Angelica Chéri is a playwright, musical theatre bookwriter/lyricist, screenwriter, and poet. Angelica and collaborator Ross Baum received the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for their musical Gun & Powder, which was also selected for the 30th annual NAMT Festival of New Musicals. Gun & Powder has been developed at Goodspeed Musicals, Two River Theater, the NYU Center for New Musicals, the 2017 SigWorks Lab and the NEXT Festival at Theatre Latté Da. Other public presentations include Broadway’s Future Songbook concert series at Lincoln Center and the Drama League’s 2018 DirectorFest. Also with Baum, Angelica was commissioned by Diverging Elements Theatre Company to write the short children’s play A Letter to Auntie Rosa as well as the official anthem of the National Children’s Theater of South Africa. Angelica is one of six playwrights selected for the inaugural Writers’ Room at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. She served as Master Playwright in the Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop Inaugural 3in3 Playwright Festival, and has written for the Obie-Award-Winning 48 Hours in Harlem Festival. Her TV pilot Derailed was a semi-finalist in both Showtime’s Tony Cox Episodic Screenplay Competition and the Episodic Comedy Colony in conjunction with the 2017 Nantucket Film Festival. Angelica received a BA in Theatre from UCLA, an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University, and an MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from NYU.
A Conversation with Angelica Chéri
Jamie Maletz: I would love to start by talking about some of your amazing accomplishments. First of all, you won the Richard Rodgers Award.
Angelica Chéri: Yay!
JM: I’ve never talked to a Richard Rodgers winner before. What happens when you win that award? Like… what do you do with it? And the show you won for was Gun & Powder—
Angelica Chéri: Yes.
Angelica Chéri: For sure! Oh my gosh, how juicy! Well so— [both laugh]— for one, the Richard Rodgers Award was just an amazing blessing. Ross Baum, my collaborator who is the composer of Gun & Powder— and I, we submitted, we submitted, we submitted it around the block to the different gamut of opportunities for new musicals. And the Richard Rodgers Award was one that was super special. Because you know, their parameters are that you can only submit a musical once. One shot. And so we were specifically intentional about, “Okay, we have to wait until we feel like the script is like, there before we submit to the Richard Rodgers Award,” and we did. And it was amazing to win. Obviously the name Richard Rodgers is just a huge, high honor. And in the company that we’re in, the other Richard Rodgers Award winners… it’s an amazing fraternity. And basically what it means is that your musical has been recognized by The Academy of Arts and Letters. We were awarded along with KPOP the musical the same year, in 2018, so that’s just fabulous. And you are basically inducted into this collection, this collective. And the biggest awesome opportunity is that you are awarded grant money to have a workshop of the show in New York. So it’s basically up to you to choose the theater and then decide how and what type of workshop. Basically the award amount will determine what you’re able to do with the workshop, and you know — obviously we did have a bit of trouble. It was really interesting because we thought, “Okay, we’ve got the money, the theaters are just gonna burst open their doors and let us in!” And we got a lot of rejections initially. I don’t know if it was because certain theaters thought that if they committed to doing this workshop then they were also committing to further development-
JM: Wait – rejections after you won the Richard Rodgers Award?
Angelica Chéri: After we did, yes.
Angelica Chéri: Yes, it’s crazy! We won the award and then we started knocking on these very well-known NYC not-for-profit theaters saying, “Hey, we got this money. We want to do this workshop with you. Here’s the script.” And you know, left and right: “No we’re gonna have to pass, we’re gonna have to pass.” Yeah. It was just… you know, you couldn’t expect… [laughter] we thought, “What’s gonna have to happen?” But the fortunate thing about that is that now we have had the workshop and full production at The Signature [Theatre], and when you have a world premiere production, you learn so much about a show. As you’ve mentioned, we had all these other development opportunities that I’ll talk about. But those were steps in which we learned more and more about the show. So there were like five years of development behind the show before we got to the Signature’s world premiere. It wasn’t like a fresh, brand-new, “we don’t know what this show is, we’re going to put it up” [situation]. We knew very well what the material was; we had already picked it apart and made all kinds of changes. And we said, “Okay, we’re going to take these changes and work them in a lab after the production, and that’s going to be what we use the Richard Rodgers funds for.” So it’s been a journey. But yeah. Initially theaters were like, [whispers] “No.” [laughter]
JM: That is so surprising to me, because as a fellow writer, you think that when you win one of those big prestigious awards, people are finally going to take you seriously and be like, “Oh, yeah, welcome, come in.”
