Musical Theatre Factory And The Means Of New Development

How a new force in the development of musical theatre was born.

Shakina Nayfack Monica Simoes

A year and a half ago, I was at lunch with a friend who happens to run a gay porn studio with a great midtown-Manhattan location. It had become tradition for me to hound him about the underutilized potential of his space every time we hung out. “We’ve got a year left on the lease,” he told me. “I just feel like I should give you a key and tell you that you can do whatever you want in the back.” I replied, “If you’re serious, I will make something happen.”

After conferring with a few close collaborators, I emailed my circle of friends to announce that I was building a black box theatre in the back of a gay porn studio just off Times Square. This said black box theatre would be dedicated to the development of new musicals: The Musical Theatre Factory (MTF). The porn company agreed to underwrite the materials for the renovation with an interest-free loan if I could provide the volunteer labor to pull off the construction.

Volunteer labor…I’ve always been enchanted by the Marxist idea that laborers ought to be the owners of the means of production. For years, I contemplated how this philosophy could apply to independent theatre makers trying to find backing for their shows. So what are the “means of production” in new musical development?

Musicals take a lot of it. They need to be drafted, re-written, read, taught, sung, and staged, usually several times over before they are anywhere near a finished state. Time isn’t just an ephemeral concept either; it’s an economic resource with real implications for any artist working to support themselves and their craft.

Studios cost money, and the bigger your vision for the show, the more space you need to get messy. At MTF we use words like “safe space” and “sacred space” to describe our environment. The vulnerable act of nurturing and sharing new work deserves protection. You need to be able to try out great ideas alongside bad ideas, and discover which one is which.

Musical Theatre is by nature a collaborative art form. You need to see and hear what you’re creating, and that means getting folks together in the same space at the same time to explore your work. Smart and talented people who invest their energy in what you’re creating give you feedback, and push you to grow.

I wanted Musical Theatre Factory to be built upon this Marxist ideal of artists-as-laborers, owning our means of production. We started with a series of Work Parties and Community Brainstorms. For Work Parties, I’d email everyone and say, “This weekend we’re building a sprung floor, come learn how to do it!” or “Tomorrow we’re grommetting curtains, who’s down?” Then, Community Brainstorms focused on articulating our mission, vision, and programming. Writers, composers, performers, directors, music directors, choreographers, producers, dramaturgs, and designers all shared their thoughts on what MTF could and should be.

We had lengthy discussions about the issues many early-career Musical Theatre makers face: writing for music stand readings and concerts rather than the vision of the show itself and feeling limited to a small cast size to create something “producible.” We also discussed the difficulty of finding development support over the long-term maturation of a project and the ways our labor unions are at times at odds with the economic realties of independent new musical development. From these brainstorms arose a few innovations that have fundamentally shaped what the Factory is and how it operates.

At some point, most people working on news musicals will call up their friends and say, “Hey will you come over and sing this song, or read this new script with me?” At MTF we’ve pooled our resources. Our Director of Technology, composer Danny Abosch, created a dynamic, searchable, volunteer database that anyone can sign up for. We list about fifty skills one might need in the creation of new musical theatre.. We send out volunteer calls weekly for casting, creative team staffing, administrative support, and manual labor. Volunteers are the work force of the Factory. In less than fifteen months, we’ve had more than 800 unique volunteers put in a combined total of over 10,000 hours of creative work at MTF, supporting the development of nearly eighty different shows.

The core of MTF programming is our Assembly Line, which aims to support a new musical from its earliest stages through a full first draft, and even a first production. The first step in the Assembly Line is our Factory Salon: a monthly open mic night for Musical Theatre writers to come and play finished or unfinished songs. Then, we have our 4×15 Series, another monthly program in which the creators of four new musicals each receive five hours of rehearsal to stage a fifteen-minute excerpt of their piece. These segments are presented together for a public audience and a panel of industry professionals. Next, is our Development Residency Series in which one new musical receives twenty to sixty hours of rehearsal leading up to a first-act or full-length performance. The final step in the Assembly Line is a Showcase Production. We’ve seen several projects come through the first few steps, each time growing from the peer evaluation and feedback. So far, we’ve done one full production of an Assembly Line show and we hope to pull off another by the end of this year.

At Musical Theatre Factory we define a member as someone who “demonstrates a commitment to the development of new musical theatre through volunteerism and event attendance.” In order to become a member, you need to attend one event as part of the audience, and then volunteer for another event, an administrative initiative, or a work party for a minimum of four hours. It’s not a complicated process, but it helps us distinguish people who want to become active within the MTF community and those who are simply looking for an opportunity to showcase their own work

This fall Musical Theatre Factory is preparing for our first gala and the launch of our most ambitious program to date “New Orchestrations,” which pairs early career writers with established Broadway orchestrators to create stunning new renditions of their work performed by Chelsea Symphony. It’s a massive undertaking and by all reasonable standards totally impractical. I guess that’s why we’re doing it.

It’s true that the political economy of new musical theatre development involves a certain amount of “star-fucking.” All I can say to that is, don’t be afraid to ask people to work with you. To be an originator is an awesome gift and you’d be surprised by how many people are down to get scrappy and rally behind something new. But instead of focusing on “getting big names” to promote the visibility of your project, think about the people whose work inspires you, and how you can build relationships with them rooted in integrity, collaboration, and gratitude.

As musical theatre makers, I wish we could collectively decide to end the cycle of economic dependency for the actualization of our selves and our art. How wonderful it would be to focus on building mutually supportive networks for feedback, skill sharing, cross-promotion, and space holding. Make your own hub in a kitchen, living room, church basement, or porn studio. If we can’t radically decentralize wealth, we can at least radically re-centralize our talents. We can choose to work together and create our own means of production.

For more information about Musical Theatre Factory, visit us online.