The Creative Process

Logo from Portraits: The Last Leaf / Still Life

The logo for “Portraits” (2008). Young photographer “Honey” (from Still Life) looks wistfully on at a painting of herself as “Johnsy” (from The Last Leaf). Rachel Baum posed in costume for both images, which were then post-processed in Photoshop to create the final product.

It’s been a while since my last entry, and I wanted to talk a little bit about our upcoming production, titled Faerie Tales. There’s probably a bit of mystery to it, as there was around 2008’s Portraits: The Last Leaf / Still Life. “Portraits” was a pair of previously separate one-act musicals that were tied together with several basic themes (art, sacrifice, the power of love to inspire). We managed to rig it so both pieces were set in the same apartment in Greenwich Village, 100 years apart, and maintained the same cast between both acts in order to enhance that feeling of connection. This was a very effective device, and while we don’t want to copy that, what we’re doing with Faerie Tales is more or less the same thing, with a twist.

Original Cover Art for Goblin Market

Original cover art for Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market and Other Poems” (linked via Wikipedia)

Act 1 of Faerie Tales will be Polly Penn and Peggy Harmon’s musical adaptation of Christina Rossetti’s classic poem “Goblin Market.” It runs around 70 minutes, and features an eclectic musical score, and a cast of two women who play all the parts and act as storytellers to the audience. This “morality tale” is today also viewed as an essential piece of Victorian-era erotica, due to its evocative imagery and sensual undertones. (Read about Goblin Market at Wikipedia.)

The musical Goblin Market runs about 70 minutes, by itself, and many theater companies would simply produce it as a stand-alone piece despite its brevity. However, for the past two years, Blue Spruce has been working with Silvia Graziano and David Reiffel, developing new, short musical works, and we saw this as a perfect opportunity to create some sort of companion piece. This is where the mystery comes in.

At this time, we don’t know what the companion piece is going to be about. We do know that it will be “Faerie Tale”-themed, as in “taking place in the land of Faerie.” Naturally this leaves us a bright, shiny new canvas to paint on, as the world of fairy tales is infinitely diverse (despite being exhaustively classified by the Aarne-Thompson system). The subject matter will depend heavily on the result of our creative process.

FRINGE WARS logoThe previous year’s output (2011) was driven by entering pieces into competition – specifically Company One’s FRINGE WARS – and we won each of the rounds in which we entered. Naturally this was an exciting opportunity for us, but more importantly, it allowed us to craft a way of coming up with ideas for plays. For the first round, we were required to create a 15-minute Dark Comedy, and were given a few requirements – a prop, a character name, a line. We then spent almost two weeks doing nothing but playing improv games with our actors, and discussing the basic elements – such as, what makes something a Dark Comedy? – until our writers found an idea they could latch on to, and then they crafted the music and book around the actors we had. This resulted in the surprisingly devastating little piece, titled The Royal Institute for the Support and Healing of the Arts.

After winning that round, we were eligible to compete in the finals, and for that we were told to create a 25-minute Mystery. This time, our process was a little bit different. We started out as before with a full discussion with the entire team (cast and crew) about all the different types of mysteries: murder mysteries (whodunit?), thrillers, ghost stories, and crossovers with various genres such as horror, comedy, etc. We were lucky enough to have on board the incredibly talented Erica Spyres as an actress, and we wanted to somehow feature her virtuosity on the fiddle (she’s been playing since she was little). This summoned images of the American South and the Midwest for us, and therefore we took some time to examine how mysteries might be set in those areas. Part of the creative team (Silvia, myself, and my wife and co-conspirator PJ Strachman) took a couple of weekends to watch some mysteries (most notably “Dead & Buried” and “The Gift”) to give us some ideas, and then our book-writer Silvia came up with a shortlist of ideas she wanted to use.

Kansas Historical Marker - Bloody Benders history

A historical marker remains at the infamous Leatherock Hotel, operated by the allegedly murderous Benders from 1871-1873.

Silvia and myself then met with our songwriter David Reiffel at the Life Alive in Central Square, Cambridge, to go through the list. Silvia presented us with a couple of real-life mystery/horror stories she had been reading about, and the one with the most seeming potential for a musical was the so-called “Bloody Benders” – a family of mass-murderers who owned an inn in Kansas from 1871 to 1873. From there, we came up with the idea that perhaps the Bender family was somehow still alive and well today, and still in the trade, as it were. The rest was relatively straightforward; we came up with plausible ways the Inn could operate, and stole the name of the Inn from the name of the town in “Dead & Buried” – Potter’s Bluff – which we rendered as “Potter’s Field” (a potter’s field is an anonymous grave site). Add in a curious wandering stranger to solve the mystery, and voila! Potter’s Field Bed and Breakfast was born.

Combining elements from ghost stories, murder mysteries, and dark comedy, Potter’s Field was a winner at FRINGE WARS for the final round, and helped solidify what appeared to be a winning creative process for development of short musicals. So, naturally, the next question was, what do we do next?

Goblin Market had been on my radar since immediately following our 2007 inaugural production of The Last 5 Years, thanks to a recommendation that I look into it by Kenneth Westhassel (who was kind enough to usher for us). Coming off of our recent hiatus (see our previous few blog entries for information about that), we were looking at very small shows to produce, so Goblin Market bubbled to the top of the list, as it requires minimal set and only two actresses. It turned out that both David Reiffel, and our regular Music Director Dan Rodriguez, were already very familiar with the piece. And so, it seemed logical that the next steps would be to come up with something to go with it.

Image still from "The Grandmother"

Image from “The Grandmother” (linked from This short film by David Lynch tells the story of a boy who grows a loving grandmother from some seeds and dirt.

So far, the creative team has held an initial kickoff meeting (over crepes in Davis Square), and a weekend day-long movie-viewing (similar to what we did for Potter’s Field). Movies viewed for inspiration varied drastically – from an early David Lynch short film (The Grandmother), to Jim Henson’s Fairy Tales, and we even watched an episode of the new Doctor Who series. We took notes as we went, about fairy tales in general, and stopped and discussed items of interest several times along the way. Now, the next steps involve the generation of a shortlist of ideas. We’ll probably hold off on final decisions until we see who we cast in a few weeks at auditions, and then integrate them into the creative process. But one thing I’m confident in – whatever happens, I’m pretty sure we’ll come up with another winner.