Anessa Marie is a composer/lyricist, music director, pianist, orchestrator, actress, and singer based in New York City. She is the co-founder and Associate Artistic Director of The Art Garage, a new NYC-based theatre company dedicated to producing Transgender/Gender Non-Conforming work, and she has graced the stage at Carnegie Hall, Feinstein’s/54 Below, Joe’s Pub, Green Room 42, The Duplex, and many more. This year, Anessa was awarded the New York Musical Festival’s first ever Artist Fellowship, a two-year program that will be awarded annually to an exceptional artist of note who is changing the landscape of musical theater. Anessa will present her musical Finding Beautiful at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre this Wednesday (July 17th) at 8pm and this Friday (July 19th) at 1pm. Tickets are available here .
A Conversation with Anessa Marie
Jamie Maletz: You’re a person of many talents! Do you have a favorite skill?
Anessa Marie: I think my favorite is composing, just because I love telling stories, and I love telling stories about people who are not represented in theater. Specifically, the show that we’re putting up now, we’ve cast this diverse group where we’re including trans women, a trans man, a nonbinary person, two African American people, and then we have a cis white girl because I think we have to have that. But what really attracts me to stories is when you have that diversity and you’re telling stories that aren’t seen. I think my favorite part about what I do is when people that I don’t expect to pay attention pay attention, and then I hear about that. And people learn things that they might have never been exposed to if I wasn’t writing from the perspective of a trans woman. But I also don’t like to write stories about physical transitions or the typical trans stories we hear, because I want to represent people as human. And I think just normalizing the experience of minorities is something that will help the world progress to a more inclusive state.
JM: I really like that. I think a lot of people assume that if a show has a marginalized character, the whole show is going to revolve around complaining about being marginalized. But there are a lot of good writers out there who are putting out stories that are, like you said, about being human. And the surface-level identity of the characters is present, but not the whole story.
Anessa Marie: Yeah. And it’s different, also, when it comes from the perspective of the people who actually go through that. You know, I’m tired of seeing cis men writing trans stories, because they just don’t get it. And it’s the same thing with cis men writing lesbian stories. I’ve seen that happen, and then it turns into just this erotic weird thing that isn’t human.
JM: Yeah. And it sucks when you’re finally being represented onstage, but it’s not authentic. But back on the good side of art, I would love to talk about your work as a music director. So you work with both new and established shows, correct?
Anessa Marie: Yes.
JM: You music direct a lot of new works at the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU Tisch. Do you want to describe a little bit about what that’s like?
Anessa Marie: Yeah! Um, I never know what I’m getting into. [Laughs] NYU has thrown so many things at me. Last year specifically, I got to work on this trans piece called Project Tiresias by Brin Solomon and AriDy Nox. And, most of the time before walking in, I don’t have a chance to see the score. And specifically with that show, it challenged me in ways that I’ve never been challenged before. Um, that show had 666 time signature changes…and even a measure of 4/5 time, which I did not even know existed, and I learned the history of that time signature. So, I think it’s challenging just because I never know what’s being thrown at me. But because we’re working on something new with the writers in the room, and for a lot of the writers it’s the first time that their work is being put on its feet, getting to be a part of that process is rewarding and…just fun! It’s a good time.
JM [recent grad of the program]: Yeah. It’s a good time for us too. So, you are also currently the music director of The Office: A Musical Parody. And that’s playing Off-Broadway at The Theater Center. What has it been like to work on that show?
Anessa Marie: So, that show was a process, just because the composer of it played and music directed the show up until he had to leave the show and go out of town for the summer. And because he wrote the show, he never actually notated the score. Um, so a lot of it was just like, a piece of paper with chord symbols that may or may not have been right. So shadowing the show, having to conduct from a score like that, was terrifying for me. And the first show I ever conducted of that was an absolute train wreck, just because it was a big learning curve, and I think a learning curve for all involved. What has actually happened with that show now is, the producers decided that they were losing too much money having a live band. So they have now gone to tracks. And they did that on June 17th. So I had planned my entire summer around that, and then…it made me question, you know, the future of musical theater. Because if that’s the first thing to go to save money, what’s gonna happen in the future with the bands, with the orchestras? Especially the work that I write, I like to have seven-piece, ten-piece bands, and I don’t know how much longer that’s going to be possible, unless you’re at the top level. And I think it was just eye-opening, too, how much musicians are under-valued in a lot of ways. So I’ve been trying to brainstorm ways, you know, to get more appreciation for the musicians that make the shows happen. Because when you switch to tracks, it completely changes the feel of the show. And I think The Office [A Musical Parody] is great. I think it’s still great, even with the music tracked. It’s just a different show. I don’t know if I know what the solution to that problem is. But I think it’s a discussion that needs to be had, for sure.
