What is your name and where are you from?
I’m Georgia Stitt. I live in Manhattan, and I grew up in west Tennessee.
And what are you working on this week?
I have two projects that I’m working on this week. The first is a musical called Snow Child that I’m writing for Arena Stage. We have a workshop in September, and I am trying to get all the edits on paper. The songs are done, but the way the musical flows and the way you get in and out of musical numbers and underscoring and things like that-- I’m trying to get all that on paper. And then on the other end of the spectrum I have a new musical that I’m writing with Hunter Foster. He’s writing book and I’m writing music and lyrics, and we’re at the very beginning of it. He and I are going to another writer’s retreat next week and so I’m just trying to generate some content-- beginnings of songs and bursts of ideas so that we can go there together and start to shape it into a show.
Where on the farm have you been mostly working this week?
I’ve been in the barn, because the barn has the piano, and sometimes I’m just in my room. I have to admit the barn has been very hot this week! But Maggie was good, she brought me a fan, and then a second fan, and so it’s fine. I tend to leave every two hours or so to get water, and then I go back in.
Where did you find theater in your life? Did it start from the music or were you always doing theater?
I was a musician first for sure. I started as a classical musician, so I was the kid doing piano competitions and playing Bach and Beethoven until college, really. I did some community theater as an actor and I played in the pit a little bit in high school. When I was in college, I had a conducting teacher who asked if I wanted to come to this summer theater on Cape Cod where he worked every summer, so he was the conductor and I was the rehearsal pianist for a summer stock company called the College Light Opera Company. They did nine musicals in eleven weeks. At the beginning it takes a little while to get into the groove, but by the third week you’re in the groove, and you rehearse one show during the week during the day, then you go perform the other show at night, and then every Tuesday it switches over. There’s a company of 32 actors, and for the most part if you’re the lead in one show you’re not the lead in another show, but that’s not always true. Sometimes people have back to back huge roles. Anyway, I was a rehearsal pianist the summer after my junior year, and I really fell in love with musicals and learned a lot about how they move, musically. I think it was the first time I had consciously thought, “Somebody had to write this; somebody made this.” I had always been a person who wrote poetry in my journal, and I’d never really thought of myself as a lyricist. But after that summer, I came back to school and thought, “What if I write a musical?” So my senior project for undergrad was that I wrote a musical, and they performed it at my college. And then I went off to Goodspeed and spent a year there doing an internship that turned into a music director job, and then I moved to New York for grad school and I was sort of in it. I worked as a music director for a long time, while I was writing on the side, and then eventually the writing took over, and I was more prominently a composer who music directed on the side. And now I do a little of both. This fall I’m music directing a big show, but I also have a show going into production next season as a writer. I find that if I’m not in the rehearsal room, I start to get sad. The work of a writer requires that you’re often alone with your piano or your computer, figuring it out. I think I’m just enough of an extrovert that I want to be where the actors are.
What about musical theater specifically attracts you as a form as a writer?
As a composer I’m really interested in music as dramaturgy, in how the music can tell the story not just in terms of plot but in terms of what it reveals about character or what it reveals about somebody’s emotional life, how it can indicate whether the character’s telling the truth or lying, how it can speak to the energy of a scene, which might be different from the energy of a character. And I really like working with playwrights to identify what the need of a scene is, and then figuring out how to express that musically. Something I’m working on right now is that I’m a very verbal person, and so I tend to put everything in the lyrics. I’m starting to learn that you can say less. What if I let the music express that idea, or what if the character wouldn’t actually speak those thoughts out loud? About the structure of musicals-- I like how you work in small pieces. You write a song and another song and another song but you’ve got your eye on the big arc of the whole thing, the whole two and a half hour thing. At the beginning of the musical you’re establishing themes that you then develop through the whole show, and they arrive someplace at the end. So there’s a big architecture to the piece, but the day to day work is making all the details along the way. So I guess I enjoy keeping an eye on the small and the big at the same time.
How do you keep an eye on the big?
I’m sure everyone approaches it differently. I get caught up in the detail work a lot. A lot of what I’ve been doing here at Ryder Farm is the real nitty gritty details. And then I get bogged down in the details and I have to just start at the beginning and play the whole thing. Sometimes I play the whole thing and I get up to that moment in question, and what I improvise is different than what I would have crafted intellectually. So I turn on my voice recorder and I record what I improvise and then I go back and I evaluate: “Is that really what I meant? Is that improvisation better than what I had figured out intellectually?” So I think it’s a balance between your musical, improvisatory impulses and what your brain knows to be the right answer. Sometimes I actually play the whole show from top to bottom on the piano, but other times I read the whole thing, and since I know what the music is, I “play” the songs in real time inside my head, and then when I get up to the point where I’m stuck, I have a sense of, “Oh, we need energy here, or we don’t need energy here, or I haven’t heard from this character in a long time.” But sometimes you have to have a reading before you can understand those things. The actors bring voices into the room that are very different from what you hear in your head, and then you have to decide whether what they brought is better than what you intended, or whether you have to rewrite so that your intention is more clear. But that’s yet another step in the process of keeping an eye on the architecture.
