BWW Interviews: Will Ledesma Talks His Writing Career, His Process, and THUMBELINA
As the world premiere production of Will Ledesma and Braden Hunt's musical version of THUMBELINA was in its opening weekend at A.D. Players, I got the opportunity to speak with book and lyric writer Will Ledesma. We discussed his career as a writer, his process, and the show itself.
Me: When did you get into writing plays and musicals?
Will Ledesma: I first started writing plays in 2005. It was shortly after I had moved to Houston, right after I had graduated from college. Actually, I started writing more or less as an inside joke between some old college buddies of mine and I. I created some characters for them back when we were all in school together. Just for fun, I put a story together that included all those characters. I sent it to a friend of mine that was working with Merry-Go-Round Children's Theatre in New York at the time. He sent me back some criticism that said if you change this, and you change this, and you change this, this would be one of the better new scripts that I've seen for young audiences in the last couple years. That got me thinking maybe I should pursue it a little more seriously. At that point, I started looking for more opportunities to create stories and really focus on how could I make this more practical to be produced or how could I make more productions, more shows. That's really where the playwriting started.
I still worked fulltime with the A.D. Players at that point. And also at that point we were still in St. Luke's Methodist Church, which was in the round and presented all kinds of interesting dilemmas when you were trying to stage a production. You didn't have all the same outs you have with a proscenium space. You had to be really creative in how you got things done. The angle I took at that point was, "well, if I could write a play that we could stage in that space, then it could possibly be done just about anywhere." So, that was how I would try and find plays that I knew people could do. I was like, "If we could stage it, then anybody should be able to." So I worked on some different drafts and different stories from different ideas. Eventually Kevin Dean, Director of Children's Theatre at the [A.D.] Players decided to try one of my scripts. It was actually that first one I had written back in 2005. He decided to go ahead and give it a run on The Children's Theatre stage in the Rotunda [Theater]. I believe that was 2008. From that point one, I've just been writing. I've been averaging another couple of scripts every year. Usually, they'll do at least one with The Players. I got a few of them published as well.
As far as writing musicals goes, THUMBELINA is actually my first stab at it. I'd been pretty intimidated about trying it. I'd dabbled in the idea and would get frustrated halfway through my first stanza of my first song, so this was the first time I had actually gone toward writing anything remotely musical theatre.
Me: What inspired you to adapt Hans Christian Andersen's story of Thumbelina into a musical?
Will Ledesma: It's one of those things where it just kind of happened on its own. It was while I was still with the [A.D.] Players that this idea came. This was several years ago now. I was in a co-workers office, and we were talking about a class I would be teaching. Then she got a phone call she had to take. She had a bookshelf full of scripts, fairy tales, and what not because she was the director of the [A.D. Players' Theater Arts] Academy at the time, so I just grabbed the book Thumbelina off of her shelf because I had never actually read the story.
While she was on the phone, I just flipped through it and saw the potential for a lot of really interesting and entertaining characters. That was my first thought, "You know, this would be fun to adapt some day. This would be a fun one to go ahead and try and write; to go ahead and try and stage. I think there would be a lot of creative theatricality involved in it and some challenges definitely." But I really liked the characters.
I had talked with Kevin [Dean] about doing the show this season when he had asked what projects I'd been looking at. I'd been sitting on it for a little while, so he gave me kind of the ok to go ahead and try it. As I was trying to sit down put the story on paper, these characters were all just so distinct that I couldn't tell their story without music being a part of it. I just felt like these characters were more songs than just characters in a show, so I went back in with that. I was like, "I'd really like to try and do this as a musical," and he [Kevin Dean] said, "Well, Braden Hunt," who ended up doing the music, who currently works at The Players, "he's mentioned he'd be interested in doing a musical with you someday." He was in my Velveteen Rabbit adaptation that they did at The Players last year.
So, I met up with Braden over some coffee. We started talking about the story, the characters, and "here's kind of what I see. If I do a musical here are my ideas on it." Here were his ideas on it. We clicked really well that first time.
Really the decision to do the story itself just came because I needed something to entertain my time while my friend was on the phone. The decision to make it into a musical that really happened on its own as well.
