What’s it like to work as a playwright? How do you even learn to do that? Does it require an MFA in theater? Today, Dorothy Marcic tells us how she inadvertently discovered the idea for a musical while working in academia, and how some smart friends and $1,500 of karaoke equipment helped her create a musical that’s been running for 14 years!
Tell us a bit about yourself!
Hi! My name is Dorothy Marcic. I was born in Milwaukee, WI and grew up in Pewaukee WI on Pewaukee lake. We fished, swam, built snow forts and went ice fishing in the winter.
Growing up, how did you think about theater and musicals?
From the time I was 5 years old, I started writing plays, making a cursory theater with an army blanket thrown over a clothesline and selling 5 cent tickets to neighbors.
My father used to beat my mother and brothers to a pulp and the police would come. As almost the only unbloodied person in the house, my dad would send me to the door to tell the police officers that we were all just fine. Perhaps that’s where I learned the power of acting and of theater.
I was in the church choir, but the only theater I was exposed to was school plays.
Your musical is based on your book RESPECT: Women and Popular Music. What made you think “Hey, I could make this into a play”?
It actually started as a presentation, then a book, then the play.
Let me explain.
Let me start with the IDEA for the book, which turned out to be the first time anyone had seen these connections. I moved to Nashville and got a faculty position at Vanderbilt and started exploring women and music. I had always had an interest in women and management.
I decided to start using music to help teach my leadership seminars and that went so well that when I was asked to give a talk about equality of men and women in 1999, I decided to throw some songs in.
So I went back to the beginning of popular music, 1900, and looked at the songs associated by the public with women, ie, songs women sang– see how women were portrayed. What I discovered: it went from Co-Dependent to Independent, from “Someone to Watch Over Me” to “I Will Survive.”
People in the audience went crazy and I knew I was on to something. Then I started getting invited to do my presentation all over the US and the world. Then one of my colleagues gave me the name of his agent, who got me a book deal for RESPECT.
Walk us through the actual process of turning your book into a musical!
After the book came out and I’d been doing the One-Woman show for a couple of years, people said “Oh, you have to turn this into a musical!”
What did I know about musicals? Not much. But I got three talented young women in Nashville who knew more than I did about musicals. We workshopped a new show, based on my research of the songs and the stories I’d been collecting about my family and other women.
We worked for six months, twice a week at my house. I didn’t know I should hire a composer, nor did I have money for one. All I knew was karaoke songs and I spent $1,500 buying karaoke CDs with the correct songs. I taught myself how to edit music, because we only had song excerpts of the 40 songs in the show.
The show debuted in January of 2003 at the Darkhorse Theater in Nashville. My friends came and offered to help – one was house manager, another box office manager, someone recruited and managed ushers. One guy said he’d be stage manager.
The cast criticized me for booking two nights – no actor wants to perform to an empty audience! But we were completely sold out and could have run two months. At the first performance, people were calling their friends and saying, “You HAVE to see this show!” So we started getting invited for gigs in Nashville and elsewhere.
I kept waiting for a producer to discover us, but theatrical producers don’t come to Nashville. In in April of 2004, I took the show to South Florida, rented a theater, and invited the public and producers and artistic directors. We had two producers who wanted the show!
By May, I had a contract with Bob Cuillo. We had tehearsals in June and opened in July at the Cuillo Center for the Arts in West Palm Beach. The show has played more or less continuously since then, in about 74 cities. We opened in New York City October 2017, with a revised script and a revised title, “This One’s for the Girls.”
Launching a musical is obviously no small feat! How did you stay motivated when things got tough?
The years between 1999-2004 were tough. Every month I put more and more money into the production. Sure, I was getting paid, but it never matched the expenses.
There’d be sound equipment failures, or a cast member who didn’t want to perform, or a venue that didn’t pay. Once we were doing a gig at the Hendersonville, Tennessee Country club. Their sound system broke and there were 150 women waiting.
I told the organizer I just happened to have a sound system in my station wagon, because of a gig the night before. We finally went on, to thunderous applause.
What was opening night like for you?
Jittery! A week before opening, our director fired one of the four cast members and another quit in anger. We had only one understudy. We all got on our phones and found another performer within 24 hours. We opened with two of our four having barely rehearsed. The audience went wild and within two weeks we were sold out for the rest of the run.
What have you learned from this that any of us could apply to our daily lives?
If you love something, keep working on it, and you will get better. But you have to really work. Study, read, see plays, write plays and then rewrite 100 times. There will be difficulties.
All that stuff about if you love it, it will be easy. Forget that. You have to knuckle down and do things you don’t want to do.
You think I wanted to go to all those plays for 10 years? Some were wonderful, but lots were torturous to sit through. But I knew I needed it; it was essential to my development as a playwright. And do you think I love rewriting 50 or 100 times? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
For me, it is about where you want to go and then figuring out what you need to do to get there. And then do it.
Lots of people talk about writing, or getting a play up, but not much ever happens. You can’t wait for someone to come and discover you, which only happens in rare occurrences. You have to MAKE it happen.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Dorothy! Do you guys have any questions for her?