The Olympus Surprise Song

  This is  not  what writing is like all the time.

This is not what writing is like all the time.

Writing is taxing work. I can spend hours on a single section of dialogue choosing, re-choosing, deleting, re-ordering words, and still end the day feeling like I barely made a step forward. Writing music with lyrics gets even more complicated because there is the added aural dimension which will affect mood, atmosphere and story. What key? What's the tonality? When should notes rise and fall? Which words should be emphasized? Am I emphasizing the correct syllables as if the words were spoken? This laboring over details makes up the majority of my work when I write songs - toiling over rhyme, meter and melody as if trying to solve a riddle, often leading to frustration, but usually resulting in a rewarding finish if I stick with it.

And then there are the surprise songs.

These are the song moments in my shows that come together as if by magic on the first go. The songs that show me why people came to believe in Muses as angelic voices inspiring people to write, paint, perform.  They often end up with a depth or flow that I could not have imagined when I first set about writing them. And each of my shows so far has had at least one surprise song. Below, I discuss the development of one of them.

"I Used To Weave" from Tales of Olympus
I knew I wanted to include the story of Athena and Arachne when I was conceptualizing Tales. The problem with adapting the myth, however, was that Athena is completely justified in punishing Arachne for her pride and insults against the gods. So I asked the questions "What if Arachne really was a better weaver than Athena? What if transforming Arachne into a spider was a result of Athena losing her composure and acting impetuously?" And then this question came, which set the tone of the song: "What if Athena has not been able to weave ever since the 'Arachne incident,' because the act is a nagging reminder of her lowest moment?"

Then came the opening lyrics "I used to weave..."

  Calliope (Chrissy Brooks), Zeus (Steven Shear), Hermes (Min Kahng) and Aphrodite (Lauren Spencer) tell Athena (Michelle Drexler) she's not so bad.

Calliope (Chrissy Brooks), Zeus (Steven Shear), Hermes (Min Kahng) and Aphrodite (Lauren Spencer) tell Athena (Michelle Drexler) she's not so bad.

This set-up allowed the song to have layers. We get to know Athena as a fuller character, and more importantly as a flawed character. In regards to character arc: by singing "I Used To Weave" Athena is finally giving in and telling a story, when previously she sat to the side, unwilling to participate. There is also a key revelation about the relationships on Olympus. At the end of the song, the other gods console Athena, showing for the first time that this dysfunctional, leftover group of gods is really a family of sorts. The song also contains some of my favorite lyrics:

Now I'm best of who's left
But I've lost all the joy
Of creating a blanket, a scarf or a sleeve
And each spider I see is a reason to grieve
I used to weave...

There's something about the words best, left, lost, blanket, scarf, sleeve, spider and grieve with their blended, recurring consonants and their simplicity. This combined with the sense of loss and regret with which the words are sung (performed masterfully by both Michelle Drexler in the world premiere, and by Rebecca Pingree for the staged reading) pulls at my heart in a way that's difficult to describe, except to say I am moved.

"I Used To Weave" is my favorite song in Tales of Olympus. It has also remained largely unchanged from its original draft, which is understandable: Surprise songs, formed from an outflow of sudden inspiration, usually don't need major revisions.

Posted on December 11, 2013 and filed under Composition, Creative, Musical Theater, Performing Arts, Thought, Writing.

Building a Mountain

Two weeks ago, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: A Musical Adaptation went into its second workshop, culminating in a staged reading. We only had four days of rehearsals (a total of about 16 hours) to teach the music, blocking and choreography, and get it ready for an audience. Thankfully, we had an amazing group of actors and musicians who brought the right mix of fastidiousness and flexibility, and were able to deliver a stellar performance.

  Actors Isabel To, Patricia Pitpitan, Pauli Amornkul & Will Dao during a workshop rehearsal.

Actors Isabel To, Patricia Pitpitan, Pauli Amornkul & Will Dao during a workshop rehearsal.

