DGF Fellows Spotlight: an interview with Christiana Cole

(Via the Dramatists Guild Foundation Blog – read the original post here)

By Hannah Kloepfer

2020-2021 DGF Fellow Christiana Cole.
Photo by Aaron Phillips.

Welcome to the DGF Fellows Spotlight.

This series of interviews put the spotlight on individual DGF Fellows and invites you to take a behind-the-scenes look at our program.

The class of fellows was asked a series of questions exploring where they’ve been, what they’re up to now, and what they hope for the future.

Please take your seats, unwrap your candies, and silence your cellphones as we put the spotlight on Christiana Cole!

What was your first experience with theater?

I was a shy, anxious kid, and although I felt deep emotions, I struggled to express them. I felt misunderstood by my peers, and had trouble making friends. I felt very lost.

But then, something happened.

When I was 9 years old, I saw the national tour of CATS in my hometown of Austin, Texas. As Grizabella belted out “Memory,” a new sensation flooded my body: I was emotionally connected to the people around me. I was crying, which normally would have embarrassed me, but when I looked up, I saw that my parents were crying too. The whole audience was just as enrapt and sympathetic to the downtrodden glamour cat as I was. Suddenly, my emotions were not silly, or “too much” – they had a home, and that home was the stage. It was the best thing I had ever seen or felt. At that moment, I dedicated my life to musical theater.

In the days that followed, I obsessively re-enacted CATS at home, throwing couch cushions around to make the junkyard, wrapping a green quilt around my shoulders to be Grizabella one moment, and attempting spasmatic gymnastics as Mistoffeles the next. I began collecting cast albums and renting every possible movie musical from Blockbuster (except “Damn Yankees,” because it had a swear in the title, and I was a scrupulous Catholic child).

When did you decide to become a writer? Is there a writer, show, or piece of writing that was particularly influential on your path?

My senior year of high school, I had to decide whether I would major in creative writing or music. On the one hand, I was a compulsive journaler and poet, the comedy editor of my high school newspaper, and all-around English nerd. But, I was also a talented singer. I was first chair soprano in All State Choir both my junior and senior year (huge deal in Texas), plus I had been the ingenue in a dozen local kids theatre shows. In the end, I chose to study opera, because singing is essentially a sport: you must train your animal at a young age if you want to be competitive on a world-class level. I remember thinking, “Well, I’ll always write, but if I don’t get musical training now I’ll always regret it.”

I moved to New York to study opera at the Manhattan School of Music, where I got the best musical education money can buy. Although I preferred singing musical theater (I had only seen one opera before making the decision to major in it, and I fell asleep), I never considered majoring in musical theater. I knew that I wanted the most hard-core musical education I could get. I loved learning about the origins of music-drama, and finally wrapping my brain around music theory. I didn’t fit in very well with the singers, but I did fit in the with the composers, who became my best friends. I sang the hardest, weirdest new music I could get my chords on. I also began writing my own music and featured original works on both my junior and senior recitals. The composition faculty was very welcoming of me, a non-major, and allowed me to audit many composition classes. I also managed to audit a creative writing workshop at Columbia University, across the street. I am still so grateful for the years I spent at MSM, because they let me do my own thing and chase every angle of musicianship and creation.

After graduation I decided against pursuing an opera career because frankly, it was too expensive. (In classical singing, you pay to audition, and often work for free or near-nothing for many years.) I realized that unlike operaland, which operates as a museum/country club, Broadway was a real commercial business, so I began auditioning for musicals.

I attended a free seminar at the old Reproductions photo lab, where a nice lady named Judy talked to us about how to get an agent. But the thing that hit me hard was this flow chart. Judy put everything into perspective: at the top of the white board, she wrote the word “Producer,” the apex of the Broadway food chain. Below that, she wrote “Director,” then “Music Director,” “Assistant Director,” “Stage Manager,” so on and so on, until she got to “Junior Assistant Janitor.” She wrote “Actor” below that.

Then, she flew that magic little marker all the way up to the top of the pyramid. And at the tippy-top, above “Producer,” she wrote “WRITER.”