Angelica Chéri: Right.
JM: Wow. Okay, so for those who are not familiar with Gun & Powder— you know, one of the most annoying things we writers have to do: the elevator pitch. Can you summarize it?
Angelica Chéri: Of course! [laughter] So Gun & Powder is a musical that is loosely inspired by the true story of my two great-great aunts Mary and Martha Clarke, who are lighter-skinned African American women who pass for white. And according to family legend, they were outlaws. And no one really knows what they did? [Laughs] Like, there’s so many different anecdotes and narratives floating around from one uncle to the next cousin and niece and aunt. So Ross and I took the story in the direction that we felt most inspired to. And that’s the show!
JM: And how would you describe the musical style?
Angelica Chéri: It’s like a mixture between classical musical theatre and gospel, blues, R&B. We’ve got all kinds of different influences from Cole Porter to Bruno Mars. There’s very modern influences, and we’re not in the period of 1890s music.
JM: When you were dividing the work of writing the show, was it cut and dry, like you did all the words and he did all the music? Or did you have some influence in each other’s areas? What was your collaboration like?
Angelica Chéri: So Ross and I are very traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein. He’s the music and I’m the words, and we’re very specific about our domains. And we never really cross over, but we always influence each other’s work. Like if I’m struggling with something or there’s like a syllable or something missing, he’ll come up with something, and I’m like, “That was brilliant, I didn’t have to just pluck five hairs out sitting here trying to figure it out!” [Laughs] Or then I’ll say to him things like, “Oh, maybe can we take this like a fifth down or something? How do we slow this down? How do we speed this up?” So it’s a constant conversation in the collaboration process, but on paper we are very delineated music and words.
JM: Very cool. So what’s the timeline like, as far as NAMT, Goodspeed, Two River, Richard Rodgers… which things happened when?
Angelica Chéri: So the show actually was our thesis musical.
JM: I was going to ask that! [Laughs]
Angelica Chéri: Yes, fellow GMTWP! Yay! [Laughs] So, this show was birthed out of the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU. It was our thesis musical. And so we had our thesis reading of the 90-minute version of the show there. And then we expanded it somewhat, because we were given the opportunity to have another Workshop production with the undergraduate students at the New Studio on Broadway the following year, after we graduated. 2015 was our thesis year and then we had that first workshop at the end of 2015. After that, we applied and we got the Sig Works Lab at The Signature Theatre. That was the first big thing. And we were the one show chosen out of 170 shows that submitted, which was huge for us. That was our first like, “Okay, here we go!” And that’s what established our relationship with the Signature that later led on to our full production there. So the Sig Works lab was in 2017. And then in 2018 we won the Richard Rodgers award. And we also were selected for NAMT that year. And between the Richard Rodgers Award and NAMT, we went to Theater Latté Da, they had the Next Festival in Minneapolis. And so we got to workshop it there as well.
JM: All in 2018– that was a really good year for you!
Angelica Chéri: [Laughs] 2018 was a great year! Nothing like 2020. Well, you know, and overall. And then the top of 2019 is when we did the Johnny Mercer Colony at Goodspeed. And by then, you know, we had already started the talks with the Signature about the production. They had offered it to us formally after NAMT. And we had started working with Robert O’Hara; he was signed onto the team and the collaboration by that point, and we were all in conversation. And then at the very beginning of 2020, we went into rehearsal at The Signature in Arlington.
JM: That’s awesome. It’s interesting that you won the Richard Rodgers Award before you did NAMT.
Angelica Chéri: We did, yes.
JM: Did they know when they selected you for NAMT that you had already won the Richard Rodgers Award? Or did the timing work out in a way that they didn’t know yet, and it all kind of happened at once?
Angelica Chéri: That’s a great question. I think they knew. We applied to NAMT around the end of 2017. So I believe NAMT knew that we had been selected for the Richard Rodgers Award by the time they accepted us, but that was also multiple rounds into their selection process. So, I don’t know if it was a deciding factor or part of it, but it definitely was in the air. [Laughs].