JM: Yeah. Let me know if you think of something. Musicians work so hard, and it’s magical to hear music live in a way that tracks can’t capture. But…it is, it’s often one of the first things to go.
Anessa Marie: Like, even speaking to that, you know…you look at articles on Playbill, and they’ll mention the choreographer, the set designer, the costume designer, lighting designer…and so often, the music director is completely left out. And even when I’ve done 54 Below concerts, where the music is the focus, there’s no mention of the music director and the director gets credit. And they should! But we should also get credit for what we’re doing.
JM: Yes, absolutely. Music directing is a huge amount of work, and it requires so much patience and talent.
Anessa Marie: Yeah.
JM: Let’s talk about you being the New York Musical Festival’s first-ever fellow. You are the inaugural recipient of a two-year program they’re planning to award annually to, in their words, “an exceptional artist of note who is changing the landscape of musical theater.” So first of all, huge congratulations! The fellowship is designed to have you do a presentation of a reading or concert in the first year, and then a full production in the second year. So this year, you’re doing a concert?
Anessa Marie: We’ve been given a lot of license with NYMF, just because this is the first time they’re trying this out. We originally were accepted to do a concert, and then they came to us back in April and invited us to do a full production this year.
JM: Oh wow. So it’s a full production?
Anessa Marie: It’s not this year, because it evolved from that. Initially, we were like, “Oh yeah, we’ll do a full show…in two months.” But, you know, raising $40,000 to put up something at NYMF is the bare minimum. And we still would have had to write the whole book and finish the score, and it was kind of a reality check, right in action, how long these things take. And it was insane for us to agree to that. So we said, “We’d love to do a full production, but there’s just no way it can happen.” So we’re kind of doing a hybrid this year between a concert and a staged production. We’re calling it a “staged concert.” It’s happening at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at Signature [Theatre Company]. The fellowship specifically, they have a lot of plans for it that I actually was made aware of this morning, that I’m not at liberty to share until they announce, but I think NYMF is taking some huge steps forward.
JM: Is this fellowship something that you applied for, or they reached out to you?
Anessa Marie: It was an idea that the new artistic director had, because NYMF has a history of supporting productions and supporting specific pieces. But in moving forward, one of the things that NYMF is really trying to do is support artists. So through this fellowship, it’s not a commitment to a specific piece, it’s a commitment to an artist that they’re going to help promote and get that artist’s work out there to be seen. And I think they’re really trying to represent minorities. There are so many exciting things in development that I wish I could share right now, and I just can’t.
JM: Well, I can’t wait until the announcements come out and we get to hear about it. And in the meantime, if people want to see your work in action right now, they can grab some tickets and go to the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre this week. When exactly are the performances?
Anessa Marie: July 17th at 8pm and July 19th at 1pm.
JM: And what is Finding Beautiful about?
Anessa Marie: When I first moved to New York City from West Virginia, I started to transition physically and live my life as me. And through that journey, I spent a couple months homeless. My family is not very supportive. So for me, I had one thing to turn to, and that was music. So it started with one song that comes toward the end of the show called “A Life That Makes Sense to Me,” and I wrote the lyrics to that sitting in Central Park while I was homeless. And really, I had written a lot of one-off songs that I did a couple concerts of, and through those concerts, my writing partner and I started to see that there was a through-line to all of the songs: that all of them were about the human experience without being explicitly tragic or explicitly talking about being transgender. When we first put them in front of an audience, they translated well. So especially with Trump coming into office, and the current political climate that we’re in…we started to think about community. And allies. And what makes the world feel connected, and what makes it not feel connected, and what happens in both cases. So as the song cycle started to develop into what is now Finding Beautiful, we really started to ask the question: What happens when you build a community, specifically of people who may not have a community, but then you forget about your allies? Toward the end of the show- we do have a cis gay male in the show, and we see all of these other characters building a community and coming together and finding what they’ve been looking for, but they’ve kind of forgotten about him. And so he’s feeling very alone and starts to question whether he even wants to be here anymore. And I think it’s too often the case, you know, especially with the transgender community…I see the trans community coming together, and I love that. But a lot of the time, I think the trans community forgets that the people that we may be yelling at, and using our voice as loud as we can, which is a great thing, but…we might be doing the same thing that they’ve done to us. It really is about being human, and how we can be better humans, and how we just deal with our shit.
