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Interview

Artist Interview: Kirsten Childs

Note: This interview contains spoilers about the contents of Bella: An American Tall Tale.

Tim Sanford: Let’s pick up where we left off since we produced The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin 17 years ago. You’ve done a few things that were of your own devising, like The Miracle Brothers at the Vineyard.

Kirsten Childs: And Funked Up Fairytales. And a play, actually, for young people called Wasted that was requested by George Street Playhouse. It was a play about peer pressure.

You’ve also done some for-hire gigs after Bubbly, right?

My first for-hire gig I’m pretty sure was for City Center Encores. Truman Capote. Harold Arlen. Originally starring Pearl Bailey… House of Flowers!

Truman Capote was just the source material? 

Truman Capote’s short story was the source material – he also wrote the book for the musical which was very problematic. It started out as a fairytale set in a brothel, which was a direct adaptation of the previously written story. And so the young woman was a prostitute, you know, in a house of ill repute, and she has a romance with a poor handsome guy who is the Prince Charming of the story. Unfortunately for the story, which really should have focused on the young prostitute and the poor but handsome swain, Truman Capote was friends with Pearl Bailey, who played the madam of the brothel. And Capote was besotted with Pearl Bailey and Pearl Bailey was besotted with Pearl Bailey, so Capote began crafting the story to be a vehicle for her. And then magically, the madam of the brothel had all the best songs, and all the best lines of the story, so it completely destroyed the musical.

So what was your role?

Encores hired me as a bookwriter for House of Flowers. They wanted to bring back the intention of Truman Capote’s original short story, without completely undoing the book of the musical as it stood. A tall order for an established bookwriter. A terrifying one for someone who considered herself primarily a composer-lyricist, even though I did study bookwriting at NYU. And I was like “Okaaaay,” you know, because I was the bookwriter for Bubbly, but I considered myself a “necessity is the mother of invention” bookwriter. I figured since nobody else could tell the story of my life better than I could, it became a “necessity” to “invent” my bookwriting skills. So I dove in and wrote the book for Bubbly, and as it turned out, learning how to do so on the job was not as daunting because the book was based off of my life. Being bookwriter for House of Flowers was a whole other kettle of fish. But when someone says, “Hey Kirsten, we want you to revise the book of a musical for Encores!” I’ve pounded too many pavements and lied on too many resumes to say, “I don’t think I can do that.”

I heard about the Peter Pan thing you did lyrics for at Dallas Theater Center.

Yes, Fly. I co-wrote lyrics with Rajiv Joseph.

Who wrote the music?

Bill Sherman.

Have you done any music for hire? Like as a composer?

Yes, actually, here Tim! For Doris to Darlene.

Oh yes, Doris to Darlene. That’s correct.

Yes, I did, and it was really fun to work with Jordan Harrison.

I asked because if I remember correctly, you said you sort of backed into composing like you backed into bookwriting. You said your brother was the composer in the family? And that your first forays into music were when you used to write lyrics with him.

Right.

And then you were admitted into the NYU musical theater program as a lyricist.

Yeah.

And at the beginning of writing your own music, you said there was a project that the composer who was partnered with you just wasn’t getting. 

Well actually the composer was a fantastic composer, but the story – our thesis musical – was about two young boys in South Central Los Angeles. One gets killed and his brother’s deciding whether or not to avenge his death. And she just really did not want to write rap, she looked down upon rap. And I’m thinking “That would definitely be the voice of at least one person in this story.” So you have to let go of your notions of what is proper...proper for yourself, as opposed to what is serving the story.

You didn’t go into that back then — the specifics of it.

No I sure didn’t

But a little time has...

Because I was really bubbly, Tim. (Laughter.) I didn’t want to talk bad about anybody, you know. But it was frustrating. I remember walking with my friend Fred Carl (the eventual music director for Bubbly), and not being bubbly, and going, “Blah blah blah blah annoyance, frustration, the character needs to rap, why can’t she understand this?” And he said, “Well, if you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you write some music yourself?” And I did. I just went, “You know what? I’m gonna do that.”

And so you did the song, but it didn’t stop there.

No it didn’t stop there, because once I started to allow myself to write music that was galvanized by the engine of my lyrics, it got good to me. So I started writing other songs.

I remember you describing your compositional method. You talked about the fact that you weren’t primarily a piano player.

Yeah, I can play “The Spinning Song.” But I’m not a pianist at all.

But you have these programs that helped you.

Well actually no, not at the beginning. I didn’t use Finale.

Yeah didn’t you like sing into a recorder?

A tape recorder, yeah.

And then someone transcribed it for you, or you could transcribe it?