We were talking about Snow Child and how you’ve been working with a bluegrass musician. Can you talk about that exchange, about working with someone who doesn’t use the same tools as you?
I write musical theater. I have a master’s degree in music, I’m musically literate, and my collaborator is a self-taught bluegrass musician who plays many, many instruments expertly, but doesn’t really read or write his music down. And so the beginning of the collaboration was a little bit rocky, because we didn’t speak the same language. I would send him emails, in response to something he had written, and I was using musical language. When he wrote back, I sometimes got offended because I was like, “he’s not even acknowledging what I said!” And then eventually I realized I was basically speaking a foreign language to him. And similarly, he would have ideas and I would react to them without really understanding. So we had to be in the same room quite a bit. He came to New York, I went to Alaska, we both met several times in DC, where the commissioning theater is. There’s a human growth; we just started to trust each other. He’s an amazing, wonderful musician, a very smart man-- highly educated in mechanical engineering and art history. He sees things in structures, so music makes sense to him in structure, and music makes sense to me as structure, too, and once we realized that, we could actually draw pictures of the music. We would agree that it had the same shape; we just didn’t have the same language for it. So I would say nearly a year of our collaboration was finding what our language was. And now we just say things back and forth. I write lyrics and I send them to him and he writes music and when he sends it back I usually think, “Well, that’s not what I would have done,” but then I listen to it, and it’s great, and it’s smart. Sometimes bluegrass music has a tendency to be pretty static; it lives in the same few chords for a long time, while musical theater music is about growth. Characters start at point A and go to point B and that’s the theater of the song. And so our process allows me to do a rewrite of his music to give it a little more growth, and then I send it back to him and he goes, “Well, that’s not what I would have done, but I like it,” and he gives comments and we go back and forth until we both feel like we’ve finished. What we have come up with is something we both call “the hybrid.” If I had written these songs by myself, they would sound different, and he absolutely would say the same, but we both like them, and I feel like our process lends a real authenticity to the piece. Because we’re heading into a rehearsal process, the score is written for piano, but we’re bringing a guitar into the rehearsal room for this next workshop. Ultimately, the show is going to be orchestrated for a bluegrass band. So it’s just a big collaborative process. It’s fun but it’s very different than anything I’ve done before.
Is orchestration something that you’re usually responsible for when you write?
I do a lot of small orchestrations for myself. I have a few albums out in the world, and I’ve orchestrated a lot of those songs. I have a children’s musical that I’ve orchestrated. But the bigger a show gets, the more I turn to a collaborator to do that work. Part of that is because orchestrating is so time consuming, and so much of the rehearsal process is about tweaking details in the actual writing. So if you’re doing the writing, and then you’re also trying to figure out the instrumentation for twelve or eighteen or forty pieces, then you just don’t have enough hours in the day. So if it’s just three or five pieces I can sometimes manage it, but it’s also nice to have a collaborator who hears things differently, who thinks of something that you might not have thought of, who has in some cases spent his or her entire life thinking about orchestral color. I find orchestration interesting and fun to pursue, but it’s not the main reason why I write music.
So you’re here this week with other moms, as a mom, working as a mom. Can you talk about that in the context of this week, or in comparison to all the other weeks when you’re a working artist mom?
Well this week is a real gift and a really unique experience. I am a mom who is always navigating trying to find time and energy to get the work done and trying to be present with my family. There’s a real structure when kids are in school. You have your daytime hours, which are limited between 8:00 and 3:00, and I think the challenge of being an artist and a mom is, as one of my girlfriends said, you never have time to just daydream. You never have time to be like, “I’m going to think about my piece for an afternoon, sit here and muse about it.” And in the summer in particular, there’s much less structure than during the school year. So this retreat feels like the kids are being taken care of and having a great time. I mean, they’re not just with babysitters. They’re having experiences that New York City kids just don’t usually get. There’s a peace of mind in knowing that the kids are safe and happy and they’re relaxing and not stressed out, not running to get from school to dance class to a piano lesson. They’re just having a summer, and that gives ME the freedom to go think and daydream.
I think one of the other things that I’ve observed is how unusual it is to be sharing space as a mother with someone else who is also mothering at the same time. To be in the same house, especially, I’m observing the bedtime ritual. It’s such a thing that we as parents do alone, or with a partner, or maybe with a babysitter. But during dinner, bath, bedtime, brushing teeth, reading stories… there’s a ritual that we all more or less follow, parenting kids at this age, but I’m just not used to doing it in the same space as other people. And that’s been interesting. Shared-space parenting. It’s making me aware how isolating parenting can be. And so often, I find, other moms express how tired we are by 9 PM. And it’s not necessarily because of the day, I don’t think. The day is the day. But there’s something about the fact that between 6 PM and 9 PM, you are performing the ritual of being present and being loving for your sleepy kids, and you give everything you have to that experience. And then when the kids fall asleep, you’re spent. It’s just interesting to watch all of us going through that together and to realize how solitary it usually is.
