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Composer Jeanine Tesori on Her Artistic Process and Rewarding Female Ambition

Composer Jeanine Tesori on Her Artistic Process and Rewarding Female Ambition

Cross-posted with permission from The Interval.

We want Jeanine Tesori to be our life coach. Really. And not just for the obvious reasons, like that Jeanine holds the most Tony nominations for composition of any female composer (she’s also the only female composer to have been nominated multiple times) in history: she was Tony nominated for “Twelfth Night,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Caroline, or Change,” and “Shrek.” Last season she was represented on Broadway by “Violet,” which had it been eligible for best score, we’re sure would have garnered her yet another Tony nomination, but we’re going to go ahead and say that fifth nomination is on the way for the musical “Fun Home,” which starts performances on Broadway on March 27th. Jeanine is also Artistic Director of Encores! Off-Center and A Broader Way, a summer camp for pre-teen girls. But it’s not just her accomplishments that had us wondering if it would be okay to talk to her for five hours; Jeanine’s thoughts on women and ambition, failure, and taking up space are the perfect blend of intellectually rigorous yet completely accessible. So if you’re a woman in theatre, you should read what she has to say. Actually, scratch that. If you’re a woman in any creative field, you should read what she has to say. Really.  

(i.) Present 

VM: “Fun Home” is an adaptation of a graphic novel. We’re really interested in your adaptation process, especially adapting images to sound and music. It seems really fascinating. 

JT: Fascinating is one way to put it. Horrible is another way to put it. It was very, very arduous. Alison [Bechdel, author of the graphic novel] framed one of the original pages for me and it’s a constant reminder of how hard it was and how worthy it was, since the source material is so moving and incredible. When you look at the page and see the juxtaposition of a woman playing piano and a woman leaning against it with her mother correcting her, you think, “Obviously it’s musical, but how is it going to fit inside something that’s dramatic? How is it going to be something that is going to push a story forward?” And the graphic novel is filled with thousands of cells that tell stories within themselves. So how is it going to be in a long arc instead of in these little bits and pieces? And how are we going to tell that in a theatrical way? It took the full five years to really figure that out. 

VM: Did you find that the musical part of your brain worked differently when you were working with something image based rather than text based? 

JT: Yes, it did. When I was at Barnard and Columbia, I took a lot of life drawing and I took art classes with Jane Wilson, the famous watercolorist, who I love. One of the things she taught was to work from images. We’d draw live models in fifteen-second poses, and you had to capture the essence of what it was and you couldn’t get stuck on any one part. I didn’t understand that at first so I’d have page after page of just the clavicle or just the shoulder—trying to perfect it—and she would say, “You are approaching everything by not looking at the whole. You’re looking at one part and you can’t move on from looking at the one part. I think the full expression of something is to see its essence before you.” And that was an amazing lesson to hear when you’re seventeen years old. So [with “Fun Home”] I was able to just stare and look at the pages in the way I think you’re invited to with a graphic novel. You can think about it for five seconds or five years—the reader is completely in control. In a show, the audience is not in control; we are in control of the story and understanding that difference, and yet wanting that same impact where they wanted to sit with something, that’s where the challenge was, I think. 

VM: “Fun Home” has an interesting structure and we read that you did a lot of research on that—not just with musicals, but with plays too. Can you tell us a little about that? 

JT: One of the things that I looked at was “Our Town” and the quote is still up there [on the white board that takes up a wall of her studio]: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it.” This is often what I do [she points to lots of writing and outlines on the board]—this is the new piece I’m working on—I work, strangely enough, pretty visually. When we were looking at “Fun Home,” I was thinking about narrators and how they go in and out like the stage manager in “Our Town.” He’s omniscient. He knows all of these things—that kid is going to die, that kid comes back from the way—and you think, “Who is this guy?” What’s the tension between what he knows and the unknowingness of the characters? And I looked at “Glass Menagerie” and the way it’s a memory play, and yet [in “Fun Home”] she’s going backwards in order to go forward. So she goes backwards and backwards until the car moment where she gets so pulled into the memory that she actually busts into and comes out the other side. The essential question, which I think is true for a lot of sons and daughters of people who commit suicide, is: is that my fate? Is that my destiny? Am I like them? To me, that’s what became the essential question, and the answer is complicated because the answer is, “Yes and no.” You’re exactly like them and you’re exactly not like them, which is true of any parent and child. We carry through things no matter what, and we carry choices that we’ve made ourselves. So it was reading through these plays and trying to understand their versions of what made that work and why we, as audience members, are moved by them. 

