5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Crystal Skillman

James Cromwell getting arrested while protesting a new NY power plant in 2015. He recently went to prison after refusing to pay fines related to the arrest. Photo Splash News.

IMG_4356Whether you’re working in the theater or covering the theater in New York, there are, in the fullness of time, people that one knows and people that one must know. Playwright Crystal Skillman epitomizes the latter group. She is one of those practitioners who many of us will remember flying under the radar, working diligently and without fuss to polish her craft, before reaching a level of success that won’t make anyone envy her because everyone will be aware of how well-deserving she is.

Nor am I the only person to notice this. I think this profile of Skillman is particularly good — a nice window into her writing process and the subjects and approaches she adopts. This piece, from earlier this year, also is highly insightful.

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But I also felt the announcement that the York Theatre Company would present a reading, on Tue. Oct. 6, of That’s Andy, a new musical for which Skillman has written book and lyrics (with music and additional lyrics by Kevin Carter, conceived and with additional material by Bobby Cronin, directed by Clayton Phillips) called for a new opportunity to interview her. Indeed, the reading stars Tony-winner Beth Leavel, which isn’t bad pickings at all for a scribe who has been coming along in the wilds of Off-Off-Broadway for the past few years. In truth, Leavel and Skillman had agreed to do a Q&A with each other for the Clyde Fitch Report, then word came that Leavel’s schedule had become, as the British would say, a little wonky. So while we elected to postpone Leavel’s much-awaited contribution to the “5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked” series, it still seemed imperative to give Skillman some CF Report love.

For the record, the That’s Andy reading is booked up solid — it’s probably easier to score a front-row seat for A Steady Rain and have dinner with Daniel Craig immediately afterward. But that’s just a testament, I think, to the interest in the work that Skillman has been doing. And so it’s no surprise to those of us in the know.

And now, 5 questions Crystal Skillman has never been asked:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Where are you in your plays?” I heard this from a few theater artists I really respected a few years ago. At first I thought this was an idiotic question (as I often think first off the bat, see below) but it’s the one that changed me the most as a writer when I finally really got it. Even though I’m writing fiction, the more of myself that goes into my plays — those big, dark fears I have — the work becomes specific, more personal and can relate more to an audience. How I do that in my work, while respecting my unique voice as a writer, has been the journey to creating the kind of plays people are seeing from me today — such as Birthday, about two lonely people in the backroom of a bar, produced by Rising Phoenix Rep, or The Sleeping World, about four playwrights who come together to read their recently deceased friend’s play when they discover it’s about them.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
It’s interesting — there many, many times when I first hear a question that I think is way off the mark (see above) but as I grow more mature as a writer, I’ve learned to listen more. Usually later, when working on the play, I get what an audience member, interviewer, friend or collaborator meant! I’ve found that folks may not know exactly how to phrase what it was that they didn’t get, but it can indicate something is not quite right with a moment I’ve written or that something is actually off. What’s funny is that I’ve been asked to do a lot more stupid things as a writer than questions I can remember. Like when I was asked to rewrite the book scenes to Peter Pan, the musical, for a theater camp so they would feel like they are working with a professional playwright yet have the kids work on an established musical so there would be no risk. Which of course I didn’t do. (This was the same theater camp that only presented Act 1 of Into the Woods, by the way, cuz Act 2 was too dark…!) I also really, really get annoyed by the age-old joke when I ask for a pen and someone says, “I thought you were a writer.” Seriously, do you ever give a chef grief if they don’t have a ladle on them?

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
There is a weird one I get a lot from friends that don’t do theater. I love it when I say I’m going to a reading of my new play (or even mention going to rehearsal for it with actors) and they ask, as if to confirm, “So, you read all the parts yourself, right?”

4) You have a few exciting upcoming events — like the reading at the York. That’s Andy is musical about a boy who wants to play Annie. Um…explain?
Bobby Cronin (whose musical B.R.A.T.T CAMP is currently being developed in Chicago with La Red Music Theatre) came up with this great idea a few years ago. He asked me to be the writer and thought Kevin Carter would be a perfect composer. The first draft I brought in was exciting because it was so new and different and really flipped the concept in wonderful, unexpected ways (like the lovely Mary Martin, who makes an appearance as Peter Pan to console Andy, has been in there from the beginning). But as with most new musicals, it really took time to find the right tone and to hone (ah, potential lyrics!) in on the story we were telling. Over the years, Bobby, Kevin, and I have become a really strong writing team and it has been a joy. Our best work has been this year — this new, hot-off-the-presses rewrite will reflect that at the York reading. There’s something about where the country is, struggling with ideas of what is right and wrong in a polarized nation, thrust into another Depression, that really sets the stage for this story. Our work this past year has been very much inspired by what is happening today — Andy’s story now takes place in very real world that even leads him to being put on reality TV. Of course, there are even more twists and turns which make it even more awesome and Kevin Carter is going to be a big discovery in terms of his music, which seriously rocks the show.

5) This is your first musical. What’s it like being a dramatist who also writes book/lyrics?
I’m amazed by how concise musicals are. It’s all about economy of form, not only in lyrics, but in the book scenes. The point of coming to a musical is to have a story told to you in a musical way, so the book is incredibly important to set up that song and make it soar. At the same time, it can’t be too long and like all great writing must push forward the action, but also must about the details or you can get melodramatic. Fortunately, I think one of my strong suits has always been my characters. The plot of That’s Andy is both heartbreaking as well as super-funny, but it’s the characters — the determined Andy, his shy but sensibly witty mom, the overly charismatic Mayor, a pretty colorful town, the larger-than-life media mogul Betty Sweet (played by the amazing Beth Leavel, whose support has been incredible) — that makes the show. You care about them all.

As a dramatist, going between the world of straight plays and musical theater makes sense for me. While I mainly write dramas, most of them have songs that creep into them here and there. I come from a great downtown tradition that you find in the work of Maria Irene Fornes or Richard Maxwell, with teeny character moments that can only be sung. What’s funny writing-wise is that I’m much quicker as a bookwriter. What I can write in an hour with a book scene could take me hours as a lyricist. But the reason I wanted to write both book and the bulk of the lyrics is to have consistency with who the characters are. I wanted to avoid what bugs me about musicals — when characters sing things they would never say in the book. Our team has been awesome about working with me on that too: we are always talking about what can be better, pushing ourselves to achieve a piece that is truly seamless between words and music. Speaking of…I’m pretty tired right now…but also I have to get back to drama…I’ve also gotta finish up rewrites for the second episode of my new play Hack, about three rival ex-hackers working I.T. at a hedge fund, going up in episodes in the Vampire Cowboy’s Saloon Series. The next one is Oct. 10! (Nice plug, hm?)

Bonus question:

6) So it has to be asked…what’s your favorite musical?
My senior year in high school we did Anyone Can Whistle — my favorite Sondheim show, which he wrote early on in his career. It has the most incredible book by the incredible Arthur Laurents (yes, I know, that’s two incredibles) that is insane and so makes sense and is still relevant today about a bunch of nuts who are let loose from the “Cookie Jar” and no one can tell who is sane or not. In Act 1 there is an amazing stage direction in which all the actors turn and applaud the audience as they tell these nice ticket holders that they themselves are crazy. So it’s not surprising that it only lasted nine performances in 1964, but wow! Of course, in the high school production I played a crazy person — those were the only character parts I ever got when I used to try acting in drama club. Hmmmm …I wonder why.

Anyway, it’s one of the few books for musicals with amazing monologues as well as songs. And it should totally not work, but it does in that show. For me, that crazy little show was the first inkling that musical theater could really say something in a big way.

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