For this issue, I chatted with playwright David Lee White and his composer/lyricist collaborator Kate Brennan on their project for young adult audiences.
Stephen Kaplan: Tell me about The Infinity Plays.
David Lee White: The Infinity Plays (Musicals, actually) are three pieces we created with young theatre artists between the ages of 14-24 and aim for a “Young Adult” audience—not a “young” audience—an important distinction.
Kate Brennan: They’re inspired by and workshopped with young adults that then incorporate both young people and adults in casting to bridge the gap between student and professional.
Stephen Kaplan: How did they start?
David Lee White: Our collaboration came about on accident. Kate was working with McCarter’s education program to adapt a popular YA book for their summer high school intensive. When the rights to the project fell through, I was called in to help create an original YA musical. Through improvisation with the students we created a rough version of ALiEN8, about a small midwestern town recovering from a tornado and how it’s visited by a non-gendered stranger who may, or may not, be an alien. We continued working on the show—first with Ignition Arts in Oklahoma City, where we had access to some amazing musical theater students—then at Drexel University in Philadelphia where the completed musical will have its first production this November as part of the Mandel Artists in Residence Program.
We returned to McCarter to create Clean Slate about a group of “problem” teens who have been sent to a rehabilitation boot camp located in a mysterious, and dangerous, forest. We workshopped that with Ignition Arts as well and the final show, Illuminate, is still in the planning stage.
Stephen Kaplan: What’s it like collaborating with young people?
David Lee White: They’re amazing. It was through them that I embraced the notion of “radical acceptance,” not just accepting the differences of the people around you but embracing the differences of people you’ve never even met. I wish that some of them could have been around when I was in high school to help mentor me!
Stephen Kaplan: What have you learned about yourself as a writer through the process?
David Lee White: For the first time, I’m starting the writing process without an agenda or a message and trusting that, if I listen, the work will come to life on its own. Kate said, at one point, that “the only real satisfaction you get from creating theatre is the investigative process of the art itself,” and I agree 100%. Obviously, we want these works to be produced, but the real joy is in the creative work itself. Every time I hear a read through of these shows, I discover new ideas and images that could only have come into being through Kate and I working side by side with the students.
Kate Brennan: And as a University professor, I see so many students omitted from casting - not from lack of talent or work ethic - just simply because the roles aren’t there. There aren’t enough roles for young women, there aren’t enough roles representative of most young people these days. If we hope to diversify our casts, let’s diversify the roles we offer them. And instead of casting teenagers as grandmothers or in roles they won’t play for decades, let’s cast them in roles that really speak to them - that are close in age range - and even better, where they have the opportunity to mentor with professionals during the process.
Stephen Kaplan: How can other writers follow this model?
David Lee White: If you have the opportunity to create work with young actors, don’t start the process until you’re in the room with them. It can be a bit brutal, always having to generate new pages in time for the next rehearsal, but the pace is helpful. Write and get it on its feet as fast as you can.
Kate Brennan: We are devising these pieces much more than writing them. I keep on harkening to the improv world (and this is probably because of David’s improv expertise!): Here’s a song - YES AND - here’s a scene - YES AND - what if we add a language of gestures? - YES AND! I think ultimately collaborating in this way demands a real willingness to not only live, but revel, in the unknown, a willingness to bend and break the rules, a willingness to listen and follow where impulse takes you - not just down the road less traveled, but through rugged terrain and off the side of a cliff.
For more info check out https://alien8themusical.wordpress.com