My Favorite Under-Appreciated Songs from Disney Animated Feature-Length Films By Decade (Part 1)

We've all tapped our toes to "The Bare Necessities" or covered our ears when "Let It Go" was playing, but there are some great gems of Disney songs that sadly have not received much popular attention - and not because they're bad songs! So, even though no one asked for it, here are my favorite under-appreciated Disney songs from (mostly) animated features by decade!

1930s: "With a Smile and a Song" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Frank Churchill & Larry Morey; Performed by Adriana Caselotti

It's no surprise that the song chosen from this decade would come from Disney's first feature-length animated film, because it was the only one released in the '30s. I enjoy its light-hearted melody and its laid-back pacing. It also serves an important function in the film. After facing death and rescue at the hand of the Huntsman and running through a terrifying forest, the young princess finds encouragement in a little bluebird's song. Through "With a Smile and a Song," she finds a renewed spirit, however vapid or trite it may seem to us. It's also, in my opinion, the only true moment of empowerment that Snow White finds for herself in the entire film:

There's no use in grumbling
When raindrops come tumbling,
Remember you're the one
Who can fill the world with sunshine

OK, it's no feminist manifesto. However, with those lines, the message of the song takes what could be a rather inane message and turns it into one where each individual is responsible for their own happiness. Not bad for someone who's about to break into a house belonging to strange men so she can clean for them...

Runner-up: "One Song" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

1940s: "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo (1941)
Oliver Wallace & Ned Washington; Performed by Mel Blanc, Thurl Ravenscroft, and The Sportsmen

The '40s brought a string of Disney films consisting of unrelated animated segments that showcased movie magic that only animation could accomplish. Some of this was art-driven (as in the case of Fantasia), and some of it was created as a result of World War II budget-constraints (as in Make Mine Music). In Dumbo, however, we get a particularly noteworthy segment of experimental animation that is incorporated into the larger story plot - however weakly. In "Pink Elephants on Parade," Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse inadvertently guzzle down alcohol which has some incongruously psychedelic effects. The sequence is bizarre and amazing. The song that accompanies it is odd yet catchy. The jaunty beat belies a more menacing presence with the score's minor chords and foreboding lyrics:

Look out! Look out!
Pink Elephants on Parade!
Here they come!
Hippity Hoppity!
They're here and there!
Pink Elephants everywhere!

The song is terrifying for no apparent reason, except perhaps to warn young ones about the dangerous effects of alcohol? The song is featured in Fantasmic, but I still feel like it doesn't get as much attention as it deserves.

Runner-up: "The Three Caballeros" from The Three Caballeros (1944)

1950s: "Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale" from Cinderella (1950)
Mack David, Jerry Livingston & Al Hoffman; Performed by Ilene Woods and Rhoda Williams

Cinderella is probably my favorite classic Disney film (read: pre-Little Mermaid era). And there are some amazing songs that are not only well-written, but well-woven into the story. At first glance, "Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale" seems to feel like a random diversion from the story. I would argue, however, that it is actually one of the more moving sequences in the film. First, we hear Drusilla rehearsing the song accompanied by Anastasia's flute. Their cat Lucifer can't stand the noise, so he steps outside only to find that Cinderella is also singing the song while scrubbing the floor. Of course, she sings it beautifully, and soon we see multiple reflections of Cinderella in floating bubbles, and hear four-part harmony (all voiced by Ilene Woods). What I love about this song, beyond its wistful melody and moody harmonies, is it unveils something of Cinderella's emotional state without being too on-the-nose about it. The singing is sad and yet somehow resolute. It is as if Cinderella knows that there is no way out of her "bubble," so she does the best she can and sings herself through it -- a far more poetic version of "Whistle While You Work." And this beautiful moment signals the end of the film's first act, because there's about to be a knock at the door -- a messenger bringing news of a ball at the palace.

Runner-up: "All in the Golden Afternoon" from Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Let me know what your favorite under-appreciated Disney songs from the '30s, '40s, and '50s are! I'll share my picks for the '60s, '70s and '80s next week!

