- Kirsten Childs
- Age: "The night of my birth was dark and stormy; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets, rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
- Grew-up in Los Angeles; now lives on the Upper West Side
- Musical theater writer – Books, music and lyrics of Miracle Brothers upcoming at the Vineyard Theatre.
“Sexy and determined slave girls, sassy pirate kings, evil plantation owners, Spanish noblemen, and a singing chorus of devilish river dolphins”… these are just some of the things mentioned in the press materials for Miracle Brothers. What’s the story about, and what’s the audience in store for?
Hey, I never heard that press release before -- it’s hot! But no hotter than the slave girls, pirate kings and -- yes -- even the evil plantation owners in Miracle Brothers. This is a story about how a rebellious Brazilian slave and his unwilling slavemaster brother rock the 17th century while overcoming differences of their race and class. The audience will be guided (by friendly toe-tapping river dolphins) into the worlds of samba, capoeira and Candomblé. There’ll be thrills, chills and excitement, all to a Brazilian groove, so prepare to order a caipirinha at that Brazilian restaurant you’ll be heading for after the show. And if you didn’t understand some of those words, aren’t you lucky you’re online to pull up that search engine?
You made a big splash a few years ago with The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. How long have you been cooking up Miracle Brothers? Besides needing to do extensive research (island hopping?), how difficult is it to switch from something so autobiographical to something so fanciful? Is it easier to write based on what you know then, or to start with a completely blank page?
I was commissioned by the Vineyard to do a show about four years ago. It started out as a swashbuckler set in the South Seas, with pirates, castaways and a plucky island girl. But to my great chagrin, there were no damn pirates anywhere around the South Seas during the heyday of the buccaneer (“Bounty” mutineers don’t count.) I decided to move the story to a place where the most beautiful people in the world can be found (Brazil), and the story transformed gradually into one of two brothers, bound by blood but separated by race. In a certain sense, it wasn’t such a great shift of style from The Bubbly Black Girl, because in that musical, the main character is constantly escaping from the difficult realities of her life into a world of fantasy. And, like The Bubbly Black Girl, there’s an autobiographical aspect to Miracle Brothers.
As I was writing it, I would call my mother in Los Angeles to tell her the story. She loved it. More importantly, she remembered it -- a major miracle in itself, considering my mother had Alzheimer’s. It was so much fun telling the story to her -- it made us both laugh, and helped us to cherish the time we spent together before she died. My mom was very adamant about me figuring out a decent feel-good ending for the story instead of the noble, tragic one I was going to have. I think it was her way of dealing with and healing from the scars of her own family background -- a background common to a lot of black and white families in America, dating from the time slavemasters exercised their "droit du seigneur" (doesn’t it sound pretty in French?) upon the female slaves.
I’ve always loved the way magical fables and fairy tales deal with difficult subjects, and in writing Miracle Brothers, I think I’ve found a way to take on the story of my ancestors, both black and white, in a way that doesn’t make me feel defeated -- in a way that makes me rejoice in the power of love.
You’re in rehearsals now. What’s the process like? Are you at the theater every day working things over? How does the hierarchy work -- as the creator of the material, do you have the last word or does your director? How much give and take is there in the process?
Rehearsal is a weaning process, and I can’t figure out if I’m the parent or the child. People in the cast and crew and design team show you things you’ve never considered about your work. It helps if those people are gifted, as are all of the Miracle Brothers personnel. It also helps if you have a brilliant director, as is Tina Landau. Because trust is paramount when you’re working on something so close to your soul, and you have to accept that something’s not working, or even more hard to believe, that something is working. Tina Landau is able to inspire that trust, not only in me but in the actors and the production team. Did I mention that she’s brilliant? Ultimately, what ends up on the stage (book, music, lyric-wise) is my call, but there’s been a lot of give and take in this production’s process.
Although you began as your career as a performer, these days you’ve been working behind the scenes. Why give up the spotlight? Was it always your plan to disappear behind the curtain and start pulling strings? And if not, how did you evolve into a composer/lyricist/book writer?
