Austin Playwright’s Final Play Might Have Died With Him, but a Community Joined Together to Ensure Its Survival
Saving Jason Tremblay’s Gretel! The Musical
Once upon a time, a taleteller happened upon an idea for a new story. So he began eagerly stitching words together that he might share this story across the land. But a shadow fell across the taleteller, sapping his strength. Each day, he grew weaker, but he was resolved to finish the story and so began stringing words faster and choosing words to add in later. The shadow, however, was impatient and enveloped the taleteller before he could stitch "The End." So his story was left incomplete, seeming never to be finished. But then ....
That story is and is not Jason Tremblay's. It's not his in that he didn't write it. (If he had, the prose would've been considerably more polished and compelling.) But it's his in that he lived it. Two years ago, the Austin playwright had begun work on a new project for Theatre Heroes, a company he'd founded with Noel Gaulin to make quality theatre for young audiences. It drew on the Russian folk tale "Vasilisa the Beautiful," in which the heroine is forced by her cruel stepmother to retrieve fire from the fearsome witch Baba Yaga, but with elements of the Grimm brothers' "Hansel and Gretel" added in. As he worked on it, though, the cancer he'd been fighting for more than two years – intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, more fearsome than Baba Yaga – took hold of him. Sensing he would not have the three years that it took to develop Call of the Wild into a solo vehicle for Gaulin, Tremblay worked feverishly to finish a first draft of the play, now titled Gretel! The Musical. He had begun making notes for staging it when he died on April 3, 2017, at the age of 39. With most writers, that draft might have been slipped into a drawer where it would remain incomplete for eternity. But Jason Tremblay was not most writers.
Survive to Thrive
"Jason Tremblay – Our Theatre Hero" read the Paramount Theatre marquee on the day of his passing. It was a visible measure of Tremblay's connections throughout the arts community – as a playwright, director, producer, stage manager, teacher, and human being – and the regard in which he was held. Serving others was fundamental to his character and had been since his youth in Pine Bluff, Ark., where his volunteer work with a church group and employment as a social worker assistant heightened his empathy for people facing hardship and loss. A mindfulness of others' needs and a responsiveness to them fed his approach to any job, whether it was stage managing the X Games or an event with former President Barack Obama; getting Austin Community College students jazzed about Austin theatre; seeing shows for the B. Iden Payne Theatre Awards Nominations Committee; or writing a play to spark the imagination of a kid in rural Texas.
Tremblay valued imagination – he put "at least one impossible thing" in every play he wrote – but not for its own sake; he saw imagination as a tool that people – especially young people – could use to overcome loss and move forward in the world, to discover the strength inside themselves that would help them face difficult circumstances. That sentiment is evident in his plays, going back to those he wrote in UT-Austin's MFA playwriting program, such as Katrina: The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back, in which a girl had to face down that epic storm with her name. His belief that "children must be taught to survive in order to thrive" was encoded in his plays' DNA and figures prominently in the story of Gretel!.
After presenting Call of the Wild at the Stateside, Paramount Education Director Jennifer Hartmann Luck asked Tremblay if he had another project in mind. He said he was working on a piece called Vasilisa the Beautiful, to which she said, "Can't sell it."
"Well, really it's kind of the origin story of Hansel and Gretel," he added.
That piqued her interest. So Tremblay shared his draft of the play about the girl who lost her mother and was abused by her stepmother and sent to a witch, and said it would be a one-man show, like Call of the Wild, that he'd write and direct, with maybe underscoring by Graham Reynolds.
"My friend, this is stunning," Luck told him, "and you cannot do this." A girl's story full of females made only by men? "We are desperately missing some female voice. Then, I literally heard Gretel singing to me. So I said, 'Would you let me write a song?'" Luck had intended to deal with Tremblay as a presenter, not a collaborator, "so I don't know what I was thinking, honestly. But being a songwriter, and it was so lyrical the way he wrote it, I could just hear Gretel."
Tremblay said she could, so Luck – who also has an MFA from the UT Department of Theatre & Dance – asked him: Where's the heat in the piece for you? From his reply, she wrote a song and sent it to him. By this point, Tremblay's health was failing, and Luck says, "I would get texts from him in the hospital. 'I've been in the hospital all week, but I can't stop listening to this song. It's gonna get me out of the hospital.'"
