NYMF: Women Discuss the Many Ways to be Female Musical Theatre Writers

NYMF: Women of Note Discuss the Many Ways to be Female Musical Theatre Writers

Written by Victoria Myers
July 15th, 2015

On Monday, July 20th, The New York Musical Theatre Festival will present Women of Note, a concert featuring the songs of female musical theatre writers. Otherwise known as an event that’s right up our alley. Jen Bender, Director of Programming and the producer of the concert told us, “We’re big believers in female writers, and they don’t get as much stage time as we would like. We wanted to have a platform to show off some of the best women writers out there. We also wanted to make sure we had a variety of styles and a variety of how far along these writers were in their careers. We really wanted to show the range of the women who are out there writing new musicals.” Needless to say, these are all things we support. Jen also told us that not as many women as men apply to NYMF and that’s something she hopes this concert can help to change. Or as she said, “Nothing would make me happier than a women coming to this concert and thinking, ‘Oh what a great night of music. I never applied to NYMF because my one show isn’t ready, but this let me see that if I had a few pieces to share I could be part of an evening like this.’” With that in mind, we talked to some of the ladies involved with the concert about their processes to show that there are lots of ways to be a writer. So here’s some advice and inside looks at Barbara Anselmi, Carmel Dean, Amanda Green, Anna K. Jacobs, Kait Kerrigan, Zoe Sarnak, Georgia Stitt, Shaina Taub, and Jeanine Tesori.

(i.) Barbara Anselmi
Barbara is a composer who wrote the score to It Shoulda Been You, currently running on Broadway through August 9.

Is there a time of day that you like to write?
There’s no time of day that I find more perfect to write, but I find there are certain times of day that I get inspiration, and that’s usually when I have white space. My white space happens usually in the morning as I’m waking up. There is that time before I’m 100% conscious of what I have to do during a day, and it’s usually that time that musical ideas, ideas for projects, or changes for a song happen. And also in the shower. As far as actually writing it down, the best time of day is when I know there’s a deadline.

Where do you write?
Wherever I’m working with someone, that’s usually where I start. For It Shoulda Been You, I started in Brian’s [Hargrove] apartment and came home and finished it in my apartment. Ideas and melodies come to me pretty quickly, but fleshing them out, that takes a lot more time and that’s usually at my piano in my apartment.

Do you keep anything around that’s inspirational to the project you’re working on?
A white pad of paper. That is my inspiration; a blank piece of paper. I would say the biggest thing I need when I’m sitting at the piano to write is the words. Not necessarily the lyrics of the song, but whether it’s a scene or monologues that the song is going to be based on, that’s always my inspiration.

When you’re writing do you try to structure your day like it’s a normal 10am-6pm job?
Right now, I’m not a routine person. I definitely try to do a meeting a day. Whether it’s a phone meeting or a lunch meeting or a dinner meeting, so that I do have a little bit of structure to the day. What I didn’t realize was how busy you are after your show goes up, and how much work you have to do. Because It Shoulda Been You is my first show, I find myself hosting a lot. A lot of friends and family coming in, and I find myself maybe getting in a couple of hours of work a day and then having to run to do something else. And all of sudden, the Tonys come up, and special performances come up, and interviews and lots of different talkbacks at different times of the day. So there’s not much structure to my day. I would say probably in the fall I will find some kind of structure.

Do you do anything to switch your brain over to writing?
No. Usually it’s just the subway ride home. Sometimes I get so inspired when I’ve been playing something in a class [at CAP21 or New Studio at NYU] that I’ll just go to the front desk and ask for a studio for an hour to work on my own stuff.

Did you have any female mentors? How much, when you were going into this field, did looking around and not seeing many women doing it impact you?
I never had one mentor who I went to for everything. After we were totally dissed by the Tonys, Jeanine Tesori reached out to me, and that was lovely. I’ve talked to her a bit and asked her some questions and I’ve gotten some great advice from her. I was in the BMI workshop and Pat Cook and Frederick Freyer, I would call them my mentors when it came to writing. And all of my friends in the business and all of my music director friends, they’re the ones I go to for advice. I know that it’s so important for women to see women, but I always did what I wanted to do. I didn’t look to see if there was someone else doing it. I was just like, “I’m going to be a music director.” I knew that at fifteen years old. And my writing career really started after 9/11. After 9/11, a song came into my head, and then it got recorded, and then someone was looking for a composer for a project and I was like, “Let me see if I can do it.” That’s how I started writing. I’m always jumping in the pool and figuring it out myself. I definitely have put myself out there now. If there are young writers and they want to talk, I’m always like, “Yes, let’s talk,” and I’m certainly pro- helping girls getting into the field.

(ii.) Carmel Dean
Carmel is a composer and musical director. Her work as a composer includes A Girl Called Vincent and Songs of Innocence & Experience. You can learn more about her and her music here.

Is there a time of day you like to write?
It really depends on what I’m working on both as a writer and a music director. If I’m in rehearsal for a show I’m music directing, it’s much easier to write when I’m not dealing with other projects. So it really depends on my schedule as a music director.

Is it difficult to schedule creativity around other things?
Yeah, I think it’s my biggest issue right now. It’s always a struggle to figure out how to balance the two different aspects of my career.

Do you have any tricks you use to get your mind to switch over to, “Okay, now I’m writing”?
Yeah, I like to listen to a lot of other music to inspire me. I like to listen to a lot of different genres. Quite often, I listen to a lot of classical music as a way of inspiring me and getting me to switch focus from a show that I’m not writing into my own musical world.

