An Interview with the Producers and the Creative Team of ‘IN MY BODY’ at The Prince Theater

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The popular creative team of composer and musician Dan Martin and lyricist and artist Michael Biello, well-known for their many artistic ventures in both New York and the City of Brotherly Love, are now world premiering IN MY BODY, THE MUSICAL at Philadelphia’s Prince Theater. This work owes a great deal to the experience, drive, and creative skills of Kate Cipriano, Melissa Hays, and Elisabeth (“Lis”) Kalogris, lifelong friends, who started collaborating on Flying Bulldog Productions, LLC, back in 2011. All three wrote the book, while Cipriano and Kalogris, a mother-daughter team, also serve as the producers of IN MY BODY.

Michael Biello and Dan Martin
Michael Biello and Dan Martin. Photo by Matthew Bender.

Some of the body images were inspired by the encaustic work of Leah MacDonald, a Philadelphia portrait artist and photographer who paints and draws on photos that she embellishes with layers of beeswax and colored wax, using “paper as an extension of my skin” that she pulls and peels, washes, tears, and creates “to stray from reality and reach the playground of imagination.” Scenic Designer Melpomene (“Mellie”) Katakalos integrated MacDonald’s work into the set of IN MY BODY.

Over the course of time, a number of workshops, readings, and excerpts from the show were staged at various places, including the Painted Bride Theatre, the popular Christ Church Neighborhood House, Cabrini College, The Arden Theater’s Hamilton Arts Annex, and the Drake in Philadelphia.

Henrik: Tell us about the genesis of this musical—both from the creative and the production perspective.

Lis Kalogris: We conceived, created, developed, and produced the IN MY BODY musical with great passion and love—and much labor, too. The show reveals true-life physical and emotional body stories with the goal of starting a collective conversation about accepting, respecting, and, perhaps, even loving ourselves and others. What could be more meaningful than that?

Several things inspired the IN MY BODY musical: In 2004, I heard a live performance of theIN MY BODY” song, written by Michael Biello and Dan Martin.

Having spent the better part of my life feeling miserable about my body, listening to the lyrics, I wept and cheered because the song is an amazing anthem to finding a home in our bodies. Song struck.

In 2006, my husband and son-in-law were in a near-fatal car crash. I still have nightmares about mangled Humpty Dumpties lying in hospital beds. Until recently, I wouldn’t and couldn’t admit to myself that I had used IN MY BODY to help reconcile my closeted PTSD.

Apparently, quite a few of everyone’s personal experiences made it into the musical. Could you give a few examples?

Dan Martin: Sure. Several of the musical scenes Michael and I created are based on Kate’s (Kate Cipriano) personal stories. “Perfect” tells the story of a large woman who overcomes societal discrimination to celebrate herself as “healthy and fat,” while Holly and Hubby became a mini opera about a married couple struggling to heal themselves and their relationship after a traumatic car crash. We also set Melissa’s personal story about dealing with chemical imbalance to music in “Cocktail.”

The show covers and uncovers a wide spectrum of topics, including aging, bullying, disability, gender identity, infertility, love, obesity, passion, pride, self-loathing, sexuality, trauma, and more—all held together through the body, the body of life. During the process of creation, how willing were you, individually and collectively, to go where many people would not dare to go?

Michael Biello: Very willing. It’s that part of art and theatre that moves me forward. As a team of five writers, we traveled through some rocky timesmentally, physically, and emotionally. Traveling together, story by story, we entered realms of darkness and light, tears and laughter.

There were moments I thought the intensity was so strong that the collaboration would dissolve, but the trust and love was stronger than the fear. We all stayed on board and continued our journey forwardtoward our mission to make IN MY BODY a full-on piece of new theatre. And here we are: premiering IN MY BODY in Philadelphia!

Lis: I believe there is no place too far when it comes to making art—as long as artists avoid anything that diminishes the integrity of their art. In spite of social and financial constraints, artists need to be true to their art. IN MY BODY is full of “true.”

Melissa Hays: We’ve asked one another, “Why does no one talk about this? Am I the only one who feels like this?” We all got to a point in the process where we realized to get others to open up and talk about their issues, we had to expose ourselves.

We had to create a safe sharing space where we were not only interviewing others, but where we were joining in a circle of discussion. In the stories people shared with us, we found a new understanding, patience, and tolerance for others. In the process, I was able to shed the shame I’ve always felt for being bipolar II and for struggling with infertility.

Dan: I’m a person who has dealt with—and is still dealing with—some of these issues. I also have a long history of using my music to help me express, understand, and heal as I journey through life. It’s a gift to have the opportunity to explore these kinds of stories creatively.

You describe IN MY BODY as a musical that explores a wide range of important, yet sensitive and intimate subjects. How did you handle these many taboos without sensationalizing or cheapening your intent? Describe the process of working through practically a lifetime of experiences and reducing it to its essence.

