Vanessa Cate is Editor-in-Chief of @THISSTAGE. She has worked with STAGE RAW since its inception as a contributor, Posting and Assigning Editor. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of True Focus Theater and the fantasy dance group Cabaret le Fey.
Michael Shaw Fisher fell in love with Shakespeare and his language at a young age. At just fifteen he sat watching Henry V and wondered, “How are people able to talk like this!? It’s living poetry!”
Fisher received his BA in theatre after attending NYU and San Francisco Stage, and got his MFA from USC in writing for film and television. “Most of my USC friends are now writing on TV shows now, ” he reflects, “or heading production companies while I’m writing musicals? Strange.”
Now a seasoned writer, performer, and musician (he won the 2016 Ovation Award for Best Book for an Original Musical for Shakespeare’s Last Night Out), Fisher’s passion for the Bard is as vibrant as ever. He continues to write and perform works inspired by Shakespeare, and is nominated for Best Book and Lyrics & Composition for Skullduggery, his original prequel to Hamlet.
As a part of @THISSTAGE’s 28th Annual Ovations Series, Fisher talks about Shakespeare, music, and passion.
Love For Shakespeare, Love for Music
I’m a Shakespeare geek. I got turned early… And with the iambic pentameter of course it was already so inherently musical. My first Shakespeare related piece was a feature film adaptation I wrote and directed of Timon of Athens. I picked it because it was a lesser known “problem play” and I just loved digging through that text and experimenting with solutions to age-old criticisms about it. Later I wrote Shakespeare’s Last Night Out, the one man musical about Will’s last night before death, defending his authorship and life choices to a group of tavern patrons. I had some real panic starting that one since I felt nothing I wrote would be truly worthy of his infinite heart and brilliance… but in my research I found similarities between his struggle to balance his work and family that mirrored mine at the time.
As for Skullduggery, that was pretty much fan fiction. I found myself wondering what would the music of Elsinore sound like? Gothic? Folky? Jazzy in places? It is located by the sea so there might be Sea Shanties? It was a blast to write, and I felt Sacred Fools, including director Scott Leggett, did excellent job with it. In the end I guess I love making musicals of Shakespeare’s plays for the same reason that actors love to act in them; because I just want to live in those worlds and discover all the potential layers. There’s just so much imagery, passion, and ideas that resonate in our culture. One could get dizzy thinking of all the musical/story opportunities. I have to keep reminding myself that there are other kinds of shows I want to write.
Skullduggery – An Exploration of Hamlet
Skullduggery is about the love triangle between Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet Sr. in the thirty years preceding Hamlet Sr.’s murder at Claudius’ hands and Prince Hamlet’s arrival. It follows Shakespeare’s villain as a romantic youth who becomes corrupted by jealousy for his brother, the King (and by the ghost of Yorick). The idea just seemed extremely fun to explore. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s quest for vengeance ultimately results the death of most of the characters. And when I was writing I found these doomed characters crying out their points of view and desires against the promise of their fate. Could it all have been avoided? Who was Ophelia’s mother? Who was Yorick? Can ghosts be trusted? How did these relationships develop and intersect in ways that Hamlet with his limited point of view of a grieving son never knew? The potential for dramatic tension was delicious. Also, it seems the villains we meet in life rarely know that they are becoming villains, and I find those blind spots fascinating and sympathetic.
Early Days of Music
I had been in bands since high school, mostly for fun but I have had no formal training in music at all. My only education regarding musicals was my experience an actor and also in my early years when my stepfather took my family up to NYC to see the Broadway shows with their original casts (Into the Woods, Phantom, Les Mis… so many shows). Around eight years ago – with limited experience and abilities – I tried my hand at writing a rock musical. The result wasn’t great but I kept doing it. I wrote some more shows and they got better. So I guess I just learned by doing.
The Writer Performs
I think that writing and performing are absolutely connected. I’ve actually found performing to be a big part of writing. When composing I create an in-depth demo of sorts that contains all of the dialogue of the show and has me playing all the characters, men and women, singing all the harmonies. To hear it all at once might sound a bit ridiculous, but the performance of these characters results in my discovery of the piece. As for how I approach performance and writing, I find that they are similar in the sense that I really need to be in the head-space for each, and that requires a lot of rehearsals, study, and hours of processing the story to deliver anything worthwhile. But the fun part is that once I’ve gotten myself in that head-space I can make instinctual choices and in-the-moment whims of improvisation that will ultimately surprise both me and the audience.
On the Horizon
I recently completed a musical sequel to one of Shakespeare’s comedies, which I am excited about. I’m also currently writing an outrageous rock musical for the burlesque company Cherry Poppins to produce this year. It’s going to be bonkers.
On the Nom: Book & Lyrics and Composition for the 28th Annual Ovation Awards
I’m over the moon! I know so many Ovation voters personally and have worked with them, and they are all such brilliant artists and discerning audience members that these nominations mean more to me than they probably realize. Also, as far as shows go, Skullduggery is so close to my heart. Its songs got me through some tough times, so I’m speechless.
Advice for Theatre Artists
I guess in any field, but more specifically in theatre, community is everything. I spent too many of my early years running around the country. I recommend staying in one place for a while and cultivating those precious relationships with kindness and enthusiasm. You’ll learn more from your peers than any college instructor. And you learn the most by failing. So keep making stuff that you are burning to make, and don’t wait for anyone’s permission. Art is taking the law into your own hands.
Theatre is exceptional at helping young people hone interpersonal social skills, community building techniques, and problem solving. Young people deserve the opportunity to inhabit spaces which allow for safe self express.