A Turn-of-the-20th-Century Kind of Guy

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Robert Delaunay

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Robert Delaunay

I've written before about how I'm trying to listen to music that I actually enjoy. I've been noticing a trend when it comes to listening to classical music. My heart seems to respond the most to pieces that were written around the transition into the 1900s. And these can be by composers who range from the tail end of the classical period, to the thick of the romantic period, to the first half of 20th century music: Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Copland, and even Joplin's ragtime music leading us into early jazz, and the likes of Kurt Weill and Cole Porter in musical theatre.

I'm trying to put my finger on what exactly stirs me up about these works. I think it's because from the Romantic period onward, deep emotion and self-expression became strongly appreciated in composition. Composers began to break from the conventions of the classical era, all the while utilizing all the "tricks of the trade" to create works that were at times epic and sweeping, at others solemn and introspective. Programmatic music became really popular at this time as well, with composers painting scenes or telling stories through their music - Beethoven's 6th and Stravinsky's Firebird come to mind. This emphasis on emotion carried on into the 20th century world of Expressionism, though I often feel a bit emotionally alienated by the exploration of atonality by Schoenberg and others. And while I appreciate a lot of the deconstructive work of late 20th century composers, I often find that I don't necessarily want to sit and listen to their work.

Not sure if Fantasia 2000 ruined or revitalized Respighi's Pines of Rome for me...

Not sure if Fantasia 2000 ruined or revitalized Respighi's Pines of Rome for me...

Now, I'm NOT a musicologist. There are probably all sorts of exceptions to everything I wrote above. And, of course, emotion and self-expression have continued to be a compositional value to this day (just listen to film scores!). But there's this turn-of-the-twentieth sweet spot for me; I really identify with what the major composers were trying to accomplish. They were using the existing musical sensibilities and conventions of their day to capture listener's hearts. What could be more musical theatre than that?

Thoughts on Diversity in Broadway Musical Storytelling

Travelers on diverted planes in the wake of 9/11 find themselves in and around the town of Gander, Newfoundland.

In an attempt to fit in, a high schooler tells a lie that gets completely out of control.

A zoom lens is taken to a section of Tolstoy's War and Peace as we follow the romantic story of two outsiders who find each other.

A weatherman is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

These are very roughly (very, very roughly, since I haven't seen any of them!) the plots of the four Best Musical Tony 2017 nominees, which are also the four nominated for Best Original Score and Best Book: Come From AwayDear Evan HansenNatasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; and Groundhog Day. I love how different these stories are from each other. It's evidence that musical theatre as an art form has really branched out beyond any particular template of storytelling. And it has been like this for a few years now. Book of Mormon, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Grey Gardens, Fun Home, Hamilton, Waitress - the subject matter of contemporary musicals is so varied from show to show — even on Broadway, which can often be seen as a purely commercial venture with great potential to fall victim to cookie-cutter producing. This trend is heartening to me, because it shows that commercialism need not win over storytelling. Or even, that good and diverse storytelling can lead to commercial success on Broadway. Something that doesn't seem to ring true for Hollywood blockbusters.

Yet, amidst this diversity of stories is something worth noting: All of the musical theatre writing teams (and even the directors) of the four musicals listed above are white. Of course, I acknowledge that "white" is a largely diverse group in and of itself. The writers come from different countries, and undoubtedly bring different perspectives to musical theatre. But if you look over the Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Lyrics Tony nominees over the past twenty years, you'll see that writing acclaimed musical theatre is a very white thing to do (and more often than not, white male). Writers like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stew are the exceptions, not the norm. And as an Asian American, it's not particularly encouraging that the few times that Asian Americans are heavily featured during the Tony Awards ceremony is due to revivals of South Pacific, The King and I and, this year, Miss Saigon - all stories written by white men. (For the record, I view those shows as simultaneously beneficial for Asian American actors in the industry AND problematic for the perception of Asian Americans in musical theatre as a whole.)

I don't write this to place blame. Or to inflict guilt. The point is observation. All but two of the actors and actresses nominated for performances in a musical this year are white. Who gets to write the stories affects who is represented on the Broadway stage. Who gets to write the stories influences the kinds of stories that get told. I don't necessarily have any magical solutions to this problem, other than to buckle down and write, compose, get better at my craft, learn from other musicals, collaborate with amazing people, and keep advocating for diversity in storytellers as much as diversity in storytelling. Maybe I'll make it to Broadway, maybe I won't. But I hope that no matter where my work gets performed, I'm tilting that dial of representation to better reflect the actual diversity in the US.

