The Fellows Spotlight series continues with Elliah Heifetz!
Earlier this month, we introduced you to Jessica Kahkoska; in January we featured Paulo K Tiról, and over the year, we’ll be hearing from all 2019-2020 Fellows: Andrew Rincón, Andy Roninson, Avi Amon, Kate Douglas, Kyoung H. Park, Melis Aker, Nikhil Mahapatra, and Nolan Doran.
About Fellows Spotlight: each month we’ll feature a new Fellow and invite you to take a behind-the-scenes look at our program. (applications for the 2020-2021 class of Fellows are open now!)
Each of these writers were asked the same series of questions, exploring where these writers have been, are now, and are journeying towards. Our Fellows took this gentle structure and ran, each submitting responses as unique and creative as they are.
Without further ado, we’re so pleased to put the spotlight on DGF Fellow Elliah Heifetz!
What was your first experience with theater?
When I was 5 or 6 years old at summer camp, my best friend left the arts and crafts barn to go audition for the musical, and on a complete whim I followed him there. I ended up playing the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. I still really identify with that song, “If I Only Had a Brain.”
When did you decide to become a writer? Is there a writer, show, or piece of writing that was particularly influential on your path?
My dad is a musician and composer, and so was his dad, and so was his dad, and so on for centuries. I come from a long, long line of Jewish folk musicians (klezmers)—but after my parents came to the States in 1990, they raised my sister and I with the idea that we could be/do anything we wanted and not necessarily follow in those footsteps.
Still, the truth is that I’ve always loved music more than anything in the world, as long as I can remember. So deciding to become a writer was just a series of “I’ve been kidding myself” moments, the first of which was realizing that I was happier writing and playing with my college pop band than I was pursuing whatever the hell it was I told myself I ought to be pursuing. No matter what else I tried, making music (which had only ever been a hobby) remained the only thing that completely, from my toes to my head, made everything full and perfect. That realization was when I was 20, and I started actually working towards a career in music for the first time at 21.
In terms of other writers or shows, seeing “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at the Public really blew my mind, same with “Passing Strange.” Concept albums like Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” made me so excited about writing musicals.
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
I’ve been pigeonholed as a folk/country composer before, which is funny to me as I’m the son of Soviet political refugees born and raised in the mid-Atlantic. If I’m being honest, I do really love writing in those genres and finding exciting ways to tell theatrical stories with them. But I’ve written and am working on several musicals that have nothing to do with folk or country—a punk/hardcore-infused ’50s period piece, a Coachella-inspired song cycle, among others—so I’d more generally say that I like writing in popular idioms. More than that, I’m not really attracted to the genre that is “contemporary musical theatre” (no hate, it’s just not my cup of tea!), so the lack of those tropes/sounds probably sets my work apart at least a bit.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been developing as a Fellow?
The Death of Desert Rose is a revisionist Western set in 1890’s Colorado about a female bounty hunter trying to stop her rival/former lover from committing a murderous train heist. I’m really excited to use folk, country, and country-rock music to bring the Western genre to life. It’s fun to imagine an outlaw gang as the 19th century embodiment of “bro country,” or write a contemporary “Jolene” with more of a murderous bent. This show is giving me the chance to write some of my favorite kind of non-theatrical music and find new ways to weave it into a musical without suppressing its twang or edge.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?
Spending a full day alone in a room with no one around me writing music.