An interview with Dan Collins & Julianne Wick Davis, writers of 2012 Festival Show Southern Comfort, about creating such a bold show, how far it’s already come and preparing for its upcoming presentation at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. The show is a past recipient of a Writers Residency Grant (Playwrights Horizons) and a Project Development Grant (CAP21) from our National Fund for New Musicals.
Based on the Sundance Award-winning documentary, this heartwarming musical about a group of transgender friends living in rural Georgia is, at its core, a love story between their patriarch, Robert Eads, and newcomer Lola Cola. Through a unique folk and bluegrass-inspired score, the musical chronicles a year in the lives of this unique American family as they courageously defy the odds by simply remaining on the land to which they were born, reminding us that home is where we find comfort in our skin.
What were the first steps you took when you were asked to turn a documentary into a musical and how did you find the story’s voice?
We were approached by Tom Caruso and Bob DuSold, who hold the stage rights to the documentary, to consider adapting it into a musical. After watching the documentary, Julianne and I had a few discussions about what music would mean to these characters, and in this environment, and if/how it could enhance their story. We began by discussing a number of intriguing points in the documentary that might be able to sing, and ultimately wrote the solo “I’m Goin’,” which Robert sings near the end of the second act. While the documentary’s subject matter, and our discussions, revealed many challenges to be faced in adapting the story to the musical stage, writing “I’m Goin'” revealed just the opposite: it was one of those rare moments in which each part of the process (spotting the song, writing the lyric, setting the lyric) unraveled with great and exciting ease. Energized by that rewarding experience, we moved forward. Inspired by the seasonal framing of the documentary, we explored the score by creating a song for each of the seasons – to be sung by an onstage folk band. It was these seasons, coupled with “I’m Goin'” and the conceit of our onstage band that served as the foundation for the rest of our process. But it wasn’t all beautifully simple, of course. Adapting a documentary meant we had to take some license in the storytelling for dramatic purposes, which is a tricky undertaking as it was important to us to be able to keep the integrity of the true story and characters (most of whom are still living), while also ensuring that we were creating a dramatic narrative that would engage theater audiences – because to fail at the latter would mean that the story, for all of its good intentions, would never reach much further than the page.
Southern Comfort has evolved a bit from your first reading at Playwrights Horizon a few years ago to your presentation at the Festival. How has it changed over the years?
Most of the developments and changes in Southern Comfort have revolved around either the integration of the onstage band or our exploration of the narrative outside of the specific action of the documentary. We’ve conceived the band in a myriad of ways; a group of vocalists who are separate from the instrumentalists; a male and a female soloist who act as the ‘lead singers’ of the band; etc., but we found, particularly through our experience at CAP21 (discussed below), that the concept of having the instrumentalists present as both singers and actors really resonated with audiences. As for the narrative, Kate Davis (the producer/director/editor of the original documentary) has been incredibly generous, supportive and gracious throughout our entire process; one such occasion is when she shared with us the original transcripts of documentary, which contain many scenes and interviews that were not part of the film’s final edit. These transcripts, coupled with her encouraging attitude toward our process, have been (and continue to be) invaluable as we explore the world, characters and their stories as they have come to exist on the musical stage.
You had a great workshop production at CAP21 in 2012. What did you learn from getting the show up on its feet?
The workshop production at CAP21, which was so beautifully supported by Eliza and Frank Ventura, was the first time we had seen the show move. We had never been able to see if our idea about the band being on stage, moving in and out of the action and playing all the characters outside of the chosen family, would work! We were asking a lot of these actors/musicians since they had to memorize the score and be free to move with instrument in hand at any time. The idea to have the band function this way was there from the very beginning for us, and it was an idea which people kept questioning and telling us would be nearly impossible. The CAP21 workshop production was the first time we saw that it indeed worked and it was exactly what we had hoped for.
The show is heading to Barrington Stage Co. this summer. What further work do you want to do on the show for its next step?
Our main objective is to continue to streamline and strengthen the narrative. We’ve learned so much throughout all of our development opportunities, and we look forward to the opportunity to implement those in Pittsfield this summer. There have been cuts, rewrites, edits and restructuring, all of which we feel have strengthened the piece, while retaining those aspects that have consistently resonated with our audiences throughout our presentation history.
What do you hope comes next for Robert and his chosen family?
Our hope is relatively simple: that we continue to find wonderfully supportive theaters and institutions, such as Playwrights Horizons, CAP21, NAMT and Barrington Stage, who are willing to tell Robert’s story and widen its reach. Just as the medium of film/documentary was able to bring light to this important subject, the medium of theater (particularly, musical theater) has the ability to bring that light to a new audience, further expanding the reach of the affirming life and message of Robert and his chosen family. Our hope is to broaden that audience as much as possible.
Why should people head up to beautiful Pittsfield, MA this summer to catch Southern Comfort?
Aside from the (already mentioned) beautiful setting, our cast is a dream. Not only are they a privilege and a pleasure to work with, but their commitment and passion to this story is astounding, and it is evidenced in each performance. Our band is equally amazing – they are onstage throughout the entire show, playing the score, singing and performing ensemble speaking roles! When we conceived the idea on paper, all we could do was hope that it would work, but this amazing group is able to make it more than just work; our hopes are exceeded night after night after night!
For more information about Southern Comfort, please visit www.barringtonstageco.org.