Have you had any trouble with getting people to take you seriously as being a composer in addition to a music director?
I think it’s one of those things where we all like to pigeonhole people, and if we know someone is good at something, then it’s hard for us to believe that they’re good at something else. I feel like my biggest struggle is that I haven’t put the time into being a composer that I’d like to. It’s hard to say how other people perceive me. I have had a couple of readings of a show I’ve been working on over the last couple of years and people have been surprised that I am composing. But I think there are a lot of people who do both, and transitioned from being a music directors into being just composers. Jeanine Tesori is one of my idols and she’s someone who has been so encouraging, and she understands that struggle to step away from working on other people’s music and just focusing on your own.

Where do you write?
I write at home.

Do you keep anything around where you work that’s inspirational to the project you’re working on, or visual cues?
I do actually have a vision board above my desk. It has a lot of personal photos, a lot of quotes, and a lot of pictures that I’ve found of things that inspire me. I also keep a lot of pictures on my phone so I can scroll through and remind myself of what inspired me and what I’m excited about.

Do you do most of your thinking when you’re sitting down to write or do you do most of your thinking while you’re out walking around or in the shower?
I feel like I do most of my thinking when I’m lying in bed at 2am and I know I’m supposed to be asleep, but I’m thinking about writing, but I don’t want to get up because then I’ll ruin my whole night. So I’m always struggling with trying to find the best time to be inspired. But I do get a lot of ideas in the shower or when I’m lying in bed. I wish I could just sit down at my desk and have everything start flowing. It doesn’t quite work out like that.

If you’re working with a collaborator, how do you like to work?
I’m pretty good at working over the internet and over the phone. In terms of when I’m actually writing music, I like to be by myself. Most of the time I’ll get the lyrics from the writer and I’ll take it to the piano and spend however long finding the music for it and then we’ll go over it. But I’m not one of those people who likes to sit side by side at the piano. I’m pretty solitary.

Did you have any female mentors? I know you mentioned Jeanine earlier. How much, when you were going into this field, did looking around and not seeing many women doing it impact you?
Jeanine Tesori has just been so kind to me and so supportive, and she’s a person I really look up to, especially since she used to be a music director and then made that transition. It is hard, because you look at the industry and historically it’s male dominated. Even as a musical director, I find it’s been really hard having female role models. But I think we have reached a point where we have so much emphasis on gender equality in the industry and there’s been so much talk about it, especially this year with Jeanine and Lisa [Kron] winning Tonys and being so visible and outspoken. It has been a challenge, but it’s also been great being part of this generation because there are so many talented women, and I feel like we’re all coming together and helping to turn the tide. It’s a great honor to be a part of a community of female writers.

(iii.) Amanda Green
Amanda is a lyricist and composer. Her credits include Hands on a Hardbody, Bring It On: The Musical, and High Fidelity.

What time of day do you write?
I usually like the morning. But it ebbs and flows, and of course, if I have a deadline, I write whenever I need to. But first thing in the morning is pretty fertile time.

Do you like to focus on one project at once? How often do you have to switch back and forth?
I have to switch back and forth fairly often. It’s usually a project a day, but oftentimes I’ll have a phone call about another project or remember something that has to be done on another project. I am pretty adept at going back and forth.

Where do you write?
I write at home. Depending on who is in the house, I have a dedicated room, but I actually like writing on the dining room table, since it’s a pleasant room and it’s near the kitchen, which is very important. But if there are people around then I go in my writing room.

Is the space around you when you write organized or chaos?
Organized. I can’t work in chaos. Some people like clutter. I sort of live in a bit of clutter but I can’t write that way. I’m a little OCD. The pencils need to be lined up. There can’t be extraneous papers around. It has to be the right mood.

Do you do most of your thinking at your desk or most of your thinking while you’re doing other things?
I walk my dog every morning, first thing in the morning, and that’s usually when the juices start flowing. Sometimes I’ll walk and sing, or if I’m doing a chore I’ll be singing and then I’ll have to remember that. Sometimes I’ll be folding clothes or something because it’s so much better than when I’m just sitting there trying to think. So I do try and find an activity. Or the subway or something like that. I find when I’m not thinking about it, it comes to me, and then I run to the computer to get it down.

If you’re working with a collaborator, how do you like to work?
In person is probably the best way. Things get done really quickly and there’s just a shorthand that you have when you’re in the room together. So that’s probably my favorite way. It’s also worked very well where I’ve come up with a lyric and sent it to the composer and they’ve sent back a setting of it, and that informs how I write the next part or I have notes on that. So that works well too, but in person is usually the best for getting things done.

When you’re working at home, do you try to structure your day like you’re working in an office and it’s a work day?
Yes, I do. 10am-12:30pm I’ll be writing, and nothing is allowed to distract me and I’m not allowed to distract myself. And then I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m allowed to break for lunch.” I do give myself structure.

Do you listen to other music when you’re working on a project?
I listen to music. I might look at a musical if I’m thinking, “What I’m going after is in this family and how did they solve these problems?” For Hands on a Hardbody, before I wrote a word, I was listening and soaking up lots and lots of country music and getting an appreciation for how that type of music works. And falling in love with songs. It always helps to fall in love with songs from the genre.

