Tuesday, May 29, 2007

grad school - part three

Okay, the graduate school thesis story.

Early stages:
No one was surprised when Danielle and I announced we wanted to write our thesis together, as a two-woman production. We were, after all, inseparable. Besides that, we both saw many great benefits in making our theses a joint project: 1) only half, as opposed to total, responsibility for the colossal failure in a final project which was to represent the culmination of two years spent in toil, therapy, bottomless Little Debbie family-size boxes, stark, crumbling practice rooms with no actual pianos in them, bathrooms puking, voice lessons venting, dance classes ditched, fire alleyway chain-smoking, etc., etc; 2) well…actually, only half-ownership of failing was the biggest thing.

Personally, I had extra incentive to go in with Danielle on the project. I mentioned in the first installment, Danielle is a phenomenal belter. Her rendition of “When You’re Good to Mama” is something to be chronicled under your “Holy Crap, She Sang That Song and Now I Don’t Remember Where I Live” cabinet. Hitching my wagon to her star would gain me points nary obtained by flying solo. In my eyes, it was (and will always be) a very favorable venture to work with D. So off we went in search of a good thesis idea.

The project:
The performance itself had to be a 50-75 minute original production, consisting of at least 12 songs, with a well-outlined, well-illustrated thesis statement. It could be a production derived out of a book or play, it could be based on a person, or it could be in the form of an original lecture presentation. Danielle and I chose original lecture presentation.

We named our show “Elements and Archetypes,” which sounds very, very smart, doesn’t it? We wanted to explore female archetypes in musical theater and how these archetypes are assigned to certain vocal types - - either to a soprano or alto. Research involved first studying some of the original female archetypes in literature, music and art, and then finding characters in musicals which exemplified these archetypes (Laurie, from Oklahoma; Adelaide from Guys and Dolls, etc.) Then we went back and followed the history of musical theater, from its early beginnings down to present day. We noted that as musical theater evolved over time, archetypes were converging, more female characters were a combination of two or more types. With the blending of traits in these female roles came also a blend in vocal type and style - - in other words, women in modern musicals more often sang songs using both high and low ranges, both strong and soft dynamics (Aldonza/Dulcinea, from Man of La Mancha, Evita, etc.) She wasn’t just a soprano, she wasn’t just an alto. She was both and everything in between.

In terms of format, this is what we came up with. Danielle and I would address the audience as ourselves, we’d introduce an archetype (we used only four), tell the audience a little bit about her, then retreat into a scene/song segment, taken from a musical which best illustrated that archetype. The show would conclude with the introduction of a “new” archetype: the All In One. And we wrote a song about her, and that would basically be it.

The process:
It’s great that I can sum up our thesis project in a few short paragraphs now. Creating the show, wading through tons of research, selecting the right archetypes, picking the songs, constructing the script, it was all unbelievably difficult then. Not only did it have to work, it had to make sense, and our thesis, Hello! It had to be entertaining. It couldn't drag, and we couldn't lose our audience in too much rhetoric. We wanted to sing about things that matter, songs people would enjoy listening to, not just songs that illustrated our point. Finally, there had to be a story arc, a beginning – middle- and end feeling to the overall show. Not so easy when you’ve chosen a lecture presentation format. They needed to laugh, they needed to cry. Blah blah…yadda yadda. Have you got the picture? IT WAS HARD.

So there were deadlines for turning in certain things along the way. The first thing you turned in was your proposal, then an outline, then a revised outline (I think). Then you performed a first draft for your colleagues and certain members of the faculty, for feedback purposes. Lastly of course, you submitted the final performance. You were to meet with your advisor regularly for guidance. And as any graduate student can tell you, getting a good advisor over a deadbeat is like the difference between getting a cavity filled with anesthetic or without. Either way the cavity is filled, but how many years off your life did it end up taking? The general rule was, by the time you got to your first draft run of the show, your thesis was about 90% ready to go.

Fortunately, our thesis advisor was great. Unfortunately, no one else on the faculty agreed with the advice she gave us. Just one month prior to our final performance, we performed the first draft. It was a nightmare, total and complete. The song choices were unvaried and uninteresting, the script needed all kinds of revision, the archetype explanations were too dense. You name it, they abhorred it. I distinctly remember two faculty members arguing for five minutes about my use of the word “purveyor” in the script. Frankly, even I thought the show was boring and lifeless. After the feedback session, Danielle and I were left with no choice but to start over. One month to write a whole new show. We were panicked.

I think we threw out all but one or two of the original songs, we slashed and hacked out a tighter script, we slowed the archetype sections down so that people could follow, we added light cues so the audience would know when we were playing a role and when we were playing ourselves. I have to admit, the show we ended up constructing in one month was far and away a much better show. They were right. And Danielle and I were pretty proud of the end result.

The performance:
We performed our thesis exactly twice. One was technically an open dress rehearsal. The studio theater, where all theses are performed, leaked wetness from the ceiling. We had to tell audience members to steer clear of certain seats, unless they liked that whole Chinese water torture thing. (And I’m sure some of them did. These are, after all, theater people.)

We had great friends, and lots of them. Both nights were full houses, and the energy and love emanating from them was truly what made our thesis fly. My parents came to town. Danielle’s parents came to town. My bishop and his wife came, my home teachers came, other church peeps came. They laughed in all the right places, they cheered us on. It was indescribable. I remember Neil, the department chair, giving me the best compliment after he saw it: “Mary,” he said “I just love to hear you sing.” Do you know how many people in the world this man has heard sing? A lot. A lot.

Three weeks later, I crossed a stage wearing a black tent and hugged Neil again - - this time, as a graduate. I was gradutatiated. And I’ve been told that even today, certain battle-axe faculty members refer their graduate students to Danielle’s and my thesis as an example of a “good” thesis. I wonder if they bother to mention how they convinced us it was total bunk, even with all the revisions. Still, a great feeling of validation, that.

I feel purged. Most cathartic. I think I can close the book now.


ps. D, I had so much fun with you. You kept me safe. You made me laugh so much. Thank you. You are my shining stah. Miss you.

Mary--I remember when you first told us about your thesis at book club. If I was interested before, I'm absolutley intrigued now! Would that yall could reunite for a third performance--I'd be on the front row!
Mary, you are so talented! I have always thought that, from the time I met you. I wish I could have seen that performance!
Wow, what an installment. This brought back so many memories and emotions. I actually started to cry from the memory of how wonderful our audiences were. I will never, never forget our time together. The sense of accomplishment was enough, but having a person like you with my every step of the way was priceless. Tell Nat I'd be more than willing to fly out there and do it again!! I LOVE YOU
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