The Joy of Listening

Because I was a Music Major, I put a lot of pressure on myself to "be on top of" music. I have lists of music (ranging from classical to jazz to musical theatre to pop to film score) I SHOULD listen to -- and not just listen to, but analyze and form intelligent thoughts about. "Maybe I'll rent a score from Cal's Music Library and map out a symphony's harmonic structure! For fun," I tell myself. But the inevitable result is that I feel defeated and then don't want to listen to anything.

Recently, I listened to Michael Ian Black's podcast "How To Be Amazing" and someone was talking about the best way to experience an art museum. Instead of trying to see everything in a museum, a more enjoyable experience is to realize the amount of time you have and focus on a few select exhibits appropriate to that amount of time. Of course, a moment of discovery might occur that takes you off your path, but going into the museum with the goal of seeing everything is a fool's errand. Sure, you may see everything by the end, but will you actually have enjoyed the experience? I've found that by around the two-hour mark in a museum, my mind is completely shot -- and I haven't even seen half of what's on display! Why not select the things that I think I might actually be interested in?

So, I'm trying to approach listening to music this way. Try to listen to things I might actually enjoy. And if I don't enjoy it, that's OK. Move on. And of course, stay open to surprise discoveries. This is a far cry from feeling like I need to put myself through self-inflicted grad school. I believed the lie that I had to academically analyze every piece of music I listened to. And by doing so, I sucked the joy out of listening to music entirely.

Last week, I started listening to Stravinsky, because I remember that I enjoyed his work in college. And I've found, I indeed enjoy his work today! This guy is dope and a little cray! I don't have his scores in front of me, and I'm not going to write an essay about what makes his music so great (other than to say he's dope and a little cray). I just ENJOY it, and I'm trusting that somehow I'm unconsciously picking up on why. Maybe one day I'll dig deeper, but again, the motivation should be because I actually enjoy doing so - not because I feel like I have to please the Asian academic gods in my head.

Musicals can be Civic Service too!

What hazards await in this beautiful city?

What hazards await in this beautiful city?

Last year, I was commissioned by the San Francisco Unified School District to create a musical that would teach fifth graders who were transitioning to middle school how to get to school safely on their own. I took on the gig for practical reasons: 1) After living in the world of The Four Immigrants, it would be a nice change to write some contemporary pop music, 2) I wanted to gain more experience creating my own accompaniment tracks in Logic, and 3) It was a writing gig that paid well! It wasn't going to be a passion project, but something that I could grow and learn from at least.

A city rife with danger around every corner.

A city rife with danger around every corner.

However, as I started to write the show - now titled Step Up Crew, it hit me that the topic of "traffic safety," as boring and bureaucratic as it sounds, is actually a very worthwhile cause to write a musical. In thinking back to school assemblies I watched while growing up, I realized that I have retained some of the knowledge gained from those presentations. "Evaporation, Condensation, Precipitation!" and how the nervous system transmits a signal from your hand touching a hot stove to your brain and back again. I now look back and see that those creative, interactive, and musical assemblies were probably made by someone like me. A playwright or artist who followed educational guidelines to create a theatre piece, never actually knowing the impact they were having on kids' lives.

Step Up Crew is not going to move people to tears or make them re-examine their preconceived notions about existence. It might, however, remind kids how to stay safe while getting to school. Perhaps a child will remember bus etiquette and become a better citizen for it. Perhaps a child will remember how to cross the street safely and won't get hurt. I don't want to over-dramatize the impact the show could have, but thinking about Step Up Crew in this way brings a little more heart and a little more meaning to the project than before.

Creativity Quotation #17

“If you cry at the end of a book, it’s not necessarily because you think it’s true. It’s because the illusion is so gorgeous that you can believe in it. And to me that’s what’s interesting about fiction. That’s what’s beautiful about fiction. I think that’s why people keep reading.” — Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Author.

Starting is the hardest part

I was feeling some stress in anticipation of my primary work task this week: revise the piano score for Four Immigrants. The show is getting a developmental reading next week, and I also need to hand off all of the music to my orchestrator. Just before the weekend, I made sure to plan out my week as best as I could so that I had plenty of time to focus on this task. I was gearing up as if this were going to be a challenging and grueling undertaking.