Me: How did you decide which elements to keep, change, or cut?
Will Ledesma: I didn't really cut very much from the story. I'm somebody that when I do an adaptation, I want to keep as much of the original as I can. If you look at all the adaptations that we're most familiar with, especially when it comes to fairy tales, you're generally looking at the Disney film version of the fairy tale that we all know. I love those stories, but they really change a lot of the story. A lot of those stories are actually kind of dark, sort of gruesome, some of them don't have the happiest ending, and those things are really romanticized and really changed in the Disney version. So, when I do an adaptation, one of my goals is that I want the young audiences to see is that this story is told very differently by its original author. So, I always try to stay as true as I can to the text. If I can't stay true to the text, then I stay true to at least the heart of the story.
For example, I said we had done VELVETEEN RABBIT last year. As we were looking at it, I was trying to find what makes this story so appealing to children, and I saw there was an awful lot of heart to this story. But a lot of things that happened in it were outdated. So, without trying to make it like "it's the VEVETEEN RABBIT 2012 version," we kind of updated some of those toy characters while still trying to keep in mind what made the story great to begin with.
With this one, I didn't really cut or add that much to the story. What I usually will try and do is just find places where, from a theatrical perspective, the narrative needs to be fleshed out a little more. For example, in this story, you have the scene that happens with Thumbelina and the maybugs. It's a great scene, and it's a heartbreaking scene. It's such a sad thing that happens there. And then, in the book, it says, "And then the summer came, and Thumbelina enjoyed playing with the flowers, the butterflies, and the birds. Then, winter came and she was forced to go underground." When you see that play out on stage, it's just not quite emotionally satisfying given its more of a jarring impact to watch that scene unfold than just read it. So, I kind of added a song, added a character, to sort of flesh out that idea of using the summer as a time of healing, of recuperating, and of play for that character. If for nothing else, so we don't have one downer followed immediately by another downer from the audience's perspective.
The only thing that we really cut from the story was the storyline where she finds a sparrow in the tunnel on the way to the mole's house. She eventually nurses the sparrow back to health and helps him get away. I actually wrote that, but, at the [A.D.] Players, they really strongly want to try and keep their shows as close to hour as possible for school reasons and fieldtrips. The script that I originally turned in took an awful lot of trimming just to get it down to the version that they have now. One of the easiest ways to do that was to cut that story arc completely out of the script, which was unfortunate because I really like that character in the story. But we wanted to kind of streamline; again, we're playing off everything we just said about your basic premise, your central idea of your story. And I think, for us, it was that idea that "though the dark may come, the dark may have it's time, the sun will always rise." The butterfly sings that. That particular storyline [with the sparrow] didn't necessarily inform as strongly the point that we were making, so it was an easy one to cut from the story perspective.
Me: Your musical THUMBELINA handles issues of self-confidence and bullying. Where did these themes come from?
Will Ledesma: I'm not someone who generally likes to put a lecture in the middle of a show for kids. You'll see a lot of theatre for children that do that. They will come right out and say, "Now, Thumbelina is being bullied, and that's not nice." I've always believed that you can make those same points, but let the story tell it for you. I think that a children's audience is actually pretty bright, pretty sharp. They can tell what's going on. They can tell that it's good or bad without you necessarily having to spell it out for them. And, then, if you want to make it a talking point with the parents or the teachers, that's great. That opportunity is there. But I think kids buy into it more, if you're not telling them what they're supposed to think about it.
But in terms of where those themes really came from, again, it kind of goes back to reading that original story. It really all kind of stems out of what happened in the maybug scene. It says that he finds her, then he takes her back to the others, they all tell her that's she ugly and fat, and so he takes her back. I don't know if that was necessarily the original intent by Mr. Andersen to make that into a reflection of how we treat other people to try and fit in, but I think that it fits very easily into that mold. I think that there's something in that that resonates in just about every person that's walked the face of this earth, especially your target audiences. Those elementary aged children deal with that all the time.