The name of the song? "Survive."
Follow the Bread Crumbs
That was the first and only song that Tremblay heard for Gretel!. But it had made such an impression on him and he'd become so attached to it in his final weeks that his widow Sheila asked Luck to sing it at a memorial service on April 30, 2017. It wasn't to be a requiem, though, for either Tremblay or his play. The message of the song had begun to work a magic on the people connected with the musical. It started with Sheila, who came to the Paramount the day Tremblay died. Luck recalls standing with her under the marquee honoring "Our Theatre Hero": "She is weeping, and the thing that comes out of her mouth is, 'Gretel! is going to live.' It was profound to me that this was so much on her mind even in that moment."
The universe kept sending signals that Gretel! was meant to live. The next came a week after the memorial service, when Luck went to Berkeley for a national conference of theatre for young audiences. Before Tremblay died, Luck had been invited to take part in a song slam, and she wanted to sing "Survive." He'd agreed and helped her submit the song for approval. But after his death, she wasn't sure it was appropriate. When Luck asked Sheila what she should do, Sheila replied, "You're going to sing it. Jason would be so pissed [if you didn't]."
So Luck sang it, and in the crowd was a teacher of and mentor to both Luck and Tremblay, former head of UT's playwriting program/Theatre for Youth professor Suzan Zeder. She had known of Gretel! and after Jason's death told Sheila Tremblay she'd help with it in any way she could. But that was before she had any personal connection to the project. "The minute I heard 'Survive,' every hair on the back of my head stood up," Zeder says. That led to "a momentous lunch" with Luck in Berkeley where Zeder said, "I'm in. Whatever you need from me: advice, dramaturgy, whatever you need."
"Well, the play's not done," Luck said.
Zeder hadn't anticipated jumping in as playwright, but if what Gretel! needed was work on the script, then she would work on the script. She asked Sheila to send her the draft and the notes Jason had made "to see if there were enough bread crumbs in them to follow Jason's vision for the play." The draft arrived first, and Zeder decided to do a pass at it to see if she could get from point A to B to C. "I made two plot changes that were radically different than what was in the draft," she says. "The next day, I got the handwritten notes. They only go halfway through the script, but in his handwriting were keys to exactly the plot changes I made. Exactly. And I just felt like this was meant to be."
What Does Gretel Need?
As Zeder and Luck began their work in earnest, the project underwent a shift in focus, from the playwright to the play. While Tremblay had left a story and some notes on how he might stage it, no one – not Zeder or Luck, not his creative partner Gaulin or life partner Sheila – could say how much of it he would have kept or discarded in rewrites or production. So Team Gretel! should not be, says Zeder, "slavishly following what we think Jason would have done but trusting in the story and trusting his passion for the tale to lead us where it needed to go. We're following not Jason but Gretel, trying to figure out: What does Gretel need?"
Like, what witch does Gretel need? In Tremblay's preference for the "Vasilisa" witch over the one in "Hansel and Gretel," Zeder saw a need for complexity in that opposing figure. "The witch in 'Hansel and Gretel' is a one-dimensional character. She deserves to get burned up. She lures people in with candy and eats them up. Baba Yaga is much more complicated. She's a healer and a witch. Baba is wonderful in that she is not all that she appears to be." Zeder may be biased. For years, she's kept a picture of Baba Yaga over her writing desk, and the title character in her great play Mother Hicks is considered a witch by people in her town. But it also suggests one more way in which her participation in Gretel! is "meant to be."
As work progressed, with Noel Gaulin as director and a vital third collaborator, Gretel made other needs known. She needed her own voice, so a second actor was added. Her music needed more than a guitar. Taking a cue from the first page of Tremblay's notes, where he wrote the word "cello" – an instrument he had played since the age of 10 – Luck scored music for the instrument. The result, says Zeder, is "cello is not just an accompaniment here. Cello is a character. Cello provides an emotional through line."
In August, Zeder provided an update by email: "We are now two drafts and six songs into the piece. Jenn and Noel and I are collaborating like crazy thru Skype, email, and hours of conversation by phone, and we are in constant touch with Sheila, to be sure that we are honoring Jason's voice and vision. It truly has a life and a voice of its own, and all of us are now following Gretel! as she tells us what she wants to be."
