A Conversation with Devanand Janki on Developing New Work

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Devanand Janki is a New York-based director and choreographer. He began as a performer, appearing in numerous productions including Broadway’s Miss Saigon, Cats, The King & I, and Sideshow. For the past 15 years he has been a freelance director, working regionally and in New York on over 50 shows including Aladdin, Junie B. Jones, Man of La Mancha, Rent, The Full Monty, and Off-Broadway’s Zanna Don’t! for which he won the Lucille Lortel Award. His passion has always been creating new work for the stage. Devanand is the artistic director of the Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat, which focuses on the development of new work for the stage that promotes and celebrates diversity.

Creative Director of Script Match, Dennis Corsi, sat down with Devanand for a conversation on the process of developing new work and the collaboration between directors and playwrights.

Corsi. Are you often working on new musicals?

Janki. I work on both new and old, but my passion definitely is new work and working with the development of new musicals.

C. How often are you working on something new compared to somthing that’s already been produced?

J. I would say probably 70% of the stuff I do is new and that's by choice. I have to go do the other shows, remount shows sometimes to make money, but I try to choose new work just because I find it more interesting – doesn't pay the bills quite as well, but…

C. Is there more money in previously produced work?

J. Well, generally theatres are looking for commercial properties. So most of the developmental work is in readings and in small workshops. So there's never really money in that part of it. Once it gets to production then it's a whole different thing.

C. Do producers seem to feel that new musicals are a risk?

J: Definitely at the beginning of projects, I think it is hard to get producers attached because it is a risk financially. A lot of producers don't want to invest in it until other producers are investing in it.

C. And is it more of a struggle to get audiences in if it's something people haven't heard of?

J. Oh definitely. The rage now is that you adapt movies into show, so it is a familiar title. And it is a shame. So it's tougher for really original pieces to get seen and get produced.

C. Why do you like the development of new work so much more?

J. I love the collaboration of the artists with the writers and other artists. Musical theatre is probably the most collaborative art form there is. The writer is very, very important, but there are so many other elements that come into play with musicals specifically; the choreography, the music, the design of it. I mean there are so many ways to tell a story and I just love that, that interaction and the different ways you can engage an audience that's not just text.

C. Is there a typical process for the collaboration?

J. It's completely different every time and for every writer. Sometimes a writer has an idea for a piece or has written a show and comes to me and asks me to start working on it in reading form. Sometimes a producer has optioned a piece and pairs up the writer with a director. Sometimes there is a commission, like when I worked for the Kennedy Center, they approached me with an idea and I started working immediately with a writer. So it just really depends and everyone likes working in a different way.

C. Are there writers that you work with a lot or do you get a completely new team every time?

J. Both. There are some writers that I love, that we love collaborating and we always try to find projects to work on together. But other times it’s brand new teams. And musicals take a long time to write, so it's not like a writer is cranking out one after another. It usually takes 5 to 10 years for a musical to really reach production.

C. Is there a time in those 10 years that a director is usually brought in?

J. It can be at any stage and sometimes they go through a series of directors. I think the really important thing is to get a director attached to the project early. The collaboration with the writer is so important and I feel like a director can really help shape a piece. But there are times where you come in later. For example, there was a piece that was being developed for Theatreworks USA and literally right before it opened Off-Broadway, it just wasn't working for them and they got rid of the director and I came in and revamped the whole show in a month. And thankfully the writers were very collaborative, very eager to do that.

C. Have you worked on a project where you were onboard right at the start and stayed all the way through production?

J. Definitely. Zanna, Don't! was one of those. It started as a cabaret at Yale and the producer knew me and brought me on, actually as an actor for the first readings. Then I took over as director and I brought it all the way to Off-Broadway. That was my first big show and that was a huge learning curve for me because it was the first time that I had headed something from the beginning to the end. It was not without struggle, as it always is, but I was very proud of ultimately what came out of it. And actually, when I was an actor before director and choreographer, I was in the original production of Sideshow and I was with that from its inception. So even when I wasn't a director, I got to participate as an actor from its first reading all the way through to its Broadway opening and see how a show gets made. It was fascinating to me. And how things get rewritten and songs get thrown out – I'll never forget we were in previews and there was this entire scene that I had a little feature in and the scene got cut. I came into work the next day and the set piece from my scene was on the street in a dumpster. It was so sad, but you know sometimes that's the nature of new work. Things get chopped up, thrown out, and rewritten.

