Dear Patreon family,
I’m super excited to share that after a several-months-long selection process, the Bay Area theater company Musical Cafe has chosen to produce the first full-length, concert-style performances of our musical, The Paper Raincoat!
Working on this show has been one of the longest creative projects I’ve ever been involved in, and from what I hear from more-experienced theater composers, we’re still at the very beginning of the journey! In the interest of taking you deeper into my creative process, I wanted to share a bit of the almost five-year path that led up to this point. I hope it’s useful to anyone who has ever felt like they have bitten off more than they could chew on a big project…
The premise of The Paper Raincoat was born in 2007 by accident. My band The Animators had just broken up and I was sort of casting about trying to figure out what my next artistic venture could be. I got together with my friend Amber Rubarth one day to do some writing with no real goal other than to have fun and make music. At the time, another friend Vienna Teng was taking a theater improv class and had lent me a book on improv exercises that she thought might be useful for songwriting. We decided to give it a try during the session one day. One exercise was designed to alleviate the pressure of having to create something on the spot. One person would close their eyes, and the other person would ask them questions about what was in front of them… so the act of creation becomes merely describing what you “see” in your mind’s eye rather than conjuring something out of thin air. I closed my eyes and imagined I was in an old house. Amber asked me all kinds of questions about what I saw… on the walls (pictures in frames), in the parlor (an old phonograph), where the house was located (New Jersey), etc. It got quite detailed and we realized that certain characters and places kept popping up. We wrote a short description of who they were and what they were doing, and it became the seeds of our story. Here is a sample of some of the notes we took in that initial improv session.
where does the light come from?
- right window
books on the ground
the third paper - receipt for a building / construction project 1979 march 3
rejection letter from a club - i'm sorry to inform you that we dont ----
- page 57 -
- cork board
the smell is the biggest thing
steady presence 4-6 days
someone had been in there
sacred - everything has a meaning
oak desk - divots - scratched wood
uneven - indentations, old
hard to breathe, in a good way - like traveling, see something with a lot of history, see how much work has gone in to it
feel the presence in your chest
one story house,
bedroom in back, office, kitchen, dining/living room
old chandelier in entrance
chair, table, lamp, books
thin wood, compartmentalized
one is blue - high school ring - hockey ring - class
other is gold band - wedding band?
foreign coins - thick ones - russian coins
award - outstanding best of show - paper feels cheap - off white paper - invention? standard form letter award - jack
hand written letter
crumpled into a ball and straightened out
june 6 1978
first chunk on left is torn out
"can't do the... time against ... to show me you want the life we've made... break inside ... dark
the person that wrote it was so sad and angry that he
he read it and understood what she was feeling, and agreed, but he didn't have a choice, he didn't have an attachment to the person... was trying to be sympathetic towards her, but he had something else that was so important, and she didn't understand it... and he felt like he wanted to be sad about it, but he wasn't. that something else was his work.
the "dark" thing was about staying there until dark, was shut off from the rest of the world, curtains drawn on personal connections
he wants to be sorry but he isn't
he crumpled it up and then opened it again
letter is from: his wife
We went on to write an album inspired by the characters we found in that house. The project eventually evolved into a duo called The Paper Raincoat. Some fans of the music knew the backstory but others did not. Our hope was that the record would stand alone, and could be enjoyed with or without knowing the backstory. That is still our goal with the music today.
We stopped touring as a band in 2011, and the project sat dormant for a couple of years as we turned our focus to other projects. I moved from NY to LA, and then into a storage unit as I left for a tour with Vienna Teng for several months. In December of 2013 I had just come off of six months of tour, my belongings were in a storage unit in LA, and I had no idea where I was going to move. I spent a week in SF thinking, writing and house sitting for Devon Copley, my old band mate from the Animators. During that week, I was inspired to revisit the story we had started years ago. Amber and I decided we wanted to try to finish the project. We asked Devon if he would be interested in collaborating with us. Not only is he a great songwriter, but he had more musical theater experience than either of us (which is not very difficult).
The first indication of our utter naivety was our assumption that we could just use most of the songs from the original album, tack on a couple more and call it a day. The three of us got together for a week in June 2014 to work on the show for the first time. As we started to sketch out the plot in earnest, we started to realize exactly what songs in musical theater need to DO to move the plot along, heighten the emotion of a scene, etc. It became apparent that all but ONE of the original songs weren’t going to work. This was going to be a much longer process than we thought.
