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-Piñeiro. 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.

Me: What is the process like of adapting your own work? How did you incorporate Sam and Eli into that process? Are there aspects of plotting and craft that you had to be more aware of when writing a musical's book than you did with a play?

Rob: Many people may have talent, but few have the patience for musical theater. Most shows we love demanded six to eight years of development. And it all starts with baby steps.

First, Neil assembled a bunch of excellent actors in the basement of the Drama Book Shop so we could all listen to the straight play and mark the sections that wanted to sing. Then Sam and Eli wrote a bunch of songs with astonishing speed and grace, one after another.

At some point during this early process, Neil mentioned that his girlfriend, Monica Raymund, was interested in becoming the show's producer. That sounded good. And Monica, a gifted young Juilliard-trained artist whom I'd never met, put together a table reading at a small rehearsal studio in midtown. Neil and Monica set the tone. The whole thing felt casual, informal and safe. Each of us invited a couple trusted friends, and my agent Peter Hagan was among them. Peter is a seasoned veteran. He's usually very reserved, but the way his face lit up at that first reading let me know the project had serious potential.

Then the real work began. We did a series of living room readings. We enlisted a casting person and gave a public reading at New World Stages. We recorded demos of songs. We took criticism, met with producers and fleshed out characters. We built new conflicts and story lines. We made mistakes. We had breakthroughs. At one point, I wrote confessional monologues for every character and Eli turned them all into snippets of music. Only one still remains in the show, but they all taught us something.

The greatest challenge was to thread our story's subplots into the quest of its main character. The coach overcomes disappointment and shame to become a fulfilled person, and every other narrative in the show has to support or reflect that in some way. Sam Forman, a gifted dramatist in his own right, was vital to this process. He helped to craft new subplots, to remove vestigial characters and to create new ones, and to give birth to a complex and believable villain, an element the play only hinted at. Monica consolidated producers’ criticisms, and distilled her own thoughts into pithy, useful advice. And I credit Neil with steering the ship of dramaturgy. He arranged and rearranged events and songs on index cards, drafted insightful memos, and got to know the show better than anyone, including me.

Finally, our composer Eli Bolin suggested the most recent wrenching adjustment: We changed the genders of three characters, including the protagonist. In a show called Volleygirls, it made sense for the coach to be a woman, so Jim became Kim, now played by the amazing Susan Blackwell.

The main goal in writing drama is to make the writing disappear, to make it feel as if characters are taking charge and pursuing goals, slaying internal and external dragons, striving for what they want within the world of the story. It took four years and seven complete drafts, but we got there. We have a beautiful musical.

Me: How does a musical and sports come together in this piece? Do you find having the musical conceit/aspect helps bring in the physicality of the sports aspect, or does it pose challenges?

Rob: When Neil first took the helm of the show, he mentioned a friend who was a tap dancing prodigy and emerging Broadway choreographer named Ryan Kasprzak. It took years and a few false starts for us to get to the stage of defining a movement vocabulary to bring the dance of volleyball to the stage. Ryan did it— with the help of his wonderful associate, Ellenore Scott, and their eternally-energized assistant, Kelly Bolick.

Without giving too much away, the secrets are: using the human body as a percussive instrument and using the actors' eyes to show us the arc and path of the flight of the ball. It's incredibly cool to watch. You'll get to see it soon.

"You're Beautiful When You Play" sung by Gideon Glick and Allison Posner

Me: What are you most looking forward to about this NYMF production?

Rob: The NYMF opportunity is a gift. We've entered a few juried contests over the years. This year we won two. Bob Ost and the readers of Theatre Resources Unlimited chose us for the TRU Musicals Reading Series in February, and NYMF chose us for this summer's production. Both selections powered us forward. We're very grateful.

This summer will be our first real production with costumes and props by Valérie Thérèse, sets by Ken Larson, lighting by Jason Lyons, and music direction and supervision by the genius duo of Mike Pettry and Matt Castle. Like the fictional team in the story, our group has gained strength by adding great talents like Assistant Director, Jordan Belfi, and Jordi Coats; Associate Director, Ricky Hinds; and Co-producer Jacob Harvey. Our General Manager, Carrie Walkup, is a super-pro, and Lindsay Levine did a brilliant job casting, which means each and every actor is just right for his-or-her role. Sara Barnes and Katie Kavett make Stage Management into a joyful art, and our intern Kate Ginna is an actual high school volleyball player whose love for the sport and show are infectious. We’re so excited we could pop.

Me: What do you hope for the future of Volleygirls?

Rob: My hope for Volleygirls is that it helps young women everywhere to feel understood, empowered and strong. That's a pretty huge hope. I aim high. I also hope everyone who sees the show will be swept away by the love of it all and leave humming, dancing, and maybe even singing in Spanish-- at least the word "jabalí."

Me: Are you working on anything else? Are there more musicals on the horizon?

Rob: I'm working on another play for ACT called Teach for America about a recent college graduate from a disadvantaged background teaching American History in a troubled school. And I'm working on another musical, with songs by the amazing Dan Israel and Phoebe Kreutz, called Farewell Tour about a corporate minion who joins the followers of a hippie jam band. Both projects involve young people yearning to improve the world. That's something I seem to care about.

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