A Split Lip Chat With Janet Burroway

J. Scott Bugher

The starstruck phenomenon has never made much of an impression on me. I used to work in the entertainment industry and have met several music and film stars, but they never gave a sense of shock and awe. Things changed in August 2012. I was in the middle of developing Split Lip and, on a whim, I emailed Janet Burroway, author of Imaginative Writing, the book that led me to drop art school in order to study creative writing. I wanted to see if she would be up for doing and interview for my little journal. I sent the email just to know I tried, but didn't think she'd actually read it! So how did I feel when I saw Janet's name in my inbox the following day? Starstruck. Shock & Awe. First time in my life at thirty-four years of age. Janet had to coach me through my cyber-hyperventilating. After I snapped back into it, we started to chat about a specific project she had been working on over the past three years. The chat turned into a somewhat candid interview and is now available for you to check out below. Enjoy. 


How important is it for a writer to be in fellowship with other creative thinkers? I’m asking because I heard you’ve been working the past three years on a new musical, collaborating with a young composer named Matthew Kiedrowski.

I think the need for community varies from writer to writer and in one life from time to time.  Hilma Wolitzer says, “Writing is not lonely.  Not writing is lonely,” and there’s serious truth to that.  Nevertheless, solitude is necessary to writing and may also become oppressive.  If writers didn’t feel the need for company, there wouldn’t be 10,000 writers at the AWP convention!  Many if not most writers say they are grateful for a trusted group.  But none of them have produced good work without hours, and then hours, and then hours alone. 

​I have always had both a strong need for both solitude (I can’t go a day without some) and for company (I can go four days tops.)  When I was a young mother I fought for solitude, although, married to a theatre director, I enjoyed writing for the theatre and the social life of the theatre.  When I divorced and became a single parent / single breadwinner, I found that I needed to write fiction partly because I was bruised by theatrical as well as marital strife, partly because I’d landed in Tallahassee, Florida, and partly – mostly – because I was in an emotional state in which I couldn’t even find out what the story was without getting inside my characters’ heads.  So for thirty years of teaching I was always, always, fighting for time alone to write, mostly fiction. 

​But when my now husband Peter and I retired, we were no longer surrounded by university students and colleagues, solitude was easy to come by, and for me the idea of working in a theatre group again buoyed my spirits.  I also felt, vaguely, as if I’d learned how thought is expressed in behavior, and I was ready to write in action and dialogue once more.  We were fantastically lucky to land – mostly by accident – in the country in Wisconsin (lovely green solitude) within a short train ride to Chicago (fantastic theatre groups!).  I joined Chicago Dramatists and Midwest New Musicals and am now happily immersed in writing the musical (Morality Play, adapted from the Barry Unsworth novel) and a play about my elder son.  I’m with groups three or four times a week, working with Matt days at a time, with the feeling that I’m coming back to my first love, the theatre, and even to my very first efforts: poems I turned out in the seventh grade in rhymed and metered forms very like lyrics.

​That’s awesome to hear you have a good grip on balancing solitude with company. I’ve noticed writers who maintain an exclusive isolationist stance are very prolific, but limit their potential by failing to reach out to others for workshop, editing, or representation. Then those who thrive on an extroverted personality seem to be too busy networking with others while their portfolios are rather light. There really is a need for both solitude and company. Speaking of company, it sounds like those surrounding you now aren’t exactly AWP attendees. They sound like they’d be more inclined to attend an NAMT (National Alliance for Musical Theatre) conference. I want to get to Morality Play soon, but first have to ask, what has drawn you back to working in musical theatre, back to your first love?

In the 90’s Lynda Davis, a very fine choreographer in the very fine Florida State Dance Department, lured me back to the stage writing texts for dance.  We started by trading classes – her choreographers would come to the fiction workshop, we’d go to the choreography workshop.  Then I spent a term giving writing exercises for her students to solve in movement.  As they danced I, pretty much spontaneously, began feeding back to them in words the images I saw in their forms and patterns.  They called it “white lady rap.”  Lynda convinced me to perform as narrator in dance pieces we constructed together, and we did four or five of those on various themes – quilts, place names, one comedy routine we called “The Empty Dress.”