(ii.) Composition 

VM: We wanted to talk to you specifically about composing, but that’s a challenge since it’s almost like another language where people can understand it but not necessarily speak it. 

JT: What you just said is the magic of it— you understand what we’re trying to do without being able to say the vocabulary. I think a lot of people get intimidated by the language of music, but everyone owns music. I think there’s nothing standing in between a composer and her audience. I think a lot of people feel that way because they feel it’s rarefied, but it’s really not. You should feel the impact of it without being able to name it because it’s ultimately a primal thing. 

VM: Do you think about how much an audience can take in at any one moment?

JT: Completely. One of the great directors I’ve worked with, George C Wolfe, calls it “idiot space.” When I did “Caroline, or Change” he’d say, “I don’t think there are enough places where people can just be idiots. Where they can sit back and don’t have to listen so hard.” They can be with the rhythm of it, but it’s a dialog and if you’re constantly at the edge of your seat there’s a point where you just have to sit back and go, “Ok I need a breather” and then I’ll lean forward again. All of those things release tension—applause and laughter—and you’re in communication for all of that time and it’s part of the rhythm of it.  

VM: What’s your process like as a composer? How does the music come to you?

JT: I compose a lot by doing other really quotidian things like walking around, being on the subway, and thinking about it. I’ll go to the piano really late. I use a dry erase board a lot to figure it out and even put it up like a colorform and notes like, “I’m thinking about this and I’m thinking about this.” I note down little things I think are going to apply to the musical and that helps build a soundscape. I try to think about why I’m writing it, why the fuck I’m spending four or five years of my life wrestling with this thing, and musically what I’m going to bring to it. So it’s just a hodgepodge at first, and slowly it starts revealing itself and working itself out. I think it’s why musicals take a long time, since you have to retreat and almost let the paint dry and then you go back to it. The painter going back and looking at a painting for perspective is our version of going back to it after a few weeks or months and then thinking, “Oh, I’m seeing this now as an audience is going to see it.” 

VM: What’s your relationship like with music? Is it the color thing? Is it emotional? All of the above?

JT: It’s everything. My music library goes from Stravinsky to The Pretenders to The Talking Heads to R Kelly. I don’t have cast albums. I love making them, but I never listen to them. I have a lot of world music—I produced a lot of world music when I was in my twenties and I worked in Nashville. So it’s really, really eclectic. I think I react emotionally. I have perfect pitch so I see a lot of things in colors. I also feel like music is oceanic—there’s no end to what you can discover. And I really like getting to know a culture by how they sound; where their history is and why it’s like that. All of that stuff really fascinates me. 

VM: At what point do you start thinking about story structure? 

JT: More often than not, I erase that whole white board and it’s completely blank and I think, “What are we going to do? We could do anything—I could switch act two and act one, I can start with this or with this, it can be a solo or an ensemble…” The variables are endless. So what I try to do is create limitations so that the sides of the box get filled. Like when you swaddle a kid. When I first had a baby I didn’t understand how important it was that the kid felt its limits, since kids really lose their shit when they can’t feel the box around them—they need to feel safe—and I think shows are similar. They need to feel their limits so you can push against them. But what the shape is and what the silhouette is, that’s the key because it can be anything. 

(iii.) Form 

VM: What’s your collaboration process like?

