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Ed Theatre Alum Receives Prestigious Jonathan Larson Grant

Emily Kaczmarek

Educational Theatre alumna Emily Kaczmarek works as a playwright, bookwriter, screenwriter, performer, and teacher.

Most of her time is spent as a librettist, writing the dialogue and stage directions for musical scripts, writing outlines, identifying song spots, making sure that the structure of the story is strong, and working closely with composers and lyricists to develop musicals.

Kaczmarek is a recipient, along with her writing partner and wife, Zoe Sarnak, of the Jonathan Larson Grant, an award distributed by the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation to four early-career musical theatre composers, lyricists, librettists, or writing teams, “to support artistic endeavors and safeguard long-term music writing careers.” The grant, which is named for the late Rent playwright, comes with no conditions and will be used by Kaczmarek and Sarnak to push more of their projects in development further along.

Kaczmarek is currently working on several projects, including Afterwords, a musical she and Sarnak developed together, as well as a new play about a young girl with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a pilot script for television.

In addition to introducing her to close friends with similar artistic interests, Kaczmarek’s time at NYU lay the foundation for the career she has today; her coursework here helped her write better dialogue, tell stories well, and connect with students as a teacher. “I felt there was space to be and explore many different things,” she said in an email interview. In addition to writing plays, Kaczmarek continues to use what she learned as an Educational Theatre student to teach high school students through the college access program SEO Scholars.

Kaczmarek kindly answered a few questions about her studies at NYU and her work.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at NYU?

I have so many great memories from college. The Ed Theatre program was the best of both worlds for me – this tiny, familial community at a big city school – and my happiest memories speak to that: walking through Washington Square Park to Pless Hall and knowing I'd find my friends already there, talking and laughing and brainstorming things we wanted to make. When I think of college, I think of making art with my best friends.

How has your educational experience at NYU shaped what you do now?

My experience at NYU has deeply informed my work as an artist. At NYU and in Ed Theatre specifically, I felt there was space to be and explore many different things; there was an explicit emphasis on finding connections and overlap between seemingly disparate ideas, disciplines, and identities, rather than reductive sorting and classifying. This gave me the confidence to pursue teaching, writing, and performing concurrently throughout college, and explore the ways in which they informed each other, rather than fearing that I might not be taken seriously for not knowing precisely what kind of artist I wanted to be (and for the record: I do think teachers are artists!).

After graduating, I worked in education, mostly in the college access space (as a college counselor and a college prep ELA teacher), and I would never have identified and strengthened that skill set without my education classes and the experience of student teaching. I pursued my writing at night and on weekends, and gradually the ratio of teaching to writing began to flip.

Now I teach one day a week with a program called SEO Scholars, because I love the students and because it expands my writing and worldview.

I love to write children and teenagers; I find that their complexity and inner lives are not often represented well in theatre, and I want to change that.

Finally, the theatre classes I took at NYU are wells I still dip into: Joe Salvatore exposed me to verbatim theatre, which holds a magnifying glass up to speech and gesture and helped me write better dialogue. In a class called Masters of Modern Drama, my professor Jenni Werner had us summarize each play we read in a maximum of 3 sentences (even Chekhov!!). At the time I didn't know I wanted to be a musical theatre bookwriter, but that recurring exercise in succinct storytelling has proved so useful; musicals are all about structure and economy.

Can you talk a little bit about Afterwords and how it came about?

My writing partner and wife, Zoe Sarnak, is a composer/lyricist, and we met in 2015 as collaborators on a musical short film. She then asked me to take a look at a show she'd written herself and thought needed a bookwriter to take it to the next level. We ended up embarking on a three-year gut renovation of the show, reworking the entire story, adding characters, and retitling it Afterwords. It bears little resemblance to the draft she first showed me, but its heartbeat is the same.

It's the story of three women recovering from traumatic loss, Two sisters, Kali and Simone, who are mourning the death of their mother, Lydia, and a war reporter named Jo, whose mentor and father figure, Jimmy, has recently died on assignment. Through Jimmy's diary entries, we learn that he and Lydia were in love, and that the sisters' story and Jo's story are bound inextricably together, in the past and in the present. It's a show about grief, and unexpected connection, and the ways in which art and love help us create meaning from loss. It's in development right now and we're aiming for a New York production in the not-too-distant future.

Congratulations on receiving the Jonathan Larson Grant - what are your plans for it?

Thank you so much! Receiving the Larson Grant was surreal and humbling to say the least. Jonathan is a real artistic hero of mine, and it's been a crazy honor to become part of a community of artists he inspired.

Actually, just last night a bunch of us got together to sing an unreleased song of his at 54 Below as part of The Jonathan Larson Project, a concert series organized by Jennifer Ashley Tepper to share his unreleased music with the world. It was so, so moving. He was a genius. As for the grant, Zoe and I have used the funds to support ourselves in developing various projects – we each have five, six, seven things in development at a time, which is a huge gift, but often means long stretches without steady income. The grant buys artists time to focus on the work, and Jonathan understood that need better than anyone – there was a great lyric in one of the songs we heard last night: "I love 'Rhapsody in Blue'...but Gershwin was rich when he wrote it." Our whole table cracked up; we all want to write our rhapsodies, and the grant has helped take the edge off while we try.

What is a typical day like for you working as a playwright?

Every day is different! Having several projects going at once means getting to live in various stages of development in a given week so I might be holed up in my room, or away on a residency working on a first draft of something new, or I might be working on a rewrite deadline, or having meetings around the city. My favorite thing is to be in the middle of a rehearsal process: getting up and heading to the same place every morning, being with actors, hearing the work out loud, moving toward a presentation. One of the things I love most about being a writer is the variety and freedom. You write your shows but you also write the shape of your day and career.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, I am lucky to be working on several projects. Zoe and I have three musicals together, in different stages of development: Afterwords, which is the farthest along; Afloat, a commission from WP Theatre, which is about three teenagers navigating climate crisis in 2100; and an untitled musical commission from Northern Stage about a high school Shakespeare competition. Individually, I'm working on a new play about a little girl's PTSD and its effects on her toys, as well as continuing to develop my television pilot script. I love getting to live in all those story worlds at once.

Do you have any advice for students or alumni pursuing a similar career?

It's boring advice and I'm the eighty billionth person to give it, but the only way to be a writer is to write. Sit down, shut off the internet, and crank out pages. Build a body of work. I started with short plays because I found them less intimidating, and soon I was able to say, "Okay, I have three complete scripts to submit to that summer theatre festival in my hometown" or whatever. One thing really does lead to another. Short plays led to long plays, to musicals, to my agent, to my career. Read plays, see theatre if and when you can afford it (TodayTix!). Especially if you want to write musicals, study story structure, read books on it, watch Pixar movies, break down your favorite shows and identify their bones. Write about whatever makes you want to keep writing, not what you think you should write about or what you think theatres want. Don't worry if your early efforts suck. All of mine did/do. Usually things get solid by the third or fourth rewrite. There's an amazing Ira Glass quote about closing the gap between your taste and your skill, that you can only do this through time and sustained effort. I go back to that quote again and again, as well as Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird. Oh, and as soon as possible, learn to gracefully receive a note from a critic, director, collaborator, etc, just write it down and say, "Mm, thank you." (Full disclosure: I am still working on this.) Playwriting, and musical theatre writing especially, is at least 50% receiving notes. The more you listen – to your own instinct, yes, but also to other people – the better your work will be.


-Caroline Lagnado Miller