Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #10: Georgia Stitt

Georgia Stitt is a composer and a lyricist. Her musicals currently in development include: Big Red Sun (NAMT Festival winner in 2010, Harold Arlen Award in 2005 and and written with playwright John Jiler); The Water (winner of the 2008 ANMT Search for New Voices in American Musical Theatre and written with collaborators Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko); Sing Me A Happy Song (a musical revue); and Mosaic (commissioned for Off-Broadway in 2010 and written with Cheri Steinkellner).  She's also released several albums, including My Lifelong Love, and is a music director.  And she's a mother of two daughters.  Together with actress Susan Egan, she writes about mixing busy musical careers with parenting in their blog, Glamour & Goop.  I was delighted that she was able to take some time to answer questions about juggling her artistic life and motherhood.

You’ve got two young daughters (how old are they now?) and also a very busy career, one that can require a lot of travel, sessions in the studio, rehearsals, performances. Plus your husband, Jason Robert Brown, is also a composer/lyricist, so you have two chaotic careers/schedules in the house. How do you balance the career stuff and motherhood?

Balancing -- it's the never-ending challenge in our household. My daughters are 6 (first grade) and 2 1/2 (starting preschool this fall). And the magical secret is that we have a nanny. After our house payment I think the nanny might be the biggest expense in our household, but there's simply no way we could pull off these two careers without her. She is a much-beloved part of our family. The gift of the third set of hands means that, for the most part, my husband and I both assume we have the traditional business hours available to work, just as if we went to an office. I schedule meetings, conference calls, rehearsals, recording sessions and writing during the hours when the nanny is on duty. And I stop working at exactly six p.m. so I can be with the kids for homework, dinner, bath, and bedtime. The mornings are great, because I work at home so I'm very aware of the rhythms of the younger daughter playing, eating, napping. And then in the afternoons, they head out. I do miss out on a lot of the after-school activity, but every few weeks I'll take the afternoon off to go watch a swimming lesson or a ballet class. And of course, if the nanny is sick, I cancel everything.

As far as the travel goes, Jason and I try as often as possible to make sure we're not out of town at the same time. In the few times when we've had to travel simultaneously, we've either taken the kids with us or hired the nanny to stay overnight. Neither is ideal, but all of the grandparents live far away so it is what it is. Getting on a plane is always hard, and I don't see how that will ever change. Theater is developed all over the country, and those of us who make theater have to travel. It is the necessary evil of this business.

Heidi Blickenstaff sings from “MOSAIC” (produced Off-Broadway, 2010)

How and when do you write and compose? Do you have a studio at home, or do you need to get out of the house? Do you have a routine that you follow, or does it vary from project to project?

Jason and I each have a sound-proof piano studio in our home. It's part of why we left New York and moved to Los Angeles. When we were young and childless we shared a one-bedroom apartment with a grand piano in the living room. We were each constantly encouraging the other one to go away so that we could be alone with the piano! When we decided to buy a house, we looked for one that had two separate spaces that we could adapt to accommodate our unique needs. My studio is the converted garage, so I do actually have to walk out the front door to go to work. I find that I usually get into the studio in the late morning, and there's the inevitable dealing with business -- returning phone calls, emails, etc. If I can get into writing mode by lunchtime I can usually have a nice long stretch of composing in the afternoon. Sometimes I come back to writing after the kids are in bed, but more often than not I'm dealing with household stuff in the evening and my creative energy is sapped.

I love the blog that you and Susan Egan write together, Glamour and Goop. In one post, you tell a great story about traveling with your kids to work on your musical at Goodspeed Musicals. How did it end up working out? It seems the ultimate juggling act to try to work on a workshop or production of a new play or musical, all while trying to manage the kids in a strange place.