I didn’t do any of that at the beginning. What I did was, I would take a tape recorder, hit record, sing into it, take another tape recorder, put another tape in, play the first tape, and then sing along, making a harmony while recording on the second tape, and then take that tape out, put another tape in, and do the same thing. In other words, so now you have two lines of music, and I would sing a third line. And I would just keep building and building and by the time I had created the amount of taped vocals that were necessary for me to feel the song was completed, you had a lot of tape hiss, but then you also had the sound that I wanted to hear.

What did you do with those tapes?

The very beginnings of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin were songs created by those tapes (“The Skate,” “Sticks and Stones,” and a song that’s no longer in the show called “Keith”). I was invited to participate in a spoken word event, but I didn’t have spoken words, just my taped songs. I asked my friend Fred Carl to be my musical director for that show. He was nice enough to MD the show, but after it, he said, “You need to learn how to notate.” And so I went to Carl Fischer, the sheet music store that used to be around the corner from The Public, near Cooper Union. And I got a little piano book to remember what music notes and time signatures and music clefs looked like (I had taken piano lessons as a child). And I did my best to write the music the way that it was in this little book. And it looked halfway decent, and then finally the Finale program came out and I started to learn to notate with Finale.

And was that the final step in your musical education, as it were? You used to talk about wanting to take some music theory classes someday.

You know, I still haven’t done the music theory classes that I should. However, I am fortunate enough to have a lot of friends who went to NYU in the musical theater writing program who are composers. Like for example Randall Eng, a wonderful composer who used to music direct some of my things, he would say “No, this is the way that you actually notate this; you’re supposed to tie this together,” and I would learn on the job from him and from Scott Richards and from Fred Carl, and now Rona Siddiqui. Every now and then things are “correct” in that they’re the right note or have the right note value, but they’re not so easy for musicians to read and she’s very kind to say, “It would be easier to read if it were notated this way.” And I try to keep those principles going, but I should probably take a theory class.

You’ve talked about how you wrote Bubbly from your personal experience. And there was a moment in the developmental process where you stopped referring to the character in the first person and started referring to her in the third person. That signaled the moment you had acquired sufficient authorial distance to crack the story without being beholden to reality or actual personal experience. So I bring that up because the genesis of Bella, as you have described it, came out of an incident you witnessed, where you already saw it as a writer, in a way. You said you were walking down the street and this couple was walking ahead of you.

Yes, the man was this sort of buff, burly little tough guy, and the woman was a very zaftig, curvaceous, tiny woman with an incredibly big behind. A behind as big as the Venus Hottentot, the real woman that Suzan-Lori Parks wrote about [in Venus], an African woman who was brought to Europe and paraded around and exhibited as an oddity, as a freak, and had a very tragic life. But this woman walking in front of me was absolutely fine with herself, and she was walking down the street like she knew she looked good — and she did look good. And the reason I say that she looked good is because every single man who was coming in the opposite direction passed by her, turned, stopped, and looked at her behind, and they were totally, totally spellbound. I mean like they didn’t say a word, they just gawked at her behind, and I am talking white, black, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, probably Native American, straight, gay, investment banker, hard hat. And some were trying to be like sly about it. And I literally started creeping slowly because I wanted to keep a big distance between us to witness the phenomenon and see how many times it happened. And it just kept happening, and I just wanted to laugh. So I went home and I just thought, what can I do? Well, she’s larger than life; it’s a tall tale. And since it’s a tall tale, it takes place in the Old West.

Wait you went home and immediately started thinking, “There’s a musical here?”

Oh I started thinking it when those guys were turning around. I mean, I just cannot describe to you how incredibly epic that was. It was a total Jessica Rabbit cartoon situation. Or the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” movie number with Marilyn Monroe. Anyway, once I had settled for the Old West, I started imagining all these characters from these tall tales and it made my eyes twinkle.

Did songs start coming to you right away?  

Um, the opening number, which is called “Big Booty Tupelo Gal,” that just came when I got home and realized it was a Western. That was literally the first song, and it just made me happy. Most of this show, writing it, has made me laugh while I’m writing it, has made me laugh at the end of a song, has made me get up and be the bad guy, the good nice person, the repressed spinster, the flirtatious cowboy, it’s just been so much fun to work on this piece. And then to see everybody do what they do with it has been really, really great.

So from this moment of inception to the point that Playwrights Horizons got involved was not immediate. Originally you were commissioned to write a musical with another writer, but that collaboration didn’t pan out. So we talked to you about turning that commission into something else and that’s when you told us about Bella.

