Last week, playwright Brad Erickson and I participated in the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Writers Retreat to work on our project Lowcountry (assisted) Living. Our main goal for the week was to get a draft of Act One complete. I'm happy to say we met that goal (though, of course, we are already thinking about revisions to be made). I last took part in this special retreat four years ago when I wrote the first ever words and music The Four Immigrants. We, the writers, are basically given resources (a room, a piano, access to wi-fi and printing, etc) and actors to work with, and aren't given any specific instructions for the week, other than to create and to present some bit of our creation to an audience of donors at the end of the retreat. I cannot stress how helpful and crucial this "open playing field" is to the creative process. Our time was split between solo work, dramaturgical discussion, and running new drafts of songs and scenes by actors. Two magical moments in particular stand out to me.
One evening, I stumbled upon a core idea for a song and decided to stay later to work on it. While writing it, I had a moment of emotional connection to the song, which is often a sign to me that I'm on the right track. In short, I was crying. The next morning, I played and sang the song for Brad at the piano, with him sitting behind me. While singing it, I could tell that Brad was also crying, and I purposely avoided turning to look at him, because I knew I wouldn't be able to finish the song. Afterwards, we had a laugh about it, but also noted that this song contains something powerful and central to one of the character's plotlines. That was magical moment number one.
The other occurred after we did a run-thru of our rough Act One and received feedback from the artistic staff at TheatreWorks that the focus of WHO the story was about didn't seem consistent or clear. I started to see that the opening number I had written was perhaps a culprit. Only four characters sang in the opening number, but Brad and I definitely wanted all eight characters to have equal weight in the story. I proposed the idea of expanding the opening number to include and introduce all eight with interweaving parts. Brad liked the idea, and I felt strongly that I should try to complete this expanded version in time for the presentation on Sunday (this revelation came Friday afternoon). So with only one day and two hours to work with the actors, I worked like a madman on Saturday adding in all of the new parts and creating an opening number which I felt painted a fuller picture of what the story was about. I was running on adrenaline and risk. Hats off the the amazing group of actors who took on the challenge of the revised song like the pros they are. After our first sing-thru, I think we all felt like it was a much stronger opening for the show, and with some adjustments, we were able to perform the piece on Sunday.
I'll forever be grateful to TheatreWorks - their staff, donors, and volunteers - for creating this environment for magical moments to arise. What might have come about slowly on our own time seemed to bubble up to the tops of our minds thanks to the space and freedom the Writers Retreat afforded us.