My New York life has been rather picaresque -- I was a United Nations secretary turned modern dancer turned musical theater performer turned film actress turned Merrill Lynch secretary turned musical theater writer. The trick to doing that is, never reveal your past profession -- it tends to make people skeptical of your ability to do your present one. The Merrill Lynch secretary part was during the 80’s when I couldn’t perform for seeing the ghosts of all my friends on stage with me.
But after a while I rallied, and started doing what I realized I’d been evolving to since early childhood: writing musicals. There was this great one I wrote and performed (for myself) at about 8 years old on a summer vacation visit to relatives back in North Carolina. There was an opening number about how the sun was so bright and the sand was so white. It involved a lot of twirling and gesturing to the sun. I don’t actually think there were any more numbers, but that sun number was a show-stopper.
As for music, my parents had fabulous, eclectic taste and encouraged me and my siblings (Joy and Billy -- who is a jazz musician) to listen to all kinds of wonderful music. My brother and I would use Beatles’ songs as source material for operettas (yes, classical operettas) we would write. It helped us to write songs together, eventually for singers like the great Dianne Reeves.
For Bubbly, was it trippy to see a version of your own life performed on stage?
It actually wasn’t trippy to see a version of my life, because writing Bubbly was a way for me to discover how to write a musical. I took that “write what you know” dictum to heart. I needed to know technical stuff -- stuff about making 11 o’clock numbers work, about putting a “button” on a number, about what the hell is a sitzprobe. I didn’t want to worry about whether what I was writing had merit -- it certainly did to me, whatever anyone else said. Happily, I found out that it had merit to others, and that was even before the reviews came out. I did the show as a performance piece down at Dixon Place before it found a home at Playwrights Horizons. I was expecting censure from black folks and shocked pity from white folks, and at the end of the show, men and women from all different races came up to me and said, "That’s my story."
How difficult is it to pick up reviews … not knowing what the reception might be? Do you even read them?
It’s lovely to pick up good reviews, and devastating to pick up bad ones, but in the end, life goes on.
Your earlier credits include dancing with Chita Rivera in Chicago and acting with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. What were those experiences like? Were they like having any other co-stars, or were there things you learned by working with them?
I think Twyla Tharp has a book where she says, "Work with the best." There are no other words besides “the best” to describe Chita Rivera, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.
Words of wisdom …
From Chita to me: "You’ve always got to give them line."
From Richard (very gently, referring to an overly strident line reading I was giving): "Mm. That’s kind of…mean."
From Gene: his actions spoke louder than his words. I will always love him for his kindness and nobility.
You’ve only done that one film -- has your preference always been live theater?
Now wait just a minute -- if you watch Tootsie, just before Dustin Hoffman goes into the Russian tea room, you’ll see this black woman with a big glamour wig walking down the street. And I’ve got other movie creds, but you’ve gotta be quick!
I’m LA-born, and my first theatrical experiences were watching movie musicals and dancing to them in my living room. That was how I survived a lot of my childhood. But performing with a live orchestra on a stage in front of living breathing people -- there’s nothing like it in the whole world.
As a Tony nominator, you’re required to see every show on Broadway. Is it tricky to pass judgment on your peers? What are you looking for in a production? Do you ever just look at the schedule and groan?
To the first question -- no, not if you do it quietly. To the second question, something that makes me laugh, or cry, or tap my toes or think -- and not of whether I should order grilled boneless chicken at Monsoon or penne ala vodka at Coppola’s on my way back uptown.) To the third question, hell yeah, but I also look at the schedule and say, "Who’s the lucky friend I’m taking to this one?"
School kids in New Jersey this past school year got a taste of your work with Wasted, a play you were commissioned to write about substance abuse. What’s audience response been like? How do you the straddle the line between teaching and entertaining without sounding like an after-school special?