By October, what Gretel! wanted to be was heard. Zeder came to Austin for a workshop and reading at the Dougherty Arts Center. Sheila Tremblay was there, hearing the full script with songs for the first time. Luck asked her, "What do you think Jason would think of this?"
"She said, 'Well, he hates musicals ... But that's not what this is. This is something different. It's something better, bigger.' 'So you think he'd be okay with it?' 'Oh, he'd be so okay with it.'"
That was a blessing for the creative team, but one consistent with a support shown all through the project's development. "What's been stunning to me is the generosity of yes," says Zeder. "Every time we've come to [Sheila and Noel] with something new – 'You know, we really need three actors.' 'Yes.' 'Now, what we really need is live cello.' 'Yes.' 'Now we need a live guitarist.' 'Yes.'" Despite the huge risk these add for Theatre Heroes – quadrupling the cast size means quadrupling costs and complicating touring schedules – the response was always "yes."
Luck was able to express her gratitude for that at the Kennedy Center's 2018 New Visions/New Voices festival. While Gretel! wasn't one of the plays chosen for a weeklong workshop and reading, the musical was an alternate and was invited to present some material. So a year after Tremblay's death, Luck flew to D.C., to sing – what else? – "Survive." And it happened to be 10 years after Tremblay won an award for Katrina at the festival. And the day she sang was his birthday. And Sheila Tremblay had come. Festival co-founders Deirdre Kelly Lavrakas and Kim Peter Kovac had asked artists to address the idea of radical commitment to their work, so Luck spoke of radical faith. "I'm standing on the Kennedy Center stage, and I'm about to sing this song that I wrote called 'Survive,' and it's Jason's birthday, and Sheila's there. So I thanked her for having the radical faith in Suzan and me to finish the piece."
But this generosity extended beyond the Gretel! team. The Paramount was unequivocal about supporting the project. "We have to present this," Luck recalls Programming Director Lietza Brass saying. So the theatre will present the world premiere of Gretel! The Musical for the public on Mon., Jan. 7, and for four school audiences so a few thousand students can experience it as well.
The Story Will Outlive the Teller
In October of 2018, Gretel! received one last critical element in its journey to life: a workshop outside of Austin. The story of the play's creation and completion means Gretel! will always have meaning, as Zeder puts it, "in the hothouse of home." But for it to have a life on stages across the country – which was always the goal – it needed to connect with audiences who didn't know that story. First Stage in Milwaukee provided that chance in what was a full-circle moment for the project. Jeff Frank, the theatre's artistic director, had not only known Tremblay, he'd been in Berkeley when Luck sang "Survive" – "the same event that brought Suzan and I together," Luck notes. "It was amazing."
And so was the response to Gretel!. "It landed more than Suzan or I could have ever expected," Luck says. "In this community," adds Zeder, "it is freighted with significance, but to find that the piece itself also has this significance was a revelation."
Seeing Gretel played by a 16-year-old and hearing the cello music played by a 15-year-old was revelatory, too, because it addressed an issue in the play's future as a legacy for Tremblay and his family. "If this piece is going to go, it's got to be able to be done a lot of different ways," says Zeder. "It can't be dependent on three excellent adult actors and a musician. It's got to be able to be done in elementary schools, in high schools, in colleges." To that end, the team will work with an arts-based school in Maryland on a staging it with 10 middle-schoolers, each playing a different part. And a college in West Virginia will try Gretel! with five actors.
"The only thing important about a legacy is the other leg – it's the one that keeps walking," says Zeder. "That's what I feel about this piece and about Jason: that this piece is going to walk through elementary schools; this piece is going to walk through colleges; this piece is going to walk through [professional theatres]. So that's what's important about a legacy. And what's wonderful is the play itself proclaims that. It's embedded in the piece. So it proclaims and it lives itself."
Now, at last, here's the premiere, directed by Gaulin, starring Estrella Saldaña, Jason Phelps, and Veronica Williams, with Adam Sultan on guitar and Nora Karakousoglou on cello. Over 20 months, the process has involved so many more people and moving parts than first imagined. But Zeder finds a rare value in that. "It's been an invitation to bring our best selves to the table."
Gretel! The Musical will be performed Mon., Jan. 7, 7pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, visit www.austintheatre.org.