The Sound of Adam Emperor Southard's GROUP
Photo: Josh Allan Dykstra and Adam Emperor Southard
Photo credit: Jeremy Roush
Everyone that works in the theatre knows that it's all about relationships. Producers, directors, actors, and theatre companies all have a vested interest in nurturing new work, and it's especially important for young writers to find ways to build relationships within the theatre community.
For Adam Emperor Southard, striking a partnership with the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble in Santa Monica has allowed his new musical, GROUP, to go from idea to production in a very short time. The show is about to have its world premiere on January 13, 2011.
It's the story of six troubled college students who come together in group therapy and a doctor who believes in the strength of community and the power of music. All of them, including Dr. Allen, learn there's only so long you can avoid the truth.
I saw a press preview of the show at The Powerhouse Theatre last December and was intrigued by the promising new musical. GROUP is a thought provoking exploration of the passion, pain, defiance and loss that occurs in the process of growing up. It will touch your heart and remind you how fragile and how incredible this life really is. Following the run, I asked Adam to tell me about the process of getting his first musical onstage.
How did your partnership with the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble come about?
Isaac Wade, who plays Dr. Allen in the show, and I were both doing shows for a company called Tsunami Radio. We would put out a CD every month of original plays, all from the head of Patrick Redden, Tsunami's writer/director. One day Patrick got this crazy idea and said, let's do musicals. He would send us lyrics. We would write a melody, come in and sing it acapella, and then we'd add music later. It was a great exercise even though it didn't really work, but at the time I had just started reworking Group and it was really inspiring for me to hear Isaac sing because he has such a unique voice. I knew I wanted to work with him on my show. That's when I realized he was my Dr. Allen.
Isaac had been a member of the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble for several years. It was in the Fall of 2009 when he told me about their Scriptyard Series where they read new shows and give feedback. He asked me if I had anything from GROUP that he could show them. They liked the material and I ended up doing a Scriptyard Series in March 2010, and after that, they asked me if they could workshop the show. It was really about timing and knowing the right person who could connect me to them.
What was it like doing rewrites for the show?
Tom Burmester, their Artistic Director, and Producer Danika Sudik were my dramaturgs throughout the process. They worked with me, not by making suggestions so much as asking me questions and seeing where I would find answers. In my first staged reading the show was just two therapy sessions. Act I was the group's first meeting and Act II was their last meeting. It was more a concert musical piece as opposed to a musical. I continued to work on it, held a couple of readings at my home, and then a few months later, sent Tom and Danika a revised script to see what they thought.
In late October Tom said he had an opening on their stage in December and asked if I wanted to put the show up as a workshop production. Of course I wanted to do it but we didn't have a director or a cast so we had to scramble. Then Tom and Danika came to a rehearsal a couple weeks before we opened and said, "This isn't a workshop. We think it's there. Let's preview it and give you an opening."
Previews were wonderful for us. The audience changes everything and it really helped us answer some questions about the show. It was very exciting that it went from a Scriptyard Series to a workshop to a preview to an opening in such a short time. That's why it doesn't feel real yet. Because these things don't happen, right?
How did you get started writing the show?
My brother is a novelist, Scott D. Southard. He came up with the original concept of a group therapy session, because where else can people instantly bleed their soul, and I loved it. I wrote about half the music for the show and he wrote the book. Shortly after that I moved to Los Angeles and all of it was lost in the move. Fast forward ten years later to 2009. My son had just been born and I was rethinking what I wanted to do with my life. I'd still been playing music but I hadn't thought about the musical in a long time, so I started fresh.
Did you tell the same story you'd originally written or did it change?
All that remained from the original show was the title, the character names and one and a half songs. I decided to set it in musical group therapy because I liked the idea of the characters being aware that they're in a musical, and I think that's really hard to do realistically.
Do you write music or lyrics first?
It's never lyrics first. I'll start with a chord I like and add another chord I like and before you know it I'm singing along. I started while my son was napping. He was a terrible sleeper so I literally wrote every song while he was asleep. Once he could start to roll I'd put him on the opposite side of the room, take out my guitar, and start writing lyrics until he made it to my side of the room. Then I'd get up, put him back on the other side of the room and keep going.
Are any of the characters based on real people?
No, but I have a large pool of friends who are amazingly talented actors, and almost all of them are in jobs that don't allow them to be amazingly talented actors. So when I write new stuff I like to keep them in mind, not to write about them, but I hear their voice when I write.
Do you find that the characters start to write themselves when you let it flow like that?
Absolutely. Here's how my brain works. I'm structured to a point but when it comes to lyrics, I usually let them flow and then I go back and tweak them later. For example, I was writing the lyrics to "Expiration Date" and I stop and yell to my wife in the next room, "I just gave her cancer," and she yells back, "okay." It's funny what one or two lines can do to change a character. As the show progressed I began bringing whatever I was working on to Josh Allan Dystra. He is brilliant at breaking down the best bits of my songs and making them even better.
Were you always interested in the theatre?
I grew up in the theatre. I was very much a child actor but my parents were the opposite of stage parents. Instead of pushing me to do everything, they limited me to only doing one show a year. I did a lot of regional stuff in the Midwest [including the original stage production of Young Rube by John Pielmier]. When I went to high school I decided to just have a normal life so I gave it all up - no acting, no anything. I got back into the theatre again when I realized college was going to be expensive and getting a scholarship would be a good idea.
Where did you end up going to school?
I went to Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan and I went there because Jeff Daniels had a theatre nearby [The Purple Rose Theatre]. His group was doing classes at Albion. I mean, where else in Michigan can you take classes with Jeff Daniels? Albion, like most schools, had an under-funded theatre department and that's what gave my brother Scott and I the idea to create a show that any college could do with a low budget.
I think what brought it all together was seeing Billy Bishop Goes to The War. It's a one man show but there's also a pianist who interacts with him every once in awhile, and he's telling the story of being in the war and flying these planes. He plays all the characters and every now and then he sings a nice little war ballad with the piano player and we loved the idea of doing a musical with a just chair and a piano.
What would you like people to take away from the show?
If you listen to the lyrics of the last song, it's about not giving up. It's also about finding strength. Life is wonderful and awful at the same time so you push through, and you find people that help you push through.
How much of it reflects your own views about life?
A lot! It encompasses who I am as a person, my philosophy on life, what I believe about people, how I think people talk and interact. It's me. It really is me out there whether I'm singing the lines or not.
Any other advice for aspiring writers?
Do it. If you're passionate about creating new work, give yourself a shot. It's one of the most rewarding experiences you can ever have. For me this has been an amazing experience, not just hearing my words and music onstage, but seeing how much work other artists have put into it. I'm constantly surprised by the dedication of the actors and director. It's eternally humbling.
Book, Music & Lyrics by Adam Emperor Southard
Additional Music & Arrangements by Josh Allan Dykstra
Directed by Richard Tatum
Cast: Trevor Algatt, Brooke Baldwin, Melissa Collins, Michael Hanson, Caroline Sharp, Isaac Wade, and Evan Wall
January 13 - 29, 2011 at The Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405. For tickets and more information go to http://www.latensemble.com/.