Published on July 19th, 2013 | by Biz Books0
The Biz Interview: Alison Chisholm, Peter Abando, and Jennifer Pielak of “Connected: The Musical”
Connected: The Musical is the newest production from Whirlwind Theatre! It’s on now at Pacific Theatre until July 27th. We spoke to co-creators Alison Chisholm, Peter Abando, and Jennifer Pielak about their creative process and the experience of making the musical musings of Connected: The Musical a reality.
What inspired you to take on this production?
Alison Chisholm: I’ve been wanting to write a musical for a while now but I put that dream aside once I came to the conclusion that I had no ability to pull it off on my own. But when I started doing musical improv with Jen and Peter I realized that there was a chance for that dream to come true after all. So after one of our workshops I threw the idea out to them, and like any good improvisers they accepted the offer and we went from there.
Peter Abando: When Alison suggested we create and present an original musical, it was exactly the sort of wild and crazy idea that gets us musicians and improvisors excited. While I have composed for musicals before, the chance to write a new work with Jennifer Pielak and Alison Chisholm isn’t something that comes along every day.
Jennifer Pielak: I’m crazy? Writing an original musical has always been a dream of mine. I’ve been doing musical improv for the past 5 years, and knew that the timing was right to use the skills I’ve learned to put toward writing. Combine that with the musical genius of Peter Abando and the messed up comedic writing style of Alison Chisholm and I knew we’d have a stellar team.
Can you briefly walk us through your creative process for this production, from the early stages all the way to opening night?
Alison: It began with weekly meetings to discuss what kind of a show we wanted to do. We knew we wanted it to be a more character-based project but we thought it would take the form of a song-cycle. But after we started talking about ideas our theme of connections came all the more clear and around the time we started meeting a lot of articles were coming out that were saying that Vancouver was a lonely city and that people lacked connection. So we took that idea and some of the other quirky ideas we came up with and the general story of Connected: The Musical was born. We knew as soon the story was created that we wanted to bring on fellow improvisers and castmates Richard Meen and Brad Rossington, and fortunately they said yes. Then we pulled the rest of the creative team together and since having everyone together its been so great to have this be a true collaborative process. The three writers may have come up with the basic story and songs, but we’ve made a lot of edits since our first read through and those edits have been at the suggestions of the collective. It’s pretty great knowing that on opening we won’t just be putting up the show that Jen, Peter, and I wrote, but something that we created collectively. That’s a pretty awesome feeling!
Peter: We started simply by brainstorming ideas based on the idea of connection, and all that may imply. Once we had some concepts down, Alison created a story structure, which we used as a base for improvisation to create scenes and song sketches. I created musical motifs for characters and based song ideas on their drives and emotions at particular plot points. Then it was catering the songs to our cast and fleshing out arrangements with the musicians. There was lots of editing to be done, with changes in script and character development, but it was a fantastic process.
Jennifer: It all started one day after a musical improv workshop that Peter, Alison and I are a part of. Alison came up to Peter and I and asked if we’d like to write a musical, and we simply said, “Yes”. So we started meeting weekly at 8am on Friday mornings to brainstorm ideas. We originally thought it would be more of a comedic song cycle featuring a variety of characters. But as we continued brainstorming we ended up finding a deeper story that we felt people could relate to today in a city like Vancouver. We used a variety of techniques, sometimes we would individually take the script and work with it for a little while and bring it back to the group. Other times we would write or work scenes and songs together. We used improv a lot to hash out ideas and made new discoveries through musical improvisation and free association. In May we brought in the two other actors in the show (Brad Rossington and Richard Meen) and put the scenes on their feet to see if they played out well. We also brought in Chris Lam our director to do some dramaturgy so we could get the best story possible. As many know, a work may never ever be finished, and so we have been re-writing and adding things to the script even up to today, and it’s a week before opening night! As of June, we have a great production team now. Our stage manager, set designer, choreographer, lighting designer, director, musical director, musicians – all including the actors are putting their stamp into this show. This is the first time it’s going up, so everyone is responsible for a piece of it in a way. It’s has been collaborative from the start, and I feel very lucky that it’s been with such an amazing team.
What can audiences expect from Connected: The Musical that will make for a unique stage experience?