JM: That’s so great. It must have felt amazing to get so many yeses around the same time, especially because as writers we’re used to getting a lot of rejections.
Angelica Chéri: Yeah.
JM: And the rejection burnout can be difficult. Especially because all of the things that you apply for take a lot of effort, and then it’s so quick to get a rejection letter.
Angelica Chéri: Yes, and most of them cost money too!
Angelica Chéri: So I paid $40 for you to tell me no! [Laughs] Right.
JM: Yes, that’s the life we chose. But it can be a lot. Especially now with everything shut down.
Angelica Chéri: Yes.
JM: But back to the good parts of what we do– you’ve done the Broadway’s Future Songbook Series at Lincoln Center. Do you want to talk about that experience?
Angelica Chéri: Yeah! So we were involved in that songbook series twice. The first time that we were included, it was like, “promising new young writers, new shows, diverse shows,” and then from that, we developed a relationship with them. And then they invited Ross to come in and do an evening of his music. So half the night was Gun & Powder, and then the other half was from other collaborators and other things that he was working on.
JM: Okay, two other incredibly cool things you did that I’d love to talk about: You wrote the official anthem of the National Children’s Theatre of South Africa?
Angelica Chéri: Yes! [Laughs]
JM: And you did the 48 Hours in Harlem Festival.
Angelica Chéri: Yes.
JM: Can you share what those experiences were like?
Angelica Chéri: Of course. Thank you! So the children’s theatre company in South Africa was basically through a connection of someone who Ross had known from childhood because Ross is an extremely talented musical theater performer. And so it was through a connection of his, and we were asked to write this anthem. And it was really fun. It was something that we just sort of sent out into the world. We have never seen it, you know, take place [laughs] but we just love to be able to have that stamp. And then the 48 Hours Festival is an extremely amazing event that happens annually every August. The Harlem Nine is the collective that produces the festival. Every year there are six playwrights that are chosen, and six directors, and I think about 18 actors. The playwrights are sent six different known to not-very-well-known plays in the Black and African theatre canon. And they read all six plays, and when they arrive at the festival, they draw a name out of a hat and whatever they draw, that’s the play that they are going to be working on. The goal is to do a ten- to-15-minute adaptation inspired by that play, using three actors and whatever director that they pull out of the hat. And then they take the actors, the director, a prop they’ve been given, and the play, and they have basically from 10 p.m. that night up until like noon the next morning to have written the play and started rehearsal. They have like eight hours of rehearsal, and then they present it twice, all within 48 hours. It’s a marathon theater festival, down and dirty, cut and clean, and it’s… it’s amazing.
JM: It sounds so cool. Kind of like a 24-hour Play Festival.
Angelica Chéri: Exactly. But you know, the extra 24 hours. [Laughs]
JM: Yeah, you get like, double time. [Laughs] So you also do some screenwriting.
Angelica Chéri: Yes.
Angelica Chéri: Mm-hmm.
JM: So have you been writing for film and TV for as long as you’ve been writing for theater, or is it something that you started doing separately? Are you doing more of it now that live theater is shut down?
Angelica Chéri: I have definitely not been doing it for as long as I’ve been doing playwriting. Playwriting started when I was 14, and I won’t reveal my age, but that’s over half my life now. [Laughs.] The screenwriting for film and TV, those were things that I was introduced to in grad school, but it was not something that I started doing professionally until I moved back home to LA four years ago. Since then, I’ve written a handful of pilots and have been working on three or four different films. And there are new developments in that arena right now that I can’t announce yet, but I’m really excited about. So now my career is being more evenly divided between the screen and the stage.
JM: What would you say are the differences between writing for theater and writing for film or TV?
Angelica Chéri: Oh, of course! So two things: from a craft standpoint, the biggest difference that one of my instructors at Columbia— Frank Pugliese, who was one of the showrunners of countless amazing shows, House of Cards being one of them— he said you should be able to hear a play and not see it, and see a film or TV series and not hear it.
