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.
THE FINAL CHAPTER: A READING OF EMMA
THE DAY OF THE READING
MEGHAN: We woke up Saturday morning so tired and so excited. The first time a script is put up in front of an audience is always a little stressful, so I was definitely feeling really keyed up about everything. Even in such a supportive, low-pressure environment, it still feels vulnerable to let something that you’ve put so much of yourself into out of its bird cage, so to speak.
SARAH: We knew that people in the audience could potentially support the future of this show, and we really wanted to make a good impression. We were also eager to see, with an audience, how the show worked after all the changes. I felt very lucky that I was going to be behind the piano for the show because, ultimately, that’s my safe place. Sharing new work with the world is incredibly vulnerable, and Emma had been through so many changes – many at 4am. You feel like it’s holding together, but you never entirely know until it’s in front of an audience. We were eager to see if the show read to an audience of theatre people and non-theatre people, an audience of a great range of ages and backgrounds and interests – and luckily Apples and Oranges Studios THEatre ACCELERATOR and our cast had brought in a really diverse audience that would reflect different demographics and show us where our show was landing.
MEGHAN: It’s so amazing to see a show land. Or, to stay consistent with our bird metaphor, take flight. The reading was the first time we could really see that we’d made a show. I’ve always loved this project, but I had never seen it that way before. In past readings, it had always had great elements, but there had been something structurally off. During this reading, I had the thought, “This is what I always wanted it to feel like.” It was pretty incredible. Not every project gets to the point where you feel like it’s actually doing what it’s supposed to do. I mean, our show is definitely not perfect and we’re still developing… but just to see that it was having an effect on the audience was exciting, and such a relief after so much work.
SARAH: It was amazing to me just how dramaturgically tight the show had become. I had such a nice view from the piano that night – actually getting to see the audience’s faces and their response to certain moments. There were some really visceral reactions throughout. I think one of my favorites – and this is a moment I was worried we might lose in the show – is Jane Fairfax’s five-and-a-half-minute-long song, “She Read Palms.” The audience was totally drawn in – almost entranced. Meghan and I had many conversations leading up to THEatre ACCELERATOR about how that song would probably have to be cut, even though it’s our favorite song that we’ve ever written together. The song is so dramatically and musically exciting, but it is a complete diversion from the plot; it’s just entering into Jane Fairfax’s weird universe. I think one beautiful thing about the current version of the show is that by making certain elements of it more conventional, by making Emma have a really clear arc that you track throughout, that also puts into relief Harriet and Jane, who are such distinct and endearing characters that are not always fully fleshed out in adaptations of Emma. Harriet is very easily lovable because she wants to be loved. Jane is an anomaly, and she does not always translate. I think in a lot of other versions of Emma that I’ve seen, Jane is the easiest to dismiss and the easiest to cut; she’s quiet, and people don’t understand her. But in this current version of our musical, Jane really sticks out, and her song feels necessary in this weird and wonderful way.
MEGHAN: I understand in the abstract how you could argue that cutting Jane is easy, but to me she’s so central to the story of Emma’s growth. As is the rest of the supporting cast! Some of our favorite moments come from the characters who don’t classically get a lot of attention in Emma. Robert Martin is a big favorite. I really appreciated our Accelerator mentors never tried to steer us from our original vision. Instead they said, “Okay, you guys can spend your time on these supporting characters, but you have to put Emma first. It’s Emma. Everyone else can stay big and broad, but Emma needs to stay in focus.” There was not one time that we were given a note that we “had” to take. Everything came from Tim and Christopher in the form of questions, observations, and the occasional (very diplomatically presented) suggestion. They were committed to letting the show evolve organically, which really allowed us to maintain a sense of ownership throughout the process.
SARAH: The creative culture that they have made with THEatre ACCELERATOR is so nurturing, supportive, and positive. The energy in the rehearsal room each night and the energy in our meetings every day was always channeled to helping us and making Emma the best it could be. And that support has extended beyond the Accelerator. It’s been such a gift to continue to have meetings with Tim and Christopher and to continue to check in about the development of the piece; their support of and enthusiasm for the show has been remarkable.
MEGHAN: I cannot recommend the Accelerator enough. It is by far the most supportive and artistically fulfilling development opportunity that I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in, and it has profoundly affected the show’s trajectory. It changed what Emma is — it made the show what it is. We’re both incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity.
SARAH: Not only has THEatre ACCELERATOR shaped Emma, but it has shaped how Meghan and I are thinking about our careers moving forward. Thinking about audience, marketing and branding, story and structure – all of these different elements – has shaped how we’re approaching what our next project might be and how we’re approaching the work of being writers, professionally. Both of us hope to have long careers in the arts and to make shows that are moving, inspiring, artistically inventive – and shows that get produced. We’re excited about all we’ve learned and eager to continue collaborating.
About the Authors
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)