Tennessean Feature - Feb. 24, 2008

Writer's Stage gives voice to new works, new talent

For The Tennessean

There were really no other options: 21 Baker Road was either going in a drawer, or it was going onstage.

It wasn't that it was Jim Reyland's first play- he'd actually written six before - though it was his first musical. And it wasn't that it was Addison Gore's first musical, though it was a piece that hit close to home.

No, this was a different kind of collaboration, one solid enough that both men saw its potential as a springboard for the Nashville theater community as a whole. In addition to being a new work that will be staged on Saturday, 21 Baker Road is the inaugural piece for a fledgling theater company focused on giving other new works wings. Writer's Stage aims to soften the competition through collaborative efforts, shared resources and mutual encouragement.

New works bring risks

"I think we finally are becoming a theater town, with a more sophisticated audience," says Reyland, who shares music and lyric credits with Gore and has enlisted Barry Scott to direct. "But this kind of thing is risky. You can always find someone to do a presentation of Oklahoma!. But when you sit down at a reading of a new work as an audience member, you're opening yourself up to new things. It might be a waste of time, and you may not think it's very good. But then, you may discover a new voice that you really like."

The piece, about a man who loves his house "but then realizes what he needs to do is love what's inside of it," Reyland says, includes some 19 songs in the Rodgers & Hammerstein vein, as well as humor and poignancy. Reyland and Gore pulled it together through once-a-week writing appointments for the better part of a year, adding orchestration from Michael Stanton. This being Nashville, the album was produced first, and shopped around with the play. A theater company in Atlanta first expressed some interest, Reyland says, but it just wasn't right.

"Addison and I actually went to Atlanta and met with them, but we realized that when we took the musical forward, we would become partners with them," he says. "We had to be careful, because at that point, they would become vested owners in it. We were flattered, but we had to say no."

Gore - whose Skedaddle Music & Publishing has been developing music for nearly two decades - adds, "We started asking, 'Why not do it here?' "

And then the question became, "Why not do it ourselves?"

'Business of art is hard'

The idea for Writer's Stage quickly followed, and the organization became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in November. The hope is that through grants and donations, Writer's Stage and its NewVoices series will raise enough money to present its own works as well as partner with others on theirs. The men, both longtime Nashvillians, have worked with a variety of heavy hitters in the local theater and music genres, though they realize it's a highly competitive town.

"The business of art is hard," says Reyland, whose recent play Shelter was nationally recognized. "There are a lot of good pieces out there that will die on the vine because the person who wrote them doesn't have either the contacts or the skills to push them forward. I want to find out who those people are."

But it's not just the playwrights, librettists and composers; there's also the element of the actors willing to take part in staged readings of new works in addition to full-scale productions.

"The actors become part of the process much like session musicians do," Gore says.

This week's production, he says, will involve 10 area actors, onstage with music stands, microphones and costumes, singing to instrumental tracks on CD. Some are from Belmont University and some are professionals, and the performance will conclude with a talkback for audience input.

"Honestly, we're not sure whether anyone will buy into this new model," Reyland says. "By my feeling is that Writer's Stage is a good direction to go. We'll see how many others agree."