Monday, August 30, 2010

Leaving Eden

I knew I had fallen in love with Laurelyn Dossett's music the first time I listened to the recording of Beautiful Star. The music was rousing, intricate, and Laurelyn's voice itself created a hauntingly beautiful aura around it. When she offered to answer some questions for the blog, I was full of nerdy theatre excitement for many reasons. Besides being a fan, I also recalled a question a reader raised in a comment on one of my prior blog posts, asking what kind of up-and-coming musical theatre artists and projects are occurring outside of New York City. While the comment was geared towards the British theatre scene, it was a question that really stuck with me since then, and one of the things I find most exciting about Laurelyn's work is that it continually calls into question what is considered "musical theatre music," not to mention that it finds a solid audience in the South. Through collaborations with artistic director/playwright Preston Lane, she has created several musicals for Triad Stage in North Carolina, including Brother Wolf, a folk interpretation of Beowulf, as well as musicals Providence Gap and Bloody Blackbeard. So, without further ado, here is my Q&A with Laurelyn:

Me: Your music combines hymns with folklore, gospel, Appalachian music, and many other genres. How would you best describe your sound?

Laurelyn Dossett: Well that is the million dollar question....these days it would be called Americana or roots music, but there was a time when it was just called "folk." When I am writing songs for plays, I am trying to evoke place, time, and mood, as well as advance the story in some way. Since three of the four plays I have done with Preston have been based in the Piedmont or Appalachian region of North Carolina, I try to write each song in a style that might have been typical for the region and the time, with typical instrumentation. I can't tell you how happy Preston was the day a clawhammer banjo player showed up in his rehearsal hall! Our first show, Brother Wolf, was set in Appalachia in the 1800's, so there was a very definite style for that. Beautiful Star is set in current time but has a rural NC setting that allowed a wider range of styles, but still bluegrassy, country, old-timey. Bloody Blackbeard was a big departure musically -- still ballad-based writing, but it was hard to get the mountains out of the melodies. The most recent show, Providence Gap, got us back to Appalachia; in that one I got to use the music to tell the story of how mountain music got to border radio and made the transition from being an intimate folk music form to commercial country radio, that was a fun challenge.

Me: Not necessarily having a typical musical theatre style, how did you get into writing music for the theatre?

Laurelyn: I am fortunate to live in a city with an excellent Equity theater, Triad Stage. The Artistic Director, Preston Lane, had a vision for creating theatre for and of the region, respectful of the south and Appalachia in particular. Not interested in Hee Haw or Deliverance, if you know what I mean. Apparently he had entertained the idea of collaborating with a regional songwriter for some time. I have a song called "Leaving Eden;" it is contemporary ballad about the closing of the textile mills in nearby Eden, NC. The song ended up on a BBC news report about the end of Chinese textile trade quotas, and voila! Preston and I live one mile apart, but met through BBC radio. He heard the song and thought I might have a similar storytelling sensibility. And thought I might just be fool enough to get into theater!

Me: A lot of the composers featured on this blog are based in New York City. What is the musical/theatre scene like in North Carolina and the South as a whole?

Laurelyn: I am afraid I don't have good overview of the statewide scene. There are only a few professional theaters in the state, and I do know that Triad Stage has made a name for itself as daring and creative, with very high standards for professional acting and production. Our collaborations, our plays-with-music, seem to be charting some new territory. Not traditional musical theatre, but not straight theatre either. The music is like a live soundtrack, the musicians move on and off the stage, sometimes during scenes, sometimes in between, it's all pretty organic. When we first starting working on Brother Wolf in 2005, our model was the Red Clay Rambler's work in Sam Shepherd's "A Lie of the Mind." What we have morphed into something else but I don't know what to call it.

Me: What are some of the biggest challenges of making musical theatre in the South and what do you feel the region contributes to your music?

Laurelyn: There is a tradition of oral storytelling in the rural south; it's a river that is deep and wide. And that deep river can be dark and cloudy -- the south has a complicated past and in some ways a more complicated present. But that wide river also reflects back some beautiful light: powerful landscape, rich stories and vibrant characters. It is a wonderful (and messy and annoying and glorious and hilarious) place to live and work.

Me: Many of your collaborations have been with Preston Lane for Triad Stage. How do you guys choose your projects and what is that collaboration process like?

Laurelyn: Well, ALL of my theatre collaborations have been with Preston. (Ok, except for when I was in high school in Palmyra, PA, and my high school drama teacher had us do Hamlet as a rock opera after the nuclear holocaust. I was Ophelia and got to make up my own mad melodies. Thank you, Jim Woland!) So Preston. I can't really say enough about what a gracious collaborator he is. The play ideas start with him, the basic story idea and general outline. I give feedback on where songs might go, what they might be like. He writes more, I start plugging in songs. It's back and forth, script feeding songs and visa versa. He writes the script and I write the songs and lyrics -- we don't do the typical musical theatre thing, meaning that I am generally trying to write a song that would stand on its own outside the play. And not to speak for Preston but I guess he tries to write a play that would work without the songs. That said, a song might drive the script in another direction and the evolving script will certainly change where a song is headed, so it's very reciprocal. Very collaborative, we bounce ideas off of each other all the time. We are not often in the same room at the same time, though. I am grateful for the way we work; in the end I don't feel that the music is separate from the play, the play is not separate from the music. They work in partnership, in tandem. The goal is for it to be one organic piece and I think for the most part we succeed.

Me: Much of your music has a kind of spiritual aspect to it-- what inspires you most in creating your music, and how do you balance your personal inspiration with the characters you write about?

Laurelyn: When approaching a song for a play, like I said earlier, each song has a series of tasks to accomplish -- the passing of time, advancing the story, illuminating some theme, setting time and place and mood. On top of that I generally do have to find something that I attach to personally. It can be specific personal experience, like motherhood, that finds it's way into Mary's lullaby "Hush Child and Sleep" or Sarah's anguished cries in "Climbing to Moriah." It can also just be my wonderings on mankind's collective longing for a hero, like in "Sweet Living Waters."

You mentioned a spiritual aspect to the writing, I guess that is true, My own faith is non-descript, though I was raised with a somewhat severe form of christianity. The upside of that severity is that I am well-versed in the Bible stories, so those powerful metaphors are ever at the ready. Both Brother Wolf (an Appalachian adaptation on the Beowulf story) and Beautiful Star honor the tradition of a primitive Christianity that is typical of Appalachia, while exploring issues of revenge, power, forgiveness, faith and family.

Me: Tell us a little about your band, Polecat Creek.

Laurelyn: Kari Sickenberger and I started Polecat Creek back in the late 90's, just a couple of friends who liked to sing. Our voices are very different but blend well, there is a certain tension that works in that old-style country singing. We started writing, got some good musicians to join us, and went on to make 3 albums. We tend to play regionally, not so much a nationally touring group. We were on Prairie Home Companion in 2009, that was fun!

Me: What projects do you have on the horizon next?

Laurelyn: Preston and I are tossing around several ideas for the next project. Right now I am commissioned to write a song cycle for the North Carolina Symphony. It will premiere Nov 2011. I'll also be singing it with them, along with Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I have a tendency to take on projects that completely terrify me and this is no exception. I am headed off to a writing residency to work on it.

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