Angelica Chéri: Right?? I thought “oh wow.” Basically, his idea was that you could be inside of a theater blindfolded, hearing and taking in the sensory of the language and still understanding the fullness of the story. And the opposite, like if you’re watching a movie or watching a TV show, you should be able to mute it and watch what’s happening on the screen and still get the gist of it. Obviously things will be missed, but that talks about the nature of the mediums. Theater, it’s really about the language. Structurally, you have a lot more freedom in theater to meander and create and do as you see fit. But plays are so organically structured through the characters and things like that, that it’s really open to whatever it is that the writer wants to do in a certain medium and a certain story. In terms of television and screen and film, completely not the case whatsoever. Film is, very rigidly, three-act structure. Of course there are ways to break those rules and to live outside of those confines, but you’re going to be finding that three-act structure very, very nailed down in many cases — at least in the most bare-bones way. It’s very much the expectation, and it’s the thing that works. How many different ways you can spin it? How many different ways it can live? Also, film is a director’s medium. That’s another thing about the screen. We have so much control and autonomy as writers in the theater. Nobody changes a word of our work without our approval. It’s in the contract. It’s in everybody’s understanding. If I’m going to cut one of these words, if I want to say this differently, I have to ask [the writer]. In screen, not the case. It’s all about the director’s vision. The director will take the script and whatever is fitting within what the director’s vision is, is what’s going to happen. Scenes get chopped in the cutting floor of the editing, and it’s a completely different beast.
JM: That’s really interesting. So for theater writers who want to write for film and TV but are new to the industry and its differences, what would your advice be?
Angelica Chéri: If a writer wants to transition into TV writing from theater, a lot of times what I have found is that your plays will be your TV samples in order to get hired to be on a staff of a TV series. A lot of times your plays will be the thing that gets you in the door. But at the end of the day, they’re going to want to know that you can replicate the TV structure. Many times, executives don’t have the imagination to imagine what the play means in the same way that a script written for TV would, so you’re going to need to have a pilot sample. And structurally for that, you have to show that you know how to hit those act breaks, that you know how to leave those irresolvable conflicts open that can be teased out over seven seasons. [Laughs.] So it’s quite, quite different, structurally and in terms of discipline. But at the end of the day, if you’re a storyteller, it’s just about shifting your thinking. We’re storytellers. Playwrights make the strongest TV writers because we know character, and character is what keeps TV running for eight seasons.
JM: I find it fascinating, because I’ve looked at a lot of TV shows that have writing teams, and it’s not the same writers on every episode. And I’ve wondered how they keep everything so consistent when it’s like, “I didn’t work on episode four, but it’s important to my episode, so I have to be super familiar with things I didn’t write.”
Angelica Chéri: Oh for sure. If you’re in a writers’ room situation for a TV series, you’re sitting there throughout the discussion of everything, for the entire season. And in some cases, there’s going to be different levels, and there’s a hierarchy in the staff room. A staff writer is the lowest on the totem pole, and then you get story editors and producers and executive producers and things like that. But if you’re in the writers’ room, you’re in the room [laughs] where it happens. So you’re part of those conversations, you’re listening, you’re contributing, you’re pitching ideas. Even if you’re not the one writing those episodes, you still were sitting around the table—or the screen, for right now— in terms of all that being discussed. So even though you wrote episode six, you saw the conversation that got us to episode four and five, and so it’s really about collaboration.
JM: That’s so cool. Okay, now back to the theater world – can we talk about your Prophet’s Cycle trilogy plays?
Angelica Chéri: Oh, yeah!
JM: Because those have been produced in some really neat places, including Signature Theatre, Billie Holiday Theatre, North Carolina Black Repertory Company, National Black Theatre I AM SOUL Residency, and more. And you were mentored by Lynn Nottage for one of them. Is there anything you’d like to share about any of those experiences?