Hello again, Old Friend...

Hello again, Old Friend...

Since starting on Monday, though, I have found that jumping back into the score, while definitely challenging, isn't all that grueling. It's actually fun. For the past two days, I found myself in a focused flow that's engaging and enjoyable. This is often the case. My stress rises before I have to begin a task, but once the task has begun, the work is surprisingly not stressful.

I think planning my schedule ahead of time is a big part of this. The fact that I gave myself the time to focus on the task meant that flow could happen. But there’s something to be said for how I can make a mountain out of a molehill. Sure the molehill is work, and can be difficult. But the molehill is also something I get to create as a writer. The molehill is my craft, my art. It enlivens me.

Posted on April 12, 2017 and filed under Composition, Creative, Musical Theater, Writing.

Weekly Blog Challenge

For years now, I've been telling myself that I want to write more on my blog. I think I'm finally going to commit to it. Committing to writing something every day will be difficult for me, so instead, I'm thinking I can commit to every week. It might be random thoughts, a review of a book or movie, it could be a short play, or even (gasp!) some poetry if I dare. I think I need to get myself into the practice of writing out my thoughts as an exercise. It might seem like that's what I do as a playwright anyway, but there are often weeks when I'm not actively writing -- I'm researching, I'm scoring, I'm recording, etc. It all depends on where I am with the life of any given project I'm working on. So, here is my first weekly blog post, short as it may be. I've started. Hopefully, I'll write something else on Monday next week! (Or maybe I should give myself until Tuesday realistically... stay tuned...)

Posted on April 3, 2017 and filed under Creative, Thought, Writing.

Story Explorers: A Post-Production Reflection

When people would ask me prior to the opening of Story Explorers what creating theatre for autistic children looks like, I would lay out specific elements: emphasis on sensory experience, less reliance on verbal storytelling, more reliance on moments and patterns, inviting and non-constrictive seating, loose script and song structure that allows for interaction, etc. Now that the show has closed, I believe all of these elements can be encapsulated into two words: openness and flexibility.

Creating a theatre experience where autistic children and their families felt welcomed meant letting pre-conceived ideas about theatre get challenged and revised. It meant creating space for ticks, interruptions, outbursts; for runners, dancers, sing-alongers; for kids who loudly and unabashedly share their opinions about the show mid-performance. It meant making it easy for parents to exit the space if needed without feeling like hundreds of eyes were watching them. It meant structuring the show in such a way that if a moment really connected with a kid, we can linger there just a bit longer than rehearsed.

Me, as Clayton - who loves to play with clay and pretend it's different things!

Me, as Clayton - who loves to play with clay and pretend it's different things!

In order to accomplish all of this, it was paramount that we assemble a team of actors who worked well with children, who could improvise and think on their toes, and who were open to a collaborative and often amorphous creative process. In short, we needed actors who were also teachers. Director Hannah Dworkin and I both decided early on that it made sense for us to be two of the performers, since the knowledge we had gained from the research and in-classroom workshops for the show seemed inextricable from the final performance. This didn't feel like a show to "hand-off" to actors. We found excellent collaborators in Anna Smith, André San-Chez, and Austin Zumbro, each of whom contributed ideas, talents and hard work to bring the show to fruition. We also had a ton of fun, playing and joking around along the way - another form of being open and flexible with each other!

Even though there was a script, we all understood that the show could change depending on the moment. If a child vocalized or spoke, we responded or repeated back what we heard. If a child seemed keen to help us perform part of the show, we invited them to the stage area and encouraged them to do so. If a child backed away from us, we respected their space and didn't insist on interaction.

One particularly memorable exchange I had was with a boy who made it very clear at the beginning of the show that he would provide his unfiltered commentary throughout. For example, of Sharky, the Story Shark, he declared "That's not a shark! That's a stuffed animal!" One of my tasks in Story Explorers was to float an inflatable astronaut around the room during our outer space sequence, asking kids to high-five it, which would result in a "Whoosh!" and the astronaut floating away. When I asked this boy to high-five the astronaut, he said, with a rather serious expression on his face, "I'd rather high-five one ounce of atmosphere." So, I pinched my fingers in the air, as if I had grabbed a speck of dust, and held my hand out to the boy. "Here," I said, "One ounce of atmosphere." I knew I had successfully made contact when a small smile crept onto his face. He high-fived my pinched fingers, and I released the ounce of atmosphere back into the... well, atmosphere.