JM: I love that. I hope you have a packed house at Finding Beautiful.
Anessa Marie: I hope so! We’ll see.
JM: So moving on to some of the other awesome things you do…you’re an audition coach also, for performance technique and audition skills?
Anessa Marie: Mmhmm.
JM: Where do you find your students, or how do they find you, and what are some of the best things you’ve experienced as a teacher?
Anessa Marie: It happens from word of mouth a lot of the time. There’s also a great Facebook group called Accompanist Connection (NYC), where actors can go and post that they’re looking for a pianist or a coach, and we see that and we can comment and message them directly, and then they can choose who they want to work with. That group has been great, because people will post, and within ten minutes they have whatever they need covered. It was started by Amy Stewart, another strong woman, which is great to see, us all making change! With my students, there’s something rewarding about every interaction that I have. But I think my favorite is the young kids who come in, and they’re scared to sing, and they’re scared to use their voice, and they’re scared to just be there in front of you. And then through encouraging them and working on technique and all of those things, but also just working on being a human with them, they come out of their shell. My favorite experience ever was when I had a seven-year-old girl come in, and she would not even sing and was so mousy at first, and by the end of the hour coaching I did with her, she was standing there just belting her face off. I just love that.
JM: Another cool thing is that you’re the co-founder of a theater company! You co-founded The Art Garage with Kevin Paley, and you’re the Associate Artistic Director. Do you want to tell us about the company and its mission?
Anessa Marie: Yeah! The mission of the company and why I started it was specifically to get TGNC work out there.
JM: Just for readers who may not know, TGNC is–
Anessa Marie: Transgender/Gender non-conforming. I think having trans people involved in trans work is so important, and it does not happen enough. You know, I hear from trans actors all the time that they’re having to be not only an actor in their show, but they also have to be a dramaturg, because the writers haven’t even thought to consult with a trans person. Like, ask, “Does this make sense? Does this ring true?” They just assume that they get the experience from what they see on TV, or that they can read about it online and understand it. And, you know, I appreciate them doing the research. But I think part of doing research is talking to trans people. And if you’re not doing that…
JM: You’re not doing enough.
Anessa Marie: Yeah, and you really shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. So really, The Art Garage was started because we wanted to give TGNC writers a voice with trans representation. And it’s not specifically all trans. We’re open to cis actors and cis people being a part of this, but really the goal is to create an inclusive, safe space for everyone. The company was formed back in December, and since then, in January and February we did a reading series where we read six new plays or musicals by TGNC writers or by cis writers featuring TGNC people in the show–but we cast those appropriately for the readings with TGNC performers, and then we talked about it afterwards. So the writers got to have that feedback from the trans people in the room.
JM: And how did that go?
Anessa Marie: I think it was successful. And we found pieces that we’re passionate about producing, and that’s kind of the next step. You know, this whole NYMF thing kind of came out of the blue in April. So in talking with Kevin about that, we decided to produce Finding Beautiful through The Art Garage as The Art Garage’s first project. And it was a big undertaking, being a new theater company, but it’s been a great learning experience. And it’s also been a great learning experience for us because my writing partner is a cis gay male, and we’ve kind of had to discover how trans people and cis people can work together without us putting our biases on others.
JM: So, for cis writers who want to be better allies to the trans community, and who want to create better representation and have trans characters in their work, what would you say would be the best thing they could do?
Anessa Marie: My writing partner is the best example of this. We’re best friends. And when we first met, he didn’t know much about the trans experience. But the thing that he did was, he took time to ask questions and get to know me on a personal level. And not by asking invasive questions, like, you know, “Have you medically transitioned yet,” focusing on the physical things, which happens so often. That’s what people focus on. But what he’s concerned about is, “What is your human experience? What makes you happy? What makes you sad? What pisses you off?” I think remembering that everybody is human is the key. And then just taking time to discover what it is beyond the identity of the people that you’re writing for and the characters that you’re including, what is their experience in life?