One of the things we’ve been asking people is if they had any female mentors, and if looking around not seeing a lot of women doing this had an impact. We’re guessing you had a different experience with that because of your parents [Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman].
I did have a different experience because I saw Betty Comden doing it. So it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t write and perform. Of course it set a high bar. But she was certainly a great role model. And my mom always acted, and then she created a one-woman show for herself. I had a lot of career women as role models. Composing was different though. Women could be book writers and lyricists, but I didn’t see a lot of women as composers at all. So that was something I had to find my way through.

At what age did you consciously realize that?
At 40. It’s only been later that it came into my consciousness because I didn’t even think to try. I just thought I would do lyrics only. I’m still a much stronger lyricist, I feel, than composer, but I like the branching out into composing that I’ve been doing. I think there’s kind of a history of strong female lyricists, more than composers. But once I started working myself I found, and I still find, that I’m the only woman around a table or in the room or on the creative team. Or even in the producing team. It’s much more diverse than it was, but it’s still male dominated.

(iv.) Anna K. Jacobs
Anna is a composer and lyricist. She wrote the music for POP!, Harmony, Kansas, and Stella and the Moon Man. You can learn more about her and her music here.

What time of day do you write?
I’m a morning person. Some background information about me is that I work as an educator and teaching artistic and adjunct professor, so I have teaching days and then I have writing days. I feel like my golden hours for writing are between 8am and 10am, and then after that everything is much more practical and less creative, but the best stuff comes to me in the morning.

Where do you write?
I write at home.

Is your writing space organized or chaos?
I’m a super tidy person. My husband works in an office, so I’m left to my own devices during the day, so I sort of hop around to different rooms depending on what part of my process I’m in. If I’m writing lyrics, I like to sit in my kitchen where it’s sunny. Or if I’m sketching a new musical idea, I like to sit at the piano in our living room. If I’m doing more of the mechanical or arranging, that happens in a little home office that I have.

Do you think when you’re at the piano or do you do most of your thinking when you’re doing other things?
I do my best thinking on the subway and in the shower. I usually hit writer’s block if I have not spent enough time thinking about a song and the point of it and the musical gestures away from the piano. If I jump to the piano too quickly, then I kind of go to my comfortable place, and it’s not me being creative.

Do you do anything to get yourself in the mood of the piece you’re working on?
Yeah. I’m someone who is really into musical research. I feel like I’m a composer who creates a whole new vocabulary for every show I write because the world is different. And so, before I even begin work on a show, I like to create a little iTunes playlist of music that I associate with that world or the genre of the show. I try to go through an immersion process where I try and listen to how the songs function. I’m someone who collaborates a lot with book writers, and I’ll often ask them to recommend reading. Those things together will lead to the right headspace. Then I feel like I’m writing with a specific vocabulary, and then finding a way to merge it with my own musical voice.

Do you try to work on one project at once or do you go back and forth?
I’m a bit of a compartmentalizer, which is why I work in different rooms in my house. So I can have different projects in the works, as long as they’re in different stages of development. If I have something going into production and something where I’m finishing up a first draft and something where I’m conceiving a sketch, that works great. But you don’t have any control over these things, so if not, I’ll look at my week and be like, “Okay, this day I’m working on this project and this day I’m working on this project.” I try not to mix them since I’m working in very different languages for different projects.

Do you have a ritual for if you get stuck?
Actually, yeah. If I get stuck, it’s because I feel like there’s something inherently not working about the idea. I am somebody who is all for catching myself early on when I get stuck in the process and, instead of beating my head against the wall, I go back to the idea and potentially throw it out, or portions of it out, because I feel like when you hit the right idea and the right approach, the song will start to write itself.

Did you have any female mentors? How much, when you were going into this field, did looking around and not seeing many women doing it impact you?
I’m in a unique position right now where I’m pregnant with my first child, so I’ve become particularly interested in the last few years in women who have been able to have children and keep working creatively and make a living. Jeanine Tesori and Zina Goldrich are two people who immediately come to mind as female composers who have been able to do that really successfully, and who I’ve had the good fortune of talking to a bit about it. So those two women are role models to me. Also, I have a lot of female collaborators. I’m very lucky in that the show that I wrote as my thesis production at NYU ended up having a large production at Yale Rep, so I was working with these very experienced collaborators as someone who had just come out of school. The music director on that project was Lynne Shankel, and she really guided me through the process and taught me a lot, and she continues to be a really great industry mentor to me.

(v.) Kait Kerrigan
Kait is a playwright, lyricist, and bookwriter. Musical theatre works include Henry and Mudge, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, and Tales from the Bad Years. You can learn more about her here.

Do you find you like to write in bigger chunks of time or do you like to do it in smaller periods over a day?
If I can, I try to get a solid few hours in a row. I find that the first half hour to hour of writing isn’t that productive, since you’re still kind of thinking about other things and not completely focused. Once I get through that part, which takes more diligence then any type of craft or creativity, then I’m able to get more done. That said, one of my most productive times for lyric writing specifically is on the train. I find I can get a great deal done when I’m in that environment.

Do you actually write on the train or is it more thinking?
I write on the train. It works really well if I already have music for something or if I need to come up with an idea for a new song. It’s not inspiration. It’s just that I’ve been working for a period of time already and then changing locations tends to help a lot, so the fact that you go for a walk and then end up on the train. I live in Brooklyn so it’s normally 40 minutes of concentrated time, which can be very productive.