JT: It’s a hard one to define. I love working with playwrights. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with great playwrights and they bring a library of knowledge to me. I think there is an innocence to musicals, which is really helpful to me because they don’t come with a lot of rules or “it should be like this.” It’s a conversation that goes constantly in and out. It’s not often that I get handed a lyric and then I set it—that’s not how I work—because to me the song comes out of the conversation: “How about this?” “What if we do this?” Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth to the point where I can’t even name, in “Fun Home,” who did what because it’s almost like saying, “What is the conversation you had a year ago on Thursday?” I know that the evidence of all of those conversations is in this musical that we can now weigh—it has heft. 

VM: Let’s go back to what you were saying about musicals being an innocent form and not a lot of rules. Some people think there are rules to what makes a musical work, especially structurally.

JT: I don’t ascribe to that. I think there are some things in music that work and don’t work. That’s learned from counterpoint and rhythm and theory, and they don’t work if you don’t want them to work. So it really is about the design and that’s where craft and individuality come in. But I try to approach every single show with a beginner’s mind and to know that it can fail and it can succeed. It has somewhat to do with things I’ve learned, and a lot to do with nothing I’ve learned because this group has never written this story before. We’re all beginners with this show. So I try to be, with a great ego, very humble and say, “I don’t know.” A great example of that was that we tried to write the traditional opening number for “Fun Home” for three years, and it didn’t work and it didn’t work and it didn’t work. Finally, I let it go since I was like, “Perhaps it should work, but it doesn’t work so we’re not going to begin it that way. We’re going to do it this way and we’re going to see if it works.” And then it worked. Someday I’ll go back and look at why it worked and learn from it, but it was a great example of me trying to shove something in that I thought should work as opposed to what, in real time and space working with actors, actually worked. I worked with a choreographer years ago who had everything on sheets of paper, and no matter who showed up at his studio everything was already on legal paper. It didn’t matter if they were tall or short or could do that arabesque or not—they were going to be doing that arabesque. And I thought, “It has nothing to do with the reality of who you have in the room; it has to do with your reality with that piece of paper and what you think should work” and the end product always had that attached to it. I really remember that from years and years ago. 

VM: It’s like the idea of theatre not being literature, which is something we talk about a lot. 

JT: Exactly. It only exists in time and space. There used to be this thing with musicals where you’d do a reading and everybody would sit at music stands and I’d think, “This is death.” It’s not an experience where you just listen; it’s an experience where you watch people. It’s like a screenplay. That’s where the visual comes in. It exists in time and space. You can’t do that when you’re sitting down. You have to stand up. It’s going away from that thing of musicals at music stands, and there’s a new thing where people are doing workshops for two weeks and it’s a great development. 

(iv.) Culture 

VM: What other areas of culture effect your work? Art, obviously.

JT: Art. Completely. I read a lot. I especially read memoirs and biographies. It’s very helpful when you’re thinking about what’s possible and what exists in human behavior; if it exists out there then it can exist on the stage. I really try to go to a lot of concerts. A lot of live events. I just try to keep my ears really, really open.  

VM: What are your top five favorite biographies or memoirs?

JT: 1. “The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman”
2. “Daring: My Passages: A Memoir” by Gail Sheehy
3. “The Leonard Bernstein Letters”
4. “The Life and Work of Martha Graham” by Agnes De Mille
5. “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” by David Rakoff (it wasn’t a memoir, but it was) 

(v.) Past 

VM: What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?

JT: I have a memory of a friend of my father’s who had a really deep, exotic voice and he would read from A.A. Milne. I have a distinct memory of that voice and the storytelling. All the kids would sit around and we couldn’t wait to hear what would happen next. That really got me because I thought, “What is this thing?” because it’s just a man in a chair. But it was so exotic because his voice was so deep and the way that he colored the words and the timing. 

VM: What was the first piece of music that had a major impact on you?

JT: That’s harder. My early life was full of music because my sisters played the piano and I started playing at three. I think it was not a piece of music but that I could play. I’d say it would be “Edelweiss” because I worked it out on the piano by ear and I played it on a loop for, I’d say, two years. I think it’s not the specific, but that I went up to it and felt like, “Oh, I know this” even at a young age. It was that it existed as opposed to which one. 

VM: When did you first feel like a grown up?

