This is the latest in our Meet the Fellows series, where we introduce you to the current class of DGF Fellows. Each of these writers and writing teams have proven themselves to be leaders of the craft whose work we expect to be enjoying for years to come.
Since its inception in 2000, the DGF Fellows program has provided a home for more than 160 writers. Over the course of this year-long intensive, composers, lyricists, playwrights and bookwriters work with professional mentors, honing their individual processes while developing a full-length piece. Beneficiaries of this rigorous and highly selective fellowship receive stipends, development opportunities, and a foothold in the industry. Alumni include Anna Ziegler (Actually), Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Academy Award winner, Frozen) among dozens of other vital contemporary theater makers.
Helmed by Michael Korie (Grey Gardens), Laurence O’Keefe (Heathers, Legally Blonde), Sheri Wilner (Kingdom City) and Diana Son (Stop Kiss), the DGF Fellows program is singular in that it pairs playwrights and musical theater writers, creating a space for diverse and interdisciplinary creators.
Applications for the 2018-2019 program will be accepted until noon on May 2nd, and can be found at dgf.org/fellows-application. It is our pleasure to help spread their unique and promising voices. Now, get to know Janine McGuire and Arri Lawton Simon.
What was your first experience with theater?
Janine: Growing up in New Jersey, I was fortunate to be near Broadway and make frequent trips to the city with my parents to see shows. The first Broadway musical they took me to was Tommy (yes, to some an unusual choice for a 10-year-old). My dad had played me the concept album and explained the story ahead of time, and I was absolutely transfixed by the experience. Because of that, rock music always struck me as a natural fit for the stage.
Arri: My parents both work professionally in music and theatre, so the arts have been a part of my life since before I can remember. The moment that changed everything, though, was discovering the film of West Side Story on television at six years old. I was hooked.
When did you decide to become a writer? Is there a writer, show, or piece of writing that was particularly influential on your path?
Janine: I knew I wanted to be involved in theatre in some way, but I didn’t love performing. Around age 12 I started writing songs (and later musicals) alone in my bedroom, only showing them to my younger sister and a few friends from summer camp. I had the idea to become a musical theatre writer after I fell in love with The Phantom of the Opera and learned who Andrew Lloyd Webber was. I idolized both him and his early collaborator Tim Rice, whom I thought always chose adventurous subject matter and did things their way. Throughout my teens I wrote almost daily, turning every school assignment I could into a musical as well as using songwriting as a personal outlet.
Arri: I grew up with both a recording studio and a puppet theatre in my basement. It was the era when video camcorders became ubiquitous, and my best friend and I would spend hours creating and recording elaborate plays and songs for our own enjoyment. After 17 years of wanting to be an airline pilot, I decided during my senior year of high school to study composition instead, with the intention of becoming the next John Williams. Eventually my love of theatre won out, and I ended up in New York, writing for the stage.
We both found our way to the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where we realized we didn’t just want to write, but that we wanted to write together. We found common ground in our shared love of properties such as West Side Story, Ragtime, and Evita but also found ourselves inspired by the vastly different ways in which we experience the world.
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
Our work is a reflection of us: fun, emotional, sincere (and hopefully smart!). We care deeply about the craft and tradition of musical theatre, and at the same time are always looking for new ways to move the form forward. We try to choose subject matter and tell stories that feel like they need to be told right now. People often tell us that we have a “fresh” sound, which we think is a product of our close collaboration; we write book, music, and lyrics jointly, and preferably in the same room. Because of this, our different perspectives and personalities combine to produce something neither of us could have written alone.
Can you tell us a little bit about the show you’ve been developing as a Fellow?
Our show Borders, based on the 2006 film The Bubble, by Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky, tells the story of an Israeli man and a Palestinian man who fall in love amidst the conflict surrounding the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. The score is a blend of contemporary musical theatre and Middle Eastern music with a pop/rock sensibility. We’ve been getting invaluable feedback on all aspects of the show within the Fellowship and are excited to be getting closer to a complete draft.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?
Writing theatre is sort of anthropological: in writing human stories, we get to explore the world and know our fellow humans better. A lot of the time the process leads us to discover new personal truths, and to find answers to questions we didn’t know we had. When we get to share that with an audience and see how they respond, it’s just the best.