An incubator for musicals, the Apples and Oranges Studios THEatre Accelerator 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 THEatre Accelerator. You can see all the updates and stories from the series here

#EverythingChanges

MEGHAN: When Sarah got home from music rehearsal on Tuesday night, we went through the script together line by line, really looking at what we wanted to change. Neither of us are particularly precious about our work. We want it to be the best that it can be, and if that means slicing out a favorite line or two, so be it. I’m a merciless cutter. I will cut anything.

SARAH: The week before, our mentors at Apples and Oranges had given us this homework, “If this were a one act what would you cut?” and we said, “Funnily enough, our initial version was a one act.” We’d been there before and already had some thoughts about that possibility. It turns out we would push ourselves in that direction again.

MEGHAN: We were feeling really excited and ready to take it on, so we just started cutting things. Cutting songs, cutting scenes, cutting dialogue way down. We were up until about 3 a.m., and then up the next morning bright and early. In the end we cut 26 pages and the show went from two acts to one act. Then we decided that we needed two new songs, so Sarah composed and I wrote the lyrics for two new songs. The whole 22-hour period was really, really…chaotic, exciting, and beautiful. It almost feels like a dream.

SARAH: It was a very hallucinatory experience in some moments, especially by the end of the day; I could not believe how much work we had accomplished. We had every intention of taking a break and going out for lunch; that did not happen. Once you’re in the flow, you don’t want to stop. We kept working until about 5 p.m., then we took an Uber to the Dr. Phillips Center, which would be our workspace for the rest of the night. We ordered dinner at the theatre because we hadn’t had a real meal all day. Meghan worked on lyrics while I composed; we ran back and forth to each other as we had new material and new ideas. The lights in the Dr. Phillips Center automatically turn off every 10 minutes. That was our exercise for the day: running around to turn the lights back on whenever they shut off on us.

MEGHAN: It’s one of my favorite memories of the trip. I was sort of curled up in a corner with my laptop and the lights would turn off and I’d look over at Sarah on the piano having to wave her arms to turn the lights back on. It was ridiculous but amazing. I had finished the lyrics to “The Door” in the Uber on the way to the Dr. Phillips Center; I’d even been working on them on the sidewalk while we were waiting because I was in the zone and didn’t want to put the laptop down.

SARAH: I have pictures of you writing those lyrics on the sidewalk, actually!

MEGHAN: Your head gets in it and you just want to keep working. I remember reading the lyrics to “The Door” out loud to Sarah in the car, and then getting to the theatre and handing them over so she could compose. Then I was sitting outside the rehearsal studio working on lyrics to “Why Can’t I Forget You?”, running in to ask her questions every few minutes. We were super hungry and super tired but we also felt like we were on top of the world. It was pretty great.

SARAH: We knew the Dr. Phillips Center closed at 11 p.m., so our goal was to finish “The Door” before then. I recorded a quick demo of this new 11 o’clock number, and we sent it to our mentors, Tim and Christopher, right at 11 p.m. Within 5 or 10 minutes, Tim emailed us saying how much he thought it would shift the audience’s perception of Emma and really flesh out her arc. After however many hours we had been working at that point (17 or 18?), it was so exciting and validating to hear that we were doing good work. That was a great motivator through the rest of the evening.

Musical Theatre Performance Art: Sidewalk Rewrites!

Sidewalk re-writes

MEGHAN: We were hoping that we’d wake up the next morning and still stand behind all the changes. We went back that night and worked some more before sending the new script to Tim and Christopher at 4:30 a.m. By then we’d been up and writing non-stop from 7 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. The next morning, Tim and Christopher came to pick us up at 10:30, and then Sarah composed “Why Can’t I Forget You?” while Tim, Christopher, and I were talking through some of the blocking for the reading. Sarah was working quietly in the corner, and then all of a sudden this amazing song was born. It was a really cool moment.

SARAH: I don’t think anyone realized what I was doing back there except for Christopher, who was sitting next to me and hearing little chords pop out now and then. There was a lot of multitasking throughout the week – and Tim and Christopher were hyper-multitasking. They have so many other shows in development, on Broadway, touring, on the West End, and they were somehow miraculously managing to devote their full time and energy to us and to Emma, which we felt incredibly grateful for.

MEGHAN: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. That night the cast came for another rehearsal, and there was such a great energy. The response from the actors was really validating for both of us — it really felt like we were on the right track. The cast was incredibly supportive. We had a new ending, and a few of the actors ducked under their music stands to make eye contact and clap afterwards. It was pretty great to feel like they were really pulling for the show to be the best that it could be. They weren’t thrown at all by the ridiculous amount of changes. The libretto was almost unrecognizable by the end of the week. After that Thursday night rehearsal Sarah and I went home and got some sleep, then woke up early the next morning and churned out another draft. We had planned to go out for a nice lunch and instead just ended up ordering room service and scarfing that down because Tim and Christopher were picking us up in a few minutes. That was another situation where I had my laptop out in the car on the way over and was still making changes. At the Dr. Phillips Christopher said, “Okay, you have until 4:30,” and I thought, “Okay, well, then I’ll send my draft at 4:30.” We had our final rehearsal that Friday night. It was like seeing a completely new show. Tim’s blocking and the energy of the cast came together beautifully.

SARAH: I think that night was the first time that we actually had people tearing up at the end of the show.

MEGHAN: Yes.

SARAH: Tim and Christopher are very smart dramaturgs. Going into this process, both Meghan and I had a little bit of anxiety, wondering, “Are they going to make demands of us that will change our show? How much input are they going to have? Is it still going feel like our show at the end of the process?” Instead, as we worked with them, they asked all the right questions that led us to our own answers. That meant the show stayed true to our own voice, but came out stronger because it had better bones supporting it. At the very first reading Tim asked, “Did you well up when Emma and Knightley got together?” Everyone said no, and Meghan and I thought, “No, of course they didn’t.” It was incredibly exciting and validating to reach a place where people were very emotional about Emma and Knightley’s romance by the end of the week.

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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