Donnie Hammond, April Woodall, Austin Ku and Katie Zaffrann rehearse In My Body. Photo by Bryan Bu.
Donnie Hammond, April Woodall, Austin Ku, and Katie Zaffrann rehearse In My Body. Photo by Bryan Bu.

Lis: I’m 67, so there’s a lot inside of me to contend with, but I have not yet figured out “essence.” Multi-arts is the way to go when you have much to say. Music and song and poetry and dance and sound and light and visual art all make it possible to say more. And we use all those things to tell our stories.

We all agreed to stage the show in an intimate setting. However, we certainly have not covered and uncovered everything. We practically have a trunk of additional “stuff” we decided to eliminate from the show, which could have been two acts. I guess this paring down has something to do with “essence.” We were trying to get our show down to the core of our message—our “essence.”

I hope we have not sensationalized and cheapened anything. However, there is a bit of cheese and some desperately needed comic relief, and some of the characters might be making fun of themselves—sometimes.

Dan: We’ve all been in agreement from the beginning that we want our tales to take our audience on a journey in ways that honor and empower—but don’t gloss over the real struggles involved in these stories. We’ve tried to incorporate humor whenever possible, which is a great theatrical tool that helps us deal with serious issues. Musically, I’ve also worked hard to incorporate as much beauty into the telling of these tales as possible.

Michael: As the lyricist on this project, I’d say for me it’s through the process of writing and being willing to re-write and re-write and edit-edit-edit until the piece communicates the essence of the story we wish to tell. I would give Dan [the composer] pages of lyrics. Together, we then pass our work back and forth until we are both satisfied with the blend—hoping that our music and lyrics work together to tell the story as clearly and as honestly as possible.

Tell us what gave you the strength to invest heavily in this production—not only financially but emotionally and spiritually—to open many doors for all the participants and the audience.

Dan: This definitely has been an emotional journey for me, and I appreciate your recognition that it’s a spiritual journey as well. Our producers, thankfully, have been very generous with their financial investment in the project, which helps a lot.

My investment of time and energy in this show over the past seven years has absolutely required serious strength and commitment. My belief in the beauty and importance of the stories and the songs we’re writing—and my desire to share the work with as wide an audience as possible—is what has carried me forward.

Michael: The main bulk of IMB’s financial support comes from the producers—Flying Bulldog Productions. Their love and support of the creative arts, and IMB in particular, is admirable. Their investment in IMB helped keep the piece moving from page to stage.

The time and energy put into the creative process go way beyond financial support. This is where emotional and spiritual support come into play. IMB has it all. It’s this passion that carries me forward as an artist—and keeps me centered.

Kate Cipriano and Lis Kalogris. Photo by
Kate Cipriano and Lis Kalogris. Photo by Bryan Bu.

Lis: The show was birthed from a non-profit project about body image held in Philadelphia in late 2010. Investing in this project is like investing in a painting or sculpture you adore, except that IN MY BODY—THE MUSICAL is live art.

We knew, when we decided to work on this project, we couldn’t possibly make any money. However, we did it anyway, like many other people invested in the arts. It’s about passion for what the arts can do. It’s Michael and Dan. It’s Leah (MacDonald). It’s KC (Musical Director Kathryn MacMillan), who is collaborative and brilliant. We are so fortunate in having everyone on board.

Musicals, like films, rely on working with a wide range of people. Tell us about that process. What worked, what was difficult, and how did you solve any issues? 

Lis: Throughout the five-year IMB musical journey, our Bulldogs team worked with brilliant and talented people, including those who helped develop the show through mentoring, interviews, working sessions, readings, and workshops—and all those who are making the premiere a reality.

Five people managed to collaborate and create IN MY BODY—at least three of the people are control freaks. Yes. We moaned and groaned and whined and cursed. A lot. Sometimes, we were even mean to each other. Sometimes we cried. Sometimes we hugged. But, no matter what, we always returned to each other and moved forward. I’m thinking this has something to do with love.

Dan and Michael, both of you have decades of working cooperatively on lyrics, songs, and musicals behind you. Tell us about some of these skills that you brought to bear on this highly collaborative approach with producers who actually wrote the book.

Dan: Collaboration is a beautiful and challenging process. Michael and I have been collaborating as theatre and song writers—and life partners—for 40 years. So we definitely have a strong history of finding ways to express our theatrical ideas through words, lyrics, and music.

Working with Lis, Kate, and Melissa added new layers of collaboration which were really interesting. For example, Kate wrote several stories that Michael and I turned into musical scenes, including “Chewing,” “Perfect,” and Holly and Hubby.

There was a tremendous amount of back and forth between the three of us as we worked to find the right tone and shape in telling these stories. Honest, constructive communication guided us.

Some musicals are so successful that they become crowd-pleasers and get performed all over the place for many years. However, I have a sense that IN MY BODY could spark a large “in my body” movement that includes other multidisciplinary projects—leading to more awareness and renewal through theater, workshops, and discussions—way beyond the city limits of Philadelphia.

