Natalie Wilson is one of our fearless leaders, who recently did a “pre-read” of her musical Sweethearts of Swing. Her official reading is July 16th at the Triad.
#selfies are an ongoing interview series where Lather, Rinse, Repeat playwrights interview one another. They have free reign over the questions. The interviewee must then post an actual selfie, for the sake of being meta.
ISAAC R. Where do you come from (born as well as raised) and how does that personal “geography” affect your work as a playwright?
NATALIE W.: I was born and raised in Los Gatos, CA — your basic California suburb about anhour south of San Francisco. Though I didn’t hate it growing up, I hate suburbs now. Each place I have moved since college has been increasingly urban, culminating in Manhattan (which I never want to leave). I know a lot of writers set plays where they are from, but I have yet to do that, probably because I find suburbs depressing. Though I did set my first full-length, Breaking Pairs, in an Arizona suburb circa 1979, specifically because I wanted the depressingly generic nothing-will-ever-change-unless-I-get-out-of here feeling of that.
ISAAC R.: From your musical background, I can see that this has had a strong influence on your work as a playwright. Why did you decide to start becoming a playwright?
NATALIE W. I became a playwright sitting on the lava rocks in Kona, Hawaii in the fall of 2008, writing in my journal while the rest of my family snorkeled (I was flying home that day and couldn’t get my snorkeling gear wet). Having quit my opera-singing career the year before, I had since started collaborating with Kat Sherrell (the composer for Sweethearts) on cabaret shows. We had just gotten the idea for a cabaret show for kids that would introduce them to the Great American Songbook (Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, etc). We had a concept for a story about two sisters with a time-traveling piano, and I started journaling about how such a time-travel universe might work. I wrote 30 pages by hand without stopping and suddenly realized I was writing the book for the show. I then decided maybe I should take a playwriting class since I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And here we are.
ISAAC R.: Your piece “The Sweethearts of Swing” is based on actual historical events. Describe your research process for the piece, including research and assembling the musical elements.
NATALIE W.: I discovered the existence of all-girl swing bands in the 1940s from a book called Swing Shift by Sherrie Tucker. I magically stumbled across it while researching a completely different show (like you, Isaac, I have a penchant for setting shows in different historical periods). That book was my first and primary resource. There aren’t a lot of resources about this particular piece of history — especially not about white women who passed as black to play in “colored” bands — which is the only reason I can imagine that no one has told this incredible story before. I did find a couple of other books and a documentary on one particular band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. I also read a lot of non-fiction books and articles related to the period and the Jim Crow south in general, watched a lot of movies set in the south that were actually made during that time, and read tons of plays and novels that were similarly set. I looked through old Down Beat magazines on microfiche in the library to try to find tour schedules and venues where they played. I listened to as many recordings as I could get my hands on of music from the era, particularly by female musicians (alas there are very few extant recordings). There was also a lot of googling (what did we ever do before google?). In May, Kat and I took a trip from Memphis to New Orleans, stopping in many of the towns where I have set the play, to speak to musicians and people who were alive back then about the history. We got to meet several people who actually saw the Sweethearts of Rhythm in person when they were kids! (And one town even wrote an article about us). We’re still working on actually getting to talk to some of the band members who are still alive. As Kat is doing all the music, I can’t really speak to her process for creating and researching the music — but I know she’s as anal as I am about it.
ISAAC R. Who has been the biggest influence on your playwriting, both creatively and professionally?
NATALIE W.: I have to give credit to Julie McKee, my first playwriting teacher. I took from her at HB Studios. I stayed in her class for several terms, and learned so much about incredibly basic rules which I still think about all the time when I write: characters always have to want something; no unmotivated exposition – it has to come out in conflict; any time a character says “remember when” is death; make the bad guy sympathetic; and so much more. I also learned very valuable lessons about the feedback process (both giving and receiving), which have helped make me a much better writer and artist. She still teaches at HB; I can’t recommend her highly enough.
ISAAC R.: Why did you decide to start up LATHER, RINSE, REPEAT?
Brandon Marianne Lee (our co-founder) and I met in writing classes at ESPA-Primary Stages. They had a panel discussion one night about a writers group. I texted Brandon across the room during the panel and said “let’s make a writing group!” We went out after, and over a bottle of chardonnay planned just that. Our initial impulse was that we really wanted a forum where we could hear works in their entirety. Generally in classes you only get to hear 10 pages at a time, and that is a difficult way to get feedback. So we chose 8 amazing writers and gave each one a week to hear their full-length play out loud. The writers we brought in have helped turn it into so much more, with great ideas like adding professional actors to read, doing a short play round with a performance after, and a retreat to generate new ideas for the next round. We’ve now expanded to 10 writers, and it’s taking on a life of its own, which is awesome.