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Story & Song: Meet the artists behind "Winter Song"

Merideth Kaye Clark and Brandon Woolley first collaborated on Clark’s performances of Joni Mitchell’s album BLUE, which debuted in the Ellyn Bye Studio space in 2015. They’ve teamed up once again to create Winter Song for its world premiere run paired with Truman Capote’s beloved holiday gem, A Christmas Memory, which Woolley is also directing. Learn about the development process behind this new show that celebrates all things winter. 

The cast, Leif Norby & Merideth Kaye Clark. Photo by Kate Szrom

An Interview with Brandon Woolley:

How did the pairing of A Christmas Memory and Winter Song come about? A Christmas Memory was performed at this theater in the early aughts. It was an audience favorite and a story that people have been asking for again and again. However, it’s not quite long enough for a full meal deal. So we were actively looking for something to pair it with during season planning. Someone suggested a collaboration with Merideth Kaye Clark. From there we brought Merideth in and started brainstorming.

What has the development process been like so far for Winter Song?Merideth and I have been working diligently since March of this year. Thinking about songs, structure, setting, etc. One of the key points of the process was a workshop we had in June. It was completely eye-opening and so helpful. We were able to have all the collaborators in the room to try new ideas each day. New songs, new scenes, new structure. We tried it all. There was a 12 days of Christmas mad lib song with audience participation. Madonna’s “Holiday” was in there. Everything and the kitchen sink sort of ideas. We needed to pare it down and get back to the heart of what we were after. Community, connection, conversation. From the workshop we threw a lot out. Kept some. And listened to more songs. We polled friends, families and strangers for their memories of winter. And then we carefully put it all back together again.

 What discoveries have been the most surprising throughout the development process? I am not a playwright. At least not when put next to Capote’s words. Merideth and I tried at one point during our workshop to write a few scenes and characters. It was fun to try, but we quickly realized that we needed to get back to our original idea of a highly-theatricalized concert with specific stories and memories interwoven through a fabulous set of songs.

How would you describe the collaborative process working as a co-creator with Merideth?  Merideth and I have worked together on another project: a concert performance of Joni Mitchell’s BLUE. It’s always fun, artistic and fulfilling. I have such a great respect for her talent and musicianship. The process is a lot of back and forth, open dialogue and laughter. I enjoy being in the same room with her and think that tends to show through in the product we put forth. On this show in particular, we’ve spent a lot of time refining song lists, writing banter, and throwing out a lot of ideas until the right one sticks. All in all, delightful. 

Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory was published in 1956 and has since been adapted for television, film, and was even turned into an opera. What is it about this story that is so enduring? I think it’s about relationships. The closeness and friendship portrayed in the story. Nostalgia and memory. Thinking back on a simpler time, like trying to make homemade presents for those you love. Relishing the time you have with friends and family.

Last season, you directed Mary’s Wedding in this space and also celebrated a wedding of your own. What are some of the wintertime activities that you and your husband are looking forward to this year? Sean and I are just starting to create our own traditions. One of the things we’ve done the past few years is host a Holiday Cocktail Party and then on Christmas Day we get together with Sean’s family and have AlcoHolidays, where each couple brings a cocktail recipe and makes it for the whole family. It’s boozy and festive and SO MUCH FUN. We are also going to return to our wedding venue (Edgefield!) on Christmas Eve this year.

This season is Portland Center Stage at The Armory’s 30th anniversary. What is one of your favorite memories of this company? Working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in my first season. I had just transitioned from being an intern to company manager and was able to assistant direct the show under Rose Riordan. It was such a tricky play, and I just loved being in the room to help figure it all out. It’s a show that I think back on and still get chills. From the set to the actors to the lessons learned. It had a profound impact on me.

An Interview with Merideth Kaye Clark: 

What was it about the winter season that appealed to you as a source of inspiration? Winter is the most emotionally complicated season. The music that it inspires is rich. There are, of course, holiday songs. But we were more interested in the music that captures other winter feelings. Traveling home or hunkering down in the cold. The loneliness and isolation the darkness brings. The gatherings of families and communities. The first day of winter, the solstice, is the shortest and darkest of the whole year. From there, every day is longer and brighter than the one before. Knowing that, feeling that, brings hope.

What discoveries have been the most surprising throughout the development process? Everyone has their own specific history and idea of what this time of year means to them. It has been interesting and challenging to honor that and keep focused. However, even though the memories we have cultivated are all so different, I am surprised by how similar, how universal, the feelings they evoke are.

One of the songs you perform in this show is an E. E. Cummings poem that you set to music. How did you land on that poem? Did the original music come naturally? A couple of years ago I was asked by a friend to set a poem to music to be part of a collection of songs inspired by the soprano Rebecca Luker. My contribution was a song set to E. E. Cummings’ “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart).” Composing that song reignited my love for Cummings’ poetry. I re-read “little tree” a few winters ago and the music came in an afternoon, easily. Like it had always been written but never performed. [Music Director] Mont Chris and I worked on this new arrangement over the summer, oddly, on one of the hottest days of the year. I am tickled I get to perform an original composition in this show.

What was your approach to selecting the songs for this show? Where any of them particularly challenging to take on? They had to be good songs and they had to tell a story that evoked wintertime. I think the biggest challenge is performing these songs authentically. Most have been made famous by their incredible, iconic performances. I am always asking myself, “What do I have to offer this material that is specific to my talent and artistry? How can I perform it differently, or similarly, that will make the words and the story sound like they are coming from my heart?”

What are some of the wintertime activities you are looking forward to this year with your husband and two daughters? I just bought a new sled. Maybe there’ll be some snow again this year? I love baking and sharing treats. The corner where our Christmas tree lives seems empty all year until we get the new one and decorate it. I am looking forward to cozy Saturday mornings and wearing pajamas with a fire in the fireplace.

What is one of your favorite memories of working at The Armory? Watching the Bottle Dance in Fiddler on the Roof! I was playing Tzeitl and I had a seat right in the front facing the dancers. The cast was in suspense every night, hopeful the dancers could balance the bottles to the end. Seeing the wood chips flying and the dancers spinning is still one of my favorite theatrical memories.

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