Thursday, October 31, 2013

59 Days in New York: An Interview with May-Elise Martinsen

So you move to the big city. You're an aspiring theatre artist, determined and wide-eyed, ready to make New York your own. What do you do? How do you get started?

For Amy, the protagonist of the new webseries 59 Days in New York, you keep a musical video diary. But something similar can be said of May-Elise Martinsen, the writer, composer, and star of 59 Days in New York. Having recently moved to the city with musical theatre dreams of her own, May-Elise created the webseries to help keep her occupied while waiting to start the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Program. Four episodes in, and 59 Days has now taken on a life of its own.

In the interview below, May-Elise shares about the process making episodes for the series, talks golden age musicals, and discusses things that inspire her:

Me: Tell us a little about your background. What got you started writing musical pieces?

May-Elise Martinsen: During high school, I loved singing the standards of the “golden age” musical theatre repertoire, and I spent lots of time meditating on the merits of musical theatre movies like Show Boat and South Pacific. But it wasn’t until I returned to Norway the summer after my first year of college that I started thinking of writing my own show. That summer, I spent the days working at a local nursing home. In the off hours, however, I didn’t have much to do besides enjoy scenic walks and more scenic walks. I didn’t know many people in Oslo, and the few friends and relatives I did have in the city were enjoying vacation elsewhere.

It was the first time in years that I hadn’t had deadlines and homework to keep me occupied. That freedom prompted me to pick up a hobby I hadn’t touched since I was ten - writing songs. When I returned to Wellesley that fall, I brought a few of my new songs to a composer seminar. To my surprise and pleasure, the main reaction to the music was: this sounds as though it belongs in a musical.

The more I started exploring musical theatre writing, the more it felt like the right path for me - and the perfect way to combine my writing and performing interests.

Me: How has your Wellesley experience influenced your journey into musical theatre?

May-Elise: A small liberal arts school, Wellesley is not the traditional place to study music or develop a relationship with musical theatre. There were four music majors in my year, and the department strongly favored theory over performance and classical repertoire over any “popular” material (yes, musical theatre qualifies as “pop.”)

Still, when I told the faculty in my sophomore year that I wanted to write a full-length musical about Scandinavian medieval queen, Margrete I, for my senior thesis, I couldn’t have imagined a more supportive environment. Even though I had little composition experience, the faculty helped me arrange my own study abroad program in Norway and develop my Margrete musical compositions through several independent study classes. I ended up exploring one moment of Margrete’s life through three different storytelling mediums in a part research-part composition senior thesis. It was a great opportunity to develop musical theatre in a broader sense, and I feel grateful the faculty allowed me so much license to design an education that fit my goals.

Me: Who are some of your musical influences?

May-Elise: It depends on what I'm writing. I grew up on Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I have a special place in my heart for the music of Jerome Kern. I imagine that because I've sung so many of their songs, the musical style feels natural to me. Outside of musical theatre, however, I also love Rachmaninoff, Handel, Piazzolla...Of course, I’m drawing less on classical inspiration for 59 Days in New York.

Me: What inspired 59 Days? How did you begin writing the project?

May-Elise: When I moved to New York in February, I had planned to enroll in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at Tisch in the fall. While I was interning in the city, I felt like I needed a project to keep me occupied in the months before the program started - something short and that I could easily produce myself. Since I had been fascinated with the idea of blogging for years, I thought it would be fun challenge to write music that would fit the blog/vlog medium.

Initially, I wasn't sure whether I would blog (and sing) as myself or as a separate character. I wanted the blog to be personal, but I also wanted the protection and artistic freedom enabled by portraying a fictional character. As I kept writing in the spring, Amy steadily grew out of my own experiences and nightly musings. Now, she has assumed a life of her own - thank goodness - but the project also grew in scope from the short, easily-producible work I had imagined. I ended up deferring from Tisch in order to continue developing the project this year.

Me: I find it really interesting that you decided to defer from the GMTWP-- many of the rising stars who are doing work in the city have gone through that program, and I think a lot of readers and other aspiring musical writers would be really interested in learning more about how you made the decision to defer. As much as you're comfortable, could you elaborate a little more on your decision?

May-Elise: Let me start off by saying that is was a very hard decision to defer. I had dreamed about enrolling in the GMTWP for nearly two years before I actually got my acceptance letter. When the admission package finally came, I was surprised at my hesitancy.