Besides the train, where do you write?
I have two places. I write at a desk at my house. My husband [Nathan Tysen] and I used to have a studio in our apartment. He’s also a lyricist and a musician. We have a two bedroom, but we’re having a baby, so we just rearranged our apartment. My desk is now in our living room. The place where I write with my writing partner, Brian Lowdermilk, is New York SongSpace, which is this incredible office space that this woman named Kara Unterberg founded. She’s an unbelievable philanthropist who asked some writers what they needed the most and they said they needed space to write and work with their collaborators, so I’m a member there.

Do you ever write by hand?
Yeah, all the time. I write plays by hand even more than musicals. I write lyrics by hand a lot. Most of book writing is outline and then, for me, because I write the lyrics and the books, after I write the outline we shift over to songwriting because I’m kind of writing the book in the back of my mind as I’m going. I don’t actually write the dialogue till after we’ve done a draft of the lyrics. So, I have a tendency to write the book sort of quickly and on a computer. But lyric writing and playwriting I do by hand mostly, because I’m a lot less critical when I’m writing by hand. It’s a lot harder to delete something—you can cross it out but it doesn’t really go away, which is better. You have to kind of turn your editor off as much as you possibly can when you’re trying to write a first draft, and that’s a lot easier to do by hand than it is on a computer.

Do you try to structure your day like you were working a normal 10am-6pm job?
I don’t have a very set schedule for making sure that I write every day. It’s very project based. So I’ll work ten or fourteen hours a day for a week and then I’ll have another week where I’ll work five or six hours a day. And because my writing partner and I have been making a living as writers, there’s more business than it is for some people. We own a sheet music company called NewMusicalTheatre.com that we run together, and that’s where we sell our sheet music, but we also sell sheet music for other people. So there are certain business things with that. And then we do independent projects that we’re producing where you’re looking at budgets and spreadsheets and things like that. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s great to be able to make your own work, but it requires a lot of hustle. There are days where I don’t do any writing and I just deal with business stuff. And then there are days when I ignore the business stuff and write as many hours as I can. But most days you really can’t write more than five hours anyway.

Since you’re having a baby, have you been thinking and talking to people a lot about how to balance that with a creative career?
Yeah, I’ve been more worried about scheduling than getting writing done. I have a lot of friends who have kids and have full time jobs, and it’s so clear what you do—you have to get a nanny or you have to get a daycare center. The options are so obvious. But with us, because we do work from home so often, there’s not that set routine, so I have a lot of questions that I’m trying to answer about exactly how you manage to continue doing your work while also taking advantage of the fact that you can be there and raise your kid and be there more. We’re trying to figure it out because we’re both very much in the middle of our careers. I’m having breakfast with Julia Jordan http://the-interval.com/ints/jj/ next week to try and ask her some questions about how she makes things happen. I’ve been talking to a lot of different female writers and directors. Life experience is such an important part of being a writer, and you’re opening up yourself to an enormous challenge and change. I feel like I’m sort of entering a little club. People have been really generous about giving advice.

Did you have any female mentors? How much, when you were going into this field, did looking around and not seeing many women doing it impact you?
I think the thing Jeanine Tesori said at the Tonys was so accurate. I grew up with my mom being a sculptor, so that helped me a lot. It was just my mom in our house, so the idea that you would continue to peruse a creative goal while you had a child wasn’t something I worried about. It didn’t occur to me that you couldn’t. That said, I watched her have to put it behind me, since she was by herself. And that had an enormous impact on me. I went to Barnard, so that conversation was open from the beginning and there were lots of incredible female writers teaching. After that, I did the Dramatist Guild Writers Fellow programs and Lynn Ahrens and Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford were mentors, so all three of them had an extreme impact on me. It was also seeing how long a career is and realizing it’s not a kid’s game. There are a lot of industries where it’s a young person’s game and that’s not true in theatre. It’s very much about these long-term relationships, and that helps a lot. I definitely was aware of them as women and was aware of the fact that there were not very many women, and I wanted to be a part of that change, but I think I didn’t fully process some of the reasons why it’s harder to be a woman in this field until more recently, and that does feel connected to having a family. I was very much willing to play the game, and now I’m shifting a little bit, and that’s an interesting thing to see. But there are a lot of fathers experiencing that too. There’s definitely a gender gap, but there are a lot of people looking at ways for the relationship between parents and children to change a little bit and the American expectation of that to shift slightly.

(vi.) Zoe Sarnak
Zoe is a composer and lyricist. Her work includes The Years Between and A Lasting Impression. You can learn more about her here.

Do you like to structure your writing day?
I am very much a structure my day type person. If it’s a writing day at home, I typically will have breakfast and write, and then break it up in the middle of the day and go to the gym or something like that. Then I’ll come back and do more writing out sheet music type things and things that are less creatively inspired. But I definitely have a routine of it since I think if not, it’s hard to not just feel like you’re floating through the day.

Do you usually write at home?
I tend to write at home. I have a couple of guitars and a piano (she’s a little old and beat up but she’s like my baby). So I like writing at home.

Do you have a designated space besides the piano?
Yeah, there’s kind of a little corner of our living room that has been separated off by the piano and then a desk. I’m not one of those people who will go take my headphones and go to a coffee shop, since you never know when you’re going to have a moment where you’ll want to go to the piano.

Do you like to keep objects around you that are inspirational to the project you’re working on?
I think my version of that is when I’m out in the world, or I’ll get ideas on the subway, and I think that’s because I’m seeing the people of New York. That, and I’ll do reading. So text based stuff. I’ll always read things more than visuals for me.

