Songs of Note

Live Theatre Workshop turns people’s poems and stories into songs performed live

The creative process is a mysterious thing. To try to define or to articulate clearly how it works is almost impossible. If you were to ask someone to draw you a map of the creative process, it might look like the helpless tangle of a skein of yarn, or like a three year old's determination to use every crayon on a page of a coloring book resulting in what might be an untidy representation of an atom imposed over a simple drawing of Bambi.

In other words, it can be messy, both the process and the attempt to explain it. Most of us, although we actually utilize a creative process every day, are just happy to enjoy what that messy phenomenon produces.

For theater folk, that process includes another mysterious element: collaboration. It's simply, but absolutely, part of the equation. If the participants are of similar mind and feel safe disclosing their vulnerable selves, the outcome can be wonderful. Take away the safety and selflessness, you're likely to end up with a clunker.

In the scope of this process, there is an interesting project underway at Live Theatre Workshop as a part of their Etcetera program. It's not the rehearsal of a play. It's something unusual that happened last year and was so well-received, it's happening again.

Michael Martinez, managing director of LTW and contributing talent to their family theater, All Together Theatre, has dreamed up the Your Song in My Mouth Too project, which exercises, in a unique way, the creative process.

"I've been writing songs for years, and I guess I was a little bit in writer's block. I had this idea that it would be safer to write songs based on other people's stories rather than my own."

He said he admired songwriters that write from more than an autobiographical source, but he really wasn't one of them. Thinking about how actors throw themselves into different roles, he wondered how taking on another's material might work with songwriting—but not by himself. He knew he had some talented folks he would enjoy working with, and, as a bonus, he thought that it just might possibly be a unique way of connecting Tucson's community.

His idea was this: What if he asked the community at large to submit original poems or stories? Then a small group might take those contributions and transform them into songs and perform them for an audience.

The folks he invited were all performers he had worked with. They were not only talented and skilled, they were also attracted to this kind of endeavor because it would challenge them in new—even scary—ways. In short, they were jazzed.

"There were just so many good reasons to do it, I couldn't not do it," he says.

Like the event itself, the name came from a bout of unconventional group creativity.

"There were a few of us standing around talking about what we could call it, and finally I said, OK, on the count of three, everyone just blurt out a suggestion. We counted and I blurted out 'Your Song in My Mouth.' And we burst out laughing like it was the silliest thing ever, but it stuck."

Martinez pronounced their efforts last year "resoundingly successful." The one show sold out, and it was such an intimate exchange that Martinez knew they were on to something special.

This is generally how the process unfolded, both last year and this. A call went out by email, social media, newsletters and word of mouth for people to submit a poem or a story. There was an impressive response.

"We all read over the poems and stories and we call dibs. It's a bit of a free-for-all. We would let each other know if there was something we wanted to work on, and everybody else would just leave that one alone. Then we present it to the group and everybody starts to add their instruments and their ideas and it starts coming together. Then we start figuring out the orchestration and start rehearsing it."

All of the participants do vocals, along with piano, percussion, guitar, mandolin and bass. Because the artists participating enjoy working collaboratively, they practice a great sense of respect for each other.

"Everybody has input. We may start by talking about the stories themselves. We ask each other a lot of questions. It's a very functional little family. It comes about very organically."

Of course, there is respect, not only for each other, but for the material they are working with.

"People send in their stories and they're intimate, even though they may not be really deep. It's a heavy duty to read these stories and respect the effort that it took to get them to us. Some are stories that are heart-wrenching and beautiful and personal, so when we read them, hold these stories in our hands and our minds and decide to write a song, we really have a duty to respect what people have sent, and get it right. It's intense. You don't want to take somebody's beautiful big step in their life that they've made in sending it to you and write a song they would hate."

Martinez explains that this doesn't necessarily mean actually using the words of what people send in. He says that what really inspires members of the group comes from "drilling down into where this story came from. Why did they write this story? What is behind it?"

This sharing of stories is at the core of what theater does, Martinez says. "We get people together in the same place, thinking about people who are not them but recognizing that we are more similar than we are different."

"It's just so cool, to get creative people who are not connected collaborating in this weird anonymous way."

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