Angelica Chéri: Sure! The trilogy started as my thesis play The Seeds of Abraham for Columbia when I was doing my MFA in playwriting. And one of the awesome things about the Columbia program was that in your thesis year— because it’s a three-year program— you don’t take any courses, you just focus on writing your thesis play. And you pick a professional mentor, whomever you would like, to reach out to, and it’s basically up to them whether or not they’re available to you. And so the person who I asked for was Lynn Nottage. And she was super, super open and generous and kind and willing and open-minded, and she just couldn’t be more wonderful. And she helped give me lots of insight about the piece and what I was working on, how and what the writing was, and how to move through that. The Off-Broadway Signature Theatre produces the thesis festival for the Columbia thesis plays. So I had a workshop of it there. Jackie Alexander, who was the Producing Artistic Director of the Billie Holiday Theatre at the time, read the play and became interested. And then he produced it at the Billie Holiday Theatre in 2014, and we formed a relationship and he became one of my biggest champions. He brought the second play of the cycle, The Sting of White Roses, down to the North Carolina Black Repertory Company where he is now the Artistic Director, and that’s where it was produced, where the world premiere of the play happened. And the I AM SOUL Residency that I applied for at the National Black Theatre in New York was where I wrote part three of the trilogy, The Crowndation, which was a one-woman show. So it was like two family dramas and then a one woman show, and it moves through different decades. And yeah, it’s been basically like a retelling of family narrative.
JM: That’s awesome. What are your favorite and least favorite things about being a writer?
Angelica Chéri: That’s a great question. I think one of the favorites is all of the traveling. And I think it’s also the least favorite. So there’s the highs and the lows of traveling. I love traveling. I love to be able to like, set up shop in a community for X amount of time and really plant my feet and get to know the community, and get to just kind of build a home somewhere artistically and socially. The community that you get to invest in and who gets to invest in you, that’s one of the most precious parts of the writing experience, which I love. I hate the submissions. [Laughs]
JM: Seconded. [Laughs]
Angelica Chéri: We talked about this already, but you know, you do have to invest so much time and sometimes money, and emotion and investment into it, but it’s absolutely vital. It’s one of the things that you just have to do. Half of the things that we have had— Ross [Baum] and I— in terms of musical success was because of what we submitted. And you just have to keep doing it.
JM: Yeah, definitely. But since you’ve won one of the really big awards, does it make a difference when you apply for other things? Are you like, “Yes, this is annoying, but I know that it’s worth the trouble because there’s a chance?” Or is it still just like, “Ugh,” every time?
Angelica Chéri: You know, that’s a great question. And yeah, I think you have more of an understanding of what the process is. Because you get so super annoyed when you get that email back, like, “We had an overwhelming amount of great submissions from talented artists all over the country…” you know what the form letter is that you get back. And at some point you just get frustrated, like, “Ugh, I don’t even want to look at it.” But I know that my work is worthy of being seen. And you have to know that before someone else confirms it by giving you “Yes.” So after you get some yeses, I think you do start to understand that “this is not because I’m not worthy of it; it’s because of all these other factors that I can’t control.”
JM: Speaking of factors we can’t control, how are you handling the pandemic? How has your life as a writer been affected, and what are you working on now?
Angelica Chéri: You know, one of the traumas [laughs] of the pandemic is, anything that you were in the midst of doing that got shut down.
JM: Too many theater people know that trauma.
Angelica Chéri: And for me, it was my play Berta, Berta that we were in the midst of a production of at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. Literally in the final day of tech, right before invited dress, everything was already ready to go—
JM: Oh no!
Angelica Chéri: Yeah and then the assistant director stepped out. And I will never forget, it was Friday the 13th [laughs]. It was Friday [laughs] March 13th. What a… talk about a cliché.
Angelica Chéri: [Laughs] I was like, “Really? Really?” And he came out and said, “We just have to shut down.” And literally, I went from tech-ing the play, to back in my hotel packing up my things and sending a box back home. And I was on a plane that night at like 8 o’clock, like “what is happening?” [Laughs] “The world, what? The sky is falling.” But then, recovering from the shock of that and coming back home, my life as a writer has not changed drastically. Because if I wasn’t in production or development, like actively on set or on stage, I was at home writing. I would take the liberty to go to a coffee shop and write, but this is not that different. So that’s the fortunate part about it. And Zoom has been an amazing opportunity to keep in contact with people all across the country; to do opportunities like teaching with Maestra, which has been so, so fulfilling and helpful and hopeful. And to give talks and to connect with people in that way, it has just been a really great blessing, honestly. Because I don’t think that we would be having so many conversations and be so invested in the online community if that wasn’t our only option. So I’m thankful for that. And what’s been great is that on the TV and film side, things are still going, even though nothing is really being shot. There are some things that are shooting abroad with very strict Covid protocol. Like, you gotta fly to Canada and stay for 14 days in a hotel. You literally will be quarantined in a hotel where you can’t leave your room for 14 days, and someone from the production staff has to bring all your meals to your door.