Dan: I hope so! From the beginning, IN MY BODY has been a theatre, music, and art project, focused on telling stories related to the journeys we take to find peace, comfort, and healing within our own bodies.

Our collaborators and producers have worked hard to create a development process that includes interviews with people in the community, feedback from audience members at our readings, and special presentations at local colleges. Hopefully, this kind of outreach will continue as the piece moves further out into the world.

Michael: My dream is to have the work live on in a big way beyond me, beyond us—beyond even what I imagine. It’s part of the picture we hope to create as a new form of theatre that we can share with others.

Dan and I begin each project with a glimmer of hope that it will find a way to ripple out into the world. IN MY BODY can do it. It’s needed in the world. It’s a piece that speaks to all ages, races, and genders about self-love, about finding light even when darkness falls. We need more light and love in the world, and I believe IMB was created to do just that.

How did Leah McDonald’s artwork inspire the musical.

Lis: I am a passionate, crazy collector of visual art. Another powerful inspiration for our show is the encaustic photography of Leah MacDonald. I first saw her work in 2009. Her photographs tell stories of people living in their diverse bodies. Honoring the fantastic stage design concept created by our scenic designer, Mellie Katakalos, Leah has created original works of art for our show.

Leah is an important inspiration behind the musical. I met Leah years ago to discuss the possibility of a multi-arts collaboration about body issues. We talked about how her works tell stories about people living in their bodies. I was particularly drawn to Leah’s study of black women embracing their bodies. Leah’s artwork is a significant part of the show.

After a number of successful engagements with the multi-talented Javier Muñoz in your musicals, you invited this well-known American actor to perform in your latest world premiere as well. Little did you know that he got snapped up to play the title role in this year’s Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton. However, he liked IN MY BODY so much that he has promoted the musical, including an this interview:

Dan: Michael and I first met Javier in 2011 when we cast him in the ensemble of the original workshop of our musical Marry Harry at New York Stage and Film at Vassar College. We instantly knew he was a great person as well as an unusually gifted actor with extraordinary focus. We subsequently invited him to participate in IN MY BODY—as well as in readings of our musical Breathe.

He’s an excellent communicator of our work, a gorgeous voice combined with a fierce willingness to investigate the emotional depths of the characters we create. We were sorry to lose him for this production but so happy he’s now starring in Hamilton and getting the kind of recognition he deserves.

Michael: Javi is a special friend and a gift to both Dan and I as songwriters. He brings life to our newly written characters, life to our words and music—in his brilliant Javi-way. We had the pleasure to work with him on several of our musicals. His emotional connection to a Martin Biello tune is moving, inspired, and inspiring. Inviting him into the developmental process of IMB was pure joy. He’s a gem to have on our team whenever possible.

Your musical challenges all of us to embrace who we are. Is there anything else you would like to share?

Lis: We gathered a lot of raw material for the musical from the IN MY BODY project. We interviewed dozens of people and did a body image workshop. But, let’s not forget our own life experiences. Our characters and stories are all true.

In my mind, the arts is the best vehicle I can think of for social change and for bringing people together. IN MY BODY is more than a musical. It’s a movement—a movement toward respecting, understanding, and loving who we are in our personal and collective bodies.

Michael: IN MY BODY—THE MUSICAL was born from a place of love. May it continue to grow and share this love with the world.

You all must have done a lot of things right. In my many years as a theater interviewer, I have never encountered a production where every single show was sold out before opening night—with the exception of Hamilton. You are off to a good start.

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In My Body performs from November 9th to 13th, 2016 at Prince Music Theatre – 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, PA.

Running Tim: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

For more information, contact Flying Bulldog Productions, LLC. All the performances are sold out.

IN MY BODY features Donnie Hammond, Michael Indeglio, Austin Ku, April Woodall, and Katie Zaffrann.

Kathryn MacMillan. Photo courtesy of Lantern Theater Company.
Kathryn MacMillan. Photo courtesy of Lantern Theater Company.

Kathryn (“KC”) MacMillan, one of Philadelphia’s most sought after directors, makes her musical directorial debut with IN MY BODY. Choreographed by K.O. DelMarcelle; with lighting design by Thom Weaver; sound design by Larry Fowler; costumes designed by Alison Roberts; under the musical direction of Christopher Burcheri; and managed by Steven P. Nemphos; the new musical will be produced and world premiered by Flying Bulldog Productions, LLC.

 

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Henrik Eger
HENRIK EGER, editor, Drama Around the Globe; editor-at-large, Phindie. Bilingual playwright, author of 'Metronome Ticking', and other plays, poems, stories, articles, interviews, and books. Member, Dramatists Guild of America. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Taught English and Communication in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published both in the US and overseas: Tel Aviv, Israel; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Khedmat, Kabul, Afghanistan; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Talkin’ Broadway, and The Jewish Forward, New York; HowlRound and Edge, Boston; Windy City Times, Chicago; Broad Street Review, Dance Journal, Jewish Voice, Philadelphia Gay News, Phindie, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com