I don’t think of myself as the type that gambles with the rent money, yet that’s exactly what I felt like I was doing during tech week of the live, online, remote song cycle I recently produced called Swell. The riskiness of the endeavor, which was funded by the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York along with assistance for ASL interpretation from A.R.T.-NY, didn’t become clear until one night in tech when the internet was bucking wildly and we couldn’t sync the audio feeds coming from various corners of the country the way we’d successfully done during the past two weeks of staging rehearsals. It occurred to me that choosing such an unpredictable medium for a live, remote production whose subject was very dear to me may not have been the most clear-eyed decision.
A few years in the making, Swell began with an encounter with a piece of Nathalie Joachim’s that hearkened back to a trip she’d taken to her mother country of Haiti. Listening to her, I began wanting to make work like that, work that transported me to another place and to another way of life. It made me immensely nostalgic for my own island of origin, Taiwan. After that experience, it became my mission to find composers who identified as immigrants/children of immigrants, ask them if they’d be willing to write a song about some aspect of that experience, and on top of that, ask if they’d be open to collaborating with me on the lyrics. (At the time, I’d been writing lyrics for about three years and working with a couple of different composers; I was enamored with what music could do to enhance text and could see no reason to stop.)
It took a while to track down composers in New York who fit the criteria, and who were also comfortable with new music. I remember explaining the idea for the song cycle to one composer from Israel that I’d approached, and afterward he had a pained look on his face. He asked, “What if I didn’t immigrate to escape war or poverty?” My immediate reply was that that was ideal, because not every immigrant’s experience involves fleeing horrific circumstances. He wound up writing perhaps the cycle’s most well-loved earworm. Another composer decided to set his memory piece at a breakneck tempo, because he wanted to emphasize the humor in the song, as well as play with the fact that not every immigrant from Mexico has the same journey, literally or figuratively, to the U.S.
As it turned out, my definition of new music was fairly broad, and by the time I’d found ten composers, the song cycle included electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned. I loved, too, that each composer had (sometimes vastly) different musical backgrounds and training. They were all accomplished, yet they’d entered the field from different directions, meeting finally at this project. In summer of 2019, I was offered a two-day workshop at HERE in New York to test out the concept. The workshop presentation utilized three singers, three instrumentalists, projections, a little bit of lighting design, a smaller amount of set design, and music stands because nobody could be expected to be off-book. I’d paid everyone out of my savings, which at the time added up to a few thousand dollars—it was my emergency fund, and being offered space to present this work on very short notice seemed like the perfect emergency. In naming the song cycle, I arrived at a term that evoked both turbulent seas (and sea-crossings), and voices rising in unison.
The workshop of Swell coincided with the weekend that ICE began conducting mass raids at the behest of then President Trump. It was an eerie coincidence, as the raids were originally scheduled to occur the weekend prior, but had been postponed for one week. So, while people who looked and sounded like us—people who came from immigrant families—were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were. Our show wasn’t exactly a solution to what was happening, but it was a place where people could, and did, gather in solidarity against it. Fast forward to March 17, 2021, when Swell opened for a five-day, live, online run, after being given the green light to convert its originally intended, fully staged, in-person production into a virtual one. That night, as we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed. It wasn’t being called a hate crime, but it looked at least like a violent act that grew partly out of racist thinking and misogynistic ideas. The following day, I was asked how I was doing and whether there was anything people could do to help. The only answer that made sense to me was to ask people to watch the show. As it happened, half our composers were of Asian descent. I felt, and continue to feel, that the show kept me buoyed during a time when it would otherwise have been easy to succumb to fear and anxiety. I made the show’s comp code available to the public, which was a decision I could make easily as producer. It felt to me like everyone, for different reasons, could use our show at that moment.
Aside from the piece itself being moving, there was the undeniable fact that thirty artists contributed to it in some way. That thirty individuals helped to make what amounted to an online experiment, during a pandemic, while getting paid, is inspiring in and of itself. What I think made it such a powerful antidote to the race-based hate and violence toward Asians/Asian Americans, is the community we created over the course of making the show. Although every rehearsal and every meeting took place virtually, we maintained a kind and supportive ethos, even as we were attempting something highly stressful with a considerable chance of failure. It was important to me, especially early on, to have as much individual time with everyone as possible. Along with talking about the music, I swapped life stories with the music director (whom I hadn’t worked with before). I walked the performers through setting up their lights and green screens, and gave them as much time as they needed to get comfortable with the equipment and with me. I found this early getting-to-know-each-other period crucial for buffering the stressors that would inevitably come later in the process, such as scheduling snafus, tech week, and the sundry unpredictable surprises that crop up, which producers tackle on a regular basis.
It’s generally assumed that I regard Swell as my baby. Though this is true, it’s also true that I regard every project of mine as my baby. In theater, I’ve found that producing one’s work is the surest way of seeing that work in the world. In music (or more aptly, music-theater) which I’m newer to, an artist who produces their own work, let alone produces the work of others, seems something of a unicorn. At its core, producing is a time-consuming, stress-inducing, sleep-depriving job, and requires a set of skills that, if one doesn’t already possess them, one must be open to acquiring. Having done it, I can say my favorite things about producing have nothing to do with seeing the work realized. Instead, what I most enjoy are the problem-solving aspect and the power of paying artists. Every day I worked on Swell seemed to present a new challenge, and every day ended, if I was lucky, with a creative solution. Apart from that, nothing gives me as much joy as sending money directly to an artist for making their art. It was almost as if every time I hit ‘send’ I was paying myself.
One of the accomplishments that came out of Swell that I will take to my grave is that many of the composers (perhaps all?) had the chance to write about themselves in a way they’d never been asked to before. This again, was a difference between this world and the theater world. In theater, writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive. Yet for composers who had never been given the chance to consider their heritage or their personal stories in the context of making work, they came away from Swell with a sense of self and a sense of purpose they hadn’t known they were missing. The other accomplishment of which I’m exceedingly proud is the ability to provide ASL interpretation for the show. What is meaningful to me about this is that for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, music can feel like an activity that belongs only to the hearing. Making this production accessible, with dynamic visuals, captioning, and a separate window for ASL interpretation (as large as the window for the show, if one chose to make it so on their computer screen) to a community that is not typically served, particularly when it comes to sound-based work, was revelatory. Suddenly it made sense to think of Swell as a work of art, rather than a work of sound.
When we finally got Swell up and running, the same butterflies that attend an in-person show came swarming in. I saw people in the audience I knew, and there were names I recognized. It felt so live, and because of that it was scary. Every night we had different things to contend with, sometimes software related, often internet related. At the end of one night that went particularly well, the applause (via chat) was instantaneous, and my phone and email blew up with messages of awe and appreciation. As with in-person performances, one night like that is almost enough to erase all the imperfections that, to the maker, seem so glaring. If I had known from the beginning what putting Swell online entailed, I think I would have gone ahead and done it anyway.
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Melisa Tien is a playwright, lyricist, librettist, and producer. She is the author of the plays Best Life, The Boyd Show, Yellow Card Red Card, and Familium Vulgare, co-author of the music-theater works Swell, Daylight Saving, and Mary, and co-producer of the audio series/podcast Active Listening. A New Dramatists resident playwright, Melisa teaches experimental theatrical writing at Sarah Lawrence College. BA, UCLA; MFA, Columbia University. www.melisatien.com