Although audience feedback is invaluable after these readings, I have to confess, the feedback that excites me the most is from the actors themselves. And not necessarily their verbal feedback. When I watch actors perform my work, I often see new or different sides of the characters, which then inform my writing moving forward.  There is an indescribable poignancy to see your characters in front of you, real-time, moving around in three-dimensional space. And I'm honored that the Mountain actors gave so much life and brought so much truth to the show, even when playing monkeys, goldfish or lion statues.

While I will be spending the next few weeks by myself, often in front of a keyboard (both the musical kind and the computer kind), I very much look forward to the first day of rehearsals in January, when cast & creative team can continue building this Mountain together.

Closing Remarks

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In some ways, the closing of The Song of the Nightingale actually signifies a re-opening for me. For the past six weeks, I've been able to let the show be. The story has lived through the talents of the actors, stage manager, crew and staff. Even if I've had ideas or received suggestions on how to change the show moving forward, I've been able to stow those thoughts in a box marked "Do not open until December" in my mind. There is a sense in which, for this particular production, my role in the show already reached its completion on opening night, October 11th, 2013.

With the 22nd show complete (Can you believe it? The show has been performed 22 times!), there sits inside my gut a quiet sense of triumph and relief.  The response to the show was so enthusiastically positive, with many of the Altarena patrons saying it was the best show they have seen in that venue. I'm sure for several folks the show was not their cup of tea, but I am happy to know that the work resonated with or entertained a good number of our audience members.

I have described working on this production of Nightingale as akin to opening a time capsule. There is in Nightingale a sort of unabashed optimism which, while not altogether foreign to my current outlook, has been tested and transformed since the show's conception. Revisiting that optimism brought me to the question: Do I still believe in the message of the show? Do I still believe that anyone can change for the better? Do I still think that such changes in the individual will make the world better?

My answer is "yes." It is, perhaps, tempered by a more grounded view of the world; not everything can be solved by having a "cozy, imperial chat," like the characters do so easily in the story. And yet, I do think hope and naivete, in the best possible sense, go hand-in-hand. To believe that things can get better, even if a great deal of evidence indicates the likelihood of the opposite, requires a sort of child-likeness. I think that's why I'll always love fairy-tales. Through their magic, they ask us to believe like a child, and simultaneously compel us toward deeper meaning in our adult lives.

It feels trite or incomplete to say that I'm happy or sad or even simply "emotional" about the closing of Nightingale. The show contains a piece of my own spirit, and, for a moment, that piece had its chance to reveal itself to others. The moment is now a memory. And all those feelings you get when any significant event transitions into becoming a memory - that is what I am feeling with the close of Nightingale.

Posted on November 25, 2013 and filed under Creative, Nightingale, Performing Arts.

Thoughts from the Fisher-Boy - An Interview with Sean Fenton

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Sean Fenton, who plays Xiao Hai in The Song of the Nightingale, is easily one of the most talented individuals I know. He has also become a good friend of mine over the past five years, and I've had the privilege to work with him on all three of my productions to date. Below, he discusses his role & creative work as well as his arts-related day job as the Intrinsic Impact Program Manager for the arts consulting firm WolfBrown.

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MIN: Describe your performance/theatre background.

SEAN: I’ve been active as a theatre artist in the Bay Area for over a decade, as an actor, director, music director, communications manager, marketer, and consultant. As a long-time company member and contributor to both Bay Area Children’s Theatre and Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre, one of my passions is theatre for young audiences—particularly the creation of new works. Through BACT, I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredibly talented people on a number of world premieres and national tours, including The Magic School Bus Live: The Climate Challenge, Ivy & Bean: The Musical, and Strega Nona: The Musical.

Currently, you might say that I’m in my “Min Kahng Period.” From Tales of Olympus to The Song of the Nightingale, and now, the upcoming Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, my theatre life right now seems to be “All Min, All the Time.” And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

M: That's hilarious. I've never thought of myself as being an epoch in someone else's life. Focusing specifically on Nightingale: do you relate to your character Xiao Hai? How are you different from the character?

  Sean Fenton as the hopelessly-in-love Xiao Hai.

Sean Fenton as the hopelessly-in-love Xiao Hai.