“Without the writer, no one else on this list has a job,” she said, poking the board for emphasis. “The writer is always the number one voice in the room.”

My student-loan-riddled, control-freak ass was sold at that point, although it would take years to accept it, because I was attached to the notion of being a singer.

But as time went on, I wrote more and more, and it became clearer and clearer that writing was a deeper, more intimate art form for me. I didn’t want to be a replaceable person, trying to do something interesting with “If I Loved You.” I wanted to bring something completely new into the world. I wanted to create entire universes for all those people on the flow chart to be a part of. I didn’t want to play Grizabella, I wanted to explode with a thousand Grizabellas, who could sing on and on long after I’m gone.

How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?

My writing is weird, cute, unpredictable, colorful, wildly funny and deadly serious, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In the years leading up to now, I’ve written a musical about hamsters. I’ve written a musical about magic underwear. I’ve written a musical about a drag queen who fights Nazis. I like to write about things that only make sense on the stage. I like to write roles that actors feel excited to tackle because they’re unlike anything they’ve done before. I like to write melodies that feel cathartic to sing.

I am an autistic person (mildly impacted, I mask very well, I’m reasonably good at parties). I am also a non-binary person. I have felt my whole life that my brain is simply different from other people’s. For a long time, I felt ashamed and tried to blend in. But now, I’m proud of who I am. My unusual brain is the reason I write unusual things.

Looking ahead at the major works I have planned, one theme jumps out again and again: religion. I have spent decades of my life working as a professional church musician. Before attending MSM, I went to a small Christian college in Texas for two years where I test-drove evangelical Christianity, and otherwise I was an enthusiastic Catholic. But faith has a way of cracking when you put weight on it.

Some people like to write about romantic love, or certain time periods. But I am obsessed with writing about faith and magical thinking, and reframing stories we think we know to reveal the shocking truth beneath them. I have occasionally thought about changing my name to something more gender-neutral, but “Christiana” is so apt, given that a lot of my writing is somehow a reflection (or rebuttal) of Christianity.

In the years to come, I look forward to sharing my work with America and the world, because I think musical theater has thus far failed to examine religion in a large-scale, candid way. It usually gets an ecumenical, pro-delusion pass. But I think we’re ready for something more provocative now.

Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been developing as a Fellow?

TRIBE WITHOUT A GOD is a new original musical comedy. It’s about a tribe of Neolithic people who are hit by a big flood, and almost all of them die in the river. That’s a problem! But it’s an even bigger problem…because they worshiped the River God. We follow runaway human sacrifice Silverlight as she falls in love with TomTom, an existential ex-River Priest struggling to lead a straggling band of survivors. Will the tribe keep worshiping the River God? Or is there a bigger, better god just around the corner, waiting to be worshiped? At its very core, TRIBE WITHOUT A GOD explores who and what gets sacrificed in a world where god and government are impossibly tangled.

The music is a cross between Radiohead, Joni Mitchell and Stephen Schwartz, and the tone is like The Simpsons. The entire cast will be wearing knit bodysuits that allow their characters to be naked onstage (without requiring nudity from actors). There are roles for all kinds of actors who are normally not centered: Black trans women, Asian men, short dudes who are baritones, fat people, etc. Basically, a show that isn’t a love story between two white straight people with long legs. Sondheim says he goes to the theater to meet people he hasn’t met before, and I take that charge very seriously in my writing.

What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?

I find writing rewarding because if I didn’t write down all the things in my head, I would explode.

In all sincerity, there is nothing more thrilling than watching my words come to life with actors. I love making edits, I love rewriting, I love tweaking and finessing and fixing. I love it when a scene is perfect, when it has that SHWING! sparkle, with each line fitting perfectly in the chain, one pearl after another. My dad is a retired TV director for the local news, and my mom is a TV producer-turned-realtor. Between the two of them, they taught me about dramatic pacing, about how language should flow, how a show should be thrilling, how it’s not enough for something to be nice, it needs to be gripping. I live for those moments, both as a writer and an audience member.

Originally posted on the DGF Blog, January 25, 2021

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