For one of my other jobs, I work with the kids in my church all the time, and even in that setting you see them sometimes kind of doing that to each other. Kids will turn on each other in the face of a crowd. It's not necessarily that they're bad kids or because they want to hurt that other kid. It's a very strong sense of pressure that they deal with. I think this is kind of a way of using theatre to hold up that mirror and let the audience see that this is what it is from the other perspective, and I think every kid in the audience has been on either one side or the other of that issue at one point. So, there is something in there that resonates with them. Ultimately, if there's nothing that resonates with your audience in any story, they're just not going to care. It' not going to be interesting to them. That's true of children's theatre. That's true of more mainstream theatre, theatre for adults, as well. It's true in any story telling, films, books, whatever you're talking about. That theme originates mostly from the text itself and also just from the audience.
I've got a really strong heart for reaching kids, and the thing I see them dealing with is that pressure of being told what they're supposed to do or what they're supposed to be. Whether it's from friends or whether it's from what they see on TV or what they listen to in music. I think that's really the theme that I find most interesting. All throughout it, Thumbelina is being told what she is or what she is not. She is not a useful child for the mother because she's not big enough to do her own chores. The frog basically tells her that she's a trophy wife. The maybugs tell her that she's ugly and is never going to have any friends. The mouse tells her that her only chance at a normal life is to marry this mole that doesn't care about her at all. She's constantly being told who she is and who she is not and not being allowed to be who she actually is until the prince finds her there at the end. I think that it's a struggle that our children deal with all over the place, and I want this story to kind of be there to encourage them and to inspire them that it's not what everyone else says. Stay true. Believe in yourself. Don't believe that there's not happy times ahead for you because like the song says, again, though the dark has its time, there's going to be a sun light. There's always going to be happy times too.
Me: As this musical's primary audience is children, what do you hope they take from the show?
Will Ledesma: The first thing, is that I want everyone who comes to have a good time. Even if you're trying to make a point with a play, especially when you're talking about kids, if they don't enjoy something in it they're not going to get what it is you're trying to say. They're not going to want to. So, first and foremost, I hope that everyone just has fun. Yes, there are some very sad moments in the show. There is some very emotional stuff in there, but there is also a nice, positive pay off to each one as well. I just hope that they come in and get engaged, enjoy the show, enjoy the art form, and get more interested in seeing more theatre because of the experience they have in seeing the play.
Aside from that, I really hope that they hear the message that it's not about what everyone else tells you. You know who you are. You know who you're not. You don't need others to make those decisions for you. When people tell you that you'll never have whatever your dream might happen to be, you don't need to buy into that. You have something though. You've got something to look forward to. Never sell yourself short of the best that life has for you just because someone else tells you that you'll never get there.
I also hope that kids who come to this show or any show of mine have a bonding experience with the parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle that comes with them. That's one thing that theatre does that no other storytelling art form really can do. It can create a bonding experience that you only have with the people who were there at that time at that day. Its not like going to a movie where you see it with some buddies and then you see it with your parents on TV or whatever. This show only happens that way that it happens the time that you're there with the people you're there with. That's an experience that nobody else can have with you. So, I hope they're making memories. I hope they're making bonds just through that as well.
Me: You also wrote the lyrics to THUMBELINA. What came first, the lyrics or Braden Hunt's score?
Will Ledesma: You know what, it varied from song to song. We originally sat down and talked through each scene and each song, and one thing we had said from the beginning was we don't want to be a musical that has a song just for the sake of having a song. So, if we have a song in there, it needs to be important to the story or the characters in the story. It needs to move things forward. As an audience, we need to be in a different place at the end of the song from we are at the beginning.
A trend I have noticed lately in new theatre for young audiences is that a lot of people and companies will take a pretty well known book that is pretty light on content and in order to make an hour or hour-and-a-half show out if it, they'll just add songs that are just padding. They don't have anything to do with the story. It's just that they come out and have a silly song full of puns or sight gags. Then they go off, and the story is in the exact same place as it was when the song started. It's like someone just hit pause. So, our goal was really to make sure that the songs were every bit as much a part of the story as the dialogue, and that something changes over the course of it.