It was really, really, really hard. Jason had work in New York when I had to be at Goodspeed (in Connecticut), so the kids had to come with one of us. He offered to take them (and our magnificent nanny) to New York, but we knew that I would have better housing and the temporary school situation in CT seemed more manageable than in Manhattan. My eldest daughter enrolled in public school a few miles away from the theater, and I drove her to class each morning before rehearsal. Any production or collaborator meetings we needed to have after rehearsal had to happen in my living room, because I had to let the nanny have SOME time off each day. I requested an electric keyboard for my bedroom, and I stayed up very late at night doing the orchestrations and rewrites for the next day's rehearsal. For five weeks I was underslept and anti-social but my kids, who are troopers, really loved being in New England in the fall. (The pumpkins! The leaves! The hayrides! The apples!) Just as I was about to say "never again," I realized how happy everyone was. It is an experience we will all remember. And the truth is, if I had said no, the production of that show wouldn't have happened. So that's how it goes. We've taken the kids across the country countless times, and they've been to Denmark, to London, to Australia. It's an adventure, to be sure, and every trip is different.

How do you find that being a mother has changed your approach to writing and composing? Both in terms of how you create and what you create. Your album, My Lifelong Love, seems so clearly influenced by motherhood, as is the work you did with Susan Egan on The Secret of Happiness.

I really think the biggest change in HOW I write is about time management, as described above. The change in WHAT I write is bigger. I always challenge myself to write about things in ways I haven't heard them said before. And as I entered this phase of my life and my career, I realized that most of the songs about mothers and children were written by men. (I mean, come on, most of the songs about everything are written by men.) So I figured I had this unique opportunity to describe something that was very real and all-consuming to me with a voice that was truthful but under-represented. I walk the line very carefully -- I want to write from a distinctly personal and feminine point of view, but I don't want to be a "girl writer." If all I wrote about was motherhood I would turn into my own little cabaret show. But I see the world through the eyes of a mother, a wife, a daughter, a writer, a former Southerner, a liberal Democrat, a church-goer, an almost-forty-year-old, a student... Somewhere in there is my voice.

Susan and I had a lot of fun putting the two albums together at the same time. We are in similar chapters in our lives -- former New Yorkers living in southern California and raising our daughters. Our collaboration -- the blog, the concerts, the albums -- all comes from exploring where those shared experiences meet.

You’ve managed to keep working, thriving really, while still being fully engaged as a mother. But the demands of working the theatre are intense and it’s not exactly known as being a family-friendly business. We lose a lot of promising artists in our field as they hit the age where they’re trying to have a family. Is there something that development or producing organizations could to be more accessible (or at least understanding) or artists with children?

It's lovely to read that you think I'm thriving. I think I'm barely coming up for air. I'm very aware that when my younger daughter starts school this fall I'll have my days back in a way that I don't have them right now, and I am trying to make sure that I'm up on the business I left behind seven years ago. I moved away from New York at exactly the same time I first got pregnant, and a lot of what I've done in the meantime is just try to stay relevant. I am active on social media because it makes people think about who you are and what you do, especially when you spend your days in a studio or a nursery or a carpool. I have to say, the organizations I've worked for have been very accommodating at every step along the way. I've nursed in recording studios, I've spread blankets and babies on the floor of rehearsal rooms, I've hired sitters in cities where the only contacts I had were the stage managers of my shows. What I won't do anymore is travel for something I don't believe in, or take a job that costs more in childcare than it returns in satisfaction. And if I'm going to have to miss bedtime, it better be good.

If it ever entered my mind to stop writing and focus more exclusively on parenting, it didn't last long. I would be a very cranky mother if I stopped working. I have convinced myself that it's important to show my girls what it looks like to be in pursuit of a dream. For all the good and all the bad, they seem to understand what I do and how much it means to me.

What are you working on now?

I have two musicals that are in various stages of development -- BIG RED SUN is a story about a teenager looking for his father in post WWII America, and the songs draw from the wildly different musical sounds of the 40s and the 60s. SING ME A HAPPY SONG is a book musical about five contemporary characters who are more technologically connected than ever but find actual human connection elusive. Beyond that, and the ongoing concerts with Susan Egan, I'm writing a musical this summer for TADA!, a children's theater in NYC, and I'm the composer in residence at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church here in California. I have the beginnings of a few new projects that are just starting to crack out of their shells, but I'm protecting them until they reveal themselves more fully. It's sort of like being pregnant again... but actually not like that at all.

Thanks much for taking the time to do this! Good luck with all your upcoming projects! 

Georgia will appear in concert with Susan Egan, this upcoming Monday, May 21st, in New York at Birdland, at 7pm, 315 W 44th Street.


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