Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Way You Move: A Q&A with VOLLEYGIRLS Book Writer Rob Ackerman

Usually when I get wind of a new musical in development, my first exposure to it comes from a song in the show. However, in the case of upcoming NYMF selection Volleygirls (book by Rob Ackerman, music by Eli Bolin, and lyrics by Sam Forman), I happened to read the text first.

When I was working at play publisher Playscripts, Inc., I had the distinct pleasure of reading/helping edit Rob Ackerman's Volleygirls, which at the time was a full-length straight play. Having played competitive high school volleyball all four years of high school on a team that was favorited to win our state championships (Spoiler alert: we didn't. And trust me, there were tears. Oh, were there tears), I found the inspirational story of an all-girls team especially memorable. Fast forward a couple of years to when I saw that a musical was coming out with music from one of my favorite songwriting teams-- I was thrilled to find out about this adaptation. You can catch the show (with a killer cast including Susan Blackwell) at NYMF next month by buying tickets here. In the meantime, I chatted with Rob Ackerman about what it was like adapting his own work:

Me: What was the inspiration for the original Volleygirls play? Competitive Volleyball in general isn't exactly the sport of choice in media/pop culture.

Rob Ackerman: ACT commissioned me to write the play. The producer had let me know he was considering several other artists, and they were all big cheeses, so I thought he'd pick one of them. But he didn't. He chose me. Craig Slaight (along with Carey Perloff and Melissa Smith) wanted a drama that would include both the high-school actors in their ACT Young Conservatory and the adult actors in their MFA acting program. My daughters were in high school at the time. They both played volleyball, and their coach, Annie Gravel, was a friend. My idea was: this generous and experienced athlete would trust me to sit in on her team's practices and games, and watching what went on there would keep me honest. The folks at ACT loved that plan.

But I panicked. How was a middle-aged man going to create this big compelling collection of female characters? I called back and suggested writing a play about a boys' military school. That seemed safer. But ACT told me they really liked the idea of the play about the volleyball team.

Here's the thing. Fifteen years earlier, my friend Cathy, who'd been a varsity athlete in college, asked me to join her in a volleyball class at the Westside Y. And I mocked the idea. You don't have to take a class to play volleyball. It's a picnic game, right? Cathy gave me such a withering look my head nearly imploded. She signed us up, we took the class, and it changed my life. After several months in training with a guy named Jim who took the game as seriously as Cathy did, we formed a team called Tips Freedman that still thrives today.

The fact is: Volleyball is the greatest cooperative sport in the world. It absolutely forces players to work together. A team can only be as strong as its weakest player, so each person has to be ready, aware, watching, listening and communicating, tracking the ball by the microsecond. It's as if each participant were a cell in an organism, acting and reacting as one. The same can be said of theater, by the way. It takes devotion.

One last thing: popular sports like football and soccer don’t really fit on a stage, while there’s something perfectly theatrical about six women working in concert in the confines of a court.

"The Way You Move" sung by Allison Posner & Monica Raymund

Me: What made you decide to adapt the play into a musical? How did you end up working with Sam and Eli?

Rob: ACT flew me to San Francisco for a week of workshops of the play's first draft. The director, Dave Keith, worked with conservatory actors by day, and I rewrote the script by night. It was challenging, fun, and constructive, and by the end of the week, the story was starting to click.

When the show went into rehearsal, Dave emailed occasionally to ask for further rewrites, but the production evolved without my being in the room to see it. I saw some sketches and design ideas, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the staging in a theater called The Zeum on the set by Liliana Duque-PiƱeiro. All conventional accouterments were stripped away, the cinder block walls of the building became the walls of a high school gym, the actors were living the story of this struggling team, and it dawned on me, pretty much right away: This is a musical.

I didn't know many people in the musical theater world, but, as a sentimental dad, In the Heights had really spoken to me. I'd seen it three times and had met Tommy Kail, who had seen and liked my play Tabletop. So I sent Tommy the script, asked if he thought it was a musical, and he said yes. He also knew the perfect director.

Neil Patrick Stewart had worked with Tommy for years developing plays and musicals with a tiny troupe called Back House Productions. Neil had also played on a Texas high school volleyball team that won a tri-state championship. Neil didn't just like the story, he'd lived it, and he helped choose the ideal composer/lyricist team. Sam Forman and Eli Bolin went to Northwestern, the same school where I’d earned an MFA in Stage Directing. We'd studied with many of the same teachers and spoke the same language. The show took shape quickly because there was an unusual and instant level of trust.