We would sit down and talk about each scene, and each character, and what do you think musically about this character. So, the first few songs that we wrote, he actually would send me a file of the music with some lyrics that he kind of had in mind. Then I would take them and I kept some and then rewrote a lot of them to fit was actually happening in the scene because he didn't actually have a script for the scene. In some cases the song came before the scene was even written. So, we kind of went back and forth like that until we had something that we were pleased with. But there were also instances where I would just write the lyrics as poetry and send them to him. Again, he and I had already talked about the characters and about the feel, so he had an idea of what to do musically. Then, he would fit a melody to what I had written and kind of fudge the words a little bit to kind of cram them into the rhythms that he was hearing in his head. He'd go back and forth that way.
And then there was one instance with the song that ended up getting cut from the show, once again for time purposes, we had talked about the feel of the piece and he sent me a melody with no lyrics whatsoever, and I wrote lyrics after that.
We didn't really have a "this is the way we write" kind of thing. And looking back I can't even necessarily say that one way worked better than the other because my two favorite songs in the show were done in completely opposite ways. This is, again, our first collaboration. Maybe if we work together in the future we'll get more of a rhythm with it, but we didn't really have a set way of this is the way it's going to work. It just kind of all happened very organically.
Me: What advice would you offer to others hoping to write musicals of their own?
Will Ledesma: Really, you just have to do it. Just about every article, magazine, blog, and book on writing I have ever read has said that exact same thing. Bottom line is you just have to do it. At first you really want everything to be right. There was a period I had trouble writing because I was afraid of writing something bad. I mean, you've got the story. You developed it in your mind. You develop an emotional attachment to it. You want it to be right. You're afraid of not doing it justice, so you can be almost too afraid to put anything down on paper because you don't want it to be bad. But when you're writing you've got to not be afraid of it being bad. Sometimes, it just is. But that's an important part of the process. It comes out.
Specifically with playwriting, you know, you can be working on a scene fro a couple of hours, as a writer. Then it's actually a ten-minute scene. So when you feel like it drags on forever, it really clips pretty well. You have no sense of perspective until you get some actors together and they sit down and read it. And then you hear things you didn't realize were going to work as well as they did work and things feel great. And you hear a lot of things you actually thought sounded pretty good in your head and it comes out, and you're like, "Wow, that's a terrible line," "That sounds terribly cheesy," or "That' not clear at all." Or you'll think you were really clear about something, and you'll hear how another actor interprets it, and you'll think, "Wow, I can see how someone could take it that way, and it's completely wrong. So, I need to go back and rephrase it in a certain way that they'll be able get the vibe of what's supposed to be happening in the scene." And then you have to be willing to go back and rewrite and rewrite. The longer you do it, the closer you get to nailing it that first time. You almost never really hit it the first time.
You've got to keep working through writer's block. If you have no idea where it goes, you can move on to something else or you can just arbitrarily force it through. It will be really contrived, unnatural, and you won't like it when you hear it said, but you've got to get through that moment. You've got to get through to the next moment. The best advice you can ever give to a writer is just keep writing. If you have an idea and it's ready to be written don't wait any longer. Don't be afraid of not doing it well.
The second best advice I can say is maintaining friendships with actors because the thing I love about playwriting as opposed to just writing prose, and it's also probably the biggest challenge, is that you don't have complete control. Ultimately it goes through a director and it goes through actors. So, you have no idea how you are as a playwright until you see your work go through actors. So sit down in someone's living room with a group of actors that you know and just have them read out loud and be willing to hear what you've written objectively. I've known writers who can't hear banality. All they can hear is their own wonderful work. That's a real stumbling block. That inhibits their growth. If you want to be true to the story you're telling, if you really want it to be it's best, you've got to be ready to recognize where it is at its worst and do everything you can to pull it out of there. For that, you just have to have other perspectives.
So write, don't be afraid of it being bad, and keep good relationships with other people, actors, directors, and artistic directors at other theatres because ultimately you do also want to get your play produced. In this business a lot of times it really is all about who you know.
You and your family can enjoy THUMBELINA. It runs on the A.D. Player's Grace Stage through February 2, 2013. For tickets and more information, visit adplayers.org or call (713) 526 - 2721.
Photo by Bara Photography. Courtesy of A.D. Players.