Friday, July 29, 2011

Ryan Scott Oliver and the Joy of Mapping Out the Dream

Southern California native, Ryan Scott Oliver, is creating his own unique niche in the world of contemporary musical theatre. He is currently workshopping a brand new musical he has written titled Jasper in Deadland that will receive two performances on August 5th and 6th in Pasadena, and will see a newly-revised version of his musical, Out Of My Head, open in Los Angeles on July 29th.

Here he talks about the intricacies of his writing process and about creating a life in musical theatre.

Ryan, did you always know you were a writer?

I think I started tinkering with it in seventh grade but by high school I knew that it was something I had a huge passion for and that’s when it became the main focus. I was always very creative and I found that writing, whether it be text or music, was something that really held my interest.

Do you think growing up in Southern California in the land of entertainment contributed to your creativity?

Actually, no. Hollywood and the notion of the entertainment part of LA was really foreign to me because I’m from Pasadena and Sierra Madre, which is very suburban, and there’s really no art in my family. My first major exposure to music and theatre was in a musical theatre camp when I was in fifth grade. That was when I realized how much I enjoyed it. Then, about eight years ago, I became artistic director of that organization, which is now called The Pasadena Musical Theatre Program, so it’s been a full circle experience.

What made you decide to take over PMTP?

One of my skills, in addition to being a writer, is that I’m a good producer and I think that when you’re dealing with high school kids, what they need is a leader, more than necessarily a visionary. They need somebody they trust that can put them in the best light and teach them how to become young professional adults. I respond to that because when I was younger, I was always anxious to go to the next level. Many of my big breaks were due to concerts and events of my work that I self-produced, and that’s what we do at PMTP. We try to teach kids to make their own life.

Are there teachers that have had a big impact on you personally?

Absolutely. I would say there are four in particular that have had the biggest impact. The first is Gayle Bluemel, the teacher who started PMTP. She made me see how you could love an art form and how an art form can bring life joy. I also had a music teacher in middle school named Cindy Abbott, who is coincidentally the music director now at PMTP, and she had an intensity and a strictness and a passion for the work that said that it’s not good until it’s right. And that’s very much something I believe in. Then in high school I had a teacher named Stephanie Vlahos, who taught opera. She was a major visionary and she taught me that theatre wasn’t necessarily licensing shows from MTI. It’s not just Oklahoma. Theatre can be weird and strange and creative. You can take something familiar and make it new and that had a huge, huge impact on me.

And at UCLA I had a teacher named John Hall, who ran the musical theatre workshop there. John was a performer and what he did better than anybody else was his method of direction, which was a performance in itself. When you were in rehearsal with him you were laughing and having the greatest time. He could be hard on you but you never took it personally because you knew that he cared and you knew that he was doing it to put perspective on the situation. Because of him I don’t baby the students I work with. I want them to know the reality but still have some fun in the process.

You mentioned intensity. Much of your own writing has an underlying intensity in it. There is a grittiness to the stories you explore. Has that always been there or did your teachers help bring that out in you?

I would say my parents are what brought out the intensity in me in the sense that they’re both really, really hard workers and very passionate about making a lot of life and work. And I’ve always been attracted to the darker things in life, though I’m very much an optimist myself. I believe that in songs I’ve written like “The Ballad of Sara Berry” or even “Lost Boy,” which are about terrible or sad things happening, that the character is either so motivated toward becoming something in life or so intensely desperate for it that they do bad things. Or, conversely, they make the best of being dealt a bad hand.

I think that ability to extract what is hidden within a character is one of the most exciting things about your work.

I very much view myself as a storyteller, and a composer and lyricist, rather than a song writer. It can seem like semantics to some but for me there’s a big difference. My goal is to dramatize an event effectively, and to locate the most attractive and the highest element of a specific dramatic moment and then turn that into a song.

Do pieces change as you write them or at a certain point do they begin to write themselves?

When I look at a piece of theatre I really feel like I know what moments should be songs and in that way they write themselves. I’m a big Stephen King fan, and I’m also a big fan of his book “On Writing,” In it he references something I think is really true; that stories either fossilize or unfossilize themselves to a good writer. If you’ve done your research and your homework and you have experience, once you start to sweep away the things that don’t matter, what is supposed to be there, what is inevitable, will emerge.

That’s a really intelligent way of approaching the work. Does it ever feel crowded inside your head?

Is it crowded inside my head? Yes. That’s an ongoing thing but I also think that’s not specific only to me but true of a lot of artists, and I also think that’s what forces artists to create. That’s what’s interesting about the title of Out of My Head. For intellectual people and artistically-minded people, there’s a desperation to express, or to control, or to make sense of the many things going on inside your mind.