Alison: I think the best thing about this show is that our improv backgrounds really shine through in the story-telling. It’s a fun quirky show, featuring some highly relatable characters who can be both over-the-top and extremely grounded all in the same scene. And that’s where this show lives. It’s silly, serious, sexy with songs that will break your heart and make you want to get up and dance.
Peter: It’s a show that people will be able to relate to, given how we explore relationships and their issues in many ways. The music isn’t fixed to a specific genre, and there’s both touching and ridiculous moments, often in the same scene. Maybe a little like looking through a series of similar profiles on an online dating site – things you know, with a twist of things you didn’t expect to find there.
Jennifer: It’s relatable. It’s comedic with some very poignant moments. Without giving too much away, there is a little bit of everything in this musical – love, sass, fights, comedy and awesome songs. Plus the cast is super sexy.
What were your reasons for getting involved with acting, writing, and producing/directing?
Alison: I realized at fairly young age that theatre is what I wanted to do. I started off as an improviser and then took a break from improv as I pursued my BFA in Theatre. I realized through my degree that I actually really enjoyed the behind-the-scenes work in putting up a show which is why I pursued a career in theatre administration. But I do get the urge to do those things like write, act and improvise. I love being behind the desk, but it means a lot to me to be able to get back up on stage.
Peter: I got into theatre after high school, as a rehearsal and performance pianist. I began composing music shortly after that, when working with youth on play building, crafting original musical theatre productions.
Jennifer: This creative field chose me. I don’t feel like I have a choice. I have to do it or I will not be whole. It is my way to connect with people in the strongest way possible. Ha ha, see what I did?
Are there any books or specific authors that have been influential to you so far in your creative journey?
Alison: There are a number of playwrights who inspire me including Christopher Durang, and local playwright Morris Panych. Their knack for comedy even in dark situations is something I really appreciate and look up to.
Peter: There were definitely composers who have been influential over the years. Stephen Sondheim, Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown, Igor Stravinsky, Marvin Hamlisch, Robert Lopez, Duncan Sheik, Marc Shaiman, John Kander and Fred Ebb… the list could keep going!
What were the biggest challenges for you in your respective roles in developing this production and how did you deal with them?
Alison: The biggest challenge has been balancing a full-time job, with the various roles I’ve taken on in this production, including writer, performer, producer, production manager, and others. There have been a lot of long days at Pacific Theatre, but fortunately I can’t think of anywhere else I’d want to spend so much time. Especially when I’m surrounded by an amazing group of people every time I’m there. If it wasn’t for the people I’ve had the privilege to work with, this process would have been a whole lot harder.
Peter: Toughest part? Getting all the music written and scored in time for the actors and musicians to learn and perform it. So, I managed to find a few days when no one could interrupt me, and focused in on writing and composing – some much needed alone time.
Jennifer: Having to wear multiple hats – writer, producer and actor and keep a balance without going crazy. I am dealing with it by breathing and taking things day by day and enjoying the moment. Eating. Sleeping. Exercise. Listening to myself. It’s stressful, but in the best possible way!
What advice do you have for other performers who want to develop or act in their own musical?
Alison: Do it. Don’t let your doubts or insecurities get in the way. There were a number of opportunities for us when it might have been easier to give up, but we got through it and now we have a show we can all be proud of. I’d say surround yourself with people you trust who will encourage you and hold you accountable, but who will also understand that life gets in the way and that sometimes deadlines need to shift and that’s okay. If it’s something you really want, you’ll find a way to make it work.
Peter: Don’t give up on your idea, and schedule time to work, even if you’re not feeling up to it. Jennifer, Alison, and I are all very busy people individually, let alone as a team, but we met regularly to discuss ideas and try things out.
Jennifer: Just jump into the deep end. Don’t think about it. Be open to possibility. Take everything as an opportunity. Stick to a regular schedule, and you’ll be surprised with how much you can get done. Alison, Peter and I are some of the busiest people, and we managed to write a musical in a year, just because we met up every week no matter what.
What can you share about any future projects that are in development?
Alison: Well fortunately our regular improv shows at Second Storey Theatre and our Off Key Musical Improv shows are ongoing. It’s a relief knowing that I’ll still be creating with Jen and Peter on a regular basis. But as for another project of this scale – time will tell. All I can say is that I look forward to more.
Peter: Future projects? Is someone planning a sequel? We might be too busy with improvised musicals, teaching, and other theatrical commitments at the moment. But who knows?
Jennifer: We have created a monster. There will be more. Muah ha!