Dramatists, Get Your Shows On

Andrew Lippa (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Advice for artists is a dime a dozen and there’s so much of it to wade through that one could easily be left without any time to create the art. With that caution, this week I share with you six terrific bits of no-nonsense advice I recently came across. The wisdom comes to us from veteran dramatist Andrew Lippa.

Lippa is a composer, lyricist, bookwriter, musical director, record producer, and performer. His credits include writing the book, lyrics and music for The Wild Party, which received the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical in 2000. He was nominated for a Tony award for Best Original Score for The Addams Family and he wrote the music and lyrics for Big Fish (book by John August).

Below are excerpts from an interview with Lippa, which originally appeared in The Score, Lincoln Center’s online publication, on January 5, 2017. They are reproduced here with permission.

1. Write. Just write.
Find something that you have to write, that you feel compelled to write. I found a poem I was deeply passionate about called “The Wild Party.” That was enough. I wrote a whole musical out of my love for that poem. There are many musical theater writers who write what other people ask them, or pay them, to write. Commissions – I’ve done that, too. Even in those cases, you have to find your passion in the project. With The Addams Family, I’d always loved those Charles Addams characters. Yes, Broadway was a great opportunity – a big budget, a lot of great names attached – but at its core, I had to want to do it.

2. Get your shows on.
Like anything simple, this is not easy. Do not surrender to being the artist as victim/complainer: “No one will read my show. No one will see my show. No one will hire me for this.” Be an artist as entrepreneur. Believe that if you build it, they will come. All you have to do is push it up the hill and get it into as many people’s faces as you can. Sheer force of will. Push people to listen. I know it’s going to be hard, I know it’s going to be expensive and take a long time. Make it happen.

3. “Never put your own money in your show” isn’t realistic anymore.
Not today. I’m not talking about putting up substantial production money of your own. I’m talking about the early start-up costs – getting into a rehearsal room and hearing what you’ve written and working on it; the cost of a piano and a pianist and some singers. You have to invest yourself, because you’re investing in yourself.

4. All you need is one yes.
I co-wrote a little show called John & Jen. It was a two-hander and I was in it. We financed it ourselves. We developed it ourselves. Then we put on a workshop. And Stephen Sondheim came! And afterward he gave me notes! He treated me like a professional. I can’t overestimate the power of that.

5. Let the piece become what it wants to be.
In 2012, I wrote a piece called I Am Harvey Milk that was originally going to be a choral work for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and six other choruses who’d co-commissioned it. Slowly, the piece morphed into a theatrical work. It also became nonlinear. You should always be ready to tell a story in a new way. I Am Harvey Milk begins with Harvey as a 12-year-old; the second movement is his assassination written from the point of view of the bullet as it passes through Harvey’s head. At this point, the audience is saying, “Holy Crap!” You can do anything you want as a writer after that. The audience becomes willing to travel with you from that moment on.

6. Write the thing.
Until the writer makes something, creates the scene, composes the song, there’s nothing to talk about. It’s all conjecture. Conjecture, I believe, is the purview of the writer only. When the writer brings “the thing” into the room [where there are other collaborators] then everybody gets to respond to it. One response could be: “I don’t like this.” I’m totally fine with that. I just don’t like to be told, “I don’t like this,” before anything is written. So my best advice really is: Stop talking and start doing.

A big reason Lippa’s advice resonated with me is because last year I and another Seattle playwright, John C. Davenport, did exactly what Lippa advocates in tips two and three. John and I embraced an entrepreneurial approach to our writing careers by founding Red Rover Theatre Company and putting our own work up on stage. And just as Lippa predicts, that proactive decision has been triggering other positive developments.

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