Friday, March 1, 2013

Gregory Nabours and Patrick Pearson Explore The Trouble With Words

L-R: Gregory Nabours and Patrick Pearson

How much of yourself do you pour into a new work for the stage? Everything you’ve got, and then some, would be the answer offered up by anyone who has ever found themselves in that terrifying, exhilarating position. For a writer, it’s a little like opening your soul and letting the contents spill out for everyone to see. Scary? Yes. But it is also filled with magic when the pieces fall into place and you see your vision spring to life on a stage before an audience. 

The Trouble With Words: A Musical Journey
For composer Gregory Nabours, the creation of his new work, The Trouble With Words, started out as a single song. Though it would be many years before it would reach the stage as a fully developed work, the song’s journey would evolve as Nabours himself evolved, both as a musician and as a person. He says, “While it was relatively simple in its earlier days, for whatever reason, the song never felt complete. As the years passed by and my abilities and perspective grew, so did the song. I would revisit it every year or so and add another section to the piece. Eventually I sat staring at the 40-page-long monster and realized that I had written the opening number of something. At the time I didn’t know what.”

Cut to 2010. Coeurage Theatre Company is born, with Nabours, one of the founding members, taking on the role of resident music director and composer. In its second season, artistic director Jeremy Lelliott approached Nabours about putting together some of his songs and creating a song cycle that the company could turn into a theatre piece for the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Lelliott knew that it had become a lifelong project for Nabours, and all it needed to get off the ground was a deadline. It would also be a worthy challenge for Coeurage: an unknown, unfinished song cycle with a live band that would serve as a mini orchestra. Nabours quickly agreed. “I knew if I thought about it too long, I would convince myself that the time wasn’t right, so I simply said ‘yes’ and assured myself that I would figure it out as we went along. I honestly had no idea how much that answer would change my life.” 

Using his original song as the starting point, Nabours put together a collection of songs he had written but never produced or put into a show previously. From there, the songs would continue to evolve as the show grew during workshops. “By the time we opened, about half of the material was completely new. The workshop production was a quick and stressful process. Songs were being written and learned well into tech week. I believe the closing number, ‘No Words,’ was finished four days before we opened, and if you listen to the lyrics closely, you will discover that they draw upon my own fears of writing a closing number. Was I good enough? Did I say the right things? ‘cause the pressure keeps on building and I don't know what to say anymore.’  

What started as a simple workshop grew into something even more special with the help of our director, Patrick Pearson. Our initial 3-week run extended to a 3-month run because people kept coming. We were pleasantly surprised when our tiny, piggy-bank-budget show was named Best Musical in the Hollywood Fringe Festival… and we were downright shocked when it went on to win an Ovation Award [for Best Original Music and Lyrics]. None of us had anticipated that level of acknowledgment.” 

Skip to 2013. TTWW just finished an ambitious Kickstarter campaign that raised over $20,000 and is moving up in the world. Of course, that also means more changes. “A well-known songwriter once described the process of cutting songs to me as ‘killing one’s babies,’ says Nabours. “I can't think of a better way to describe it. The songs that were cut from the show were not removed because they were bad; they were removed because they didn't serve the show as a cohesive piece.

As a writer, I really do have relationships with these songs. The show, to me, plays out like a series of diary entries. I see my friends and my family in these songs. I see the best and the worst of myself in them. People whom I admire have become characters whom I admire, and people whom I hate may have the best songs of them all. One of the songs in the newer version of the show is a direct response to the shootings in Newtown. Another is a direct response to a very real tragedy that a close friend went through. And some of my own darkest moments have adopted melodies and found their way onstage. 

There is real blood on these pages, and I do feel concern for the songs that get left behind. Is there a home for them? Will they live on? Songs take on a lifeline of their own after being written and released. What they mean to me will have little to do with what they will mean to others but they have power. I’ve watched songs heal people and I’ve experienced it for myself.