The audience response varies from school-to-school, but my favorite moments have been when the students accuse the characters in the play of succumbing to peer pressure. To appreciate this comment, you have to know that I interviewed countless students in various New Jersey Junior and High Schools. To a person, they said there was no such thing as peer pressure -- that it’s insulting when parents accuse them of succumbing to it. But to have young people engaged enough to get past the offensiveness of such a term and to try to understand what is happening to themselves and their friends at this crucial point in their lives makes me feel as if the play has served its purpose. I don’t know if I sound like an after-school special, but since I don’t really care if I do, I’ll just say that humor takes the curse off a lot of things.
You’re also involved in the TDF’s "Open Doors" program in which you take high school students to the theater. How did you get involved? How versed are the kids you work with in theater -- is it a completely new genre for them? What shows do you attend? Is the goal to find something entertaining that will hook new audiences or do you gravitate to shows that will also teach something?
Marianna Houston, the Open Doors program director, approached me about mentoring, and I was thrilled. To hear what young people have to say about their lives and the arts, and how the two converge, if at all, is enriching and informative. The students write journals about their theater experiences and the depth of their insights never fails to amaze me. Prior to seeing their first show, the majority of their journal entries include the observation that theater is only for rich old white people. I want to show them that that’s not true (or shouldn’t be true), so I take them to tried-and-true Broadway shows I think they’ll enjoy, like Avenue Q, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Proof or Twelve Angry Men. Then we’ll see something off-Broadway and probing, like Nine Parts of Desire, bridge and tunnel, or Syringa Tree. Maybe we’ll see something with a different American voice than what’s usually seen on Broadway, like Latinologues, Topdog/Underdog, Def Poetry Jam, The Color Purple or Raisin In The Sun. My goal is to have them watch shows that I think will make them laugh, cry, angry, happy, to have them watch shows where they can see their and other lives reflected on the stage. But most importantly, my goal is to listen to what they have to say and to have them listen to each other. So far, it’s been working.
Given the expense of the going to the theater (not to mention pursuing a career in the field), how effective has the program been on the participants?
It’s been wonderful in how it stimulates an appreciation for theater in young people, but hey, adults can’t afford Broadway ticket prices. We’ve got to figure out something to correct this problem soon.
What are you working on now? How many projects do you juggle at once?
Oh lord. Too much. I’ll let you know when it gets closer.
Things to know about Kirsten:
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
Barnes & Noble/Borders.
Gotham Mad Lib: When the ________ (noun) makes me feel ________ (adverb), I like to ________ (verb). (Strict adherence to "Madlib" rules is not required.)
When I’m writing a song that tickles me, I’ll get up, dance and Jekyll-Hyde myself into all the characters.
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
My LA "have a nice day" greeting has become "Have a nice day, or don’t, a------!"
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
Yes, and it’s just shameful.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
Go to theater.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
For all the good it does me, I glare at people who talk loudly on their cell-phones in buses or elevators. People! Who raised you?
Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
I’m sure that at some point it happened, but happily, I’ve repressed it.
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
An apartment sized walk-in bathroom with a thick soft grass carpet, island music and the sound of ocean waves wafting through concealed speakers. With media images of Tahiti flashing across the walls when you flip the light switch. And, of course, ripped pool boys waiting to dry me off with fluffy towels.
311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
Well, I’ve called it, and it either worked, or the problem resolved itself. Whichever one it was, it was three hours later.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
Remember the Tootsie reference? I didn’t realize that friendly lady who was talking to me was Dustin Hoffman.
Kirsten Childs' new show Miracle Brothers -- for which she composed the music and wrote the book and lyrics – begins performances at the Vineyard Theatre begins performances on Aug. 26 and is currently scheduled to run through Oct. 2. The Vineyard Theatre is located at 108 15th Street between Union Square East and Irving Place. Performances Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 PM plus matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Vineyard box office, by phone (212/353-0303), or online via TheaterMania.com.
-- Interview by Lily Oei and Aaron Dobbs