Brian Yorkey: On the Craft of Writing for the Musical Theatre

Interview by Joe Deer

Brian Yorkey has won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score for a Musical for Next To Normal. He was also nominated for the Tony for Best Original Score for a Musical for If/Then. Yorkey is also a prolific writer for television and film, including his recent series for Netflix, 13 Reasons Why. In 2011, during the Broadway run of Next To Normal, Yorkey spoke with Joe Deer about his development as a writer and director.

JOE DEER: I know you grew up in Issaquah, Washington. Were you involved with theatre in high school?

BRIAN YORKEY: I was very involved with theatre in high school. There were four shows a year that you could be involved with and I was involved with all except maybe two in the four years I was in high school. Actually, and I’m very proud of this, I won the drama medal as a graduating senior from my high school. So that was one of the proudest moments of my life.

JD: Were there any projects or experiences that you had at that time that made a big impact on you and helped you in some way in the direction you’ve gone? 

BY: Yeah, there were a few. The first was I actually had never been in a musical before. And I’m not a tremendously good singer. I can get by if I have to. But, because I was male and loud, I was much in demand for the musicals. So, I was able to play Luther Billis in South Pacific and I got to do Ali Hakim in Oklahoma! and just some really amazing and quite fun parts. And I got to be in musicals for the first time in my life and began to understand their special power and the special sort of pleasure that comes from a really good musical. And I think that was the beginning of my love affair with musicals and what they could do and how they can win over an audience.

Another thing that my high school had, which was great, was the “Freshmen/Sophomore One-Acts,” which were plays acted by freshmen and sophomores and directed by seniors. Being in those was a big part of my experience when I was an underclassman. And then, as a Senior, I read a bunch of one-acts trying to find a play that I wanted to direct and I couldn’t find one, so I wrote one. And that was a breakthrough for me because I wrote out of necessity. I thought, “Well, you know, what the hell. How hard could it be?” I wish I still had that naïve way, honestly! You know, the more you know, the harder it gets. But that was the first time in my life where I realized, “Well, I can just write this and people will act it and people will watch and be occasionally entertained.” And that was an amazing moment for me.

JD: Had you written or directed before that?

BY: I had. (laughs) When I was in the fourth grade I had a really encouraging fourth grade teacher. Her name was Ms. Rathlind. She was incredibly willing to go with whatever creative impulse her students had, and I would get together with my friends and we would write little mystery plays that were basically ripping off the Encyclopedia Brown books. I don’t know if you know those books or not.

JD: Yes, sure. My son is in fifth grade.

BY: Well those were some of my favorite books because of the short little mystery that you could solve if you paid close enough attention. So we would write little mystery plays and rehearse them over recess and then perform them for our fourth grade class and get people to solve the mystery. So that was my very first experience with quote, unquote, writing plays. It was really more just being an organizer and bossing people around. As you know, as we grow older those are actually useful skills.

JD: So, at that time, who were your artistic heroes? When you were high school, who did you admire? Or was there any work you particularly admired?

BY: When I was, I think, a sophomore in high school, I discovered the cast recording of Sunday in the Park with George and it just blew my mind. And that was the same summer that I performed in Godspell in a summer program at Village Theatre (in Issaquah, Washington). So, for most of my high school career, my twin musical heroes were Stephen Sondheim and Stephen Schwartz. And I’ve since had the opportunity to meet both of them and of course was completely tongue-tied. I know Stephen Schwartz a little bit better now and I’m able actually to carry on a conversation with him. But, in both cases, when I first met each of those men there was no way to put into words what their music and what their shows had meant to me when I was in high school. And I also around that time saw a production of True West in Seattle. I started to read Sam Shepard. So, I would say he was probably the third of the big, sort of mind-blowing heroes of my high school days.

JD: That’s a great blend. And I think you can see evidence of all of that in a way in the stuff you’ve written since then.

BY: That’s great to hear. Maybe not surprising because I tend to rip off the very best.

JD: So you currently split your time, maybe less than you used to, between New York City and Issaquah, Washington at the Village Theatre. You started something called KidStage at the Village Theatre. What is that?

BY: Well, Robb Hunt (co-founder of Village Theatre in 1979, and current Executive Producer) and I started it together. It was his brainstorm. The idea was that Village Theatre had a long tradition of summer stock programs involving kids doing shows. Rob’s idea was that kids learn best when they have the ultimate responsibility. Rather than a bunch of adults bossing kids around and directing them, the idea was that the kids would do everything: directing, acting, technical, marketing. Adults would be on hand to help and provide resources and make sure no one got hurt.

But, for the most part, the responsibility in every department lay with the kids doing the show. And that was a remarkable thing, and scary. But, I credit that program and having that responsibility with really, I think, preparing me to do this for a living. Because there was an opening date, there were tickets being sold, and the fact was, if we 15, 16, 17, and 18-year olds didn’t pull it together and make it happen, no one else was going to do it for us. And that was an incredibly valuable thing to learn, as well as an empowering thing for a teenager, to have that kind of trust put in you.