Do you do research or is the reading more just for inspiration?
It depends on the project. I’m writing something a little more historical based so I’ve been researching the time. In other cases it’s less specific. To give you an example, I was reading a New Yorker article on Van Gogh and it was talking about a friendship relationship of his, and the language that it used and the way it described it reminded me of a character and gave me ideas. I read a ton of fiction. So that’s less research, but you realize you have an idea a day later that comes from it.

When you’re working on different projects or going from the less creative part to the more creative part of something, do you have something you do to switch your brain over?
The main thing for me is the physical aspect of playing helps. I need to be able to sometimes turn off the part of my brain that’s music theory and play and sing and listen to whatever comes out. So, for me to be in a more creative mood, it usually just requires me to be at an instrument and play, even if it’s just some random chords. Or being away from everything and sort of hearing things in my head.

It’s always interesting how much thinking takes place not at the computer.
Even walking is more my thing… I tend to be very rhythmic about how I think about things, so if I can dance and move a bit it helps. Even if I’m recording a voice note for myself, I’ll pseudo-beat box a little rhythm for myself as well because that’s just as much part of what I’m hearing, and that comes from moving around.

Did you have any female mentors? How much, when you were going into this field, did looking around and not seeing many women doing it impact you?
In terms of writing, my early female mentors weren’t in the field of musical theatre and that’s in part because I love, love, love singer-songwriters, and growing up the songs I would listen to 400 times on repeat were those kinds of things. So in that sense, I always thought women could write music. And within theatre, once I started to become aware that many more men composed than women, I was already doing it. And once you’re in it, you realize there are these amazing women like Jeanine Tesori. So once I was in the field, I realized there were these inspirational women. And I also think I tend to have pretty collaborative relationships with singers and performers I work with, and I consider them mentors. They’re my age and they’re amazing performers and they’re women. I think it can come from all parts of the industry.

(vii.) Georgia Stitt
Georgia is a composer, lyricist, music director, and on the Board of The Lilly Awards. Her works include Big Red Sun, The Water, Sing Me a Happy Song, and Mosaic. You can learn more about her here.

Do you have a time of day you like to write?
Because I have kids, I am most productive when they are out of the house. So I tend to write most productively during school hours. My day turns over into being mom sometime between 4pm-7pm depending on what type of day it is.

Where do you write?
I sometimes write at home and I sometimes go to SongSpace. I prefer to write at home if the house is quiet, but if it’s not, I try to find the quietest space I can. In my specific case, my husband [Jason Robert Brown] is also writing music, so if he’s on the piano, sometimes it’s harder to think about the music in my head. We adjust around each other.

How often do you find yourself working on more than one project at once?
Everyday. Constantly. Today I worked on three projects.

Do you have a specific way of handling that?
I think I use the natural breaks in the day to shift gears. Like today I worked on one, then I stopped to eat lunch, and then when I came back from lunch I started working on the other one. It’s really, really hard if you’re working on one and you get a phone call or e-mail about the other to switch head space. But I also find it really helpful to be working on more than one thing at once, because in many cases I’ll finish a draft of something and send it off to a collaborator, and while you’re waiting for their reply, you have time to shift gears and work on the other one. I sometimes think if I were only working on this project I would just be sitting here waiting for someone to e-mail me back and making myself crazy.

Do you find you do most of your thinking during your writing time, or do you do most of your thinking when you’re doing other things?
It’s actually part of a bigger conversation, which is about being a mom. I have other mom writer friends and we have this conversation; you never have just daydreaming time. You never have it. I never have a time when I’m not supposed to be doing something else. So even on the subway, I’m answering e-mails or making the grocery list. There’s never just sit around and think about, “What would my character say in this moment” time. So that’s part of the writing time that I prescribe. If you allow three hours to write but spend two and a half hours daydreaming, that’s part of it. That’s okay. That’s been an evolution for me to get to that point and not feel like it was wasted time because I didn’t actually put words or notes into the computer.

Do you ever write by hand?
I always write lyrics on the computer. There’s just something about the way they look on the page. I often write the first draft of music by hand in lead sheet and chord symbol format. Once I start actually developing it and figuring out the accompaniment and arrangements, then I go into the computer.

Do you have any tricks for if you get stuck?
If I’m really stuck, I usually set it down and go to another project. Or set it down completely. Allow yourself to stop. Be done for the day. I don’t really have the luxury of having a week long writer’s block because deadlines are deadlines. But there are lots of times if I’m stuck where I’ll think, “What if I do the opposite? What if instead of a negative way of saying something what if I did it the funny way?” That’s the thing I’d say would be my trick—to try to do the opposite and see if that opens up possibilities. I think part of it is that I don’t feel the freedom to just think about it until I get it. But I guess that’s part of it too—the permission to write something bad and know that you can edit it.

Two of the other ladies are having their first children, and so the totally cliché question that Jason probably doesn’t get asked, what would your advice be for them?
I don’t know if I’ve had time to put it into words yet, but I’d offer that you have to make peace with the part of you that wants to drop everything and be a mom, and you have to make peace with the part of you that wants to drop everything so you can be a writer. There is actually a place where they can both live, but it may take you several years to feel at peace with it. You’re now entering a place where there’s going to be a conflict. You’re never going to have enough time. So you can tear yourself up about it or just think that’s what it is and figure out how to enjoy the moment you’re in while you’re in it.

We’re surprised we didn’t talk about this in our interview with you, but did you have any female mentors?
Growing up not so much, but in recent years I’ve felt a tremendous amount of support from Marsha Norman.