C. Is there conflict sometimes if someone wants to cut a piece and someone else doesn't or the director wants a rewrite?

J. Oh, I would say yes, absolutely. I mean there's conflict and there is agreement, there is all of it. I think ultimately what makes it better is the discussion and the debate. It’s amazing how things sometimes seem to work on paper, but then they don't work on stage and vice versa. Things that I think are going to work like gangbusters don’t end up working onstage. Or things I think don’t work on paper, end up working on stage. It's why I'm a big advocate of getting it up on its feet as quickly as possible. You can sit and talk about it, but until it's on its feet and it's in the actors' mouths you just don’t know. I'm always amazed at how much I learn from the experience of seeing something up on its feet and I think the writers feel the same way. As artists, we all have very strong visions, are very passionate about what we want and what we believe in, and I'm always amazed at how I suddenly think of things differently when I was so sure of something. There are moments where I realize, “oh, I was wrong.” And I think writers feel that way too. It's a performing art, so we need to see it performed and with an audience.

C. Are there some mistakes you’ve made in particular that you've learned from?

J. Oh yeah, I'm constantly making mistakes. I feel that's part of it, with any collaboration. I’ve learned that it's all about always trying to find the right team of people. There are definitely collaborations that just don't work, you don't see eye-to-eye and that can be very difficult. You want to be around people you trust, that’s important. You want to be upfront about things. What's weird is there are no rules with it. I think it's really about negotiating things as they come up and as you discover them. I've worked with writers who are very free with their work, they are very willing to change it. Not just with me as the director, but with asking the actor, “well what do you think, what should be here?” Then there's writers who say, “no, it has to be like the way it is on the page.” And both are of value. I think it is really important to try everything. I guess that's the biggest thing I've learned, is to throw it up there. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work and you can change it back to what it was. I think it's really important to have that safety to try things, especially in the rehearsal room. I feel like with the economics of theatre now, there isn't that luxury anymore. The rehearsal times have gotten shorter and shorter and shorter and there is less money for everything. So the freedom to play or the time to play is not as much there because people want more product. So that's hard.

C. Do you see that negatively affecting the process?

J. Sometimes. I mean it can work in both ways. I like working quickly, but there are moments where I wish we had just a little more time to work this and try it. I think the preview period for shows is really important. Having the opportunity to try it in different ways is very important. So I do think shows suffer. There was a system in the old days where you went out of town and toured, tried things out. I've never had that opportunity, but in history, you know musicals went to Goodspeed or they went out of town, toured the country before they ever came to Broadway, before the critics could attack it. We don't have that luxury anymore. I feel like there needs to be way more room for artists and writers at the beginning to have an opportunity to really have the time to develop their work without the pressure of having to deliver a final product.

C. Any thoughts about a solution to that?

J. Well money is a big part and creating places where people can play. The Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat is something I started because I feel like there are not enough of those places where you can collaborate and work on new work in a safe environment that doesn't have the pressure of a full production yet. Those places are few and far between and there's only a few theatres that have new works programs. I think most theatre companies are looking for a sure thing and I get it because they need to sell tickets in order to keep the theatres going. But I'm hoping it's changing. I feel this season and last season specifically with Fun Home and Hamilton and all these shows that seem to be pushing a little bit, hopefully will open it up.

C. And how do you hope that the Bingham Camp Theater Retreat is going to be a part of that?

J. Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat is all about developing new work that celebrates diversity. A big part of my mission with the retreat is to create shows that better reflect the world we live in. I look at Broadway nowadays and it doesn't look like the world that I live in, the people that I see around me. It feels like old white male Broadway and I think that it's time it changes and I hope to be a part of that. With the retreat, we're getting out of the city, so we don't have the pressure of critics or people's schedules and it's 10 days of intense work where we eat together, sleep together, work together and are able to discuss the show and focus and collaborate truly. We’re going to have a musical director, writer, all the actors and be able to do a little bit more than just a reading. It will be a place to play and see what comes up and hopefully create something beautiful and exciting and new.


For more info on the Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat, visit their website or follow them on Facebook