JT: Oh my God. I’ll tell you when I get there. There are two things. When I first signed a check because it was one of those things that I’d seen my parents do all the time. I have never relied on anyone else for money since I graduated, and that made me feel grown up. I grew up in a household where my father wrote my mother a check every week, and in a difficult way, and that’s the opposite of what I’ve done. But, honestly, I feel like when I had a baby. I think being in charge of someone and being present to repeat things that my parents did and not repeat things that my parents did and try to divide those things for her. When that baby got placed in my arms I was like, “Holy shit. This is it.” 

(vi.) Representation 

VM: Did you have any role models or people you wanted to be like growing up?

JT: Carole King. Any woman who played an instrument. Karen Carpenter and the drums. I’d been trained as a classical musician, but also as a pop musician. My teacher made sure that everything was available; I played from lead sheets, I transposed everything, we wrote out TV themes, I played Beethoven and Carole King. I played the gamut and that was a really great lesson. But anytime I saw a woman playing who was cool and wore great clothing and played with muscle, that was it for me. Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Karen Carpenter, all of those 70s artists when I was a kid. I watched them all like a hawk to see what they were going to do next and how they played. I was being shown a lot of classical musicians and they had a way of holding themselves that was upright, and these women were digging into the piano. Carole King, when she played, she was leaning into it like it was the percussive instrument that it was and that had a deep, deep impact. I can still play every note of Tapestry because that’s how I learned to play rhythm. 

VM: Do you think you’d be doing what you’re doing now if it weren’t for seeing women like that?

JT: Absolutely not. There’s no way. One of the things that has occurred to me is to be very visible. I was taught to really lean backwards—to do my thing, be in the background, and not call attention to myself. I’ve had to really go against my training to really be present. I remember seeing Linda Twine conduct when I was nineteen. She is this beautiful African-American woman who was in complete command with all of the men on stage looking at her every move. So any woman who was claiming anything, it went right in and then I knew it was possible. I didn’t realize that you could make a life doing this at all. I thought music was something you just did; you practiced and then you played and there was no end game. My parents and teacher thought I would be a concert pianist—which is a joke, there’s no way—and it was when the end game was presented to me that I lost interest. That was another great lesson: just do it for its own sake and the seriousness and the rigor will come out or it won’t come out. At Barnard and Columbia, which is when I came back to it after having left it for four years, I had two professors who were amazing and dynamic. They refused to present music in any kind of dry way, and they were incredibly beautiful women—really stylish with great shoes—and that was incredibly important to me. It wasn’t workmen like and it wasn’t them trying to be a man. It was a celebration of music and a celebration of self, and I have such an absolute memory of being mesmerized by the way they were presenting music and their beauty that they were not hiding. It had a huge, huge impact, so I do keep that in mind. There was a period where I dressed sort of like a mechanic and I looked really schlumpy, and I thought, “This is not who I am. This is not who I want to be.” It was a very important moment for me—to not hide. 

VM: One of the questions we ask a lot is if women ever feel like they need to alter their appearance, especially in terms of femininity, to get taken seriously.

JT: The interest in these types of questions is so important. It is thequestion to me of how you develop ambition and hunger. When I teach and do programs for girls ten to fourteen years old [at A Broader Way], we address their hunger to take up space and being seismic and all that means— the size of their hunger, the size of their ambitions, leaning towards the thing they want as opposed to waiting for someone to present it to them or give them permission—and to do that in a way where there’s the full expression of the feminine self. It has taken me a long time to work through that because I was right on the border of the Title IX age. I did a lot of sports—a lot of girls with sticks and moving the fucking ball down the field. And the idea of the sisterhood and competition; competition is good and it is helpful. All of those things, I don’t think girls are always rewarded for. I think it’s understanding and owning how our ambition is going to be dressed. I love fashion; I follow that. I have a friend who works at W and we talk about that all the time. I love a Jimmy Choo and that’s ok. 

VM: We love that. Of course, then there are all the other ways people present themselves.