How much, when you were going into this field, did looking around and not seeing many women doing it impact you?
I don’t remember being aware of the fact that I was a female composer and that was a “thing” until my late 20s. I got all the way through college and grad school without feeling held back by it. It was only in the years where I couldn’t figure out why the shows that I’d written weren’t getting produced that I started to ask questions.

(viii.) Shaina Taub
Shaina is a performer and songwriter. Her works for musical theatre include Robin, There’s A House, and The Daughters. You can learn more about her here.

Is there a time of day you like to write?
I’m a daytime writer. I really like to write around now [2pm]. I’m actually just sitting down to get started. I really like the afternoon period. I know a lot of writers really like nighttime, but that’s really hard for me. I like to be awake and ready to go.

Where do you write?
I finally have a home studio. It took me a while, but I finally have one. I’m lucky to have an apartment where I have a room that’s specifically for this, and it’s revolutionary. It’s so amazing. Now I feel like there’s no turning back.

Do you keep anything around that inspires you?
I’m not that much of a visual person. I never have been. Listening to music is a huge part of my practice as a writer. I try to always take in new albums and, even if they’re not related to what I’m working on, to find a way to be in conversation with them. So I always try to have listening to music be not just something in the background or something on the go, but really concentrated time.

If you’re going between projects or different types of work, do you have something you do to switch your brain into writing mode?
I totally do. I have so much sheet music and vocal selections and albums that I love, and I’ll play through a Billy Joel song or Ella Fitzgerald or just a great composition, and play through it a couple of times, and study it a little bit, and find my way in there and get inspired. I worship my musical idols, which I don’t think is a bad thing all the time, but Jeanine Tesori, who I’ve been meeting with, encouraged me to kind of take a music diet and step away from the works of others. That was a difficult but productive exercise. So now I try to find a balance. I do it sometimes, and other times I try to dive right in.

Do you do most of your thinking while you’re writing or while you’re doing other things?
I think it’s a combination. I’m kind of always thinking about things, and often I’ll get an idea on the subway. I’ll do a lot of concentrated work at home, and then I’ll record a version of whatever I’ve done that day—of the song I’m working on—and then I’ll go off and do whatever I’m doing that night. Then I love that late-night subway, five hours later, listen of the work of the day. That’s always a big moment. Once I’ve stepped away for a second, oftentimes there’s big revelations of, “Oh God that doesn’t work at all,” or, “This definitely works,” or anywhere in between.

Do you ever write by hand?
I’m a huge journaler. I journal by hand all the time. I don’t write per se, in terms of writing-writing, but I often go through those journals and cull from it. When I’m writing a song, I write in a Word document. I love to write on a computer because I can copy and paste sections, and I love the instant malleability with text on a screen. In terms of music, I almost never write down the music. Obviously, when it gets to the point when I need to share it, I’ll make chord charts and lead sheets. I’m just finally starting to use notation software. I’m a pianist and accompanist, so it’s not an issue of not being able to read music, but I finally got to the point where I was like, “I can no longer depend on someone else. This is ridiculous. I’m a songwriter. It’s time.” So in the last year I’m finally doing it. And now that I’m doing it, I can’t believe I didn’t do it before.

Did you have any female mentors? You mentioned Jeanine. How much, when you were going into this field, did looking around and not seeing many women doing it impact you?
Well, I still am a performer and I began as a performer. And in terms of the performing world, I never thought there was any question that I could do that. So the performing thing I never doubted. When I started to write, and now that I’m a couple of years into it, I have noticed that it’s rarer for a woman to be writing, especially musicals. At the same time, I don’t feel like anyone has ever told me I can’t. I feel like I’m entering it at a very exciting time and women are having such a breakthrough moment. And I’ve never really had a mentor, but I did recently reach out to Jeanine, who is a big hero of mine. I met and talked to her a little bit, and she so generously has agreed to work with me a little and give me advice. And she’s obviously so incredible. I love that musical theatre seems to really care so much about the next generation of writers and it’s amazing that someone like Jeanine cares so much about the next crop of people coming up and helping make that happen.

(ix.) Jeanine Tesori
Jeanine Tesori is a real-life superhero and lady-genius.

Is there a time of day you like to write?
It’s really hard for me to go to bed if something is due. I’m not the kind of person who can get up in the morning and attack it again. So I’d say there’s no good time to write, because I try to avoid writing at all costs, which is a problem. But when push comes to shove, really late at night I seem to write the best.

How many projects do you tend to work on at once?
I usually work on three.

Are they all at different stages?
Yes. I always liken it to being a chef. So one is in the rice cooker, one is in the sauté pan, and one is baking. And then they all are ready at different times, but they’re all in the same kitchen.

Among other things, you also have Encores Off-Center going on. What do you do to balance everything?
One of the things that I try to balance is to make sure that I’m learning from other people and have other generations around me. Otherwise, I think that the belief system stays the same, and I want to make sure that I stay with a beginner’s mind as much as possible. I teach at Yale, where I lecture, and at Off-Center we have interns there who are in college, plus the artist board who are generally two or three dozen people under 40. That’s very helpful to me to stay involved with what the world is interested in, what people in the arts are interested in, what they’re reading, what they’re asking questions about. Otherwise it’s hard. You end up in a room by yourself. I get happier when I have that balance of isolation and community.

