Continuing theatreWashington's focus on The Women's Voices Theater Festival, writer Jamila Reddy chatted with playwright Sheri Wilner about the play that inspired Cake Off - premiering at Signature Theatre through November 22 - and her work as a collaborator on a new musical incarnation. Key to that process was a healthy working relationship with co-book writer/co-lyricist Julia Jordan and composer and co-lyricist Adam Gwon.
Cake Off started off as a ten-minute play called “Bake Off.” How did it evolve into a full length musical?
The first thing we (Wilner, Jordan, and Gwon) did was meet and talk about different story ideas. We knew the original ten-minute play would be a set piece that would happen at the climax of the musical, so it was about writing up to that climax.
We brainstormed and created an outline of every beat that would happen in the story from start to finish. From that outline, I wrote it as a full-length play and then they found the musical moments once I handed it off. After they did a musicalized version, they handed it back to me and I did more writing and character work then we went back and forth several times until we had a deadline looming over us.
How did you know where music belonged in the piece?
I learned from Julia and Adam that there’s got to be an emotional reason for the characters to sing. The music always springs form their emotional needs. It’s not just plot point or exposition: it comes from them needing to say something they can’t say [in dialogue] to someone else on stage.
What have been the rewarding and challenging parts of the process?
The same answer for both: collaborating. We all challenge each other and push back on each other—if you have an opinion about something, you have to really be able to back that up for the other two to buy it. It’s frustrating in the moment but it ultimately creates a much better show than if any of us had written it alone.
What was your inspiration for this show?
It was actually an article I read back in 1996 in the New York Times with the headline “$1 Million Bake-Off Winner is a He.” In 1996, Pillsbury increased the Bake-Off prize that year from $50,000 to 1 million. The contest began in 1949, and—coincidentally or not—the very first year that the prize was a million dollars was the first year that a man won, and that just really enraged me in a real way.
I have no investment in baking or the Bake-Off, but what instantly flashed into my mind was every Pillsbury commercial where you see housewives serving dinner to their families and making cakes—the whole company was built on this image of women baking.
I did some research and found that the Bake-Off began right after WWII—after sugar rationing ending—and the contest was Pillsbury’s way of celebrating that. It was a “thank you” to all the Rosie the Riveters who had left their kitchens but then had to go back after the war. There was this really sexist idea that “Okay, women, thank you for your work; we only needed you when the men were away, you can go back to your kitchens now, here’s your consolation prize.” What happens to our character in Cake Off is very specific, but we feel like it’s a metaphor for something that happens to real women everywhere, all over the world.
This show is playing in conjunction with the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. What stories speak to you as a woman writer, or what—as a woman writer—do you feel responsible for writing?
The only thing I feel responsible for is to be honest and to pick subject matters that are important to me. I feel like it is such a privilege—such an honor to have the undivided attention of an audience. I want to make sure that I’m building a character that has a really basic human need that they’re trying to get met in an authentic, human way. I find that, at certain points in my own life, I have an urgent question I need to answer in order to evolve as a human being and to live a full, self-actualized life, and so often my process of writing a play is trying to figure out the answer to that question.