This is just one of the many magical encounters we all experienced throughout the run. These moments would not exist if we were insistent on keeping the show running on one track every single time. Because the actors had practiced openness and flexibility with each other during rehearsals, everything flowed quite well when needing to practice it with our audiences. A visible transformation would occur where parents - who at the beginning of the show would be tense and concerned with monitoring their kid - would discover that they could relax a bit, and that their kid's behaviors were neither shocking nor disruptive in this theatrical space, but rather accepted and incorporated into the show experience. I think the cast (and our stage/house manager Chris!) would agree that performing Story Explorers often left us speechless and moved.

Of course, this does not mean that we got everything right. Being open includes the strong possibility of getting things wrong, which is why we are conducting post-show surveys and encouraging our audiences to get in touch with us and tell us what they thought about the show. We want to make sure that we stay connected to the community we're reaching out to, instead of simply patting ourselves on our backs without a second thought.

The journey of Story Explorers isn't over - we are looking at future opportunities for the work, possibly turning it into a local touring show. Personally, I want to carry what I've learned from the experience about openness and flexibility into my other work. As a writer (indeed, as a human being), I can fall into the trap of rigidity, whether it's having a narrow viewpoint or only wanting things to be executed my way. While there's something to be said for asserting oneself and one's boundaries, there is also great value in balancing that with an open spirit, one that can loosely grip instead of clutch; one that can have intense, critical dialogue without it turning into a fight about who's right. I also want to see my life as full of open possibilities rather than merely consisting of set tasks and goals. As Shades, one of the characters in Story Explorers, raucously tells us:

"Your life is your own story,
A story to explore,
Your life is your own story,
A story no one's ever heard before,
Now you can tell your story,
A story to explore,
Yeah, you can tell your story,
A story no one's ever heard before!"

Story Explorers: Meet Sharky, the Story Shark!

Rehearsals for Story Explorers have begun, and for the past two weeks, we've been able to visit special needs classrooms to try out elements from the show. We've been getting positive responses from the students and teachers, as well as helpful feedback as we continue to craft the work together.

Sharky with actor Austin Zumbro.

Sharky with actor Austin Zumbro.

One element of Story Explorers we are really excited about is Sharky, the Story Shark! Sharky is a soft, friendly puppet who serves many different functions in the show. First, Sharky is a sort of buffer between the children and actors, in case the human-to-human interaction proves undesirable. Sharky straddles that line between person and object, which can be more inviting for a child with autism. He was intentionally constructed with a singular facial expression, so there would be no need to read emotional or social cues. Sharky also verbalizes in a nonsense "shark language," sending the signal that in our theatre space, everyone can communicate in their own way, without needing to follow the norms of verbal language.

Every interactive element in the show is offered to Sharky as well as the kids, turning the puppet into a sort of example or guinea pig. If a kid is feeling uncertain about a moment in the show - say, playing with clay - they might look over and notice that Sharky seems OK touching the clay and decide they will as well. Sharky is also very huggable and pettable. Lots of kids enjoyed interacting with Sharky in our classroom visits. In a few classes, they also immediately called out his name "Sharky!" when they saw him enter the room - which made me think I named him well.

Posted on February 3, 2017 and filed under Creative, Performing Arts, Research.

Never Doubt

Artmakers and storytellers - write books, draw comics, paint paintings, do stand-up, code video games, make movies, become a YouTube sensation, craft poetry, animate short-films, make documentaries, design fashion, sing original songs, choreograph a number, create theatre!

Make us laugh. Help us grieve, heal, and breathe. Challenge our notions. Engage us in social dialogue. Teach us to be kind and empathetic. Remind us who we are. Show us who we can be.

Let's keep inundating our culture with our varying narratives and perspectives. We're playing a cultural long-game here - centuries in the making. We can be influencing tomorrow's voters in profound ways today. There are short-term horrors to be concerned and grappled with to be sure, but never doubt the power of your craft to shape the country in the long-run.

