National Reports

Austin/San Antonio by Sheila Rinear

Photo of people making jazz hands
The Fosse

Austin/San Antonio by Sheila Rinear

On April 21 and 22, Dramatists Guild members gathered at Studio E in Austin. These members were playwrights and musical theatre creators. They had all come to experience the Guild’s helping them grow their talents. Open to those interested in any of the facets of musical theatre, the curriculum of the weekend-long intensive integrated the skill sets of bookwriters, composers, and lyricists.

The weekend’s outstanding instruction came from fellow Guild member, Cheryl Coons, who also happens to be Chicago’s Regional Rep. An impressive winner of significant national awards for her own musicals, Cheryl graciously volunteered to share her time and wisdom with us. Besides being a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists since 2008, she is also a Teaching Artist at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. Learning from a brilliant and organized powerhouse of talent like Cheryl, was a tonic for us all.

The scope of the weekend was comprehensive. Cheryl did a lot of preliminary work with the 27 participants via email: surveys, killer handouts, and details for sending presentation materials to her so she could upload and have everything ready ahead of time.

Saturday morning was a comprehensive lesson in Dramatic Structure/Song Plot and Lyrics. Sunday morning Cheryl put Saturday’s lesson to work by plotting out Dear Evan Hansen according by each scene’s Community/World; Main Story Action; Second Storyline; Song Plot.

Both afternoons saw us moving towards Cheryl’s super-objective for our time together: reading/listening to the participants’ work. We were to offer responses that pointed back to the principles she had taught in the morning sessions so that everyone would be encouraged to continue creating and refining their work. Cheryl’s insightful questions sparked the feedback sessions with honesty.

I’ll mention here the hilarious tool that Cheryl has created for feedback to help with those “suggestions” or “fixes” many of us can have a tendency to want to offer in the name of “responding.” Her tool is called: The Fosse! I asked Cheryl where it came from.

“It’s mine. I was looking for a way to keep us working together collaboratively,” said Cheryl.

The idea and the gesture (waving jazz hands in a Bob Fosse fashion) is a shorthand way of identifying when we suspect we are possibly being prescriptive (but we’ll speak anyway); or, (if used by the person receiving feedback) it can set an (inoffensive) boundary if we sense someone is being prescriptive with our work. It’s based on an anecdote about Fosse taking sequined costumes backstage and reworking them by spray-painting over them. They were Irene Sharoff’s costumes.”

The quality of work presented for feedback was stunning. There were excerpts from produced DG members like Mark Leonard, Pat Hazell, Candyce Rusk, Miram Relyea, Chris Baldwin, Glenna Bowman, Sarah Riehm, Matt Shead, and LeRoy Nienow. And the Millennials’ high energy, fun, and fierceness were well-represented by Kim Tran, Linzy Beltran, and Kate Coombs’s work. Many of us in the mix were playwrights, curious about the process of creating this genre. We all agreed the event surpassed our wildest expectations.

So how did this event come about? Austin DG member Miriam Relyea is a tireless and gracious advocate for musical theatre in our region. Being so grateful to Miriam for all she does to help me whenever we have a Guild event in Austin, I wanted to see if we could make an event in her field actually happen. I put out the call for help at one of our Regional Rep Zoom meetings. And, voilá! Cheryl and the Dramatists Guild heard the call and together, we all made it happen.

As a result of our event, plans for creating small groups from the 27 workshop participants who would meet regularly have begun. And nurturing, committed small groups are so key to why Cheryl conducts these workshops. Small groups are not only vital to members’ creative growth but they step up the pace of project completion. Cheryl is “passionate about musical theatre because of the community aspect of storytelling in this form. Our brains fire together and wire together when we make music with others. When we marry music with narrative, we feel stories more deeply, and they hold the possibility to transform us and our community.”

Back in San Antonio, as I thought about the magical community I had been part of up in Austin, a deep wave of music rumbled through me: One Day More! At the close of our shared weekend, Cheryl had invited us all to stand and sing that song together. It was a glorious moment, all of us singing our hearts out about what we wished we could share: one day more…and another…and…another…!