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Meet The Writers: Jenny Andersen

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?

I was a shy 10-year-old with buck teeth and stringy hair, but I could sing. I had a remarkable Grade 4 teacher, Frances Roche, who’d sing along to her Phantom of the Opera cassette tape while she taught us math. We adored her. She decided she’d put up an elementary school production of HMS Pinafore. I was cast as Buttercup. I might have been shy off stage...but I blossomed when I stepped onto that stage. Never looked back.

First show I remember seeing was Fiddler on the Roof at Stage West in Calgary. We were in a box seat and I remember leaning over, transfixed, while the actor playing Tevye sang the entirety of "If I Were A Rich Man" to me.

(Cool full-circle moments: I later had the chance to perform in both of the above shows - the role of Chava in Fiddler in high school, and as Buttercup in Pinafore a few years back.)

When was the moment you decided to write for the theatre?

...when Andrew Wade, the book writer/lyricist for The Light and Delightful Musical Comedy of Titus Andronicus, said: “hey, my composer backed out...wanna write a musical?...”.

Haha. Well, technically I’d written incidental music for the stage about 12 or 13 years before that for a theatre company in Calgary. I’d been contemplating writing a musical for over a decade, however; when deadlines, a guaranteed performance and a contract were offered for Titus, it was time to finally jump onto the musical theatre composition train.

Whose work do you admire and why?

II adored Adam Guettel before I even knew his larger works; I fell in love with the songs he wrote for Audra McDonald’s albums. Guettel’s music IS a character, so much so that it transcends lyrical content. Every harmonic decision, every motivic idea, every rhythmic twist is serving the character. It speaks louder than any lyric could, in my estimation.I also love Irving Berlin (beautiful melodies that stand so profoundly on their own) and Jacques Brel (simply constructed melodies which sound difficult because of the harmonic underpinning in the accompaniment).

How do you like to write? What is your process? Where do you find inspiration?

I think I’m still parsing out my individual process. Inspiration percolates rather slowly in me, and if I waited for it to strike fully, nothing would never make it onto the page. So, currently, I’m getting my best work done when it’s associated with another project: the composition class with Daniel, the cabaret festival I’m produced the past few years, the pitch session for InTune, etc. I remain confident I’ll develop a more self-disciplined approach along the way.

All that being said: I think I’m most creatively inspired by sense imagery. I love the connections between sound and, say, smell or taste or touch (I still think I’ll write a musical centering around tea one day). I’m also fascinated by what happens to music when we take those senses away. How do deaf and/or blind people experience music differently? I love the interplay of all one’s senses in music.

What do you want to see more of on stage?

Strong female characters in their 30s and 40s. Musicals focusing on realistic characters instead of larger-than-life ones (Come From Away! Fun Home!). More play development from underrepresented segments of our creative community. I recently had the opportunity to perform in the choir for King Arthur’s Night, written and performed by actors whose life experience includes Down Syndrome. It was a magical, incredibly unique, incredibly valuable creative voice which showed up on stage. I carry a considerable amount of privilege as a white, able-bodied artist, but where I can, I’d like to be able to champion and aid in those sorts of works coming to light.

If you had to pick one musical cast recording to be your "desert island record" which would it be?

Currently: Fun Home. (This changes every few years.)

Complete this sentence: "I write because...”

...there’s that fleeting moment in the middle of creation where it feels like I’ve used music to explain one small part of the universe in a way which no one has ever experienced before. My mission as an artist in general is to make people see things differently, even if only for a split second. When I hit on that musical phrase which provides a “eureka” moment for me, all the rest of it is worth it.

What's a tip you have about collaboration?

Use your empathetic response to others. Find out what makes your collaborators tick and what’s valuable to them. Allow them to showcase that. Avoid dampening their creative spirit to satisfy yours. There’s room for everybody. Be constructive. Phrase feedback/criticism in a way which allows them to build a bridge from where they currently are to where they can go.

Why did you join the Writers Workshop?

Because I needed Daniel to kick me in the pants and give me deadlines. Haha. But seriously, it had been 15 years since I’d had my university-level compositional training as part of my music degree; it was time to expand on that knowledge. I also wanted to stop treating composition as such a “precious” thing - I’d often stopped myself from writing because of a fear I wouldn’t achieve some sort of phenomenal, “perfect” artistic expression. I knew that a class environment would help me come to terms with the fact that sometimes we need to write, even if it’s not perfect or profound. We need to PRACTICE and hold our feet to the fire in order to build the skills to become a Guettel or a Sondheim or whomever.

What is your favourite thing about the Writers Workshop?

Daniel has a fantastic way of encouraging individual artistic expression. He’s great at sussing out what one currently knows and then leading them to the next step. I also love hearing what everyone else comes up with. At least once every class, there’s been something from another participant which has blown my mind. It’s a humbling experience and it makes me want to be better. (I find myself getting so enthused about the process I have to keep myself from talking non-stop in class discussions!)

Originally from Calgary, Jenny has made Vancouver her home for over a decade and counts herself fortunate to have worked as an actor, singer, instrumentalist, composer, professional chorister, director, producer and educator in that time. Having previously written incidental music for theatre companies in Calgary in the 2000’s, her first foray into musical theatre composition came when she wrote the music for TITUS: The Light and Delightful Musical Comedy of Titus Andronicus with bookwriter/lyricist Andrew Wade. The musical (produced by Awkward Stage Productions) won Pick of the Vancouver Fringe in 2015, received an Ovation Nomination for Best New Work, and remounted at the York Theatre in 2016, with new arrangements/orchestrations mentored by Daniel Maté. Since then, Jenny has written original music/lyrics for her cabaret Where I’m At as part of the Impromptu Cabaret Festival, and has worked on composer/lyricist collaborations with a number of Vancouver-area artists.

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