Do you have tricks for when you’re going back and forth between projects to get your mind on what you’re working on?
I try to be very present to whatever I’m working on and not carry over. And that includes my personal life. Because as a mother, there’s never a time when I’m completely free of worrying about how my daughter is or where my daughter is. I’ve been trying to practice mindfulness and be extremely present with whatever is happening in the room and not be half present. And that took me awhile, especially in the beginning with a baby. And to just know that it’s more about the practicing of it; not that it will always be successful, but you can successfully practice that.

Two of the other ladies are pregnant and talked about looking for advice with balancing that.
I’ve learned more from having a baby than from anything else or anyone. I took her everywhere with me when I could, and that was great. She became part of the community. Then there was a time when it became not as good for her to be around a lot of adults, so we stopped doing that. But in the beginning, it was a lot of joy before she started kindergarten. That was really fun.

Where do you like to work?
I have a studio. I write standing up at the piano at home a lot. I like to stand because it keeps my brain a little bit more active. I write at the dry erase board a lot because I sketch out ideas for songs and things that come to mind. I sometimes will literally sketch out the way a song should look in shapes. It’s hard to describe. But because I studied art it’s very helpful to sometimes get the idea at a board. I’ve always done that. I learn visually, so that’s a very helpful tool for me.

Speaking of visuals, do you like to keep any objects around or anything that’s visually triggering to what you’re doing?
I have my grandfather’s music. It’s not where I can see it, but that’s a big inspiration for me. I have a picture of myself when I was six and my hairline was pretty much attached to my eyebrows and I had cat glasses and a terrible 70s haircut. I keep that because I was once so ashamed of that picture, and I thought I was just the ugliest thing to walk the earth. And I just keep it as a reminder that I used to think that and now I don’t. It’s very helpful for me.

Do you try to really structure your day?
It’s just not possible. Everyday is incredibly different because I do so many different things. If I’m teaching, the structure of that day is very different. If I’m at City Center, that’s really different. If I’m writing, that’s really different. So I’ve just learned to look at every day as something you have to unwrap. At this point in my life, at 53, I’ve had a lot of loss, and there’s a lot to gain from knowing there’s a lot of loss; that eventually this party ends and you have to really grab hold of it. We write. It’s an ephemeral art based on the true state of ephemera, which is life. So I really try my best to keep that attitude and not take anything for granted. Even for the times where it requires any kind of standing up for myself or laying down the law, that’s not done with anything else than what’s required—not coupled with aggression or any of that stuff. It’s just a learned trait of being able to be very clear and very direct and very definitive. But always with a reminder that really what’s most important is the community and the inner circle within the community. That’s been really helpful as a north star for me.

Do you do most of your thinking about writing when you’re writing or when you’re out walking around doing other things?
Definitely the Albert Einstein method of the rhythm of walking. I walk every morning for at least an hour. I walk my dog really quietly through Central Park. I think a lot of writing, especially music where there are so many variables, is getting really quiet to find solutions. It’s constant choices and solutions. A lot of City Center stuff is solutions, which we try and do, and alleviate the tensions of working so quickly by doing it in a really fun way. So much problem solving. It’s definitely about getting out. I find parts of New York really hard that way, but there are other parts like near where I live where it’s pretty easy to be alone. Even brushing your teeth or getting ready in the morning or when you first wake up and I think, “Oh lets try that.” There are just these little moments that come to me because I’ve been rolling it around. My fiancé is constantly saying, “Where are you?” because writers get lost in our heads. Again, I try to cut that off, but that part is really hard.

Do you have any other tricks for if you get stuck?
I just write. I just get unstuck. The great thing about having a busy life is there’s no time to get stuck. You just put something down. You just do it. It’s so Nike. I don’t have the luxury of getting stuck. I always come up with something. It might not be good. Writers block has never been my thing. Self-doubt and procrastination, which really comes from anxiety, that’s been my thing. But there are too many ideas rolling around inside the bar mitzvah in my brain, so that’s not been my issue.

How do you deal with the anxiety and self-doubt?
I have an incredible group of friends—many women—and when I’m coming out of that I just call one of them. I used to really avoid making big decisions like that. But I don’t do that anymore. There are too many people I have found, in the way that we are more alike than different, who are feeling it too, or have felt it. We just sort of lighten the burden. When I was orchestrating an opera I had it literally in E flat and in B flat for weeks. I could not crack it. And then one day someone said something to me and I just started writing more because I had just been afraid. I was just afraid to put anything down because I was afraid it was going to be bad and I’d have to rewrite it. And parts of that were true, but it wasn’t as bad as I imagined and it wasn’t as good as I hoped. It was right in the middle where they usually fall. But it came out of talking to people and getting myself out of that fear zone.

Do you ever write by hand?
Always. I always write by hand. I never write on the computer. It doesn’t connect with being human to me. I don’t like how the font is the same for everyone. My handwriting is different than everyone else’s handwriting. I like writing in pencil because it reminds me that Beethoven crossed a ton of shit out. I’ve seen his manuscripts. Oil paint doesn’t dry for a really long time and it reminds me of that, and I like the messiness of it. I don’t like the neatness of Finale work right away. That, to me, is the final step. But that’s just my way. I think it [the computer] makes me write too fast. The ideas that come out of my brain and go on the paper, it takes time to make those notes and for me that process is right.

What do you do to get your brain to switch off?
I don’t listen to music. Walking in the morning. I meditate. There are some really good apps that I use. Mostly silence.

Is that difficult?
No, it’s never been. Since I was a really young kid, I’ve never had trouble being alone. I’m very social, but when I need to cut that out and just go someplace and stare at the wall, I can do that. I like the silence a lot. It’s never been a scary thing for me to face.