So that whetted my appetite for the footlights again.  Then in 1996 I reviewed for the New York Times Book Review a novel by Barry Unsworth, Morality Play.  It’s about a traveling acting troupe in 14th century England who come to a town where a boy has been murdered, and they can’t get an audience because nobody is interested in anything else.  So the troupe invents Docudrama – and in the course of imagining their play they solve the murder.  There’s also a runaway priest, a beautiful deaf woman charged with the crime, an evil Duke, plague, pederasty, and three love stories!  I loved the novel, which is both bright and dark, and kept thinking about it.  A year later I wrote Unsworth proposing to make a musical of it.  He liked the idea, but the book was under option for a movie (which finally came out in 2004 – not very good).  The timing was skewed in several ways, but by the time I got to Chicago I also managed to get the option, and at Midwest New Musicals I found Matt, who is a brilliant young composer literally 50 years younger than I am.  We work perfectly together, conscious of the ways our lives differ, in complete accord about the work.  We had the first full concert reading of the musical this past February in Chicago, and I’m here to tell you that when I heard my words soaring back to me in 16 voices ..!– well, there is nothing like that in the process of  novel writing. Sadly, Barry Unsworth died in June.  I realized when I heard of it that I had been ambitious to please him – a very warm and wonderful British writer.  But we will carry on with the musical, with the blessing of his widow.

It’s true not many of the theatre people are also in AWP.   More likely ASCAP or Dramatists Guild – though there are some tentative connections.  AWP has more playwriting panels at its convention every year, and next year the Dramatists Guild will hold their first national convention (in Chicago – yea!).  They’ve worked with AWP to learn how the convention is organized, and how it has grown (from 300 people in 1972, the first convention I attended, to 10,000 this year – too many, really.  The Lollapalooza of writing).

With regard to those isolationist writers – I often envy them, though I also sometimes think their lives must be thin in ways that mine is rich and messy.  In any case I could not be one of them.  I’m a nester.  I love food, company, décor (tomorrow twenty of my husband’s noisy Hungarian family will be here for paella and multiple birthdays – I love it.)  And beyond that, my muse quits after about four hours.  In revision I can go forever – that’s just work.  But when I’m really writing, the well runs dry and I have to go do something else while I wait for it to fill.

So, you’re the white lady rapper I’ve been hearing about. The arrangement between you and Lynda has got to be one of the coolest ideas I’ve heard in a while. I love hearing about the various disciplines in art and how they can work together.

Yes – have you seen Motionpoems? – an online series of poems with video artists’ interpretations.  Brilliant.

I recently took a look at motionpoems.com. Fascinating stuff. Split Lip’s poetry editor, Scott Siders, has had a couple of his poems adapted into short films. I’ll be sure to tell him about the site. I’m sure he’d enjoy it as well.

I am very sorry to hear the news about Mr. Unsworth but am glad to hear you and Matt will continue with Morality Play. Now, where does the musical stand at the moment? It sounds like the writing and music arrangements are complete. Are there more performances lined up? Do you have intentions to send this production out on tour?

Ah, complete; you must be joking.  No, a concert reading is a way station in the writing of a musical, and for all its thrill, the lesson is: back to the drawing board.  You know, when I first thought of writing a musical, I thought: I’ve loved musicals since I was a child, I know how to write, my prosody is good: of course I can write a musical!  When I got to Midwest New Musicals I gradually – and sometimes grudgingly --learned how intricate the form, how many its demands, how much is known about what works and what doesn’t.  How could this, my ignorance, be?  I’ve been teaching the intricacies of fiction and even drama writing most of my life!  How come I didn’t realize this form would have its own demands?

