FOGG Artistic Director, Tony Asaro, was recently interviewed by Emily Goldman for NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program’s bimonthly newsletter. Read the full interview here.
–Let’s talk about the genesis of FOGG Theatre. Was the company a long time in the making, or is it a more recent/unexpected development in your creative life?
FOGG was somewhat unexpected actually. It was born out of a conversation I had with Carey McCray, my FOGG co-founder, dear friend, SF Bay Area native, and then Director of New Works at Cap 21 Theatre in NYC. After years of success in the theater world in New York–Carey revolutionized the new works development program at Cap 21–Carey was resigning and moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area. This came as a surprise to me, and as I was having my own desires to leave New York, I asked Carey to meet me for lunch to pick her brain. During that lunch, I confided in her that I too had been thinking about returning home. It was a pivotal conversation. She said, “I know I belong there. I just wish I could do what I do here, there…” And that’s when it started. I responded, “What if you could? What if you and I start a theatre company?”
I had been dissatisfied with my life in NYC for a while. It was strange: for 7 years, I had surrounded myself with the thing I am most passionate about. I lived, breathed, worked, and talked about nothing but musicals. And yet, about six years into that life, I looked around and saw that I was unhappy. I was paying my bills. I had the best community of friends and colleagues, and I was even making a little headway in the industry. But even with all of that, I didn’t belong. Looking around at the world of New York musical theatre, I saw that it didn’t match up with the things I wanted for my life. Also, Manhattan was never “home” for me. I enjoy the city, but I never felt like I belonged there the way so many do. My people, my community was in San Francisco. And for that reason, I was really struggling as a writer. I had a hard time finding stories that I wanted to tell that would have resonance in NYC.
So, when I presented the idea of starting a theatre company to Carey, I knew that for it to thrive, we’d need a strong mission; one that would have to resonate strongly with the Bay Area. It would need to be locally relevant. FOGG stands for “Focus On Golden Gate”. We are a non-profit theatre company that commissions, develops, and produces new musical theatre: Bay Area artists telling Bay Area stories. We will tell the stories of Bay Area heroes, Bay Area history, Bay Area communities, Bay Area ideologies, and Bay Area concerns.
Our mission has caught on like wild fire. In just one year, we have our 501(c)3 status, a board of 9 directors, company members, investors, we’ve received our first grant, we have a huge social media network. The FOGG has rolled in!–You’ve produced readings and productions of your own work in the past; did those experiences feed into FOGG? Or is starting your own theatre company a different beast altogether?
It’s a little of both, actually. There has been such a learning curve starting FOGG. Despite all of our considerable acumen in the theatre, none of us had ever started a theatre company before. The 501(c)3 application, assembling a board, creating a mission statement, creating a business plan, writing contracts, planning budgets, getting a bank account, writing grants… And there’s also our Youth Conservatory–our third FOGG Co-Founder is Aimee Miles, Director of Education. With Aimee at the helm, FOGG is starting a fully functioning children’s theatre/youth conservatory from scratch. So there’s insurance, and curriculum planning, and livescanning, and marketing… There’s a lot to learn for all of us. But, self-producing my own work was definitely what gave me the courage to start the company. Just knowing that I can and have done it all myself before keeps me unrelenting. I think my co-founders would say the same about their producing experience.
–Tell me about FOGG’s first show, The Cable Car Nymphomaniac! I’m hooked by the title alone…
It’s a pretty great title, right?!?! And if you like the title, check out the show art!
So, here’s how The Cable Car Nymphomaniac came to be: For our first show, we knew we needed something that would grab the attention of San Francisco residents. And, in addition to being provocative, it needed to communicate our mission at a glance. I started doing research of SF Bay Area stories, and I stumbled across a website of “San Francisco’s Top 10 Sex Scandals”. Number 3 on that list was this TRUE story:
It was supposed to be a routine trip on the Hyde Street cable car in 1964, the 29-year-old woman said. But when the car lurched and she was heaved against a pole, the collision “somehow unleashed emotions hidden deep in the dark closet of her mind,” The Chronicle reported – and thus was born “The cable car nymphomaniac” who took a trip on the “Cable Car Named Desire.”
The woman sued MUNI (SF’s MTA) for $500,000 six years later, saying her injuries had triggered an insatiable sexual desire that drove her to take 100 lovers, leaving her perpetually unsatisfied. Reporters left her name out of news accounts, to protect her privacy, referring to her instead by her nickname, or as “the buxom blonde” from Michigan. She was awarded $50,000 by a jury, whose members said they hoped she would use it for counseling.
I immediately knew that this was the story we had to do. It had everything we needed–the story is salacious, SF centric, ripped from the headlines, achievable with a small cast, and inherently musical. Most importantly, I knew that this story had the potential to be a feminist piece about gender roles, and women’s sexuality–a bold statement against the anti-woman rhetoric that pervaded the 2012 presidential election. This was begging me to turn it into a musical.
Carey and I quickly recruited Kirsten Guenther, not only an excellent bookwriter, friend, and former NYU classmate of mine, but a Bay Area native as well. Kirsten enthusiastically hopped on board, and we’ve been writing non-stop since.
–You work as a librettist as well as a composer/lyricist, collaboratively and solo, in both the musical theatre and opera worlds. That’s a lot of writer-hats to wear. Is there one realm you love the most, or is your interest/comfort zone pretty evenly divided?
While I love composing, my first love is lyric writing. It’s what I’m best at, which is something I learned at NYU. And musical theatre is where my heart is. I delved into opera because of American Lyric Theatre’s Composer/Librettist Development program. I was in that program in 2009/2010 as a librettist. I wanted to learn about large scale structure, and Mark Adamo who is on the ALT faculty, is a master when it comes to structure. I definitely got that lesson in structure and then some. I never thought I’d like writing opera, though. I was surprised to find that I actually really enjoyed it! I would love to keep writing libretti for composers whose work I admire.
The lines between opera and musical theatre are blurring, and so are my thoughts around the specific roles. So while I suppose they are many “writer-hats to wear”, they’re all from the same haberdashery.
–Any other upcoming projects or news we should know about?
Well, in addition to The Cable Car Nymphomaniac, FOGG will be producing our first annual “What’s Your Story, Bay Area?” Benefit Concert in late spring of next year. We will be taking stories submitted to us by actual Bay Area residents and pairing those stories with local writers to make a night of songs based on the source stories.
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