Pallas Theatre Collective, a 2016 nominee for the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theater Company, has been cultivating new musicals since 2010. The company subscribes to a two-year development process for each of its shows—which arrive via submissions to its TableRead series, grow by way of readings, and culminate in a summer workshop production. When this year’s planned workshop fell through, Pallas went into turbo mode to find a compelling alternative. The result is Lost in Wonderland, playing June 3–19. Sara Dabney Tisdale spoke with Artistic Director Tracey Elaine Chessum about this new adaptation of the Alice stories.
Tell me about the process of teaming up with playwright Ingrid DeSanctis and composer Andrew Morrissey to devise Lost in Wonderland.
It’s been a whirlwind. We just got our hands on it in January. About a year later than we usually get our hands on a musical! It came about outside of the usual Pallas process. The people who won the TableRead series last year got incredibly busy. The composer got an Equity gig in Southern Comfort at the Public Theater and she wasn’t going to be able to do the necessary re-writes. But then an actor who had been working with us for a long time, Ricky Drummond, heard we were on the hunt for another musical. He had directed a reading of a cool little script about Alice in Wonderland and he got me in touch with Andrew and Ingrid immediately. Since it happened to be the 150th anniversary of the book last year, it just kind of fell in our lap at that point. This musical still has a long way to go. But we had the space. Do you just lose it, or can you give somebody the chance to make something out of it? For Ingrid and Andrew, they’re both so talented and have so much going for them. So we said to them, here’s what we’d like to help you with, here’s how we can get it production-ready. And any writer who’s going to put themselves out there and hand over their stuff in its nascent form has chutzpah. That’s the kind of writer you want.
What’s still evocative about the Alice stories? How did you approach the challenge of a fresh riff on Lewis Carroll’s world?
If you look at all the characters in Alice in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll wrote them, they are all kind of some sort of absurdist take on Victorian life. When those characters are then co-opted and turned on their head, how do you make sure it doesn’t veer off course? This particular musical asks: “What would happen if Alice is 16 years old and not 9? How would Wonderland change?” It deals with a loss of innocence in many ways. It’s also putting Lewis Carroll back into the story. He was very unsure of his own work before he got it published. Ingrid and Andrew sat down and said, well, how can we mix this and make it sort of more about the artist questioning himself? In this script, the Mad Hatter continually says to Carroll, “You haven’t given me anything to do. There’s nowhere for me to grow.” He becomes dissatisfied with his own madness, and all of his songs take bits from other characters. He starts incorporating them into his own lines so he has more to say. And that’s one of the things that Lewis has to reckon with in this new Wonderland before he sets it right again. And he’s the only one who can set it right.
What do you view as the primary role of staged readings in your process? How are readings for musicals unique?
Our process is never meant to finish a show. But someone can take the musical after it’s been workshopped with us and hand it over to a regional theater like Signature and have it be in a really solid state so the authors don’t have to be in the room to be understood. The more readings we have—up to four—the easier the workshop production process goes, because we get the kinks worked out. We‘ve been very fortunate in that we get a lot of really great sight-readers. They’re able to give the composer as much information as we’re giving the book writer. They’re going to read what’s actually on the page and not what the composer may hear in his or her head. It takes one unstable element out of the process of production and really helps the composer understand what he or she has done. And full readings are just so important. Most of the time the audience doesn’t know musical theater. But what they can tell you is which characters they’re rooting for, where they got confused, and when they truly felt they understood what the play was about.
Pallas turns six this year. How do you see the company growing?
I think for Pallas it’s just staying true to the fact that the best kind of development is a long process. I’ve become so much more jealous about the amount of time it takes to really flesh out a good musical. It’s about being up front with authors to say: Do you have enough time to do this with us? I always wondered if two years was kind of too long—but I think it’s almost exactly right. What we’re also finding is that I can’t do it by myself! We’re a team that’s devoted to one musical a year. So what we’re doing now is training people to come alongside so that we can do two or three musicals a year. I get a new submission every day from somebody who wants to be involved in the process. And I find that really, really exciting.