(Note: Yorkey was still a teen in the mid-1980s when he became involved, first as an actor, then as a writer and director at KidStage at Village Theatre.)

And that program has since blossomed. There are also classes; there are all sorts of productions year-round. It’s actually kind of an amazing program. But, it’s all predicated on this idea that you really learn  learn theatre by doing it and being responsible for making it happen yourself.

JD: Do you still work with young theatre artists?

BY: I do whenever I can. I was the associate artistic director of the Village from 2000 thru 2007 and each year I worked on a KidStage program there called the Company Program. It’s a lot like what David Spangler does with Lovewell.

(Note: Lovewell Institute brings young artists together to create collaborative musical theatre in a deliberate process.)

It was a group of teenagers who created their own show through improv and writing exercises, with the composer. It was really an amazing, amazing program. Teenagers were able to not only do all the various aspects of theatre that they wanted to explore, but were also able explore stories and themes that were important to them and to their lives, which is rare, I think.

JD: I think so, too. That brings me to Next To Normal, which has two teenage characters in it: Natalie and Henry. At least in the press releases, Natalie is described as trying to be perfect and her boyfriend Henry is a musician, slacker, and stoner. And I will tell you as a teacher of people who are leaving their teens or are still in their teens when I get them, Next to Normal and those characters resonate so powerfully with people at that age. Where did you arrive at your ideas for how to sort of define those characters?

BY: That’s a great question. I do a lot of writing for movies, and I end up writing on movies with teenage characters quite a bit, and two things have helped me. One is the Company program that I mentioned earlier. So, I actually know a lot of teenagers or recent teenagers. So, it’s not just a matter of having to be a guy in his thirties trying to remember what it was like. (Although I do sort of vividly remember what it was like and I think a lot of us do.) But, I also do actually know a lot of teenagers. And certainly working in Hollywood and also sometimes on Broadway, you meet a lot of people who write teenage characters or direct teenage characters who don’t really have much of an idea of what teenagers are like—and so that’s number one. We’re also very lucky with Next to Normal because Michael Greif has two kids who are teenagers. So, he was also very sensitive, too, and aware of the way teenagers really are and what their concerns are and how they navigate the world. So, that was part of it. And lastly, I just always try to be as truthful as I can about the way teenagers see the world, which I think is, at once, much more expansive and, in some ways, much more narrow than adults tend to realize. Teenagers are a lot smarter, and certainly a lot more emotionally aware than I think adults tend to remember. And, at the same time, they don’t have the breadth of experience always to put those feelings and perceptions into context.

JD: Because it’s always the first time.

BY: It’s a very combustible combination if that makes sense.

JD: It totally does. I spent last evening at our local high school football game because my ten-year-old son wanted to go. And there’s nothing like going to that to see the entire sort of panoply of human experience played out before your very eyes.

BY: Absolutely. There are two actually, and I don’t know if this is interesting or not, but two very specific things happened that were incredibly helpful. We worked with James Lapine for a while on developing the script. James is, I think, one of the most brilliant writers of theatre I’ve ever met. And at that time we only had the character of Natalie and she was a slightly different character and James Lapine said to both Tom (Kitt) and I, “Who are you in this play? What character is you?” And we gave the standard sort of answer, “Well, they’re all a facet of us and blah blah blah.” And he said, “No I think you’re Natalie. I think you’re both Natalie and I think that there’s more of her story to tell than we’re telling.” And we looked at each other and said, “Wow. That’s actually kind of true.” That was a breakthrough for us to realize that there was part of that story that we weren’t telling because we hadn’t recognized that who Natalie was, was really in some ways who we were in our families. The second thing James Lapine said to us was that he said that I think Natalie needs someone on the outside—a friend—someone who can reflect a different possibility to her. Reflect a world that is not the world of her house and her family. I immediately thought of who would be the most unlikely and yet most suitable boyfriend for Natalie. And that brought me to Henry.

JD: Have you gotten a lot of response from teenagers about those characters?

BY: Absolutely. We did this thing last year, basically, we call it a Twitter performance of the play. Which is we actually sort of tweeted the whole play, the whole show from the point of view from each of the characters. And people would respond and retweet and write feedback and actually, sort of, talk back to the characters as  if they were real people, because they were tweeting as if they were real people.

JD: Were the actors on their phones Tweeting?

BY: I was tweeting as all of the characters. We had an interactive ad agency that ran the campaign. They helped me turn the play into, I think, six weeks of tweets. You know, one day per scene. We had a tremendous number of teenagers respond to Natalie and Henry and really showed a very deep involvement in their story and very strong opinions about the way they should treat each other and what should happen. At a later part of that, we asked all of our followers on Twitter what they thought would happen next for Natalie and Henry, whether they would stay together and for how long. And we got all sorts of responses all along the spectrum. People felt very strongly about Natalie and Henry.