(Oh, and do drag! Lots and lots of drag!)


I posted this on my Facebook timeline on November 9th, 2016.

Posted on November 15, 2016 and filed under Creative, Performing Arts, Thought, Writing.

A Dramatic Dream

I just had the most dramatic dream I've had in a long time:

I was a guest artist at a theatre conference for young actors put on by a group called CTE - Children's Theatrical Entertainment (any resemblance between this dream organization and an existing entity is purely coincidental). We were in a long hall filled with tables of about 6-8 young actors, ranging from ages 10-22. Each guest artist was assigned to a table, and was to facilitate a discussion and answer questions about career paths in theatre.

One kid at my table had done quite well for himself. He shared how excited he was that he was now going on a national tour of a show, after having done the Broadway run. I encouraged him to keep working hard, being disciplined, yada yada yada, the stuff you say to the kids who don't really need much advice. It is interesting to note that this kid was Asian, so there was some pride in seeing that he was doing well for himself.

Then another kid spoke - a scrawny, white, gay dancer-type, who looked very despondent. He asked me "Should I just give up?" He went on to explain that after what felt like years of "putting in the time," things didn't seem to pan out for him beyond community theatre gigs. He said he was in one Broadway show, but afterwards, nothing seemed to work out for him.

I started to give him the typical talk of "sticking with it," and "getting your name out there," but then I thought of something else to tell him. I decided that it would actually apply to the entire hall, so I stood up and addressed everyone.

"I have something to say that I think will apply to everyone here..."

"STOP!" came a yell at a nearby table. It was a scowling man, perhaps only a few years older than me, who was a facilitator as well. "Don't say another word!"

I walked over to the man. "Do you even know what I was going to say?"

"Yes, I can take a guess."

"I think it's something that needs to be said."

"No, you were supposed to focus on your table, not the whole group."

"Are you serious? What is your problem?"

In an odd moment of honesty, the man replied "I'm CTE's bitch," which - because it was a dream - I knew meant that there were some strict organizational rules that this man felt compelled to enforce. The poor guy also looked completely miserable.

My response was straight out of a Hollywood speech: "Instead of just being their bitch, why don't you let them know how miserable you are and that your misery is spreading to all of these young minds who you're actually supposed to be helping?!"

He only scowled back, and then smiled this menacing "You have no idea what you're talking about - just wait a few more years" smile.

I angrily walked back to my table and addressed the scrawny kid again.

"OK, here's something else you need to do..."

The kid had his pen at the ready to write down this paramount piece of advice.

"HAVE FUN," I said.

The kid laughed - his face no longer seriously sullen.

"Have fun! You didn't become a theatre artist to be miserable, right? So don't let anything suck the FUN out of it!"

He wrote down the advice and smiled at me.

Then I woke up.


I posted this on my Facebook timeline on August 23rd, 2016.

Posted on September 8, 2016 and filed under Career, Creative, Performing Arts, Thought.

My Day with Oily Cart

Oily Cart's tour van. What a great motto!

Oily Cart's tour van. What a great motto!

Last month, while in London, I had the privilege of visiting with Oily Cart Theatre, one of the few companies dedicated to creating productions for young audiences living with special needs. Specifically, Oily Cart focuses on children with autism spectrum condition (ASC) and/or profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). While developing Story Explorers, I knew it would be paramount to visit with and learn from an organization that is already doing the work - and Oily Cart has been creating this work for over 30 years.

My day started with Oily Cart's Artistic Director Tim Webb picking me up from my hotel and driving me out to South Ockenden where we would watch performances of Light Show, the company's latest offering. On the way (to and from), I was able to barrage Tim with question after question about what goes into the creative process for sensory-friendly work. He was very patient in answering all of my questions and adding insight that I would never have considered.

The very awesome audience seating set-up.

The very awesome audience seating set-up.

The performances of Light Show were captivating and eye-opening. The artistic concept of the piece was paper, so everything from the set to the seats to the costumes to the props were made to look like white sheets of paper. The three actors - Plane, Fan and Hat - were all objects that could be made from paper. The story of the show was a day at the beach, and was sectioned into different moments about the beach. Each moment centered around a brightly colored object. Orange heated pads were brought out to simulate the heat of the sun. Then came sun tan lotion in bright orange containers. There was also a segment with a large, elegant silver and blue raincloud, followed by a mischievous purple raincloud that sprayed water at the audience. The show featured original music accompanied by a double bass. Each song was thoughtfully composed, but remained lyrically simple enough for all of the children to follow.