Right, I remember thinking while I was working on this: “I’m not going to show this to anybody until I’m ready, because I love it, but I don’t know really quite what I’m doing right now.” So when you asked me if I had something I might do for the commission, I was glad to have this in my back pocket.

When you showed it to me, it didn’t really have a second act. But it felt like you were ready to let people see it.

By that time I had faith that I would finish it in a way that was satisfactory to me. At the beginning I knew I was gonna finish it, but I just didn’t know at all where I was going with it. And since I didn’t know at all where I was going with it, I didn’t want any suggestions as to how it possibly could end, or where I should go with it.

You had a lot of the songs in the first act. And you said a lot of them sprang up thinking about Wild West tall tales. How did you approach rounding it out?

I made a choice in writing Bella to write more solos and duets. For Bubbly I wrote a lot of complicated choral numbers. Generally I like really happy, poppy, happy-peppy-bursting-with-love songs. But when I go to see musicals, I really love the songs that are tent pole songs in those musicals. And so it was really fun to write a song like, for example, “What I Want,” which is Bella’s I Want Song, to actually challenge myself to look at the musical in that kind of way. So that was something that was different than Bubbly, because in Bubbly I was just writing to what I felt was the moment in a song and not worrying about “Is this an I Want Song? Is this a List Song? Is this an eleven o’clock number?” So it was fun to try to do that.

Well it’s interesting to hear this because the first songs I heard from this, what struck me was their larger-than-life ebullience, the cheerful satiric edge many of them had. They didn’t necessarily seem to suggest the kind of balladry you’re talking about.

Right, right.

But looking at it now, the ballads kind of provide the structure of the story. It took a while to clarify what that story is. When I read it, you took us right up to the circus. And in the first version, that circus was a really bad scene.

Yeah, and I really didn’t know how to get her out of it. Before I started working with you here at Playwrights, the circus was even worse. I mean it was really bad. And the Circus Owner, Conyers, was really just a total villain…

So your first take on Bella is a celebration of her big booty. But then you bring in the objectification of the booty, which is the Venus Hottentot story, here in the circus.

Right, and I remember talking with you about the parallels to Venus, and how the road I intended to go down seemed to be different from the Venus trajectory, but certain story choices I was making seemed to be leading Bella’s story to a similar unhappy conclusion. Which was helpful, because what I’ve tried to do with this story of this woman in a similar situation as Venus, is to show how my tall tale heroine overcomes it. The way that I had been thinking about Bella imbued her with cheerfulness and cheekiness and hope in the first part of the story, and then for her to actually live in a gritty bleak Venus Hottentot world of despair in the second part of the story was extremely problematic because there was no way to get back to who she was at the beginning of the story, if that makes sense.

It does make sense. The other historical referent we might discuss, I don’t know if you’re aware of it, is when Josephine Baker went to Europe and was acclaimed, and when she came back she was not acclaimed.

Yes.

It’s like a parallel story.

Yeah, I think there are a lot of artists that were accepted over in Europe when it was not such a wonderful time to be African Americans in the States — artists or non-artists. I’d also like to say, this black American expatriate idea was one that Robert O’Hara suggested. I thought it was a great idea, so yeah I wanted to have that be a color in the story. And dealing with the Venus Hottentot element, I wanted to sort of twist it also into the “exoticizing” of Josephine Baker. She had to portray a half nude jungle princess, and sashay around in a banana costume. The difference is that Josephine Baker took the exploitation card that was dealt her and parlayed it into a fabulous immortality. She was someone who was more fortunate, and she was someone who was feisty and wouldn’t let anything get her down.

The circus story is one of Bella’s disillusionment. After she is mocked on stage she decides to quit and go back to Aloysius, but he has found out about her career and rejects her.

And at that moment, she is devastated by the fact that she has lost her true love, and everybody else. And the other men that are interested in her only want her money, or they want to objectify her. Then in her anger, she rejects the man who actually likes who she is, and then realizes too late, “Wait a minute, maybe I shouldn’t have done that.” And she starts to blame all of her troubles on her objectification, and frankly on her behind. So she rejects her behind. And when I say she rejects her behind, she takes her behind off and plans to get rid of it permanently by throwing it over the cliffs in New Jersey.

The Palisades.

Yeah, the Palisades. But the spirit of her booty talks to her and says, “Do not give up. Just because you’re upset about how people objectify you, don’t give up who you are because of other people. I, as your Booty Spirit, am telling you that your booty is wonderful.”

I don’t remember the first time I read the Spirit of the Booty as a character.