JM: I really like that. I also wanted to ask about a show you did last summer at Green Room 42 featuring all-queer orchestras. That sounds like it was incredible. How did you find your team for that?
Anessa Marie: It was a lot of crowdsourcing and posting on Facebook. I think I emailed Georgia [Stitt] at one point and she gave me some recommendations. My drummer was someone that I randomly met doing a gig. But, you know, I share the same goal that Maestra has, which is to represent people who aren’t represented. So it’s really important to me that every band that I put together has cis men, women, queer people, trans people…you know, specifically, in the band for Finding Beautiful, we have people who identify on all levels of the spectrum. And the band’s gonna be onstage with the cast, so I can’t wait to see what that diversity looks like.
JM: I think we’d all benefit from seeing more diversity like that. So you’re doing amazing things right now. What was it like for you starting out in this industry? What has your career path been like?
Anessa Marie: It was hard when I first moved to New York, because I had lived my life being perceived as a male figure in the industry. So I kind of had the luxury of not really having to think about, “Oh, I’m not gonna get a gig because I’m a woman,” or “I’m not gonna get a gig because I’m a trans person.” So I think when I started to transition, it was rocky. Because I suddenly found myself in this world where I identified as a woman, but that may not have been how I was being perceived. So I wasn’t quite sure where I fit, and I wasn’t quite sure what community to try to build, or where to even look for that. So, you know, I started taking every gig that I could, every gig I was offered; I worked a restaurant job in Times Square at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, I wasn’t sleeping, I was constantly working, and generally it didn’t pay well, because you know, you have to break into this industry. And especially trying to break into the New York scene while also trying to find this new me was difficult. And I’m fortunate that I’ve had a support system, and I’ve always had someone that does support me every step of the way. And really, over the past five years in New York, I’ve been able to build, now, this tribe that loves working with me and loves having me in the room. And in having those people, you know, I’m now offered gigs that I can’t take, and I get to pass those on to people who may be in the same situation that I was in, and that’s great.
JM: And why did you join Maestra?
Anessa Marie: Every pit that I played in for my first few years in New York City were all men. And all cis, white men. Exactly what you would expect. And, you know, I’m not hating on cis white men. But women can do the job just as well, and I think we’re fighting for the jobs, and we’re trying to make our voices heard that we’re here and we’re ready to do this. And I think with Maestra specifically, we’re starting to see a shift. I was thrilled to see the Jason Robert Brown/Sondheim concert and to see that there was equal representation on that stage, and to see a Maestra conducting.
JM: On a related note (pun intended), why do you think Maestra is important?
Anessa Marie: The directory is amazing. I mean, just, in my free time, I’ll go through the directory to see, like, who I don’t know yet, and who I want to get to know in the industry that is a working female musician or composer. You know, I’ve gotten work from the directory. And I think the directory, having that launched, is a great thing. Because there is this database now that, when people are looking specifically for women, or for a woman of color, they can go and find somebody. I just think it’s giving a voice to women in the industry, and I love that it includes trans women.
JM: I love that you’ve gotten work from the directory already. Has it helped others that you know so far?
Anessa Marie: Mmhmm. I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about Maestra. I think seven different people have told me they’ve gotten work from the directory.
JM: Seven! That’s great! Now, not that we haven’t given a bunch of good reasons already, but…why should people care about the services that Maestra offers and the goals that we’re working towards?
Anessa Marie: I think life is about shaking things up, and I think it’s about exploring new things and finding new ways of thinking, and constantly expanding who we are as people. If we’re gonna be human, and we’re gonna embrace everybody just as people, then there need to be those equal opportunities. And we need to be looking at people, thinking “Could this person be the best fit?”
Read more of our Women Who Wow Us series, including interviews with Nancy Ford, Elise Frawley, Erin McKeown, Meg Zervoulis, Masi Asare, Britt Bonney, Jennifer Isaacson, and Emily Grishman.
Women Who Wow Us: Week 2
Author: Jamie Maletz
Editor: Sara Cooper
Photographer: Heather Gershonowitz