Meet the Fellows: Len Schiff
What was your first experience with Theater?
When I was 3 or 4 and my grandparents still lived in Brooklyn, my favorite thing to do was to explore the shiny purple folio that housed their Gilbert and Sullivan record collection. I didn’t understand the stories or W. S. Gilbert’s highflown diction, but the intricate words and playful melodies (I skipped the slow songs) totally captured my imagination anyway. I have since inherited those records, and though I don’t own a turntable right now, I think they’re always playing somewhere in the back of my mind.
When did you recognize you were a writer? Or when did you start writing?
I don’t remember ever not being a writer! One of my earliest memories is of recording epic radio dramas (I played all the parts) on an old Califone cassette recorder that my dad brought home from school. Thankfully, these recordings have been lost to the ages.
My real start as a lyricist was at USDAN, a wonderful arts camp on Long Island, where I was in the musical theater program. In vocal class, while kids worked on their audition pieces, I used to write parodies of their songs. One day, one of the instructors pulled me aside and suggested that I should pursue lyric-writing more seriously. It was good advice: I never mastered the time step, but I found what I love doing most.
Where does your inspiration come from? Or who do you look to for inspiration?
Books and literature, comics, mythology and religion — those are my main sources for ideas. I’m drawn to stories that don’t sit squarely in one genre or another, but have a shimmer of the strange or fantastical about them. An author friend once told me to write the shows that won’t get made if I don’t make them — I’ve tried to follow that advice.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
I generally identify as a lyricist — even on projects I’ve initiated, I’ve made to have both a composer and a book-writer on board. In the Fellows program, however, my only partner is composer David Mallamud; I’m looking forward to a taking a deep dive into bookwriting, learning to shape a show that really represents our shared vision.
What do you find most rewarding about the writing process?
For me, writing is at its most rewarding when you’re in rehearsals, writing in the hall while the actors work in the studio. That’s when I’m most likely to experience a state of flow: the song tells you what it needs, the rhymes just come and every choice you make is right. Too relaxed an environment lets self-doubt creep in, but a burst of adrenaline can be wonderfully clarifying.
Len’s musical SIGNS OF LIFE (music by Joel Derfner, book by Peter Ullian) opened off-Broadway in 2010 at the Marjorie S. Deane Theater and went on to a run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. THE GOLEM OF HAVANA (2015 Independent Reviewers of New England Nomination, Best New Play; music by Salomon Lerner, book by Michel Hausmann) premiered at Barrington Stage’s New Musicals Lab, later enjoying a record-breaking run in Miami; it will next play the Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis. Other works include the musicals ÆTHERNITY (music: Chris Sidorfsky) ZACH IN PROGRESS (music: Georgia Stitt) and the one act opera USHER FALLING (music: Randall Eng).Current projects include a rock biography of Daniel Ellsberg with composer David Mallamud, an adaptation of the Ellen Kushner novel SWORDSPOINT with Joel Derfner and Peter Ullian, and an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAYwith Chris Sidorfsky and Austin Grossman. Len holds an MFA in Musical Theater Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is an alumnus of the BMI Musical Theater Advanced Workshop. He lives in Little Neck, NY with his wife, their son, and entirely too many board games.