We had the good fortune of connecting with Andrew Strano and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Andrew, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Let’s be real. Writing for theatre is hardly the most risky job in the world. Not even close. We aren’t saving people from burning buildings, or diffusing bombs – we’re working hard to try and put… I don’t know… true… little pieces of ourselves out into the world for other people to see.
But… there are definitely risks. Financially, creatively, and personally. Working as an artist takes resilience, and perseverance to reduce those risks. (Although having family who are rich, famous, or preferably both, certainly seems to help people).
My argument is that you have to reduce the financial risk in order to be able to take the creative risks, and that privilege is a huge factor in being able to do that.
I’m very lucky. I’ve been able to earn a living as an artist for a good, long chunk now, but it’s certainly a career without guarantees. There are plenty of career choices where if you do the training, work hard, and aren’t an arsehole, you can get a job with relative certainty. With my work – writing musicals – you might work for years for no money at all, and never get to see that work produced. Hadestown was around for years before it made it to Broadway. Michael R. Jackson worked on A Strange Loop for a decade before it won the Pulitzer. It takes a lot to take that risk and make work with no guarantee, but I’m certainly glad Anais Nin and Michael did!
The awful thing about there being next to no job security is… it excludes people that can’t take that financial risk in the first place. We might be missing out on some of the best art that could ever have been made because the people who could’ve made it are too bogged down by financial necessity to be able to pursue their passion.
There’s an amazing initiative in New York at the moment that I’d love to see more of… Creatives Rebuild New York are providing $1000 per month for 18 months to 2400 artists. And… yes, I know, 1k a month isn’t enough to live on. No way. Not in NYC. But… it takes the pressure off these artists enough that they can use the time they would’ve been working to write. Or paint. Or dance. Or sleep! Or have a nice breakfast with their friends! Which are ALSO important things! It levels the playing field. Makes making art possible for people who it might not’ve been possible for.
When I started to get bigger commissions, it took a lot for me to let go of my other jobs. My survival jobs. With them I was comfortable, and although I definitely knew I had to give them up to do the creative work, after the commission’s finished up, there’s no guarantee another one is around the corner. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen a friend’s instagram story say something like “Ok, once we hit August, I’m outta work. Any leads?”. Every time we let go of these comfortable jobs, it’s a risk. But we have to take it!
Another significant risk I’ve taken is the fact that I’m here in the U.S. at all!
New York is a big city, and there was every chance I’d have fallen on my face and had to go home. Beyond the obvious financial barrier, there’s the fact that I had to leave my creative community in Melbourne, Australia behind, and start fresh in a MUCH bigger pond here in New York City. I’m very lucky… I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing MFA Program at NYU Tisch, which meant that this kind of drastic transition was even possible. But it was still a huge transition to make, and although it’s going pretty well – I just had a piece workshopped Off-Broadway – it was scary. But the fact I knew I’d be at NYU with a bunch of likeminded artists – instant community! – meant I could even fathom it, and I’m grateful for those people every day.
The very act of making art involves risky stuff too. You have to be honest, because the whole job – as I see it – is showing people pieces of ourselves so that they can see themselves reflected in them. We’re saying things that feel impossible to say, revealing feelings that people normally keep hidden… And that’s so hard to do unless you’re safe. If you’re financially ok, and if you have a strong community around you, it’s so much easier to be as vulnerable as we have to be. What I want is for more and more people to be looked after enough that they feel this safe. There are people taking real risks out there – saving us from burning buildings, and diffusing bombs. These people make it so that there’s a world for us to live in. Then, with any luck, we can make that world a place that supports artists enough that they don’t get cut out of the equation. So that they can tell us stories. Help us to see ourselves more clearly. Develop our understanding of each other, build empathy, laugh, cry, see ourselves and our plights represented and know we aren’t alone… so they can give us hope, and make it so the world that others have given us is one we WANT to live in.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
In my work, I’m just trying to be honest, and specific. It’s hard, because our job as writers can be to put our characters in tough positions, and then write truthfully for them, meaning empathetically putting myself in their shoes, which can be one of the biggest challenges of writing, at least on a self-care/wellness level.
In some cases, being able to put myself in a characters’ shoes means research, research, research – especially when I don’t share the life experiences of the character I’m writing. Sondheim said it – I’m paraphrasing here, but – “as a writer, you only have three things: your authorial instinct, personal experience, and research”. Sondheim had never been married, so when he was writing Company – a musical all about marriage and commitment – he sat down with Mary Rodgers and quizzed her all about it. It’s where the details came from for him. I do a lot of that too. I need the details I’d never be able to guess on my own, and it’s always much easier to use reality than invent things. Plus, I’ll often realise that my initial authorial instinct was off, and be able to adjust!
Or, if I’m writing from personal experience, it means being brutally honest with myself. Why does the word “alone” resonate with me so much when it’s set to music? Like, why do I basically immediately cry?! Because it’s scary! People need… you know, people! And I’m people!
Either way, whether it’s through research, or through my own experiences, the empathetic positioning of myself in a character’s shoes can be really hard on me.
Now, I’ve had an amazing year. I’ve seen “Voyagers” and “SKIN” – 2 new full length musicals get extensive workshops – Voyagers in Australia, and SKIN right here in New York City, debuting Off-Broadway at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. I’ve had a new opera, “CHICKEN/EGG”, produced and performed by the American Opera Project, and “STARSONG”, a piece of puppet theatre get produced as a part of the Chain Theatre’s Summer Festival Off-Off Broadway,
But all of those pieces, and Voyagers and SKIN particularly, put their characters through the wringer, and that means that to write those pieces, I had to go through at least a shadow of what those characters do.