Part of the worry stemmed from having to give up 59 Days. I was deep into the project - and it had grown well beyond the original idea. I knew that if I enrolled at Tisch, there was no way I could both keep working on the series and stay afloat in the rigorous program. At the same time, 59 Days doesn't feel like the kind of project you can put away for two years and come back to later. I am new to New York now, and I am not convinced that in two years, I would be able to approach the material with the same freshness.

Besides being concerned about abandoning the series, I started to realize that I needed more experience in order to fully benefit from the GMTWP. A number of alums had told me that the students who benefitted the most from their musical theatre education typically had produced several works of their own before enrolling in the program. Because these students had more writing experience, they had an easier time working towards their education goals.

That lesson didn't fully register until I started working on 59 Days and realized, "I don't actually know what I can and cannot accomplish on my own." I wanted more time to explore my music and sort out my strengths and weaknesses as a composer and writer. Since enrolling in the GMTWP is a serious financial commitment, I wanted to have a stronger sense of my goals before signing up for many years of debt. By working on 59 Days, I have the perfect opportunity to explore, take risks and - I don't mean this to sound pretentious - find my voice as a composer and writer. While it was a difficult decision to make, I am happy I decided to defer, and I am loving the chance to see how far I can take 59 Days.

Me: How did you find your cast/crew for the series?

May-Elise: I found the crew through a mix of friend recommendations and Craigslist. It's a skeleton crew - mostly consisting of our director, who also works as a gaffer, the DP, an audio recorder, and often an additional assistant.

As for the rest of the cast, they are wonderful friends who graciously agree to play the different characters. Danielle, who plays the Roommate, and Keri, who plays Boss Woman, were both part of a writing group that gave me feedback on the early scripts. It's a joy to have people on board who have seen the project evolve from the very first drafts to the final youtube release. 


Me: What has the production process been like? What kind of schedule are you looking at for rolling out future episodes?

May-Elise: Each episode runs on a monthly timeline, roughly. The first week of the month, I write the script. The second week, I write, orchestrate, and record the music. Next - provided everyone’s schedules align - we film the episode, and then I edit the film. In addition to the episodes, I’ve recently added a “short” component to 59 Days, which condenses one aspect of Amy’s everyday experience into a one minute montage. I’ll be releasing a new short every one to two weeks to keep people involved in Amy’s world.

Me: What are the advantages/challenges of also carrying the show as the lead protagonist?

May-Elise: On the advantages side, I thoroughly enjoy writing my own material. While I love the current musical theatre repertoire, it's so much fun to sing about experiences directly relating to my life. Even better, I get to write material that feels comfortable in my voice and that sits in the best key for my range. How satisfying is that! Besides, I do love performing. While I don't think I could make acting or singing my one and only career, I want it to be a significant part of my life. With this web series, I can have my hands in all the different parts of the project, from editing the film to organizing the shooting schedule. That kind of multitasking appeals to me.

On the con side, writing, performing, and producing is a lot of responsibility for one person in one project. There are definitely days (particularly on the days we film), when I know I need to rehearse more, but I also need to make food for the crew, organize props, and make extra copies of the script. Obviously, when you are doing it all, you can’t give each role as much focus as you would like. However, I do the best I can and try to focus on enjoying the overall experience.

Me: What do you hope for the future of 59 Days?

May-Elise: Before the end of the 2013, I plan to have episode 4 and 5 released. Then, in the early part of January, I'm going to kickstart the project. I've wanted to give people a sense of where this project is going by producing the first episodes without financial support. But ultimately, I need money to properly pay the team of people who help bring this project to life and - hope beyond hope - afford professional recordings and live musicians. That would be amazing!

If all goes according to plan, we’ll have chronicled all of Amy's first 59 days in New York by late next spring. Part of me wants to continue the project beyond 59 days. But that will depend on the audience reception.

Me: Are you working on any other projects?

May-Elise: Selling omega-3 fish oil for my family’s business. But that’s a totally different song and dance.

1 comment:

Laura Yahres said...

As always, I am convinced that I will see your name in lights someday soon! Thoroughly enjoying "59 Days" and looking forward to future installments. Hope all is well. Take care. Laura