We’ve also been talking about being females and artists. For you as a composer, how has that presented itself in different stages of that journey?
You know, I’ve struggled with this for a long time. I don’t know how being a female composer has affected me. It’s not like music is inherently male or female. As a society, we talk about how the way you play an instrument might be masculine or feminine, and what that means, and we talk about the kinds of stories men and women tell, but it’s hard for me to say that I write in a female way. I don’t really know what that is. I also am resistant to saying that I didn’t get work because I’m female. I don’t know if that’s true. I have noticed that in the last few years there’s been more of a push to be aware of female composers, and my name has come up a lot more in the context of, who are the female composers? And my name is often on that list, and in a way, I think I might have benefitted from the national conversation about gender parity, especially among composers. I know that for Snow Child, the artistic director was specifically looking for a woman on the creative team, so that job definitely came to me because I was female. I’m aware of it, and my work with The Lilly Awards is very much about making sure that the women who are doing the work are getting the opportunities to be seen. With Sweet Charity, which I’m music directing this fall, Leigh Silverman is the director and she asked us to find an all-female band. And I have to say it’s hard. It’s been really, really hard. Without getting into too many specifics, I went into my address book, and I searched on the words “guitar,” “bass,” “drums”... and most of them are men. And I thought, “What is that?” Since I’ve been up here, I’ve been actively searching, looking at people’s websites, asking for referrals, and trying to find out who the women players are. And they exist; they’re out there. I’m finding them, but they’re not on the same lists I had been using before. And so now it’s making me wonder, “Why are they not on the same lists? What opportunities are these women missing?”
What is the next step for the projects that you’ve been working on?
Snow Child has a workshop on September 11th in Washington, DC, so I’m plowing towards that deadline. And then the piece Hunter and I are writing has been called Tempest Rock, but I know we’re going to change it, because we started to get feedback that people thought it was Shakespeare’s Tempest set to a rock and roll score, and our show has nothing to do with that! So we’re going to change the title. Next week we will generate as much new material as we can, and I presume at some point after that, we’ll have a reading in New York and see where we are and see who our partners need to be as we move forward. It’s just the very beginning of a process. We’re not attached to a theater, we don’t have a director, it’s just a thing we’re doing. But I hope we’ll be ready for a reading by the end of the year.
When you are looking at a project at the scale of a musical, what does it take in an idea to feel like you can commit to that for a whole musical?
This is something I continue to learn. It has to be a big idea, to be a musical. I have a couple things that I’ve tried to write that were small ideas, and they just don’t sustain the stage for that long; they can’t command that many resources or that much energy or that much music and power. There are small musicals about small, intimate things, but Marsha Norman talks about an idea being “stageworthy.” Is your audience going to pay money for these tickets to sit in this dark space for an evening and give you their attention? And at the end of the evening, you want your audience to feel like that ticket was worth their investment. So first I think it’s: can the idea sustain an audience’s attention for two and a half hours? And then it’s: can an idea sustain MY attention for the five years it may take to write it? Is there enough of a journey? Is this show about something that I want to explore for years of my life? You don’t want to be pushing to the finish line and hoping that someone else who’s seeing it is not as sick of it as you are.
How do you work with that kind of stamina, when you get sick of it or when you get stuck, do you have a strategy?
It’s helpful for me to have a deadline, someone waiting on the other side. If I get stuck on a project that doesn’t have a deadline and nobody’s waiting for it, I might just put it aside. And that can be the death of a project, if you put it aside and never come back to it. But if you put it aside, like, for a weekend, you still have to come back to it on Monday. I would say another strategy for me is: sometimes you have to write the bad thing. Sometimes it’s just so hard to get my body physically to the piano, and get my computer all set up, and get everything spatially organized so that I can start working. There are a hundred emails to answer and dishes to do and reasons why I don’t want to write. And maybe sometimes I don’t want to write because I’m not entirely sure what it is I’m supposed to be writing yet. But sometimes the process requires that you just have to start and get in the middle of it and write the bad thing. Sometimes you have to write through the bad to find the good. And at the end of the day you might think, “that was a wasted day, I accomplished nothing,” but then the next day is wildly productive because you got through it. There’s nobody who writes little gems of perfection every time. For me, I’m much better at editing the thing I already wrote than just getting the first draft done.
If you were a farm animal, which one would you be and why?
My response right now is, I like those two retired polo horses. They’re so beautiful, and they worked so hard in their life, and now they just get to live on the farm and have people admire them, and they get fed, and they sleep, and they’re in a beautiful field. I think I’m tired. That would be a good way to wind up, with all of your needs met, and with a pal. That makes sense to me.