Writers share their collaboration story in this guest blog post by a successful writing team!
By Pamela Weiler Grayson and Alice Jankell
We Make Each Other Better
When you find the perfect collaborator, it’s like finding the perfect life partner, sometimes better – and that’s no offense to our respective husbands. There’s a special magic in creating shows together, as those shows become your “babies,” ones that you hope to raise together and watch grow, through all the ups and downs of parenting.
Like the best life partnerships, a successful musical theatre collaboration involves constant accommodations, listening skills, flexibility, compassion, respect, and a good sense of humor. And at some point it usually involves a lawyer, who can draft a prenup of sorts (a collaboration agreement), which legally sets out the rights and ownership shares of each partner.
We’ve been each other’s “work wives” for over six years, with Pam writing the music and Alice and Pam writing the book and lyrics together. We are grateful every day for having found each other. We are always evolving the partnership, which keeps it exciting and manageable with our ever-changing lives. There is a lot of talking involved, and sometimes it’s about character arcs or song placement, but often it’s also about what we want for lunch or what real-life dramas our kids are going through at that particular time. Sharing our outside lives with each other inevitably deepens our work.
And now, here’s how we do it:
How We Met
Pam: I’m starting off, because the inception of our collaboration happened when I was searching for someone to help me develop some songs and scenes I had written. A producer recommended Alice for her directorial and dramaturgical talents and because she thought we’d be a good match. And yes, it’s basically like we had a Yente the Matchmaker set us up. I sent the material to Alice and –
Alice: I loved it!
Pam: See, we finish each other’s –
Alice: -sentences. When this producer first contacted me about Pam’s project, I was skeptical. She was presented to me as a woman with a collection of scenes and songs about motherhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Not my world. (Motherhood, yes. Upper East Side, nope.) But then the producer sent the material over and I’ll never forget…I sat on my downtown couch reading and laughing out loud! The pages were hilarious, smart and brave and true. This woman could write! I knew we had to meet.
Pam: I was so excited about the prospect of working with someone like Alice, although I was quite anxious, too, since I had been freelance writing for years (and had a background as a musical theatre performer), but I had not really written as a dramatist. And I had always written alone. I didn’t know if I could work on a project as a writer with someone else helping. But I knew that in order to get to the next level, that’s what I needed.
Alice: I was nervous walking into Le Pain Quotidien cafe where we had agreed to meet. It felt like a blind date. But as soon as we started talking, I knew Pam and I had so much more in common than I had thought. Though I live “downtown” and have a tiny, sparkly stud in my nose, and Pam lives “uptown” and –
Pam: – so far has not let anyone other than a plastic surgeon touch my nose –
Alice: – our families and humor are astoundingly similar. We happen to both be Jewish, both born and raised in New York City, both married to doctors, and each have an older daughter and a younger son. I looked at Pam and said, “If you’re willing to go even deeper and darker with this material, beyond what the women’s magazines write about, beyond the blogs and television shows, and explore the secret places that no one discusses, I’m in.” Pam broke out in a grin and said, –
Pam: – “That’s EXACTLY what I want to do.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship! Alice did so much writing work on URBAN MOMFARE (the show that grew out of that first meeting and went on to win a Best Musical award at the 2014 NY Fringe Festival), that she became co-book writer in addition to director.
Alice: That was a defining move. We are on our third musical as co-writers now, including lyrics!
How We Work
Alice: Pam and I always say that we make each other better. And we do. Together our writing is more complex, edgier, sharper, and funnier. Whenever either of us writes anything we always know the other will “fix it” and lift it off the page. Sometimes we sit and tackle a scene together. Sometimes we give each other scene or lyric assignments and we each go home and write. Then we bring the “stab” at the scene or song to the other and she makes it better by cutting it, tightening it, adding more specific detail or wit, and always by pushing for another emotional layer or extra character reveal. It’s important to us that every scene, song or bit of dialogue explores a multitude of conflicting human motivations. We always ask each other, “Is this as far as we can go, or is there more here that people don’t like to talk about?”
Pam: For songs, we talk a lot about what we want the song to say and how it moves the show forward, and usually we try to decide on a hook before we write the rest of the lyrics. Those are things I learned from the BMI Workshop, and they are really helpful. Sometimes one of us takes a stab at initial lyrics, or we write some out together.
Alice: Pam is our composer and, for music, we first have Pam take a shower, as that’s her go-to musical inspiration spot.
Pam: Yeah, I get really clean when we’re in the middle of songwriting. Then I rush, dripping wet, to my iPhone, record on Voice Notes, and email it to Alice. And then the real process of wrestling with the song and its meaning begins.
Alice: We give each other platforms to jump off of.
Pam: We have a pretty set schedule of when we meet. And we can have very productive phone sessions that can last for several hours.
Alice: This gives structure to our process. We also found being part of a writing group/class together helps, as we are assigned to bring in weekly scenes and present them as a team. We are in Kate Moira Ryan’s Master Class (Katemoiraryan.com) [playwriting].
Together, Wherever We Write
Pam and Alice: We feel like we’ve created a voice together that’s louder and clearer than either of our voices alone. And now we call ourselves “A & P,” yes, like the supermarket chain. It’s all about branding!