JT: I realized that all you have to do is state what you need and figure out how to get it, and be kind and help other people move forward. Check your jealousy, which is always present, and the threat of the younger generation coming forward as they must do. Go right straight for what you want, as opposed to avoid it or eat it or drink it or delay it. But I realized this over a series of years and doing a lot of reading and noticing and modeling, and having a seventeen year old daughter and being in constant conversation with her. My daughter is my greatest gift and, not to be corny, but my greatest teacher. 

VM: We’re so interested in exploring those issues, especially girls and confidence. And discussing how people figure that out—there’s so much trial and error. It’s not always like how it is on TV, in terms of people being like, “You stood up for yourself! Good for you!”

JT: Also, I think what you’re saying is that it’s not just for other people to accept the confidence. I think it’s for us, as women, to accept confidence and being rewarded for wanting a lot. I want a lot. It’s like it used to be, whenever I’d get in front of the podium [to conduct], there would have to be this moment where I’d have to catch a mistake and prove to the orchestra that they have to shut the fuck up and that I have an ear and I can do it. It’s almost like you have to establish that. There’s that moment where the female pilot goes into the plane and the whole plane goes, “Does she know what she’s doing…” You can feel it going through because a lot of people have learned, “That’s not the silhouette of a person who flies a plane with confidence.” I’ve learned to also sort of roll with that and accept that. [For example] To try and make answers definitive and swift and sure. If I’m in a meeting and someone says something to say, “Truthfully, that’s not how we’re going to go on this route” and not have to say it in a way that’s overcompensating, but just be really incredibly clear about it. I’ve had to work on that over a series of years. The other thing that I’m interested in, and Christiane Amanpour speaks about beautifully, is the idea of women and failure. It’s very interesting to me how we don’t see it as necessary, and it’s completely necessary. And there’s a direct tie between failure and shaming, as opposed to seeing it as a misstep or a sidebar where we think, “That didn’t go well. Why didn’t that go well? Ok, we’ll try it this way.” I want to have a big festival of failure next year at City Center [where she is Artistic Director of Encores Off-Center] and invite people to just out themselves with their greatest flops. 

(vii.) Conversations 

VM: As one of the few female composers working on Broadway, do you feel there’s more pressure on you to succeed and not fail?

JT: Well, I’ve failed so much. I mean the first thing I wrote was a big flop and didn’t go to Broadway for seventeen years. I’ve been written about as being talent-free and talented. I’ve lost many more awards than I’ve won. So, at this point, I don’t think I feel that kind of pressure. But maybe I’m kidding myself. I have to do that work that we’re talking about daily. It’s not something one arrives at; it’s malleable. One of the helpful things about having a teenage daughter is we talk about it all the time. We talk about are we our weight, are we our grades, our height, where we go: are we going to buy into it completely? So it’s nice to bounce that stuff in the air and know it will land in different places at different times.  

VM: One of the things we’ve found is that work by women is spoken about differently than work by men. For example, a lot of the descriptive adjectives are different—people say “whimsical” instead of “groundbreaking.”

JT: Well, that is really interesting. I guess I don’t read a lot of press, so I’m probably missing that. I go see things and I try to just experience it and form my own opinions. But it’s good to be aware of it so we don’t do it as well. Again, we have to reward people for that thing [being ambitious, opinionated]. I went into this one meeting once and this one woman goes, “God, it’s so interesting since I heard you’re so difficult and I don’t find you difficult at all.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s the other thing we do…” When there’s clarity and swift, sure decision-making that’s “difficult” and it’s a completely different story with a man. The only thing we can do is start changing the paradigm and write about them differently. 

VM: We’ve had a few women mention that if they ask questions the responses will be “Ugh really” whereas with a man it’s, “Of course” or they’ll say something and they’re asked, “Are you sure” rather than just being answered. 

JT: But the awareness of that leads to change. The only way to make a change is to out it and give it air; see if we’re doing it and what ways we’re perpetuating that. Do we ascribe to that or not? And then change it one conversation at a time. I’ve always said to women, “It’s the little conversations that change you.” In those little moments say, “I’d rather go this way.” It’s the small things that lead to the big questions as well. 

