In our "Meet The Writers" series, we're learning more about the participants of the CMTWC Writers Workshop. The Vancouver Writers Workshop meets every two weeks where, under the guidance of Daniel Maté, writers learn and practice the craft of composition and lyric-writing.
What was your introduction to the theatre?
My folks took me to small, local, kid-oriented theatre shows when I was a youngster in Winnipeg. Sometimes the family would go see larger productions of musical theatre shows at Rainbow Stage. Also my dad would sing Gilbert & Sullivan and Andrew Lloyd Weber songs around the house all the time just for no goddamn reason. All. The. Time. And he didn't remember half the lyrics so he'd scat them Sinatra - style. "...what then to do about Jesus of Nazareth?" became "...scoobidy doo-wap dee doobity doo-wap" etc..
When was the moment you decided to write for the theatre?
Despite this, I entered into a songwriting career - first with rock bands and eventually with a raunchy cabaret comedy act called The Wet Spots. We took our musical influences from Cole Porter and Tin Pan Alley - witty lyricism mixed with explicit sexual subject matter. We were a natural fit for working alongside burlesque troupes. A local troupe had been branching out into musical theatre parodies, for example: Greece The Musical, which retold the Persephone myth using music from Grease. At that time the troupe was writing song parodies a la Weird Al. We started working with them on a burlesque backstage musical with an original plot and original songs. (We were later informed that the plot wasn't actually terribly original.)
I had been writing songs with an aim to get a laugh for many years at that point, but for this show I actually wound up writing a song that made people cry. It even made me cry, and I cry perhaps once a decade. I knew I wanted more of this business, and I knew that there was no room for a song like that in The Wet Spots. So instead my collaborator and I dug into the burlesque musical - we've been developing it for 8 years and counting. That's how it started.
Whose work do you admire and why?
I have utterly lowbrow tastes when it comes to musical theatre. I like all the obvious, pop-influenced stuff. Rocky Horror Picture Show. Reefer Madness The Musical. Avenue Q. I haven't yet seen Book of Mormon but I've enjoyed most of Parker & Stone's songwriting collaborations with their various South Park properties. Eric Idle and Neil Innes are some damn fine comedy songwriters. Jack Black and Kyle Gass have written some extraordinarily clever comedy songs over the years - many of which also drove the plots of their TV show episodes. I hope one day they actually put together a proper full-length rock opera parody.
I've always loved 'tasteless' humour and 'illegitimate' performance forms like drag, burlesque, pro wrestling, punk rock, heavy metal etc. (My take is that they are modern clowning forms.) And I love shows that bring the provocative elements of these forms to an audience that might not be quite ready for them yet. I love the provocateurs who actually have the goods to make their provocations succeed.
How do you like to write? What is your process? Where do you find inspiration?
I like the idea of writing and I like when the process is rolling. But the starting is hard. So I make commitments to projects, and then I have to deliver. I sit down and try thing after thing until something works. Then it usually stops working and I throw it out and start over. If I'm really lucky and I get part of something that I know is worth keeping, then I can obsessively edit it in my mind until it's done. My family and my employers are getting maybe 60% of my usual presence and attention during this editing phase. It never turns off. It's like something caught between my teeth until the song sounds exactly right.
But getting from the blank page to that part of something worth keeping? Getting that heaven-sent idea? The best ones always seem to arrive when it's 4am or I'm in a traffic jam. Maybe I should keep one of those bedside table notebooks or a dictaphone handy in the passenger seat but that feels desperate. I'd rather just sit down with the guitar and the mike and Logic. I only have certain hours that I'm open for business for those first fragments to come find me. I put in so much overtime during the editing process that I feel ok about this boundary.
What do you want to see more of on stage?
Shows that speak to my community. The folks who go to rock shows and burlesque shows and drag shows and raunchy cabaret shows and midnight cult films. Burlesque and drag talk about what's going on in the world, and what's going on down the street. They're like topical monthly community plays except no-one would be caught dead calling them that because a community play sounds like a sad goddamn chore that might get a house of 20 people out. These shows are community plays that pack in sellout audiences who cheer and whoop and stomp and drink the bar dry.I also want to see more variety in the people we see onstage. More people of colour. More trans folks. More people of different shapes and sizes. More people with disabilities. More roles featuring disabled people or larger people or older people as romantic, sexual beings. Live theatre is miles ahead of most media in this respect but we still have miles to go..
If you had to pick one musical cast recording to be your "desert island record" which would it be?
Jesus Christ Superstar as scatted by my Dad. Or maybe Passing Strange as interpreted by Kiki and Herb. I once got to hear Amanda Palmer do most of the Rocky Horror soundtrack... I guess I like left-field re-imaginings.
Complete this sentence: "I write because...”
I've always been making things. I started with Lego and I never stopped. I've gone through periods when people wanted to hear my stuff and I've gone through periods when they had no interest at all. It doesn't seem to have any effect on my desire to make things. I just make things. I don't have the faintest clue why.
What's a tip you have about collaboration?
If you don't think you're lucky to be collaborating with this person, you probably aren't. Go collaborate with someone else.
Why did you join the Writers Workshop?
I want to improve my craft. I'd heard Daniel's songwriting and it was excellent, so I thought I could learn things. I also thought I might find people who I feel lucky to be collaborating with, and I have.
What is your favourite thing about the Writers Workshop?
Seeing people's different superpowers at work.
John has been writing songs since 1987. In 2002 he formed musical comedy cabaret duo The Wet Spots with Cass King. The duo has played venues such as the Public Theatre NYC and the Sydney Opera House. Their songs have been covered by Alan Cumming, Margaret Cho, Amanda Palmer, and Jinkx Monsoon.
In 2009, The Wet Spots wrote SHINE: A Burlesque Musical with Sam Dulmage, with productions in Vancouver, Seattle and New York City. It’s now in pre-production for a film adaptation.
In 2010 and 2013 John wrote the songs for the Seattle Erotic Art Festival’s original revue musicals.
In 2012, John wrote the songs for The Grimaldis: A Musical Ghost Story, with productions in San Francisco and Seattle.
John’s current musical theatre project is the story of a young high school graduate with cognitive disabilities who finds community and chosen family in an anarchist bike collective.
John currently lives in Vancouver with his partners, and rocks out with the band Cass King and the Next Right Thing.