Catherine Berry explains how to reverse engineer your very own musical
No matter how much you may love musicals love hearing them, love singing them, love being in them chances are slim to none that you'll ever have one written for you. You can sing yourself to sleep with "Send in the Clowns" every night of your life. Stephen Sondheim still won't come knocking on your back door.
No, if you're in the market to star in a new musical, your best option is to make one yourself. That's what Catherine Berry did. After six years as primarily a singer-songwriter, the onetime actress dipped her toes back in the theatrical pool via the Refraction Arts Project original epic Orange, and that turn in the spotlight, besides earning her a nomination for a B. Iden Payne Award, left Berry with a hankering to do another play, one where she could explore new territory as an actress while revisiting her longtime love of musical theatre.
Thus was born Spin, a musical that weds songs by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Johnny Mercer, Jacques Brel, Shelby Lynne, Kurt Weill, and Amy Rigby with original monologues by such playwrights as Lisa D'Amour, John Walch, Jessica Hedrick, Cyndi Williams, Jennifer Haley, and Catherine Berry's brother, Refraction Arts Artistic Director Ron Berry. Catherine Berry is calling Spin an inverted musical, because her process for creating it was an inversion of the traditional method of write the book, find out where the story needs music, write songs, and insert them. What Berry did was ... well, better you should hear it from her, as I did, at Jo's Coffee on the morning of Aug. 7. Suffice it to say that she's done something right; an excerpt of the show snagged Best of the Fest honors at FronteraFest this year. Here she reveals the secrets to creating Spin, understanding her brother Ron, and how she's like a lazy Susan.
Catherine Berry: I'd grown up doing theatre, and I'd gotten back into it doing Orange, but I had spent about six years before that being a songwriter, and at the end of it I was having a little identity crisis: "Am I a singer-songwriter? Am I an actress?" Then it hit me: "Why don't you try something where you're just a performer, something that can umbrella all that?" So I started thinking about all this great music that I loved and how it would be great to do something that was just entertaining. I took about six weeks to get a library card from the Fine Arts Library, and once I'd gotten that far, I thought, "I have to do this show." [Laughs] Then I spent a few weeks over there going through the archives. It was so fun, just looking for great music. Then I was going to write the show, but I started writing and thought, "This is gonna be way too narcissistic. It would be really fun to give new voices and different perspectives to these songs. They're so good, they can stand alone, so why not do something fresh with them?" Then I thought, "Let's get a bunch of playwrights that I love and have [them do] takes on the songs that are completely different than the originals."
Austin Chronicle: Were there any of these people that you didn't know very well when you asked them to do this?
CB: I didn't know John Walch very well. I'd just gotten to know Lisa D'Amour through a workshop I'd done with Katie Pearl. It was very bizarre. There were some playwrights that I wanted that I didn't really know, so I thought, "Well, I'll just see." So I called them.
AC: "How are you? Write for me!"
CB: [Laughs] And they did! They were all intrigued with the idea, and I think the fact that I wasn't asking them to write a three-hour epic [helped]. With all of them, I said, "Try it. If it isn't working, we can bail." I just said, "Listen to it. Write a character or scene or anything that your imagination takes you to that's set a little out of context, that's spinning it out of what you would normally [think of]. If that's not working, then go more with it."
AC: Who lined up the songs with whom?
AC: And how did you make those decisions?
CB: Basically, intuition. Jessica Hedrick I just love the words she comes up with, she's superverbal, so I had to give her Sondheim, and that fit her like a glove. Cyndi Williams is so great with characters, she's a very rhythmic writer, so I gave her this Jacques Brel song, "Sons of." She's come back with something really moving. With John Walch, he writes so outside-the-box that I gave him a classic standard, Johnny Mercer's "Too Marvelous for Words." It's very up, straight as an arrow. I sent him a version of Ella Fitzgerald singing it. You can't get any more standard than that. And what he came up with was completely outside the box. With Lisa, the stuff I've seen her do is very cerebral. I gave her a song by Shelby Lynne, and I thought, "You can't be cerebral with this song." I called her and said, "What do you think of this song?" and she said, "Oh, it's so sad. It's such an emotional song. Which is great, because I usually write from my head. With this, I'm going to have to start at a really emotional level." So the writers were really into it, because it really made them work differently. Our big challenge with the play was trying to string it together so it wasn't just vignette, vignette, vignette, vignette. We had all these different people, different songs, and there was no thread.
AC: Did you have any ideas for how you wanted to string these songs together before you saw the material by the playwrights?
CB: I didn't at all. My brother did, when we first got it up. He really felt like we needed to turn this into more of a piece rather than just sketches. So one of the characters has become basically this person who is all of these characters. She's very funny, this waddling old woman who's lived in the theatre all of her life. I think it makes it a more interesting journey, rather than just having character, character, character, character. When we get to the end of the play, it's really cool how it all ties together.
AC: How did Ron come on board?
CB: I really wanted to work with him. After seeing him work with Orange
AC: Because you never saw him enough growing up.