It wasn’t until I started dealing with the secret of what Bella was running from. When I first presented this to you, she wasn’t running away from something, she was going to her Buffalo Soldier boyfriend out West. And I wanted to give her a little bit more of an obstacle, and so I ended up saying that she was running away from a crime that she was wanted for. A crime which was something that she had to do in self-defense because somebody tried to rape her. And so I had to figure out how I could have that villain be—

Defeated by the booty?

Defeated — well, not by the booty, but defeated by Bella. And somehow I realized that since this is a tall tale about a woman and her big behind, the big behind had to save her. And so I thought now how can she fight crime with her behind with this guy? Then I’m really not gonna tell anybody, but she finds a way and the Spirit of the Booty figures prominently in it.

You’re not gonna talk about what you wrote?

No! (Laughter.)

It’s very clear to us by the end of the evening what has happened.

Yes. 

But even now, demure Kirsten doesn’t want to cop to it. (Laughter.)

All I’m gonna tell you is, it was an accident.

When you realize what happens — you really should go back and see it again.

Yes you should!

Because there are these little lines like, “You had it in you all along!” Little clues, and she keeps saying, “It was an accident!” (Laughter.)

I must admit Tim, you’re the only person I know that has gotten that. And I have to say every time I hear it I start laughing because I know what it’s gonna mean. Yeah. So she has a terrible accident, but I also have to say I really owe a lot of thanks to you, because I was skirting around the issue. I knew what was happening in my mind, but I was like, “I can’t say that, I can’t show that on stage.” And you forced me to actually tell you what was happening, and once I told you what was happening, you entreated me to show what was happening. It made me realize that, just like Bella’s “accident,” once things are set into motion, it’s best to let them flow forth freely and naturally. And I think the audience really appreciates seeing this.

Is that when you wrote “One Ass to Another?”

No that song was in the show before you forced me to say what happens in it. I remember Robert asked me, “But what happens?” And then I actually told him and he went, “Euugh.” (Laughter.)

And to your credit, despite your demure demeanor, when we saw a preview and Bonny Johnny was in the white light, holding his hands up, you were like, “It’s not clear what’s happening.” (Laughter.)

Well that’s your fault. You got me going there.

Yeah, but Lindsay Jones [the sound designer] took care of it eventually.

He most certainly did in an inimitable way.

So when you introduced the plot point that she’s escaping from Bonny Johnny, that’s the genesis of the second scene of the play, a flashback scene with her mother, grandmother, and aunt.

Right. The second scene has a couple of purposes, but definitely to let the audience know she’s running away from something.

Was that there before [the character] Bonny Johnny?

No.

It wasn’t.

No. “One Ass to Another” is definitely a song that was there way before “The Language of My Nose and Lips and Hair,” which is the second song in the show.

Right. But that scene does a lot more than just give us the exposition of why she’s running away. It also introduces us to three important characters and establishes that the relationship between Mama and Grandma is fraught.

Yeah. It’s fraught, but I think another thing for me that’s really important is the fact that because Bella’s a wanted criminal, she has to change her name. There’s such a history of black people in this country from the moment they set foot on this land, they had to forget their name, they had to forget their culture, they had to adapt — even though it was impossible to adapt — to white hair styles, white clothing, white religions, you know, the religion of the ruling people. They had to forget everything. And I think part of that scene is the struggle for the grandmother, who has a bit of dementia, to make sure that even though Bella has forgotten her name, she doesn’t forget where she’s come from. She’s like a griot, an African historian from an oral tradition. So we see in the grandmother’s dementia the erosion of the culture that I come from. Where do I get a link to my people’s history in Africa and America, when my history is ignored by the dominant white society and the cultural memory delivered to me by my own people is fading from generation to generation to generation? 

The first song, the overture, touches on this theme of history.

Yes.

The theme of “history is written by the victor,” or by the scholar, as you say.

Yeah. Right, and it’s subjective, so basically I’m saying, “I’m gonna make my own history.”

If Grandma represents the oral tradition, what does Mama represent?

Survival, just straight-up surviving. Surviving in a culture where the odds are stacked against you. Mama embodies the resistance to that type of defeat. Saying, it’s fine to have the memory, it’s fine to have a wild imagination, but what is important for our people and our culture is to survive. And part of surviving is living in the real world. Yes, we don’t have the memory; yes, it’d be nice if we could imagine our troubles away, but we have to live in this world. And so Mama is the link between the two of them, and she’s very weary of having to be the one that is grounded all the time.

Where does Bella stand between them?

She stands on the side of the imagination. It’s important to survive, but it’s also important to be free. And in order to be free, you have to imagine your freedom. So. That’s what Bella does.