(viii.) Ambition 

VM: There aren’t that many female composers working on Broadway. A friend, Shoshana Greenberg, wanted to put together a Kilroy-like list for musical theatre, but no one could figure out how to do it because it seems like female composers aren’t even getting the development opportunities to have something to put on a list.

JT: Well, the Kilroys’ list are plays that are proven, right? That’s why it happened. Like, “Here’s a list of things that are vetted that we think are great and they’re edited by a group of people who are in the know.” The only thing I can say is, I teach composition during the spring semester at Yale and there are no women in that class almost ever. The women who audition for it, nine times out of ten are lit majors or psych majors and they want to learn more. And the women who do write tend to write about men or they write about their roommates, as opposed to the guys who are writing about myths and politics. So I wonder where the ambition is being diverted? The people who are going into music who hunger, they’re going into pop music. There are some badass women who are ambitious and hungry and brave, and they’re in pop. What it takes as a musical theatre composer is it’s a confluence of a lot of things that I just noticed because I fell into it sideways. I think you have to be a great team member and you have to feel strongly about your opinions. And you need skill. Even in our girls who are ten to fourteen, none of them want to write music for the theatre. So clearly what we have to do is create something.

I joined City Center as the Artistic Director of Encores! Off-Center to promote change. To not just produce shows but to try and create something where artists can come. I feel like we need to catch these girls at nine. It’s not about training these girls as composers; it’s about training them as individuals and rewarding them for hungering. We need to teach them to not look sideways for approval before they raise their hands. We need to put blinders on them that are made out of Lucite so they can really look forward with just an acknowledgement of the periphery. I think it’s that acknowledgement of what’s capable really early on and what the expectation is. I think it’s more about that. And I think it’s rewarded in a pop music way, maybe. Plus, you really do need a lot of skills to be a musical theatre composer. You just do. You need knowledge of orchestration, dramaturgy, and plays. I think it’s a very specialized thing. That doesn’t really answer it. It’s just an observation of what you guys are finding as well. My mind always goes to: what do we do to counter it? What do we do to fix it? 

VM: We like those questions. 

JT: I’m trying to figure out how we can educate women in musical theatre as part of City Center Encores! Off-Center. Not just include them but educate them in the science of it: orchestration, playing from lead sheets, transposing. I think the idea of apprenticeship is really interesting and missing. It’s not interning. Apprenticeship is very different; it means you do the thing besides the person. I would love to look at those types of program. 

VM: There are so many facets to this conversation and how we make things better for women. 

JT: And it’s hard when you have kids. I had to take my baby everywhere. Being a mother and doing this is super challenging. The very first orchestra I went into, when I had a Baby Bjorn, I thought, “God, I worked so hard and I’m walking in with a baby. Here we go.” There was that thought of, “What am I doing?” But then there were a couple of directors who went, “Bring that kid in!” and that was a golden ticket. 

VM: What’s something you think the theatre community could do to make it easier people to have children and work?

JT: Daycare, daycare, daycare. I owe so much to the directors who were like, “Bring the kid in!” “Where’s the kid?” Having a place where children are included. Parents in theatre work when their kids go to bed and it’s really hard to miss bedtime all the time. How do we make it easier for these parents who are on when the rest of America is off—nights, weekends, 7pm calls, understudy rehearsals on Thursdays and Fridays, no vacations—it’s really killer, especially the eight shows a week. The way we can help is by saying, “Bring your kids. There’s a place for them here. We’re going to make sure they’re well taken care of so you can work.” I don’t know anyone who does that systematically, but there are directors who are all for it. There’s much progress to be made there. Where I have a say and where there are women who have babies it’s like, “Where is your baby? I’ll watch your baby.” When we did Caroline, or Change, I babysat for some of the actors. We’re a community. We have to take care of our own to get the best work that women have. 

(ix.) Confidence 

VM: Let’s talk more about girls and confidence. It’s so important. 

