BWW Interviews: Composer Sarah Taylor Ellis, THE YELLOW WALLPAPER

The Writing, and Composing, on the Wall

A talk with composer Sarah Taylor Ellis about the world premiere of The Yellow Wallpaper, a new musical currently running through July 6 at The Anacostia Arts Center, as part of The Pallas Theatre Collective's 2014 season.

"This needs to be a musical." With those words to composer Sarah Taylor Ellis, writer/actor/director Lane Williamson handed over a copy of Charlotte Perkins Gilmore's 6,000 word seminal 1892 short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, often considered to be one of the very first feminist works. As she began to read, Sarah knew exactly what Lane meant. Collaborators since meeting while at UCLA, Sarah and Lane have found that they share a deep connection and creative sensibility, so Sarah knew immediately that Lane was talking about how the "character" of the wallpaper itself, as it reflected the main character's desperate search for self, could be expressed in shifting musical patterns, textures and styles, mirroring the psychological experience of the room's inhabitant.

Fortunately, Sarah agreed, and composed the music (she is a piano player), while Lane wrote the lyrics and book (script) of the show. The work generally started with Lane's lyrics first, and while she and Lane comment on, and discuss intent in each other's work, she credits their instinctive understanding of the other's perspective and motivation, with allowing for a "shorthand" way of communicating between them. For example, she describes her musical style as "contemporary classical," and Lane knew right away when he first conceived of the story as a production, that Sarah's musical style would be a perfect fit for the subject matter and the era in which the story is set.

This production of The Yellow Wallpaper, which is referred to as a "chamber musical," in reference to its intimate feel, accessibility and brevity (it runs approximately 75-minutes), allows us to share the soul-wrenching journey of a wife and new mother, whose depression is being treated by what was then called a "resting cure." Her husband John, a doctor, has, with well-meaning intentions, removed her from normal daily activities and diversions, so as to allow her troubled disposition to be protected from strain. Jennie, John's sister, who also acts as her caretaker, supports the plan, and the wife is ordered to "rest" in a room decorated with a patterned, yellow wallpaper with which the isolated woman develops a relationship that leads her to a madness that may, or may not, be the liberation she seeks.

I had the chance to explore the creation of this new work with Sarah at lunch this week, and not being a musician myself, I was especially interested in how she and Lane came to envision the main character's solitary, internal journey as a staged musical. A theme that ran through our conversation, as we talked about the creative process, is actually quite relevant in Gilman's story: the experience of feeling like an outsider, even amongst family and friends; a subsequent search for a way to communicate and become part of a community on one's own terms; and the struggle to be understood and accepted. If you feel as if you're an "outlier," Sarah observed, you may relate to musical theater as a safe space, because it allows for diversion, self-expression and the opportunity to stray from the expected.

Like so many of us, Sarah was introduced to the idea of musical storytelling through the beloved Disney films she saw as a child. Her first experience with theatrical musical theater, though, began when she first heard the score to Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story in a fifth grade classroom. It was several years before she would see the show performed on stage, but the storytelling of the music resonated for her even from the recording alone. On her path to becoming a musical composer (she holds a PhD from UCLA in Theatre and Performance Studies), she has often circled back to those classic Disney stories/scores as examples of the power that music can hold in revealing interpretations and nuances of a story.

But even when she was younger and reading a story, Sarah says she would hear something akin to a soundtrack in her mind; this soundtrack accompaniment being a relative constant in her life (she's heard this from other musicians/composers as well). In fact, Sarah loves theater, musical theater in particular, because there are "moments in theater where theater will turn off the constant soundtrack and I am fully present...something I long's very momentary, less than the span of a scene sometimes...but worth it for that moment." Her favorite musical? Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. Sondheim's work speaks to her, she muses, because "he writes very well about outsiders in search of community, and because of the dense intellect of his work, when he breaks through to these amazing emotional moments, it's unbelievable and often leads to emotional breakthroughs for me as well."

Sarah's thoughts about the role of the songs in The Yellow Wallpaper are that they are "less telling the story and more deepening relationships and deepening characters and our understanding of them, especially for the you see her descend into madness through the progression of the songs, through the ways the lyrics transform through the course of those songs, and through the way the music becomes more much more fragmentary, more twisted and more convoluted."

We talked a great deal about how the key to understanding the process of creating a theatrical work is to know that it often begins in isolation, as the art takes shape in the mind and expression of musician, writer, actor, director, etc., to whom the idea speaks. The drive to tell that story leads to collaboration with other artists, and a community is formed. But the work is not done in lock step. Different contributions are required at various points, and each artist, from composer to writer to director to actor, and ultimately the audience, contributes to what eventually becomes the show. The work is handed off to others at each stage, and there's a great deal of trust required among all involved, including those of us in the audience.

In this case, Sarah did not even meet the cast and director until arriving in DC a few days before the first performance. She and Lane had worked with a dramaturge (a dramatist who may act as a literary, or other, adviser during the process) on the integration of the book/music during their creative process, but then turned it over to the artists at Pallas. So these few days of being together as a group have been an intense period of forming a cohesive creative vision for the audience to see. And the work does not end there for a show; each performance, each audience, informs the artists and impacts how the show develops.

To that end, Sarah's request of theater audience members (for any show), is that they settle into their seats with "openness," ready to be told a story they've never heard before. Because even if you've read The Yellow Wallpaper before, or seen it performed in other ways, you've never experienced Sarah and Lane's version, as told by this group of actors and creative team.

But how does Sarah (or any theater artist) know when a work is "ready" to be seen/heard by an audience? Not surprisingly, her response was that it's very work-dependent. If there's music and dance involved, for example, you may need more space and more integrated feedback at an earlier stage of development, than is allowed in a reading where the actors are relatively stationary, with scripts on stands and no props/costumes/staging, etc. Or, in the case of The Yellow Wallpaper, for Sarah, it was hearing the songs, previously heard only in her own voice, sung by other people, allowing her to access different aspects of the character(s) than her work had revealed to that point.

Sarah credits Tracey Chessum, Founder and Associate Artistic Director of The Pallas Theatre Collective, and the very existence of the Pallas group (with whom Sarah has been associated over several years), with being willing to take that breathtaking, leap-off-a-cliff risk that producing a work of theater requires. The willingness of Pallas to move towards full production opportunities earlier in the process is critical she says, and she's deeply appreciative of the support, confidence and nurturing she has received as The Yellow Wallpaper has been brought to life in this production.

In Sarah's words, "the most important thing to know about...the process of [theatrical] collaboration as a whole is that you never fully understand a show until you have that chance at a production...I am learning so much, and I'm sure Lane will learn so much when he arrives too, just by seeing our work totally up on its feet; with projections, and light and sound design and actors, fully realized. Every single aspect is necessary to understand your work, because inherently you are writing something that's incomplete until you get that production and all the elements align...and we need more theaters like Pallas to take that risk...this has been a rare gift."

Sarah and her collaborator, The Yellow Wallpaper's lyricist, Lane Williamson

You too can become part of The Yellow Wallpaper's journey through July 6 at The Anacostia Arts Center at 7:30pm each evening. Click here for tickets, and find more information at:

The Pallas Theatre Collective

The Anacostia Arts Center

The Yellow Wallpaper

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From This Author Ellen Burns

Born and raised in the DC-area, Ellen spent countless hours as a child and adult nurturing her love of theater in the classic DC venues, (read more...)

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