The Apples and Oranges Studios Accelerator is an incubator for musicals. It applies lean start up methodologies to the process of developing new musicals. The Accelerator Retrospective series shares the experiences of creators who have gone through The Accelerator. You can see all the updates and stories from the series here

The Project: Meet Emma

retrospective-croppedSARAH:
Meghan and I met a decade ago when we were studying abroad together in London, and I was a huge fan of her work as a playwright when I lived in LA for four years after that. I was eager to collaborate with her, because her plays always felt very poetic and inherently musical to me, so I approached her a couple years ago about working together on a musical adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. I felt so lucky she said yes! We worked on the first draft from summer 2014 to summer 2015, had a reading in DC, and workshopped the show at Brooklyn’s Gallery Players in November 2015.

MEGHAN:
The entire process has been such a joy. Sarah’s an ideal collaborator, and I’ve loved getting to work with her on Emma. We’d both missed working on the show, so we were thrilled to get to revisit it in Orlando.

New Ideas & Old Fashioneds: Getting Accepted to the Accelerator

SARAH:
I was at a friend’s play reading at Roundabout, and my boyfriend Ben introduced me to Tim Kashani and Christopher Sepulveda; I had a great conversation with both of them about The Accelerator, their new musical theater development program. They were still looking for a pilot musical, and it felt like Emma might be a good match. It sounded like such an exciting opportunity that Meghan and I cleared our calendars as much as possible in the case that we might get it. We proceeded to have a lot of video conference interviews and chats with Tim and Christopher to get to know them, and for them to get to know us and our project.

MEGHAN:
The Accelerator was the exact thing Sarah and I were looking for — a chance to take the show apart and rebuild from the ground up. In an interesting turn of timing, Sarah and I were together when we found out that we’d been accepted to The Accelerator –which is rare, since she lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles! I was in town for NYMF’s Women of Note concert (where Grace Wall and Sarah performed one of the songs from Emma), and Sarah and I were out to lunch when we got an email from Tim asking if we were available to video chat. We both whipped our phones out to get the good news, and then promptly ordered celebratory old fashioned’s. We were incredibly excited to head to Orlando where The Accelerator takes place!

SARAH:
It was definitely nerve-racking too, because this is the most professional opportunity we’ve had for Emma so far. Every other level of development with this show has been working with amazingly generous people who support us out of the goodness of their hearts and excitement for new work. To have producers backing and supporting us; to work in a space like the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts in Orlando; to physically be in the same city, which Meghan and I are not usually; and then to have a smart and talented group of actors available to give us feedback, to test out new scenes and songs (because as you will see over this series of blog posts, we changed so much in that span of a week in Orlando) was all invaluable.

Pre-Orlando:

Many (Virtual) Meetings and Lots of Reading

MEGHAN:
After we found out that we were going to be part of the program, we started daily meetings with The Accelerator Mentors via video conference. The meetings focused a lot on the creative elements of the show, but also on marketing and really pinpointing the show’s audience. It was a wholly different experience than anything we’d participated in before, and let us really examine what we wanted Emma to become.

SARAH:
Tim and Christopher, two of the mentors for the program, had us read Creativity, Inc. and The Secret Life of the American Musical – one book that looked at creative culture and how you can best support risk-taking in creativity and one book that was all about the formal structure of the American musical. We had some ideas about what needed to change since our last workshop, but it was in our conversations with Tim and Christopher that we realized we most needed to go back and examine the structure of our show.

MEGHAN:
This was my first musical, and I definitely wanted to dive into the deep end. The meetings felt like a tutorial in what makes musicals work. It was valuable to study successful shows and see how structure can really benefit story. It was pretty amazing how quickly we had to learn. We were in what Sarah and I took to calling “the accelerated Accelerator.” The actual Accelerator program is designed to be three months; ours lasted three weeks. So we were moving really quickly.

SARAH:
We were doing homework every night on top of our own personal work, and then once we arrived in Orlando, we worked literally 18 hours a day.

In Want of a Want: Un-caging Emma

SARAH:
One of the homework assignments we had was to create a mood board about design elements for the world of the show. We made so many discoveries in creating this Pinterest board. We ended up with a lot of blues and teals which showed Emma’s regal side and also that she was kind of icy and cold. Meghan was really in love with these images of bird cages – and she thought it was just because she really liked bird cages.

MEGHAN:
I do really like bird cages.

SARAH:
It’s partly because she really likes bird cages, but it turned into this amazing metaphor that then carried across the entire show and then translated into an “I want” song that we wrote before Orlando.

MEGHAN:
Bird CageCreativity is really interesting to me. I was actually working on another piece that involved bird cages, so they were sort of living in my head (and… my house) when I started associating them with Emma and her journey. Sarah and I write songs collaboratively — I usually start by sending over some lyrics and then Sarah writes some music and makes any structural suggestions and we go back and forth. I had originally sent over a more “serious” version of an “I want” song, but it wasn’t really working. We were texting, and I texted Sarah, “Yeah, well, my original idea was this ridiculous song about a bird cage” and I sent over a few lines, half-joking. She responded, “That’s it. That’s our ‘I want’ song.” I actually thought she was teasing me a little bit.

SARAH:
Oh no!

MEGHAN:
She was in New York, about to get on the subway. I responded, “I hope you’re not joking cause I’m working on that now,” and then I didn’t hear from her for 10 minutes and was quietly panicking… because by that point, I was ready to go with it. Now it’s one of my top three songs in the show. It was just a really good example of how the program helped us. We hadn’t had a classic “I want” song, but studying musical theater structure, getting advice from our mentors, and making a mood board helped us collaborate to make something that adds huge value to the show.

SARAH:
I think it was so useful, too, to have had our last reading about 9 months before. We had put Emma on a shelf for a while, so returning to it, we could read it with fresh eyes. We realized that Harriet and Jane were the centers of the story at the moment, even though it’s called Emma, so we needed to flesh out Emma’s character arc – and, as a result, Knightley’s arc as well. And that was the focus of our early video conference meetings with Tim and Christopher, fleshing out those arcs and figuring out Emma’s “want.” When we incorporated the new “I want” song into the script (“Fly Away”), suddenly Emma had a desire that would keep us tracking with her throughout the show.

 

Listen to Fly Away

About the Authors

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Meghan Brown is an Ovation Award-winning playwright and member of the Temblors (www.thetemblors.com). She’s the resident playwright for L.A.’s Fugitive Kind Theater. Plays include The Pliant Girls, The Kill-or-Dies, and Shine Darkly, Illyria. She has written the libretto for the opera The Discord Altar (OperaWorks), lyrics for the song cycle Untuned Ears Hear Nothing but Discord (Lincoln Center, composer Ben Toth), and the book and lyrics for Emma (composer Sarah Taylor Ellis). (www.meghanbrown.net)

Sarah Taylor Ellis is a musical theater composer based in NYC. Her contemporary classical work centers on women’s voices: Emma with librettist Meghan Brown, The Trojan Women with Ellen McLaughlin, The Yellow Wallpaper (Gallery Players and Pallas Theatre Collective), and Thank You, Mr. Falker (LA Festival of New American Musicals). Sarah is the composer-in-residence at The Nightingale Bamford School, where she collaborates with elementary through high school students on original musicals, song cycles, and film scores. She holds a Ph.D. in Theater & Performance Studies from UCLA. (www.staylorellis.com)

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