JT: I’ve been really opinionated my whole life. I was raised to be opinionated. I was raised to debate at the dinner table—my father demanded it—and you had to be able to debate in a confident and clear way. He wanted scholars. That’s what you do; state your opinion and then take your licks when you’re wrong. But it was this leaning forward thing, like Sheryl’s book [“Lean In”]. When my daughter was going to audition for school she was like, “I don’t know if I’m going to do it. I don’t know if I want to do it, and if I take my place then it’s someone else’s place [I’m taking].” And, you know, I’m so sick of all of us, as women, being afraid to take our place at the table. She said, “Do you think I’m making a mistake by not auditioning for that school?” And I said, “Oh, I know you’re making a mistake. But make it. I’ll stand by you, but you’re definitely making a mistake because what you’re doing is giving up a place that you don’t even have yet because you may not want it. That is yours to decide. That is your place at the table.” She ended up auditioning and getting in and is very happy, but I was very struck that her first impulse was not to if she might be taking it away from someone else. Holy shit, how hard have we worked for that? And she’s a strong, interesting kid but still, as a girl, she was afraid to take what wasn’t hers. And it’s like, “That is yours to take and then it’s yours to give up.” But, following through with her, what’s my version: do I ask too much, do I want too much, have I said too much, do I weigh too much, do I think too much? And, in fact, there are a couple of people who have said to me, “You’re a little much.” Yes, that’s right I am a little much—I’m a little much for you

VM: Do you consider yourself to be brave?

JT: Yes—because I’m really afraid. I went to a lighthouse by myself in 1992, in a serious winter, and set up camp there. I gave myself a “Walden” to understand time and understand myself because I did not like the direction I was going at all. I was going in an assistant direction and I thought, “Fuck this.” I went climbing and I did all the things that girls aren’t supposed to do. I remember reading a book “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway,” which I thought was some silly self-help book, but it was the first book that acknowledged that the feeling wasn’t factual. If you’re doing something new there is always a sense of fear or foreboding, but you’re in new ground and you have to get out your machete and cut a new path. A lot of girls are not rewarded for going out to the Wild West and making a path because then they’re derided and they’re made fun. The idea that you can be completely feminine and completely ferocious, I feel like that’s where the bravery came from—finally just making a complete right turn and redesigning my life from the shoes up. And thank God. 

(x.) Future 

VM: What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre? 

JT: It’s a hard one to distill without reduction. I’d say anything that is active is helpful. Anything that’s talking about it is helpful-ish. The way I do it is I’m mentoring a fierce female composer, and I’ll give her whatever I have to make sure she gets on her track. She came to me and I said, “Yes.” She’s doing something active by asking and I’m doing something active by mentoring her. It takes a lot of that small micro activism. If it’s legal, say yes. So ask someone to go see that piece by a woman. Bring ten people. It’s like micro-financing. I think that’s where the tide change can happen. I once went to a philanthropist, a woman who is a millionaire 700 times over, and I said, “Could you come to a thing for A Broader Way?” and she said, “What’s the ask?” I said, “$500” and she goes, “Oh, it doesn’t move the needle enough.” We didn’t get her $500, but she lost the opportunity to move the needle just a little. If a lot of people moved it a little then it would be a big thing. You take one girl to work. You say yes. You ask someone to do something. I think those kinds of things add up to a groundswell and a grassroots movement. The chatter does not. The chatter is great to maybe make something known, but it’s the actual doing of it that has agency. My mentor said really early on, “I’m so sick of hearing you talk about writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is talking about writing. So until you’re ready to write, I really need you to shut up.” It was like cold water. I was like, “You’re right; I’m being lazy and afraid.” 

VM: Out of curiosity, how many young women have come to you and asked you to mentor them or for guidance? 

JT: One woman has come. Lots of guys. There are a lot of guys who come and sit at this table and ask questions. But only one woman has ever come.

The Interval is a theatre website, founded by Victoria Myers and Michelle Tse to be a virtual home for female voices of the theatre, with the goals of changing the conversation around women in theatre by asking smart ladies smart questions for a smart audience and promoting gender parity in theatre. Because being a woman can be hard, but hearing stories by and about women should be easy. the-interval.com and @TheIntervalNY.

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