We meet the Spirit of the Booty for the first time in the second scene of the second act with “One Ass to Another.” Thereafter we pretty much alternate between the Spirit and Grandma through the end. But Mama really just has a couple of scenes, culminating in her show-stopper number, “Mama Where Did You Go?”

So Grandma is constantly escaping Mama and going off, and Mama is constantly looking after her and trying to rein her back in. And it’s been kinda funny that Grandma has a bad memory and says outrageous things and people are laughing at her, and at this one moment, Mama is looking for Grandma and Grandma is gone, and Mama expresses this wish that she had her mother back with all of her senses. And it’s a little bit of a heartbreaking moment, and it’s a moment of the reality that you can have all the imagination you want, but some things you can’t just wish away. There’s heartbreak in all of this stuff the tall tale deals with. There is a current of sadness underneath that we also have to deal with in the world.

Well it’s such a huge moment emotionally in the show, And it’s followed by the scene of Bella at Carnegie Hall, right?

Right. We see Bella singing her signature song, which knocked them dead in Europe, but back home people are just mocking her and treating her like an oddity and with scorn and derision.

So those scenes go together because they’re both kind of low points. And it takes us to that moment where she wants to leave the circus and learns that Aloysius has found out about it and rejected her. This is like the final straw for Bella. By this point, we all see that the porter is a better choice for her. He’s even pointed out to her that she never fantasizes about Aloysius.

Aloysius is somebody that Bella would have to pretend to be somebody else for. Even in his letter to her he calls her his shy little darling, his little fawn, and by this time the audience understands Bella is the furthest thing from shy as possible. But probably back in Tupelo she acted shy around Aloysius because he’s handsome, he’s The Guy, he’s hot, he’s assertive, you know, and he’s probably the biggest catch in Tupelo. And so she sublimates her own imagination to accommodate his.

Given what we know about Mama always bad-mouthing men, you could say that Mama’s point of view has completely won and we in fact do not see Mama again. It’s like Bella has become her. Maybe that’s the reason that she rejects Nathaniel [the porter]. And then she decides to reject her booty, both the Spirit of the Booty and her own actual booty; and by inference, she rejects her imagination too.

She’s getting rid of her imagination. She’s getting rid of her booty, she’s getting rid of all the things about her that, number one, make her, and number two, make her wonderful.

What saves her?

What saves her is that this is a Wild West tall tale where she’s gonna win no matter what, because she’s the one writing the story.

And the story has started to take on a life of its own. The characters we’ve met on her journey enter the scene and object. It’s like a metatheatrical moment that the story itself says, “You can’t do this to our tall tale! The tall tale is bigger than you are.”

That’s exactly right. I mean I didn’t mean for it to be that way, but that’s exactly right. It’s like, “No, sorry.” Sort of like, once I write the musical it’s no longer me; it’s like the actors, it’s the director, it’s the set designer. You know, I would love for it to be me, but it isn’t me anymore. You put something out there — she put something out there, and her imagination likes it. And it’s like too bad, sorry you have to deal with the fact that you’re going to win and you’re going to get your booty back, and it’s gonna be a Happy Ever After thing, so too bad for you wanting to mess everything up.

So this reversal, this restoration, happens in the final song of the show: “Impossible.”

“Impossible,” yeah.

How did that song come to be?

It’s actually the last song that I wrote for this show. I knew Bella needed a final song where she had an epiphany. And I wanted also to make it her eleven o’clock number.

That was true in Bubbly too. So what’s the seminal moment of epiphany in “Impossible?”

Um... “Impossible ain’t nothing but a big word / keep telling me I shouldn’t even try / telling me I better know my place / but I’m gonna meet it face to face / then I’m gonna smile at it / might even wink my eye / then I’m gonna kiss impossible goodbye!” That’s what I would say it is.

A lot happens very quickly in the end of Bella. She gets rejected by Aloysius, then she rejects Nathaniel. She leaves the circus and throws away her booty. The tall tale comes back to life and urges her to change her mind. And by singing “Impossible” she is able to do so. Then Bonnie Johnny tracks her down for a big stand-off that is over before it begins when he falls into the river. Grandma shows up with the discarded booty and the discarded Nathaniel. Bella reclaims her booty and her porter. Happy ending. It’s almost comically rapid-fire. But it seems right for a tall tale.

I think the dizziest part of the tall tale ride has to be at the end. You’re about to be thrown from the bucking bronco or you’re about to tame it enough to dismount. Bottom line, a tall tale is a crazy ride that has to be seen to be believed. Just like what I saw that day, walking down that street, all those slack-jawed men gaping with awe, admiration, and pure desire at that little lady’s iconic physique. It all comes down to the power of the Booty.