One of the paper-themed costumes. This was actually their stage manager!

One of the paper-themed costumes. This was actually their stage manager!

It's difficult to capture in words what the experience of watching Light Show was like. And perhaps that's the point. The work that Oily Cart does is to create theatre that does not rely on verbal language or abstract concepts which must be followed in order to be enjoyed. While there is a structure to the show, the audience doesn't necessarily need to track a protagonist's emotional or social journey, nor is there a pressure for audiences to "understand the plot."  Light Show put more emphasis on moment-by-moment experiences than on laying out a linear storyline. Each performer is trained to respond in the moment to a child's reactions. Tim described it as a "grand communication system," where the actors are hoping to connect with each audience member in a language that makes sense to them - be it lights & color, music & sound, the feeling of suntan lotion on the skin or drops of water on the face.

This doesn't cover half of what I learned from my visit with Oily Cart, and unfortunately, I didn't snap any photos during the show, because I wanted to take in the show live as much as possible. But suffice it to say, I came away from that visit feeling more equipped and prepared to venture into my first sensory-friendly work. I'm excited to think through ways to tell stories that my neurotypical brain doesn't often consider. I can't wait to explore and develop and learn more and be corrected. I am entirely indebted to Mr. Webb, their wonderful touring company, and all of Oily Cart for allowing me to be a fly-on-the-wall, and to witness one of their magical productions.

Calafía Begins

In December 2013, I learned that the State of California was probably named after a mythical Island of California which appears in 15th and 16th century Spanish lore. In the most popular story by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, the island is occupied by an Amazon-like race of dark-skinned, warrior women whose queen is Calafía. I found myself fascinated by this fictional woman - the leader of her female-only tribe. I was fascinated that someone who was both a woman and a woman of color was presented in such a mighty, awe-inspiring, and typically masculine way.

Unfortunately, the story of Calafía doesn't end the way I would like. She converts to Christianity in the end and marries a man, ultimately showing that the ways of the Lord can subdue even the most brutish of savages. No. Thank. You.

Fortunately, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo himself gives me a way around. The backdrop of Calafía's story is the battle for Constantinople between the Byzantines and the Ottomans in the 1400's. History tells us that the Ottomans defeated the Byzantines in 1453 and took back this important city. However, in Montalvo's story, it is the Byzantines who are victorious. Read: it is the Christians who defeat the Muslims in his version.

I figure, if Montalvo thought it fit to change history in order to suit his storytelling desires, then I don't particularly feel the need to stay absolutely true to his story. Read: In my adaptation of Calafía, she will not be submitting to a man or converting to Christianity. I actually don't yet know what Calafía will be doing in my adaptation. But one thing I do know: I want the show to feature a "wall of women" as its primary musical source.

So what does that mean? A month ago, I had only vague notions. But in May 2016, I invited eight incredible female actors to join me for what I called a "voice and sound exploration workshop." Thanks to support from the Playwrights Foundation, I was able to get time and space to conduct the workshop. Since this will be a story about a race of isolated women who never actually existed, I was intrigued by how to find sounds that were simultaneously primal and other-worldly.


We often typify women's voices as higher-pitched, softer and sweeter. But women's voices are so much more dynamic than we give them credit for. Sure they can soothe, squeal and scream, but they can also shriek, groan, grunt, moan, command and overpower. And let me tell you, these actors did not hold back in exploring all of these sounds unabashedly and freely. I found myself utterly speechless at moments as I beheld what the eight of them could bring out from within them. I am utterly thankful to these colleagues for being willing to experiment, be vulnerable and weird, and to let me listen to them for three hours.

I'm not entirely sure what this all means for the next steps of Calafía. I only know that I've now taken a huge creative step forward by having this sound workshop. Calafía is officially my next musical theatre project.

Zootopia and Research

A fascinating look at the research that went into Zootopia. I'm inspired to continue my research for Story Explorers and Calafía, remembering that so much of writing actually happens before writing!

Posted on May 26, 2016 and filed under Research.