For songwriting team Debra Buonaccorsi and Stephen McWilliams location is everything – especially when commissioned to write a musical for family audiences to be performed at the United States Botanic Garden at the foot of Capital Hill! “Taking a tour of the Gardens with [Science and Public Programs Manager] Susan Pell was incredible inspiring,” Buonaccorsi says, recalling early steps in the creative process. “We were watching school groups running around. We were seeing what they were seeing, what they were smelling and feeling. We used the exhibits in the Botanic Garden to guide us in our writing.”
Flowers Stink – a collaboration between the Kennedy Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) and the U.S. Botanic Garden – is performed in the Garden's amphitheater to audiences who have passed through the very exhibits that first inspired the authors. In addition to the support of Garden staff, Buonaccorsi and McWilliams were inspired by the support and healthy challenges presented by their artistic collaborators at the Kennedy Center.
“[Director] Gregg Henry is very supportive and easy to work with,” Buonaccorsi says. “With a new work, if something’s not funny or if something’s not working, you need someone who can tell you but not hurt or offend. Gregg is that guy.” With the show in performance, Buonoccorsi is even more grateful. “When you’re sitting in the theatre and you’re hearing audiences respond, you think to yourself, ‘Oh yeah. Gregg was right about that.’”
The piece started as a treatment, a detailed description of what the authors intended to create. Once that was accepted and a commission was granted, the development process began in earnest. The end result, though, is a far cry from the original proposal.
“Deb and I had been knocking around this idea about doing poetry in a musical form,” McWilliams says, adding that they intended to use existing poems as their text. A turning point came when Kim Peter Kovac, producing director for TYA programming, urged them to write from scratch. “It started pretty bare,” McWilliams remembers. “We spent a few months putting stuff down on paper, tearing it up, changing things.”
The final result is the story of a young girl struggling to complete a homework assignment that requires an original poem about nature. When she tweets to her friends that "#poetryisstupid,” “#natureisboring,” and “#flowersstink," a pair of plants come to life and challenge her to see the world anew.
“We did a lot of research,” Buonaccorsi says. “We’d watch these Planet Earth documentaries about eco systems and just jump up and be inspired!” McWilliams adds, “The Kennedy Center and Botanic Garden stayed with us the whole way. They kept encouraging us to stay true to our own ethos, our own style, our own way of doing things.”
That way of doing things is personified in the duo’s own theatre company Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Review, self-described as “the spirit of Woody Guthrie and the dustbowl wrapped up in a gyspy punk” and as “rowdy, raucous, loud and literate.” At the 2013 Helen Hayes Awards, the company was honored with the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company. Their works include an adaptation of the Oresteia and an exploration of the work of the Bronte sisters.
Given those eclectic interests, it’s not surprising that part of the authors’ purpose was to offer young audiences a meaningful alternative to technology. “We’re adamant about getting off the laptop and the cellphone,” McWilliams says. “If our kids aren’t connected to the world, it’s not going to be here anymore. They need to go out and touch and see and feel.”
Developing horticultural characters came with its unique challenges. “We had to find characteristics that were right for that kind of plant,” Buonaccorsi says. “You wouldn’t think of a tree being a sharp-tongued, quick-thinking, sarcastic person. They’d be earnest, wholesome and maybe a little slow on the uptake. A flower is a little more spry and sharp-tongued and spicy. And our flower definitely has an exotic plant personality.”
The final result is an intimate, exciting experience for young audiences. “Kids sing along and clap,” Buonaccorsi says. “It’s wonderful to hear them singing your songs after the show. There’s a song – ‘Underneath the Big Green Umbrella.’ I heard them walking through the exhibit and singing it and I thought, ‘I am completely satisfied with this.’”
McWilliams agrees. “We’re not watching the play, we’re watching the kids sitting there, and it’s the most awesome thing. If this play helps to attract more people to the Gardens, if it brings more people in, teaches them something, makes them want to learn more about our earth. That’s a cool thing.”