“Who are you?
Where do you think you’re going?
Who are you?
Why are you all alone?
Who do you think you are?
Who are you to think that you can walk a road that no one ever walked before?”-The Fates, Hadestown
At this point, we all know this brilliant, haunting work written by singer-songwriter, Maestra Member, and “unlikely” Broadway composer Anaïs Mitchell. I hear these lyrics in my head all the time. Anyone else? They continually taunt me and inspire me in the same turn.
It’s not just this score, it’s Mitchell herself as an indie-folk storyteller from Addison County, Vermont who earned her way to the Broadway stage with her stellar, precedent-setting, genre-bending work. In fact, all of the amazing female indie-pop singer-songwriters who are moving into the musical theatre realm inspire me. If these ladies can do it, so can I – so can all of us!
Listen: I promise this is not an essay about self-confidence and determination. However, it might be a cry for help. Not just for myself – it’s a rally cry calling for the creation of support systems and networks for those of us who are not living in our entertainment centers, but are still creating musical theatre. It’s also a battle cry for those of us taking “non-traditional” approaches to theatre to keep forging ahead. With these aims in mind, this article is also our announcement of Maestra’s newest Affinity Group, Maestra Texas! (Keep reading for more details.)
I am a singer-songwriter, composer, and lyricist based in Austin, Texas that discovered my voice and heart for storytelling lives and thrives in theatre.
I started writing lyrics as a very young child and taught myself to play guitar at 17. I needed people to hear my songs. I processed all my big feelings in song. However, the theatre gave me a place to fully embody the emotions I was processing. A solo singer-songwriter spends a great deal of her time alone, but the collaborative space of live theatre made me whole.
Now, I have a B.A. in Theatre Performance, an MFA in Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities, and zero music degrees. In fact, I have never taken a formal music theory course in my life. I give props to my high school band and choir teachers for the few fundamentals in my bones, but I don’t have a formal understanding of what I’m doing. I just do it: I write songs, I write musicals.
But here I am, feeling a whole lot of “imposter syndrome” as I write this from my home in Austin, dreaming deeply about my burgeoning musical theatre-writing career.
I am 44 years old, a mother of two little ones; I write everything on my acoustic Gibson, and I’ve been working in Arts Administration and Education for 25 years. Inside all of that living, I have somehow self-produced three albums, presented my solo cabaret shows in New York City and in Los Angeles, and become a published musical theatre composer with multiple shows in the pipeline in different stages of workshopping.
All things considered, I should feel accomplished and satisfied. And yet, I’m struggling. I mean…who am I to think I can walk this road?
Finding My Place in Theatre
I co-wrote my first musical in 2008. It just felt like fun at the time – a cool grad school project. Two years later, I co-wrote my second. My lyrics and melodies just felt “right” on-stage in these productions.
By 2018, I was knee-deep in the musical that would become my first publication, Gretel! The Musical, with Dramatic Publishing Company. This was the show that launched the development of my professional musical theatre-writing career, all from Austin.
I am surrounded by fabulous theatre artists in Austin, but it’s a city known for its live music scene – it’s not a musical theatre town. We have a few regional companies doing great work locally, and Texas State University, one of the top ranked musical theatre programs in the country, is just 45 minutes down the road. However, there aren’t many spaces and places focused on the development of new musicals, and finding an awesome open mic or cabaret dedicated to showing off new tunes from up-and-coming composers isn’t really a thing.
Musical theatre in Austin is focused on well-known titles, crowd pleasers, and the Broadway Across America tours. I felt like it was going to be a very long road as a musical theatre writer in Austin until I discovered Maestra.
Connecting Through Maestra
When Maestra Lena Gabrielle found herself as a COVID-refugee in Austin in the spring of 2020, she turned to the Directory to find some like-minded artists working in town. She first connected with music director Lyn Koenning, one of my mentors and dearest friends since I moved here 15 years ago, who pointed her my way. (Lyn’s a badass and happened to be the conductor in the photo on Maestra’s home page for years – HA!)
Not only did Gabrielle and I become dear friends, she encouraged me to join Maestra, and she would eventually come on board as the arranger for my new show with award-winning playwright Suzan Zeder, The Battlefields of Clara Barton. Prior to the show’s first staged workshop with the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University, Gabrielle also music directed our concert workshop with Austin Playhouse which was directed by Lara Toner Haddock in summer 2021.
During that two-week period, Zeder and I flew Ezri Killeen, my music assistant from Northwestern, to be part of our music team in Austin. Gabrielle would become a vital partner to me, a mentor and guide for Killeen, and we owed it all to Maestra. Five highly-skilled female theatre-artists working in Austin to develop a new musical with music and lyrics written by this singer-songwriter was a very special experience.
Launching Maestra Texas
Since then, a lot has changed. Gabrielle moved back to NYC and is currently on the road with Six; Killeen also moved to NYC after graduation and continues to support me and my projects from afar; and I am still here in Austin with my family. In the day-to-day, I balance submitting my material to showcases and conferences and working on re-writes between PTA meetings and volleyball practice. All you Maestra Moms know what I am talking about.
This led me to think, “Now that Maestra is growing across the globe, how do I champion those of us living in Texas?”
The answer: offering to co-facilitate the newest Regional Group: MAESTRA TEXAS!
Why Maestra Texas?
There is no shortage of brilliant female and nonbinary musicians in this state, and quite frankly, there is extraordinary theatre happening across Texas. In fact, when you consider that three of the 10 largest cities in America are in Texas – Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas, with Austin coming in 11th – it seems absurd to doubt the number of artists who are creating and playing and entertaining and changing lives across this state. And let’s not forget about the numerous killer music programs at the high school and collegiate levels across Texas.
We just don’t know about these burgeoning artistic communities because they do not have the same access and support available to artists living in the urban cultural centers like New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Chicago.
As co-moderators with Koenning, our plan is to empower current Maestras in Texas and reach new ones through this network. We are strategizing ways to provide them the support they need to keep living and creating in Texas and to recognize that they can have incredible careers in the performing arts without moving. As educators, we are also deeply invested in the mentorship of the next generation of Maestras.
There is an incredible opportunity to support not only those of us currently working professionally in the musical theatre space, but also all of those next generation Maestras who are coming up within the region in programs across the state. If more opportunities were made available to them, maybe more of them would stay in Texas, further developing the “creative class” statewide.
I must also address the fact that it is a hard time for female-identifying Texans to want to stay in the state. This continued attack on our bodies is exhausting and dangerous. But I believe in the power of women’s voices, especially united. If there is any chance of seeing the tides turn in this great state, we MUST find ways to support artists and women across Texas so that they can stay here and fight the good fight.
We need free-thinking, open-minded, artists and creatives. We need Maestras.
Koenning and I are both dreaming of all the work and all the amazing artists we will get to celebrate and support through this new regional group as we lean into our official launch in the new year.
A Closing Rally Cry
So, you see? This rally cry of mine is not a cry just for myself – it really is a call to deeply examine how we are developing new talent and how we are building spaces (virtually and in-person) to support the exceptionally-talented artists creating, dreaming, and simmering far from 44th Street and 7th Ave.
Please join Koenning and me on the Maestra Texas Facebook page as we advocate, connect, and mentor Maestras in the region, and let’s see what kind of noise we can make! Fates be damned.