For instance: lyrics are not decoration.  They come out as emotional overflow from the particular character of the singer or singers in the particular moment of the action.  You can say that a dozen times, but until you’ve tried to make it happen, you can’t understand it, how difficult and how crucial it is.  And musical lyrics are necessarily full of mnemonic devices.  Almost all the songs will have three “A” verses with the same form and usually some tag or refrain line, the purpose being to seduce the audience into remembering that line, humming or singing it on the way home.  Rhymes must be true so they fulfill the expectation of the ear, and can therefore be heard.  And so on.  For a year I dabbled and hassled, learning these and other tricks.  When pros told me it takes three to ten years to get a musical to production, at first I didn’t believe them.  Then I did.

Here’s the usual pattern of a musical’s writing: first there must be a book, that is, a full script of the story.  Then book writer, lyricist, and composer must agree where the songs go.  There must be a variety of “charm” songs, ballads, comedy, and “scene songs;” scenes that have been subsumed into a song.  Sometimes the composer writes the music first (usually for ballads), sometimes the lyricist goes first (usually for comic songs).  When book, lyrics and music are intact, there will be an informal or “table” reading and a critique of what doesn’t work.  Back to book, lyrics, and/or music.  When that revision is done (often a matter of months) there may be a concert reading like the one we had in February (we were very lucky that John Sparks who runs MNM had an NEA grant with which he could hire the necessary 16 actor-singers).  The great gift of the concert reading is that you get to hear what’s wrong in the company of a live audience (and our audience was very alive).  Now Matt and I are revamping the beginning, cutting about twenty minutes from the book, replacing four songs, and completely, completely, rewriting the last three scenes.  Then we will go hunting for a production, hoping to interest a Chicago company or, failing that, to raise the money ourselves.  Know any angels?

Pardon my assumption that a bulk of the musical is complete. Three to ten years to get a musical into production? I had no idea. Does that discourage you at all, or does it motivate you to bust your tail on the project? All of that revamping, cutting, replacing, and rewriting sounds rather heavy. Do you and Matt have a strategy to tackle it all?

I wouldn’t call it a strategy, though I guess it’s a rerun of the first process, with both of us knowing a whole lot more about what is and isn’t happening in the version we heard.  We’ve agreed on needed changes of emphasis, streamlining of plot, rearranging a build, introducing an attack here, a payoff there.  Now I’m reworking the book while Matt does sketches for new songs, then we’ll put together the new stuff we have and see where we are.  When we think we’ve fixed the problems we saw, we’ll ask the workshop for another table reading. 

Discouraged?  No.  Oddly, we’re still in love with the damn thing, and that makes us eager, though we did need a breather after February’s flat-out push.  I say oddly, because it takes me that long to write a novel, and usually I am discouraged, or maybe bored, about two-thirds of the way through.

Not long ago I read, in a sparkling memoir by a British writer I knew at Cambridge in the late fifties, this sentence regarding the writing of lyrics:  I had at last discovered what I want to do when I grow up.  He’s my age.  He made this discovery a little earlier than I did, but not much.

I’m still seeking for what I’d like to do when I grow up. Seeking isn’t very challenging; it’s the growing up part that remains the difficulty.

Janet, it’s been fabulous discussing your new musical and to hear you’re in love with the work. Before signing off, I had a couple of quick questions. First, how can our readers keep up with Morality Play’s progress?

I’ll post any development progress on Facebook, and if we get that first big production, you can be sure it’ll be on page one of my website: www.janetburroway.com.

And second, who would be your picks for the leading male and leading female actors?

Ah, fun question.  Let’s see.  The thing is that my fantasies run to actors I’m familiar with, so they are probably on the wrinkly side of hot.  Given my pick of any musical actors in the world, I’d put Richard Gere in the role of Martin, the leader of the troupe, and Jason Alexander in the role of the errant Priest, Bernadette Peters as jaded Margaret -- a 14th century feminist in the making -- and Patti Lupone as Mistress Peachfield, who can belt out a song or a man.  In Chicago I could cast it half a dozen times from the rich pool of actors here, with Doug Peck musical-directing and Emily Rohm as the beautiful deaf Jane Lambert.  Ah, I wish.