We wrote four new songs for the show that Summer, recorded demos in the Fall, and attended the ASCAP musical theater workshop in January 2015. It was our first real exposure to this new world of theater composers and playwrights. It was really cool getting to see what types of new shows people were writing and learn what moved them to create. We also learned how much we had yet to learn.
We still only had 4 songs, a basic plot outline and a few scenes, but it was enough to apply to a couple other workshops. In Spring of 2015 we applied and were selected as one of the acts for a showcase produced by Play Cafe (part of Musical Cafe). This was our first time working with actors and hearing our words and songs come out of other people’s mouths. I have never been so nervous for a show before, and I wasn’t even playing anything. Some people from another Bay Area company, Theatreworks, were in the audience and they invited us to be part of their New Works festival later that summer. That was our first experience being around seasoned pros with many productions under their belts. The shows in the festival were so brilliant and we got equal doses of inspiration and intimidation from watching more experienced playwrights and composers do what they do so well.
For the next couple of years, we would get together in Nashville or San Francisco a few times a year for concentrated, week-long writing sessions and inch the project forward with a few more songs and a few lines of dialogue.. or we would get skunked and come up with nothing. One week-long session actually left us with FEWER songs than we started with, which was a super cool ego boost. We would order and re-order the scenes. The show condensed to a one-act play, and then expanded back to a two-act play. We wrote, tweaked, edited and cut songs, over and over and over. The characters aged and then got younger. Their personalities changed and evolved. The year even changed, from 2008 to 1996. Often times we would be on three different continents and time zones, someone would be on tour or a business trip, so staying consistent with the weekly sessions was challenging as life pulled us in different directions.
In fall of 2017 we were getting close to a full draft, but did not have an ending to the show written. We wanted to apply to the O’Neill workshop, one of the most prestigious workshops in the country, as a long shot. However, you had to submit a completed script and the deadline was in a week… so we spent the next few days in a writing frenzy and finished a complete draft within a few hours of the deadline. We thought we had absolutely zero chance of getting in, but we actually made it past the first 2 rounds of selection, which gave us fresh motivation to reach the finish line with the script. The following month we holed up in a cabin in Upstate New York and finished the first full draft of the show.
In the fall of 2018 we applied to a bigger workshop opportunity from Musical Cafe in the Bay Area. They selected four shows to workshop, and at the end of that process they would pick one to produce. They brought in a dramaturg and composer to give feedback on the show which was incredibly helpful and we felt the show grow by leaps and bounds. Our show grew the most it ever had due to the feedback from these talented artists. By the end of the second reading we felt, for the first time in 5 years, that our show was standing up on its own two feet. Two weeks ago we received the news that they had chosen our show to produce in June!
Now comes our biggest learning curve yet. We have two months to get this show in front of a real live audience, which means we have two months to learn everything we can about how theater actually gets produced! Last week we selected our director and musical director (while we also try to learn exactly what each does). Next week we will hold auditions for the cast. We will complete the score in April and begin rehearsing in earnest in May. Devon will lead the rehearsals on the west coast while Amber and I arrange and record the music at my studio in Nashville. Our goal is to release a song from the show on streaming platforms in advance of the show.
One of the biggest lessons I’m learning through this process is how challenging it can be to keep my eye on a singular creative goal over such a long time period. Writing and recording an album can take a year or two (or 6 in my case) to complete, which seems like a pretty long time already, but this is on another level. It’s easy to be excited in the initial stages of a project, but as time wears on it’s challenging to stay motivated without any discernible signs of external validation or even internal progress. It’s especially weird to think that we’re still so early in this journey, that the life cycle for the average production is typically a decade or more. It makes me all the more excited to finally get to see this show come off the page and to feel an audience react (or not react) to the music and story for the first time. If you’re going to be in the Bay Area in June and would like to attend a performance, you can purchase tickets here.
Hey, I really appreciate you guys reading to the end of these posts! Let me know what you're liking (and not liking) about them, as I want to share the parts of my story that are most interesting to you. In a few days I am going to post an update on the latest developments with my solo album. A lot has happened here over the past few weeks and I’m excited to update you on the progress of the video, the book, and the developing release plan.
As always, thank you for reading, listening, and showing up in this amazing community. I’m so grateful for all of you!