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Meet The Writers: Karen Kelm

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 performed in my first musical, Bye Bye Birdie, in high school. Decades later, I can still sing all the parts of “Telephone Hour”.

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

I started writing songs about 20 years ago, at first without paying any attention to genre or purpose, then attempting to fit in somewhere. As I moved through folky-guitar (nope), commercial pop and country (really nyuh-uh), singer-songwriter (wtf?), and little swing tunes (why?) I began to pay attention to the people who told me my material was “too much like musical theater”. Hold on a minute.

So I began to put together a musical theatre piece, using a few of these too-theatrical songs and writing new ones as the script unfolded. The show has since been showcased and the next version is under development. I’m hooked – and I have found my musical niche.

Whose work do you admire and why?

I remain in awe of the Golden Age composers and lyricists for their beautiful melodies and superb (albeit now anachronistic) word-play. I also enjoy some of the modern artists who write in a completely different style with equal brilliance. I once asked a friend to name his favourite type of berry. He replied, “whichever one I’m eating at the moment.” I sort of feel this way about whichever great musical writer’s work I am listening to.

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

I have many times experienced the “whoosh” of a song that comes down from the universe screaming at me to grab a pencil and paper; you don’t write these songs, you write them down. I once wrote a song like this – from start to finish – at stop lights, while driving home fed up with a relationship. I have also toiled over every note and word of songs that must be birthed the hard way, using every songwriting tool and principle I have gleaned over years of courses, books and collaboration. Both processes are rewarding, in completely different ways.

What do you want to see more of on stage?

I would like to see Canadian musical theatre continue to develop its own voice and standards of excellence. I believe Canadians are unique in valid ways that aren’t fully expressed on the Broadway or London stages. The only way to make that happen is to bring it up from within, and I’m very inspired by pioneers like Come from Away and The Drowsy Chaperone.

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

South Pacific. Which takes place on a desert island…

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

Writing – the actual process of being “in the zone” – takes me to a different dimension, where time is suspended and nothing around me matters. It is a vacation and an accomplishment at the same time.

What's a tip you have about collaboration?

Choose your collaborators well. You will always be the co-creator of a musical “child” that cannot be unborn.

Why did you join the Writers Workshop?

I wanted to meet people who are currently creating new musical theatre and learn more about contemporary musical theatre styles. I wanted to hone my skills in collaborative situations, to create something bigger and better than I can alone.

What is your favourite thing about the Writers Workshop?

I come away from every class with a new perspective on my own work, that I could not acquire any other way.

I come from a musical family, where “nobody can’t sing”, so it took a while before I realized that singing can be a form of performance as well as a natural expression of community. High school and university musical theater led to the professional stage and a career as a big band singer. In traditional musical theatre, nothing beats the template of the jazz standard (most of which originated in Golden Age musicals), so writing in that genre is ingrained for me. While my natural impulse is nostalgic, my creative energy is pulling me forward toward new forms of expression. I am enjoying the stretch of working with younger, talented writers.

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