S: I do relate to Xiao Hai. He’s idealistic and principled, and he can also be a little bit impulsive and hotheaded. But at his core, it’s his love for his community, his family, and Mei Lin that drive him. And even when he’s profoundly disappointed in the choices others make, he still ultimately comes from a place of love. I think I can definitely relate to that, though I might be a bit more logical than Xiao.

The roller-coaster Xiao goes through with Mei is also relatable to many folks, I think. In “The Girl I Know,” he sings about how Mei has become a person whom he no longer recognizes. I think that moment of discovery -- that simultaneous feeling of disappointment and loss -- is very relatable for many. But Xiao also has to learn that he can’t change someone else, most especially not someone he supposedly loves. Sometimes, you’ve just got to let someone fly…even if you prefer the ground. I love the moment when Xiao makes this realization.

M: I've mentioned this before, but I truly feel like "The Girl I Know" has become more your song than mine. You bring so much to that number that I can't imagine it another way anymore.

Your day job is also related to the arts. Can you describe a bit of what you do as the Program Manager for Intrinsic Impact?

I assist arts organizations with collecting and analyzing high-quality audience data, with a focus on assessing and measuring the intrinsic benefits of arts attendance and participation. My clients are theatres, orchestras, and dance companies throughout the U.S. and abroad. I love what I do; my work lies in the perfect intersection of my passion for the arts and my fascination with data.

M: What is the value or the purpose of emphasizing and measuring the intrinsic impact of theatre?

S: As artists, whether we’re writing, directing, producing, or acting, we all want to make some sort of an impact on our audience. Yet when it comes to actually measuring audience impact, most companies lack the capacity to do so effectively.

Perhaps this is easiest to explain when we think about the missions of arts organizations. Just about every theatre company has a mission statement or a purpose. But how do theatres know how well they’ve achieved their mission? How do you measure success when your mission is, say, ‘to create work that illustrates the common humanity connecting all of us,’ or ‘to provide thought-provoking theatre’? Just how do you measure that? How do you measure the value of art?

What tends to happen is that “impact” becomes reduced to attendance numbers and ticket sales. This may be a great indicator of popularity or raw reach, but not necessarily for measuring how well the company has fulfilled its mission or how the artistic work actually affected those who viewed it.

And when people do talk about the benefits of the arts, the conversation is often framed around instrumental or secondary benefits of the arts: the economic, social, and educational benefits -- or the societal by-products of art, if you will. The fact that arts programs can, say, boost academic scores or lower crime rates is compelling, and perhaps very important. But the arts can also provide pleasure, inspire awe, touch us emotionally, stimulate our brains, expand our aesthetic tastes, and bring us together. These intrinsic benefits are what make the arts unique and irreplaceable.

My work helps arts organizations remember why they are important – and then provide the data they need to show it. This level of assessment, then, provides arts organizations with the competitive advantage they need when demonstrating their impact to boards, funders, and other internal and external parties.

M: Could we have done this type of work with Song of the Nightingale? What might that have looked like?

S: Oh, for sure. Not only would we have been able to survey audiences to see whether or not they liked the show, but we’d also then be able to put into measurable, quantifiable data, exactly what kind of impact we’ve been making – and get that data in real-time, as the show is running. For example:

  • In what ways does Nightingale bridge cultural divides or bring communities closer?
  • Does the show resonate emotionally more with women or men?
  • How does the length of the play matter to different age groups?
  • If audience members read the critics’ reviews or other posts on the Altarena website beforehand, did that have an impact on how captivated they were during the performance?
  • Would pre-show talks or panel discussions be beneficial next time?
  • Does reading your blog influence how many questions someone has after seeing the show?
  • Was there a difference in overall satisfaction between subscribers and single ticket buyers? How about donors?

Intrinsic Impact empowers arts organizations to have the answers to all these questions at their fingertips. And this data, in turn, can lead to immediate, actionable steps to improve the audience experience and further the theatre’s mission.

M: I remember first reading about Intrinsic Impact and being so intrigued by the work, as well as surprised that such a feat is only now being tackled by the arts world.  But I'm glad it's happening. I think it will serve arts organizations tremendously especially as the world gets more and more reliant on data.

