Dramaturg Anne G. Morgan discusses composer/lyricist Julianne Wick Davis’s process behind ASC’s world-premiere musical The Willard Suitcases.
In Julianne Wick Davis’s moving and original musical, the titular suitcases – some full of many objects and some empty – all contain memories, tales, and facets of identity. The musical itself is replete with songs and stories, history and humanity. And, like the act of packing a suitcase, the creation of The Willard Suitcases involved making decisions and setting a destination.
For writer/composer Julianne Wick Davis, the entire project began with a single image, taken by photographer Jon Crispin. (In 2011, Crispin had been invited to photograph the suitcases found in an abandoned attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center.) “I came across one of the photographs and I was immediately intrigued by the items. That’s what drew me in. And then learning the history of it, the reason that this suitcase existed and why it was being photographed.” As Davis learned more, she felt the pull of the objects: “I immediately started to think of songs… and as I saw more and more of the suitcases, every single one of them [prompted me to say] ‘I would love to write a song about this.’” Her curiosity coalesced around the questions that would become the heart of the musical, questions of why people chose to include what they did in their suitcase, who packed the luggage, and what the cases’ owners knew about their destination.
“…as I saw more and more of the suitcases, every single one of them [prompted me to say] ‘I would love to write a song about this,'” – Julianne Wick Davis
Originally conceiving of the project as a song cycle (as opposed to a plot-driven piece focused on an individual) enabled Davis to let each suitcase inspire its own story. From each case and its contents, Davis spun an original, standalone narrative. Although the suitcases and their owners led real lives, Davis is quick to stress the fictional nature of characters and stories in The Willard Suitcases, saying, “what is intriguing to me is the stories that I can create out of the items that are in the suitcase… every story that I’ve created is totally free of these people’s psychiatric profiles… and in no way are supposed to reflect the actual people.” However, by keeping each song “within the time period in which the patient entered [Willard],” Davis honors the patients’ realities while creating their fictional experiences.
The process of writing The Willard Suitcases has been one of experimentation. With each suitcase Davis begins anew, sometimes with a clear path, and sometimes the writing “takes me to a completely different place than I originally thought I was going.” The discoveries provoked by each song and the nonlinear structure of the piece have also influenced Davis’s style. The variety of characters that Davis has created and the decades that the suitcases represent brought about a melange of musical styles, ranging from folk music to contemporary musical theatre. “I felt freedom in that I don’t have to think so much about a particular soundscape that I have to stick to because of the nature of the story. I’ve been able to have little bits of all those things that I really love to do.”
While the piece may share some similarities with her earlier work, she says “this feels different than anything that I have done before.” Writing both music and lyrics is one way this a new experience for Davis, who frequently works with collaborators and enjoys doing so. But, she says “I’ve been trying to treat myself as a collaborator, so I start out with a lyric, and then once I do that I become a composer and try to respect what I’ve written.”
“…this feels different than anything that I have done before.” – Julianne Wick Davis
American Shakespeare Center’s production of The Willard Suitcases marks Davis’s first major collaboration with others on the piece. “I’ve just done a couple of informal table reads with friends and then [a] concert. I have not been able to see all of the things that I imagine in the storytelling.”Davis speaks highly of her collaboration with director Ethan McSweeny; vocal director, choreographer, and performer Nancy Anderson; and music director and performer Chris Johnston. And she is enthusiastic about the ways in which Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions will build a special intimacy between the actor-musicians and the audience. “I’m excited to see how the practices that are such an important part of the theatre will inform the piece for me.”
But Davis’s collaborative impulses for this piece don’t end with its production in Staunton. A unique manifestation of these impulses can be found in her plans for the future life of The Willard Suitcases. After writing roughly twenty songs, Davis decided that, given the number of suitcases and the wealth of creative inspiration to be found within each, she didn’t want to stop writing. “I’m going to create a piece that people can curate for themselves and take the songs that they want to do. Thematically if they want just songs about women, if they want songs from a certain time period (since the suitcases do span between the early-1900s and 1965), etc.” In this way, future producers and directors are empowered to engage in a new kind of collaboration with the text.
There’s an old theatrical adage that plays are never finished, they are simply abandoned. But like the suitcases abandoned in the attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center finding new life in Jon Crispin’s photographs, The Willard Suitcases refutes that sentiment. In Davis’s approach to the ways in which each subsequent production may utilize a unique selection of songs, she says:“There’s something really nice about being able to keep this thing alive as I continue to create more and more songs.” The repeated lyric “what would you pack?” is not simply a rhetorical idea, but also an urgently practical inquiry
The questions of who packed the suitcases and why they included what they did resonate at the heart of The Willard Suitcases. The questions of who created The Willard Suitcases and why she included what she did guided this article. The only question that remains is: will you become yet another contributor to this theatrical collaboration?
The Willard Suitcases begins previews September 25. Opening night is October 4.
Tickets are on sale now. Purchase by visiting this page of our website or contacting the Box Office directly.