NYFA Musical Theatre alumna Terra Warman isn’t afraid of anything — not even demons.
Carving out a unique path in the musical theatre industry, the multi-talented artist has just put the finishing touches on her original musical “Mister B. Gone,” adapted from the book of the same name by Clive Barker, a dark tale that tackles freedom, hell, and all the forces in between.
We had a chance to interview Terra via email to learn about her process, what makes this musical one-of-a-kind, and what’s next.
NYFA: Why musical theatre?
TW: Straight theater didn’t excite me enough, music by itself needed an anchor in storyline, and from the age of 13-16, most of the music I wrote was basically a diary entry anyway so, why the heck not musical theater?
NYFA: Do you have a favorite NYFA moment from your time studying with us?
TW: One of my favorite NYFA things was my second year performance lab final. The assignment was to make a five minute jukebox musical with three songs. We wrote the 20 minute epic “Space Oddity” about a rock band that wins a lottery to go to space, crash lands on an alien planet, and has to escape. At one point we’ve got “Space Oddity,” “Come Sail Away,” and “Wicked” all layered on top of each other. My lab partners and I got swept away — we had extra rehearsals, did lighting ques, costume changes…
It was the first time something I had created had ever come together like that instead of being some failed and unrealized pipe dream in my head. That’s the dragon I’m chasing.
NYFA: Can you tell us about your work developing “Mister B. Gone,” how the project came about, any exciting discoveries in your work?
TW: OH I CAN. I wrote the first song while still at NYFA, because I liked the language of the book. I loved this hateful main character who comes out the gate ordering you to burn the book and spends the whole story telling this horrifying and sad tale where nothing goes right, everything is unrealized, and the reader is complicit in all of it. It was different in structure from everything we were studying in class, and the words read like music. This was my private rebellion against classical musical theater that everyone was insisting I would never be right for. The writing of Clive Barker’s “Mister B. Gone” was one of pure accident and an immeasurable amount of dedication and faith.
The discoveries I have made can be simmered into this: You cannot do it alone. (And Hell is always in A minor.)
Listen: “Caroline” from “Mister B. Gone”
NYFA: For you, what was your process in converting a book into a musical?
TW: In February of this year I met this guy and as a pretense for hanging out with him I say “Yo guy, wanna…hang out and sing some song I wrote about a demon?” I taught him the song and he writes me this email of 20 questions about character motivation, and where the song comes in this show that I had only vaguely conceived of. I answered these questions as if I was really writing this musical.
Then I booked “In the Works,” a low stakes showcase for new music at the Duplex (Thanks Bobby Cronin) and thought, well, why not write one more song?
The guy introduces me to playwright Rachel Chung (who is also from Cincinnati, but we didn’t know each other), and suddenly she and I are meeting three times a week, having our friends read scenes, and plotting what the stage might look like. A dear friend insisted that, as a going away present, she wanted to see an exposition of the work. We could have done a concert or a reading … and we pretended we would. But this monster had us, and we were gonna feed it the world. What happened next resulted in one of the most intense theatrical experiences of my life.
I wrote music and lyrics in the day, we had rehearsals at night with our cast, then Rachel and I had production meetings long into the night. Everyone either had a full time job or was a Med student at Columbia. Bye sleep.
In one month (June) we fully wrote and produced the first act, launched an incredibly successful Indiegogo campaign, and staged said act in Rachel’s Washington Heights apartment. We took a week to recover then, finish/revise/recast/and rehearse the full show over the next month (July). We had fundraisers, photoshoots, impromptu singalongs. Sometimes a song wasn’t written when it was slated to be staged so we’d stage something else, or role play the idea of a scene before writing it. For the full production I took on the lead role of Jakabok Botch, and probably will continue to for all time because he just gets me. Rachel moved to Scotland after the last show, and now we continue to work as a trans-Atlantic team.
NYFA: Any advice for fellow NYFA students who are interested in acquiring the rights to a story and developing an original musical, as you are doing?
TW: YES! If you are adapting, find out who has the adaptation rights. We got really lucky because Clive Barker owns the rights to his own work and sold them to us for a dollar.
NYFA: What is your favorite aspect of creating an original musical?
TW: When the actors ask me questions about the meaning of the music and lyrics. It really touches me that someone else is thinking critically about my work, because that’s all I do. Then you get that perfect moment when it’s on it’s feet, with the band, sounding just the way you imagined and you look around at what you made and this very intense feeling of pride and fear wells up inside you and you have to excuse yourself to joy-cry in the bathroom.
The other thing: The world you create is yours. How you present gender, sexuality, race, and age is your right and responsibility. In our show, though the characters have a gender, representation on stage of that gender is fluid and abstract. I insist on having actors of color. I want non-binary and fluid people to come out and feel they have an opportunity in my work. I think women are just as capable as playing dangerous and threatening characters as men. And because I wrote it, I can have it this way.
NYFA: Would you say your time at NYFA was at all useful in preparing for the work you are doing now?
TW: Absolutely. There is no one way to do this, and at NYFA every one of my teachers had done it differently. They really pushed me to take ownership of the career that I wanted, and that’s no easy task considering I didn’t know what it looked like. I just didn’t want the conventional. If I was struggling with the way the industry ran, or my role in it, they handed me the tools to do something about it.
NYFA: Can you tell us about any other projects you are developing or working on? What’s next for you?
TW: I just got a fellowship through Town Stages to develop my song cycle “Havoc! A Song Cycle for Six Women Who Give a F*ck,” which was produced earlier this year and raised over $6000 for charities helping to end violence against women and girls.
“Mister B. Gone” has a concert reading coming up at The Tank on October 21-22. After that we plan to submit to festivals and an off-Broadway run. The NYMF and Edinburg Fringe for sure.
Rachel and I have a couple of things on the docket. A Hildegard of Bingen rock opera, “Juile D’Aubingy,” a version of 1776 in space with all women…
My band Terra and the Dactyls continues to gig around the city, and be the core pit band in my shows.
The New York Film Academy would like to thank Terra for taking the time to share some of her story with our community.