Photo taken by Evan Hanover
By Adina Kruskal ’14
Looking backwards, things make sense.
I had no idea what I was doing in high school. Besides the obvious objective of getting good grades, graduating, attending a “good” college, and whatever else followed, I had no real plan of what the future would hold for me other than hoping it might be prestigious and fulfilling.
Now, I’m a professional playwright and composer, which sounds really impressive, but I still have basically no idea what I’m doing. Looking back, though, it’s frighteningly easy to trace a path from each of my high school endeavors to where I am today, as if it were predestined – but it sure didn’t feel that way at the time.
Senior Year, on an impulse, I decided to sign up for CAPS (then known as SYP, or Senior Year Project). I didn’t have a grand goal in mind, but it sounded like a unique experience and tempted me with the promise of dropping English and most other classes for the second half of the year to do… whatever I wanted, really (CAPS really didn’t have much structure back then). Luckily, I have incredibly supportive parents who reacted with only mild worry when I told them I intended to blow off the second half of senior year. Some of my teachers, on the other hand, didn’t react so well; one was noticeably miffed when I informed her I was dropping out of the class and not taking the AP test at the end of the year. My friends, all very much still on heavy academic track, watched with a mix of curiosity and concern as I slipped out of the school routine that they were all in.
I set myself a pretty lofty goal for my project: I would write a full-length musical. Spoiler alert: I did not end up accomplishing that goal or anything close to it. At the end of the year what I produced instead was one song (which I played off as if it was an excerpt from a nearly complete draft of a show, when in reality it was the sum total of what I had written), and a research paper on the various factors that influence “success” for Broadway musicals. I failed at the goal I had set out, but I learned a whole lot along the way.
At the time, that project was nothing more than a crazy whim, an excuse to drop English and sleep in while “studying” something that interested me more. When I started the project, I had foolishly believed that I might actually write an amazing show and catapult myself to success, but after meeting difficulty I grew frustrated and gave up, not only on that project but on that dream entirely.
At the time, it seemed like I had just wasted five months and tossed away my chances at getting into higher tier colleges just so I could sleep through A and B blocks. Five years later, it’s perfectly clear that this was a pivotal step on getting to where I am today, having just finished a professional production of my first full-length musical, Unison, performed by professional actors and viewed by paying audience members.
Bringing Unison to the Chicago Musical Theater festival was as challenging as it was rewarding. I was the co-producer (along with my friend Mira Lamson Klein, who also directed the show), served as the music director, and obviously was the writer and composer as well, so I had to wear a lot of different hats at once. Self-producing from out of state required a lot of strategic planning from Mira and me; we had a lot of phone meetings in the months leading up to the production basically trying to answer the question, “How can we produce a musical in a city we don’t live in, where we don’t know anyone, with next to no money?” We made it work, somehow, with a lot of support from friends and family along the way.
I had been developing Unison for about two years before this production, writing a few songs and scenes at a time in my last two years of college and recruiting my peers to perform them so I could figure out where the show needed to go next. Over time, a little Unison family began to form, made up of people who had worked on the show and given a little piece of themselves into it. Arriving in Chicago, I found myself handing the script over to complete strangers for the first time ever, praying that the characters resonated with them.
We cast actors local to the Chicago area through a combination of in-person auditions and online video submissions, so we didn’t know them at all aside from the thirty-two bars of a song they had each performed from us. This is obviously how casting usually works in the professional world, but was a change for me from writing songs with particular friends in mind and collaborating in a very informal and familiar way to develop the characters together. I was very anxious about how professional actors might react when given my words and music with no caveats or exceptions – would they even like the show? Luckily, our actors turned out to be an outstanding group of humans who really understood the characters and this world of high school wind ensemble better than I ever could have hoped. I constantly thought to myself about each one of our eight actors, “We are so lucky to have found them.”
We had a very short rehearsal process, since Mira and I both had to come in from out of state. We stayed in Chicago for a total of six weeks, the first two and a half of which were spent rehearsing almost every night, and the latter four we performed the show in repertory with the eight other musicals that were a part of the festival. Self-producing ultimately presented all the same challenges as putting up a show with Theater Ink or in any school environment; the major difference is that whenever a problem arose and a judgment call needed to be made, we had to make the decision ourselves rather than turning to a teacher, producer, or other authority figure to tell us what to do. So: it’s negative fifty degrees outside and we need to cancel our last rehearsal before tech; how can we make up that time? We only get twelve hours in the actual theater space before our opening night; how do we stretch that time to accommodate programming light cues, running the show, and taking production photos? An actor is incredibly sick for our final dress rehearsal; how do we make the best of the rehearsal with everyone else? Sometimes it felt like a game of Whack-A-Mole: each time we solved one problem, another would arise.
In the end, though, with less than three weeks of rehearsal, a few boxes of props that fit in the trunk of a car, a very slim budget, and eleven fiercely dedicated artists, we made a musical happen. If my high school self could see it, it would blow her freaking mind.
In high school, I more or less did what I wanted, but always felt pressure and doubt that I wasn’t following the “right path” to success, because on paper, my various activities didn’t add up to an obvious sum. Four years of Wind Ensemble. Participation in the pit orchestra for several of Theater Ink’s musicals. Assistant Music Directing the big musical my senior year. Writing for Theater Ink’s Playwrights’ Festival. I didn’t do enough to be the most music-y of the music kids, and I didn’t do enough theater to really be a theater kid; I had the grades to be an academic kid but lacked the interest and the competitive mindset. Back then, it felt like I was wasting my potential, failing to follow any of the many pre-set recipes to be successful in one area or another. In retrospect, it’s obvious that I was following a recipe for exactly where I am right now… I just didn’t know it at the time.
So whenever you feel anxious that you’re not doing “enough” in high school, remember: you are following your own recipe. It might be similar to someone else’s, with your own mix of spices added, or it might be a completely new dish. Only one thing is sure: you won’t know what you’re making until you’re done.
Adina works on her musical Unison.
Learn more about Kruskal’s work at her website.
Listen to the Sound Track from Unison on SoundCloud.