I had a funny, sweet encounter at the stage door last month on Alice Ripley’s last night. Tom and I went out and said hi to a lot of people who were waiting, and one young woman—if she wasn’t a teenager she was only very recently out of her teens—told me that I had ruined her love life. And I said, “Uh-oh, how have I ruined your love life?” And she said, “Well I keep waiting to meet someone like Henry, and I haven’t yet.” So I said, “I’m sorry about that. But, for what it’s worth, I’m waiting to meet someone like Henry, too, and I haven’t yet.”

JD: So you’ve become Jane Austin for a new generation.

BY: Exactly!

JD: Do you have any advice for young writers, for those people who are interested in writing?

BY: Sure. You know I think the first piece of advice that I would give is “just write.” I think the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and writing. And if you’re interested in writing, don’t worry about whether it’s going to be any good at first. Don’t worry that it seems like you're imitating your favorite writer, because that’s a natural thing to do, we all do it. And don’t worry what anyone else says about your writing, or about the idea of your writing. Just sit down and write and see where it goes. I mean, that to me is still the hardest part of writing: sitting down writing. And if you’re involved in theatre and you want to write for theatre, the great thing is your friends will, you know, actors will take any opportunity to act. Actors love to act. And they can’t really sit at home and act the way a writer can sit at home and write. But, if you write something and you want to hear what it sounds like and you want to get your play brought to life, it’s really easy to invite a bunch of friends over and assign them the parts, and you can hear your play. And that will change your writing. You’ll learn so much, and you’ll go back and write more. It’s actually a challenge. But, it’s not something you should be afraid of.

JD: You’re also a director. How does your work as a writer influence your work as a director or vice versa?

BY: That’s a great question. I love working with actors. I love directing actors. And directing actors and helping them realize their truth in performance and realize their actions has taught me an awful lot of what actors need from a scene, from a stage direction, from a script, a story, a play. And that, I think, has made my writing better. I think there are too many writers for theatre who don’t have any kind of understanding about what an actor needs and what an actor goes through (and also what an actor doesn’t need). When I started out as a writer, I wrote voluminous stage directions. And as a director, I mostly ignore stage directions unless I’m really, really lost. And I learned that you only need the bare essential sort of outline, because you can’t, as a writer, give anything whole hog to a director or an actor. You have to show them the way. But, if it’s going to be realized in any truthful way, they have to find it themselves. And I think that directing has taught me that. And, certainly, I think writing has influenced my direction because I directed before I wrote. And my approach was much more general. And when you write, you take such care with every line, every phrase, every piece of punctuation—much less every beat in every scene—that you really want someone to take as much care as you did. And I think that definitely has informed my direction. I work at a much greater level of detail and specificity as a director than I did before I became a writer.

JD: What did you learn from Michael Greif about directing?

BY: That could take up a whole issue! Michael Greif is a brilliant director, and I know that is a superlative word. But, I think in this case it really replies. I learned a tremendous amount from him. I’ll pick a few things to share. I learned first and foremost from him that you must have tremendous passion for the project. As a writer, you always dream that someone is going to care about your show as much as you do. And Michael Greif cares as much, or more. And it was truly inspiring, and also galvanizing, because he was so passionate and involved in, as I said before, every line, every moment. You know, if there was a line that I just sort of tossed off, he would find it and ask me about it. And he would say, “What does this mean?” And I would say, “You know, I don’t know what it means. I was hoping no one would ask me that.” And then I would have to go away and rewrite it. He was always incredibly kind and incredibly generous. But very, very focused. And it made my writing so much better, I can’t even begin to tell you.

Another thing I’ve learned from Michael, which I think is helpful in directing—it’s helpful in writing, it’s helpful in everything in theatre and probably in life, too—is that he does not give up and say “That’s good enough.” He gives so many notes, and I think at some point actors tend to joke about it, because he is so diligent. But, he does not give up until something’s where it should be. I think so many of us in theatre, it’s easy to get tired, its easy to feel like we’re running out of time, it’s easy to be scattered and just let things go. And he keeps working until the very, very last minute and beyond. I’ll stop and see the show at the Booth Theatre maybe once every couple of weeks. And, literally, almost every time I stop by, he’s there taking notes, seeing if there are things that have slipped, if there are things that need to be adjusted, or if there are things that he has thought of that he hasn’t thought of before. It’s amazing to me. Not only is he so smart and so passionate, but he works so hard and doesn’t let things go, doesn’t let things slide. And that has been inspiring and it’s been a real high bar to live up to.

JD: Wonderful. Thank you, Brian.

Special thanks to Blaine Boyd for transcription assistance. Content has been edited for publication.

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