CB: Well, there were four kids, and we were all four and five years apart. Ron got into theatre after I was already off at college. It wasn't until I came to see him graduate at Earlham, doing his thesis he was doing a one-man show [that I realized] "Oh my god, my brother really is in theatre, and he's really good." I wanted to try out some of these pieces for FronteraFest, and I asked Ron to help me with that, and that went great. Then we were scheduled to do Spin, and we had to move it because of some renovation, and Ron didn't look like he was going to be able to do it, so I got Sonnet [Blanton] on board, and that was going to be great. Then I got an offer to teach a songwriting course in San Francisco, so we moved it again, and at that point, they were both available, and I was like, 'Well, hell, we've got seven writers and 10 composers, let's collaborate with two directors." So the whole thing has been this exercise in ...
AC: Multiple personality disorder, it sounds like. One performer, multiple characters, split direction ...
CB: [Laughs] But it's been cool, because they've each brought things to it that I wouldn't have had otherwise.
AC: Did you have to referee them?
CB: No. They never got argumentative with each other. It was more like the war of the politeness. Neither one wanted to step on the other one's toes. So I'd be out there: "Somebody help me." There's only been one character where Ron and Sonnet looked at each other and started dying laughing and said, "Let's just flip a coin and somebody take up directing this one." Other than that, it's been amazingly easy. I was kind of amazed that they were both into working this way. We got a week into it, and I was like, "I can't believe this is working. This could have been really bad."
A cool thing about Ron is that he takes these huge risks. I mean, he can just go off into left field, like "Try this with a Cockney accent and walk with a hump and ..." [Laughs] And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but usually it does. It's so creative.
AC: It seems like you fall from that same tree.
CB: Well, he is my brother.
AC: Do you like that kind of experimentation?
CB: I do. What I like is coming in with lots of ideas for the director. I did this with Sonnet on one of the characters. I wanted to do a lot of movement, and I came in with 20 different ways that I could move my body, and she could then arrange it for me. I love working that way. I'm like the lazy Susan; they can spin me around and choose.
AC: I think you have a new nickname: the lazy Susan of Austin theatre.
CB: Our parents just always said yes to whatever we were doing yes, yes, yes so I think that allows Ron and me to be pretty fearless about trying things like that. I didn't realize that until I got older, but they didn't instill in us any kind of editing, which is nice. I'm not beyond being afraid, don't get me wrong
AC: Well, a certain amount of fear is healthy, but not so much that it keeps you from trying things that you don't have a good reason not to try.
CB: Especially in the beginning. You've got to be really daring and bold in the beginning and throw everything out there. You know, dare to suck, as I always say. [Laughs] Dare to suck. When I teach my songwriting seminar, that's my motto. You gotta get the bad stuff out to find the one word or two that works and start working with it. It really liberates you.
AC: Have you ever pushed yourself as an actress in this way? Were you ever typecast?
CB: I was always the character actress. Even as a kid. In The Pied Piper, I played the rat rather than the princess. I was always the one playing the older characters. Which, at the time, was kind of heart-wrenching because you wanted to play something that was pretty, that would get you a boyfriend. But looking back on it, it was a compliment.
AC: What sorts of things have you discovered doing this, about your own abilities or these playwrights?
CB: The fact that I can get through this without passing out is a big one. [Laughs] Singing all these different styles has been really cool. I have a degree in musical theatre, but I was always the folkie type of singer, and I was always getting the types of roles where you really have to act rather than sing. When I left school, I didn't pursue musical theatre too much. I kept my acting more in the straight theatre vein. So it's been really gratifying to come back after all these years and say, "Wow, I'm singing this as a legitimate musical theatre singer." I really love this stuff. When I was in college, I think I was a little too cool for all that cheesy Ira Gershwin, but now that I'm doing it, I'm blown away by how great the songs are.
AC: Are there things that you discovered about these songs that you never knew before?
CB: A really well-written song, like Jacques Brel's "Sons of," you have to be at a certain emotional level for it to work. It's like that with all the songs that I'm singing in the show. You can't just burst into song. You've got to be at an emotional level so that the only place to go is to open your mouth and sing.
AC: The last week or two before a show opens, inevitably you hit that point of "Why am I doing this? What made me think I could pull this off?" It may be technical details not coming together easily or not having an audience to play off of. Have you reached that point or pushed past it already?
CB: [Laughs] I'm laughing because even that process has been inverted with this show. I can't go to sleep at night, I wake up with this pit in my stomach, and finally it's a week before the show, and I'm like, "You know, it's all going to come together. I'm not going to stress anymore." So it's flip-flopped. I've been in that angst for four weeks, and now when you would normally be hitting it the week before, I'm going to roll with it. It's pretty funny.
AC: What are you most looking forward to once the show opens?
CB: [The time] when I'm really feeling like "This is why I did it" is when I'm able to be completely in the moment with each character. The impetus for starting this whole thing was for it to be an entertaining night not to make a big point or nail a hamster to the wall and call it art, you know, just give people a smile, have a poignant moment that they can go away with. I hope that when opening night comes, I can be satisfied that I'm working in the moment and it's fun.
Spin runs Aug. 19-Sept. 4, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at the Blue Theater, 916 Springdale. For more information, call 927-1118 or visit www.spinthemusical.com.