Despite challenges, original theater appeals


Despite the intense time commitment required to write and produce original theater, a growing group of Yale undergraduates seems eager to take on the challenge.

This Friday, the new musical “Independents” will go up at the Off Broadway Theater, capping off almost six months of effort by playwright Marina Keegan ’12, lyricist Mark Sonnenblick ’12 and composer Stephen Feigenbaum ’12. Keegan said she anticipated writing “Independents” would be a challenge, but, like other students who have attempted original musicals, she has found the process even more difficult than expected.

“This fall, I’ve been going to the library to work all day, but not on homework,” Keegan said.

Instead, she has spent hours perfecting “Independents,” the story of nine friends trapped in a marijuana smuggling scheme gone awry. The show, Sonnenblick said, “has basically been our whole semester.”

Of the theater productions put up at Yale, only a minority are student-written, and of those only a fraction are musicals: “Independents” is the sole example this semester.

Sonnenblick, Feigenbaum and Keegan discussed their desire to write a musical together last fall. Keegan wrote the script over the summer, and the three arrived in New Haven early this semester to develop music and lyrics. Once the three finished writing the show, they worked with director Charlie Polinger ’13 to stage it.

The stress only increased once classes began. Both Keegan and Sonnenblick said that they took lighter courseloads this semester, in large part because of their commitment to the show. Sonnenblick added that he also wanted less academic stress in order to better dedicate himself to another project that will be going up next semester.

Feigenbaum said he consistently prioritizes extracurricular commitments over academic work.

“I came to Yale under the assumption that I would spend most of my time on extracurriculars [including musical theater],” he said. “That’s my priority.”

Gabe Greenspan ’14, who is currently co-writing a musical based on Pokémon set to go up next April, agreed that putting up an original musical as a student is proving to be much harder than he initially thought it would be. But acting in Sonnenblick’s original musical, “Bunkerville,” last year reconfirmed his belief that writing and staging his own musical would be possible. Blocking out four hours a week to write the book and songs has made production manageable so far, he added.

Keegan said that she finds writing original theater so appealing because it presents an opportunity to represent a student voice in theater on campus. Student-written productions are more likely to deal with topics relevant to students’ concerns, she added. “Independents,” for instance, features nine youths dealing with uncertainty about their futures, a topic familiar to college students.

“I saw ‘RENT’ [the Yale Dramatic Association’s fall mainstage] last year, and loved it, but I remember thinking about how dated it felt,” Keegan said.

Sonnenblick said he hopes “Independents’ will be more pertinent to Yalies like himself. He added that, as a writer and lyricist, he aims to create material that his peers identify with, unlike works that feature adult concerns such as marital infidelity.

Original works can also develop into a more exciting final product, Keegan said, as ongoing interactions between the writers, actors and directors can lead to script changes. In some cases, she said, multiple versions of a scene will emerge, and the writers can then select the best among them to include in the final version of the script. Actors, too, benefit from discussing their roles with the writers directly, which Keegan said results in deeper character development.

Original musicals like “Independents” have become more common over the last few years, four students involved in theater at Yale said.

“At least one or two student-written musicals have gone up each semester over the last two years,” said Meredith Davis ’13, who produced the spring 2011 Dramat mainstage, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”

David added this represents an increase from years past.

The Yale Drama Coalition website currently lists four student-written productions that will go up in the spring.

Greenspan said the organizational resources of the Yale Drama Coalition, which provides a centralized database for auditions and show information, and funding opportunities like the Creative and Performing Arts Awards establish an environment conducive to developing one’s own show.

Feigenbaum said he has also noticed an increase in new work from students.

“It’s a really exciting time to be here,” Feigenbaum said.

“Independents” will run Thursday through Saturday.

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