We’ve been asking everyone about the female mentor thing, which we talked a lot about in your other interview, and a lot of people have mentioned you as someone who has had an impact on them. What type of responsibility do you feel to that?
Well the thing I said at the Tonys, I knew it wasn’t going to be televised. I just said it for the community. It didn’t even occur to me that people would see that. It was a real surprise because I had been told it wasn’t going to be taped or streamed. It wasn’t a good thing for the industry to not see women take the stage like that, but it didn’t really bug me ego wise. I do think that I like trying on roles of leadership so people can see that there’s a way to lead people with compassion—with radical compassion. And that doesn’t mean just being nice. I’ve worked really hard to not be an asshole, because I was in my 20s—I was a jerk. So it’s about really understanding what everyone in that room is up against and what they’re going through. That’s my goal. That’s my goal at Off-Center in producing. So trying to say, “Hey, what’s your life like, Sound Designer?” and, “What are you up against, Lighting Person and Actor, who has to learn this in three minutes?” I like making quick decisions based on things that have been thought through. A lot of people have commented to me, “Gosh, it’s so interesting and new to me to see a woman behave like that?” And I think, “Is it?” Is it so new to hear, “This isn’t working. Let’s switch. Let’s do it right now. Let’s get the money for four more hours. At least we can ask”? I don’t want to talk about it anymore—[it’s about] agency and action. I learned that from my mentor who was a Southern gentleman, but he did not mince words and he was interested in solutions. So I think I wear it naturally, only because I was around it for years. And I feel very happy when I hear that and surprised that it appears to be unusual.

What’s the number one thing you think women, and particularly young women, can do to advocate for themselves?
I think advocate for yourself. Put it into practice. Everything that has action and a verb. It’s hard to generalize, since there are exceptions all over the place, but I think it’s in our DNA that we cultivate community more and we tend to be verbal, and that’s very helpful—until it’s not helpful. Then, you need to get a plan of action, which I think in most cases is swift and sure. Be very direct, it doesn’t have to be unkind, but it has clarity about what you want and what you need to get somewhere. It’s not just about venting. To me, venting is not at the workplace. Go someplace else. Be very clear and very careful, I think, about all of that stuff. Language is very, very powerful. When it comes to problem solving it’s like a dramatic character: what do you want and what’s in your way? An actress came to me last week and her arms were bare. She was going on and on and I said, “I hear you. What do you need? And I will do my damnedest to get it for you.” It stopped her in her tracks because I actually said, “I can’t be your scene partner for complaint right now. If we were out having a beer, I’d be all ears, but we’re not. And I need to solve things because things happen quickly here.” And so we cut right to it and I was like, “That’s really easy-peasy. I can solve that in ten minutes.” We ended up laughing because we both realized that could have gone on for a really long time and ended up with a release of emotion but no solution.

We’ve talked about this before, but do you think there’s societal bias that exists when people look at young women who are coming to them trying to move forward?
Oh, yeah, completely.

And what are the things that people can do to offset those biases?
People should stop saying ‘like.’ It is rampant and it makes everyone sound like an idiot. People should tape themselves when they talk, and listen. It’s really hard to do—I’ve learned it the hard way. I used to do all of these radio interviews with artists, and when I first heard what I spoke like I thought, “Wow, that’s not what I thought.” I said ‘umm’ a lot and I wasn’t clear, and I had to really work on that, and the only way to really work on that is to look straight at—which I still do—the humility to get back in process. What do you need to work on that you’re not good at? We work on things that we’re good at already and we know we’re good at and that’s a great feeling. It’s not a great feeling to work on stuff you’re not good at. And speech patterns are really different generationally. There’s a generation gap when it comes to the word ‘like.’ And I would like everyone to have a like-ectomy, including myself. That’s one. Number two: no apologies. Think about who you are as an individual and make sure it comes out in the language of how you’re addressing what you need and what you want. So it’s all connected. I think what’s hard in your 20s is that, to me, it’s such a time of taking constant inventory: who am I? It felt like a second adolescence. I think it really starts coming into its own after 30, but it’s the joy of being a sponge in your 20s and the responsibilities are, for the most part, lighter. You’re really light on your feet to go anywhere and do anything that’s feeding the big goal. And that comes to the next thing, which is: what is the big goal? And direct everything towards the big goal, unless it’s to feed your spiritual self or your community self or your relationship with nature or your inner circle. I think that clarity of thinking comes from a certain mindfulness of thinking, “I’m allotted a certain amount of time on earth,” and people think, “Oh, that’s so heavy.” It’s really not, it just is. I was just trained to think this way by other people. Time is so, so precious and no one knows how long we’re here. As Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work.”

Do you think there’s anything that’s the flip side of that? Things people who are hearing and receiving young women can do to adjust their point of view?
I think it’s maybe an understanding, and what a student of mine calls radical empathy, to think, “What is the culture rewarding and taking from them?” In other words, in terms of the race issue, once you arm yourself with knowledge, you can use that knowledge to have different actions—“Oh, the world is telling me I should be afraid of this, I’m going to go straightforward on my path knowing those fears are unfounded.” So, I think if we know what the culture is asking of young women—and there are so many things, I see it at work in my 17 year old—and what it rewards them for, that knowledge, and the time to think about that, might be tethered to a different way of thinking that will promote a different interaction and maybe a different result. It would only come with contemplating the other person’s condition. I think it’s the great domino game of how change can work.