That being said... I am absolutely sure that we made the right decisions. I’ve added self-contained musical scenes, which is a strong departure from all previously written song cycles. I am striving to create a song cycle that asks more of the genre – not just another collection of songs, but a collective piece that really explores something. The show is about language, and the distance between what we say and what we mean. In an era where a family dinner often includes a TV, a laptop, 4 iPhones and a portable gaming device, I think the topics of communication and digital isolation are things that we really need to address as a society.”

The Trouble With Words: A Director’s Vision
Director Patrick Pearson says that from the first time he heard the music for The Trouble With Words, he was hooked. “I have always been moved by the stories that Greg’s music has to tell and I was fortunate enough to collaborate with him on previous projects like A New Brain. This would be the first time I’d work on a show that used his original music and it has been an exciting process for me as a director.

Every day, everywhere you turn; there are examples of people struggling with the themes from the show: communication and connection. As we become more global, we have simultaneously become more isolated as well. This dichotomy is both fascinating and frustrating to me, and it has been a blast to explore it in TTWW. I believe that you have to find the humanity within a show - within each song, what each character is going through, and how that relates to the others onstage as well as to the audience. The audience plays a huge role in this show.”

So what is The Trouble With Words? Is it a musical, a song cycle, a revue, a concert? Pearson says he never wanted it to be staged like a revue because it is something much more specific and interesting than simply a revue of songs. “While it is, at its heart, a group of songs, the show has definitely grown into something quite unique. It is a song cycle, but a very theatrical song cycle - songs tied together by these ideas of communication and connection. Our work has been to reinforce the themes, to develop the transitions that bridge the show together, and to help create very specific arcs for the actors, even though they play multiple characters throughout the show.”  

He adds, “It has been an exciting challenge to collaborate with the actors and designers to bring this show to life. From our first workshop to the current production, everyone who has joined the creative team has been monumental in the development of the show. Our current production has a new choreographer, the wonderful Janet Roston, as well as new set, lighting, costume and sound designers. All of these artists have been integral in helping us develop and create a world that has given Greg and I a lot of freedom to explore and change things around. We’ve all pushed ourselves to create a stronger, savvier and more cohesive production. Greg’s music was already top notch to begin with, but he has continued to make changes and refinements, all of which serve the show beautifully.”  

Pearson says he is extremely proud of what the company has been able to accomplish in just a few short years. “I am proud that Coeurage Theatre, which was founded by many of my friends and fellow Cal State Fullerton alums, had the courage (pun intended) to take a huge risk and produce the initial workshop during just their second season of existence as a company. Their unwavering support has allowed me the ability to spread my artistic wings. I am proud to be part of the team that presents this work to Los Angeles and the many audiences that will soon see the gift we have in Greg Nabours and his songs. I am also proud that this collaboration with Greg has only strengthened our friendship. And I am extremely proud of our cast - both the main cast and the understudies are all outstanding and have been wonderful contributors to the process. 

Often when I was an actor, I did not feel the cohesion and synergy that is so necessary to make a show successful beyond just being a good show. Sometimes, yes, but not always. Again, there is that theme from the show - the need to connect. So as a director, I believe one of my main jobs must be to find as many ways to help create this sense of community among all the players.

One of the most rewarding parts of this rehearsal process was the two days Greg and I spent with all of the actors and understudies talking about each song and each story being told. It wasn’t about getting everyone to just agree with each other - the actors are all very talented, smart, and opinionated, which makes for fantastic discourse. I believe that discourse is where you have to start, especially in a show all about communication. If we can’t talk to each other, even when we disagree, then how can we sing these songs about communication and connection? And the difference in the storytelling now with the actors is evident.

I have learned so much as an artist through working on The Trouble With Words. I hope this production is the first of many for this show and I am thrilled to see what lies ahead.”

A Song Cycle by Gregory Nabours
March 1 – 31, 2013
Directed by Patrick Pearson
Choreography by Janet Roston

Cast: Julianne Donelle, Aimee Karlin, Jamie Mills, Chris Roque, Ryan Wagner, and Robert Wallace.

Creative Team: JR Bruce (Set Design), Susan Hallman (Lighting Design), Bradley Lock (Costume Design), Joe Calarco (Sound Design), Abe Luke Rodriguez (Stage Manager).

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