshopping his musical Right Next to Me at the Human Race Theatre.