Anything else you’d like to share on any topic?

S: Just a big thank you for including me in this amazing experience. So rare is the opportunity to be able to participate in a project’s development for almost its entirety -- from that first reading in your living room, to the staged readings, and then to a fully produced show, backed by a truly extraordinary creative team. I’ve been lucky to have had many wonderful arts experiences in my life, Min, but I think this one just might top the list. Thank you for the impact you’ve had on all of us and for your contribution to the arts.

  Sean and I after a holiday performance at  Contra Costa Civic Theatre  in 2011. I probably made him roll his eyes a few times then too.

Sean and I after a holiday performance at Contra Costa Civic Theatre in 2011. I probably made him roll his eyes a few times then too.

M: You might call it my Min-trinsic Impact. No? Too soon?

S: [rolls his eyes]*

 

*Sean may not have actually rolled his eyes as this interview was conducted through e-mail. It was just my best guess at his response to my pun. And if you haven't already seen The Song of the Nightingale, it closes Sunday November 24th. Get your tickets before they're gone!

 

"My model was AJ" - An Interview with Mike Tran

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I suppose it's late enough in the run to talk about the character of the Fake Nightingale. I wanted the Fake Nightingale to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from the real Nightingale. While her music is live and purely instrumental. The Fake Nightingale's music, however, is pre-recorded and takes its cue from mass-produced pop. His appearance in the story is one of the surprises I'm most fond of, and Mike Tran's performance has delighted the audience each time I've seen the show. You might be interested to know that Mike is very different from his flashy and superficial mechanical alter-ego. He's grounded and humble and works hard to get his character just right. (Oh, but the dance moves he exhibits are his own.) Read more from Mike Tran below.

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MIN: How did you start performing in theater?

MIKE: I've been doing theater since sophomore year of high school. Once I started, I couldn't stop. I loved it. My confidence boosted, I was making new friends, it was euphoric to be up on stage. I've mostly done school productions, after high school, continuing into college. Just recently, I have gotten out of that comfort zone and started doing community theater. This is my second time doing community theater, the first time being in Little Women with the San Leandro Players. I also play the drums in a alternative pop rock band called Six Steps North, and have performed a number of shows with them as well.

MIN: What is your day job?

MIKE: I am a repair technician and salesman at Central computers in Newark. I spend most of my time repairing computers, and I am also somewhat of the handyman there as well. I change out light bulbs, replace electronic equipment, etc.

MIN: It continues to astound me how everyone in the cast has a different line of work or non-theatre talent/ability! I've been asking everyone else this same question: what has working on The Song of the Nightingale been like for you?

MIKE: Working on The Song of the Nightingale has been a wonderful experience. This is my second time working on a world premiere, and it is exhilarating. Theater is always creating, but when you work on a world premiere, it truly is something special to create something brand new. You have no reference to go off of other than the playwright's words. This makes the creation truly original. This makes the piece of work very much our own.

MIN: What has it been like playing the character of the Fake Nightingale? What was the most challenging part? What has been the most rewarding part of playing the role?

  The Fake Nightingale (Mike Tran) sizes up his competition (Deedra Wong).

The Fake Nightingale (Mike Tran) sizes up his competition (Deedra Wong).

MIKE: Playing the Fake Nightingale has been a blast. The persona is ridiculous and so much fun to put on. The most challenging part was finding that persona. The Fake Nightingale is very up in your face and exuberant; I'm very laid back. Finding this persona and transitioning into it were pretty difficult. As an actor, I've faced such challenges before, and I have found that finding a model for the character is helpful. My model was AJ from the Backstreet Boys. Having that model in mind helped me find all of the idiosyncrasies that the Fake Nightingale needed. The most rewarding part of playing this role is the audience's reactions. Hearing their laughs and gasps is what fuels my drive.

MIN: Anything else you'd like to share?

MIKE: I am so happy to be part of such a talented team. Everyone, cast, crew and design team, worked hard to create this show, and I am proud to be a part of something bigger. The professionalism and work ethic in this group is phenomenal, and I appreciate that.