A new version of that musical is being produced by The Mechanicals Theatre Group at Pico Playhouse, opening July 29th. Where did it start?

It began as a show called Making Beautiful and I hated that title more than anything in the world. I actually refer to it as the title that dare not speak its name. Someone approached me about putting together a revue of my work and it was produced in 2005 in New York. The show was my first professional production and afterward I decided that I wanted to continue working on it. It felt very unfinished and what’s hard is that one of the main perks of a revue is, it is what it is. The structure of it is so interchangeable and if it stops being interchangeable then I think it stops being a revue.

So I enlisted Kirsten Guenther, the book writer of my musical Mrs. Sharp to help with the revision. She wrote some monologues and restructured the show and I threw in some new songs I had written and took out some old ones. Then that version was performed in a few more places but it still felt unfinished.

It wasn’t until this current production that it finally seemed to have become what it wanted to become. If anybody saw a previous version of the show, this one will feel like a completely different show, not only because of the new book, revised structure, and brand new concept, but also because there a lot of new songs. I’m really excited to present this show to Los Angeles.

It sounds like it has morphed into a fuller version of itself, thanks in part to your own growth as an artist.

Absolutely. One of the things that is interesting about the revision process, and I really give Kirsten credit for how she revised it, is that being here working on Jasper I haven’t had a lot of time to work on the show myself. She really facilitated the transformation, sort of like Eliza going from a flower girl to a sophisticated woman. There were a number of lyrics referencing being 21 and a lot of the songs had an angst on them that I didn’t think would be effective to a non-college audience. The show now is really for and about adults, whereas the previous version was really for the 18 – 22 demographic.

Press materials say the show is ‘a song cycle about mental illness which shows the strength of the human spirit. It follows five individuals from the moments of their breakdowns through their breakthroughs showing the mental power which is intrinsic in each of us.'

That’s a pretty good way of describing it. I give the Mechanicals a lot of credit for providing the framework for us to do this recreation of the show. A lot of it conceptually was shepherded by Jacob Harvey, who directed the show, and I think the company deserves a lot of credit for what the show has become as well.

Did they approach you about doing it?

Yes. One of the cast members, Emily Clark, was in the original concept version and Jacob Harvey and Eric Bilitch, artistic directors of the Mechanicals, were high school classmates of mine. Now here we are, twelve years later, back doing theatre again.

How does music inform what you do in the rest of your life?

That’s a good question. I rarely listen to music simply for pure pleasure, though I have a huge playlist of songs that just keeps getting longer and longer. When I listen to them I keep thinking they will work themselves into something I’m going to do eventually.

Have there been any particular defining moments you feel have shaped your path?

I very much view my life in periods of time and periods of focus. Life has been very kind in terms of its sweetness and so there’s nothing that stands out that way, but as I write, I sort of go through, or am in, these periods of time. I feel like I’m coming out of the New York period that I’ve been in the last five or six years and I feel like I’m moving into something new.

Speaking of new, can you talk about some of the other projects you have coming up?

I can. I’m working on Jasper and I hope to continue its life past this youth workshop I’m doing in Pasadena. I also wrote a show with Brett Ryback called Darling that we are continuing to develop. We hope to have that presented somewhere in the next year or two. And I’ve also written a piece called 35mm with the photographer Matthew Murphy that Daisy Prince (The Last Five Years, Songs for a New World) is directing. We’re looking to have it open in New York in the fall so we’re really excited about that. And I’m working for Disney Theatricals on the stage musical of the film Freaky Friday, directed by Christopher Ashley.

And finally, where do you find the most joy in your crazy career?

I would say in the process. The product, which is the emotional part, can never be as perfect as the process by which you arrive at the product. The process is the mapping out of the dream and nothing can be more exciting and fulfilling than that. By mapping out the dream I mean mapping out the song, planning the musical, constructing the sequence, orchestrating the song.

In Jasper there is a lyric that I love, not because I think it’s clever or even that profound, but because it means a lot to me and it references ‘the work of my days.’ It’s that. I love to work. And I love to work hard. And if my life was nothing but process I would be happy. So it’s that…and of course having people who love you to share all of that with.

Out Of My Head
July 29 – August 21, 2011
The Mechanicals Theatre Group

Jasper in Deadland
August 5 – 6, 2011
The Pasadena Musical Theatre Program

For more information about Ryan Scott Oliver and his upcoming projects visit

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