Figuring out how to write Voyagers was particularly challenging. The piece deals with the isolation that living in rural Australia brings – both literal, because you can be miles from anywhere, and not so literal… the isolation that the toxic elements of masculinity, and a culture that doesn’t promote sharing your feelings brings.
The story follows Katie – an Aussie artist who’s been living overseas – as she returns home. The play picks up as she arrives back with her family, and
stays with her for the next two weeks… the week before, and then the week after her brother Matt chooses to end his own life. Though a lot of it’s filled with humour – it’s how we cope – it’s been hard yakka for me as a writer. Because when I work on the piece, I have to ask myself what these characters would truly be feeling, and go from that place. And you don’t get to just dip in and out of it either. You have to live in those uncomfortable spaces and find ways to honestly express the character’s perspective. It might take me a couple of hours to write a lyric, or it might take me a week. Which means that, even though the character sings their way through the song it becomes in 3 minutes 24 seconds, I might have to live in it for days. Maybe the fact I work this way is something to do with the fact that I’m an actor as well as a writer, but it’s how I find my way through.
A few years ago, I played the part of Roland in “Constellations”, which is… just a stunningly beautiful play. It’s about the multiverse, bees, and two people who meet, and fall in love. Or don’t fall in love. Because multiverse. And the one thread (spoilers here) that remains consistent is that Marianne, Roland’s other half, gets brain cancer. So as an actor who’s present through all of this piece, part of my job was to react truthfully to the imaginary circumstance that my wife (though like Sondheim, I’ve never) is dying.
They’ve apparently done these studies – and I’m sure I’ll misrepresent this – but the findings are essentially that even though your mind knows that the circumstance is imaginary, your BODY doesn’t, and all it interprets is – what to it – is very real grief.
I experienced a bit of that writing these pieces, and truly, I had to learn how to look after myself. I found myself exhausted after a day writing… at first I coped by a mixture of video games and ice cream sandwiches, but… that’s not the solution.
The ACTUAL answer, like to most things, has been professional help (there are free services, or here in the US the Dramatist’s Guild has grants to help you), and friendship. Community. And kindness to myself. Recognising that writing can be hard on us. As can any method of truthful expression.
…All of this is why I’m determined to get back to my roots and write a comedy next, oh my god, it’s so necessary.
And I have a CRACKER of an idea.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
When I used to travel here, I’d save up for AGES, and blow all my money on show tickets. I grew up in a little town in Australia called Wagga Wagga – it’s where “Voyagers” is set – but that meant I never got to see much theatre. SO we’d definitely be seeing some. It’s really magic, sitting in the dark with strangers and feeling things together.
Beyond that, there are so many beautiful spots in New York that are actually mostly about getting away from all that… I love Prospect Park – it’s a green haven in the summer, and it’s magical in the winter… I’m always the first to message my friends as soon as snow falls to drag them out sledding.
Or we could get out of the city to go see the art in Beacon, or cycle the trails as the leaves change colour.
Most things are fun with the right people. But… Dancing til you sweat through your shirt in Bushwick, then sitting on the curb with a slice of Artichoke’s finest, or breakfast at Cafe Madeleine (which has the largest menu I’ve ever seen), omelettes and fries at a diner, or pasta at San Marzano ($12!! And good! With gluten free options!)… any of these are magic with the right people. And I’m starting to feel like I’m finding the right people.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Of course! I love this. What I love about musical theatre is how collaborative it is… I mean, all art is, but musical theatre writing’s SO dependent on other people, and a huge part of how good you are at it has nothing to do with your ability to write well… Like improvisational theatre or jazz, it’s about how good you can make other people look. How can you highlight their strengths? How can you let them lift your work up to be more than it could be on its own? Music is so powerful that more and more, I’m so sure that my only job writing a lyric is to inspire a composer to do their best work.
How much you need other people is so obvious as a lyricist – like, what are lyrics without music? A bad poem? If the lyric is any good, it has to be incomplete – otherwise there’s no room for the music! Good lyrics need the music to lift them. Fill them with meaning.
I’m a book writer/lyricist, so I always work with composers. I mean, I guess it’s possible to write book, music and lyrics (look at Michael R. Jackson, who just the pulitzer prize for “A Strange Loop”!), but… that sounds so lonely. I don’t think I could stand it. BUT, even if you write it all on your own, you still need actors and a director, and a musical director, and designers and a crew and… I mean, even then, the final collaborator is the audience.
So let’s dedicate this shoutout to my composer collaborators:
Loclan Mackenzie-Spencer, who I wrote “Nailed it!” and “Voyagers” with, and makes me laugh and cry with disturbing regularity, and not just with his music.
Lucy O’Brien, who I wrote “Jack of two trades” with, does a better Julie Andrews impersonation than anyone I know, and can inexplicably silence even the rowdiest crowd at a piano bar with her wild belt.
Erin Hoerchler who I wrote my first Opera “CHICKEN/EGG” with, and showed me we could find a path where it felt impossible.
Erika Ji who’s work on “STARSONG” has ridiculous heart, and who cares so much.
Yuriko Shibata, who I wrote “SKIN” with. There’s no other way to say it. Yuri’s just special.
And the whole cohort I shared my time at the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program with. So talented. So powerfully themselves.
Just like these people’s music lifts my lyrics, gives them direction, makes them whole, these people do the same for me. I couldn’t be where I am today without them, and that’s exactly how I want it to be.
Kurt Sneddon, Matt Davidson, Flick Smith, Darren Gill, Helena La Petite, Dustin Barlow