Angelica Chéri: But still, TV staffing rooms are meeting over Zoom. Film, I can sit at home and work on a film. These different deals are still active because networks and things want to know that when we’re able to shoot, we’ve got material to shoot. So that’s been good. It’s been good to not have to drive all the way out to Burbank to have a TV meeting, [laughs] to be able to be home. So there’s pluses and minuses for sure.
JM: Absolutely. Okay, now for the big question: Why did you join Maestra?
Angelica Chéri: You know, I, for one, am all about the championing of women. And I feel like one of the things that I love that Maestra does is: call attention to something that hasn’t been said. Which is: “We’re all the women composers and lyricists and book writers.” And I think that we all are in a moment where we need to be in community. And not just because of what’s going on right now, but because when we come out of this, we’re going to have to remember that we are still fighting for representation, and that we’re still under-represented but we are just as qualified. So I was really excited that Georgia Stitt was championing this platform in a way that showed the vast capabilities of women in this time— women and woman-identifying. Because there was just such a huge amount of interaction possible. It’s not just, “Okay, we’re going to sit on a platform and say that we are underrepresented and undervalued and that’s what it is.” There’s workshops, there’s conversations, there’s so many opportunities to connect. And for all people to be able to come and, “Oh, I can learn from them. Oh, I can hear something. Oh, I can broaden my perspective.” I wanted to be a part of what felt like a movement that was happening.
JM: Yeah. And this is related— why do you think Maestra is important?
Angelica Chéri: Yeah! I think that we have to keep having conversations with each other. Because you know, I’m sort of fresh into the industry. I’m a new musical theatre writer. And so I really don’t know what the vast amount of experiences are out there. I don’t know what a lot of the resources are. Like, I’m fresh in this. I’m always about mentorship and anytime that there can be allies, mentors, guidance. All those opportunities are really, really exciting to me, and I’m thankful to be able to be a part of that and to be that then for someone else.
JM: And why do you think people should care about the goals Maestra is working towards and the services that Maestra is offering to the community?
Angelica Chéri: I think that you should care if you want to see change, and want to see what’s represented on stage and in what you’re listening to reflected in the environment that we want to create socially. Because this entire year , basically every ugly thing about this country has come out from underneath the bed: all the monsters, all the injustices. And I think now we’re finally able to look at, “Oh wow, how many different women have been nominated for a Tony in the area of book writing, or in composition, or in this or in that? Oh, okay. What does that mean?” I think that not only does that point to the fact that there’s under-representation, but it points to something systemically discriminatory. And I think that if we trace those steps backwards, then we’re starting to create an infrastructure for the change that we want to see both artistically and socially. So I feel like if you are invested in moving forward, then you should care about those values.
JM: Yeah, definitely. All right, last question: is there anything else that you’d like to share about yourself or your work or Maestra?
Angelica Chéri: I think also as an African-American woman in this industry, there’s a lot of— how do I want to say this? There is under-representation, but there’s also fascination, you know? Like there’s this “We haven’t heard from you; we want to hear from you.” I don’t feel like I’m operating in the space of “I haven’t been heard; therefore I am writing this” or “People want to hear from me; therefore I am writing this.” I don’t let what injustices or what trends or whatever things that are happening steer the writing, steer the work. Obviously if that’s something that’s intrinsic in the messages that I want to portray, then that’s what’s going to come out. But all the things that I do are about the integrity of storytelling, and that’s what I think is important. I think it’s revolutionary to just be, and to be writing what I organically want to be writing. And I’m also very selective about the work that I take on that’s work-for-hire. I think that I am protecting the integrity of what I want to say and not just trying to fill a slot. I’m writing this because I want to write it and because I want this to be said. So I think that that’s something that’s important, is integrity of voice alongside whatever else may be happening on the outside.
Special thanks to Angelica for sharing her story.
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