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Rachel Dean & David Brush

Talking The Anxiety Project With Rachel Dean and David Brush

By 10glo

Interviews

It’s an unseasonably cold day here in the Northeast. If this were 2019, or 2018 or, really, any year other than the year it is, we would be racing to find our gloves or beanies before trying to catch the A train to a cozy coffee shop in the West Village.

But it is 2020. And there’s a global pandemic. So Rachel Dean and David Brush, of Dean & Brush, are meeting with the 10glo editorial team virtually, to chat about their musical The Anxiety Project, and how they are staying busy during quarantine. 

Rachel, David: thank you so much for joining us today. Let’s dive right in.

Your musical, The Anxiety Project, began as a collaboration with Ryan Scott Oliver’s blog, in which you requested submissions of personal stories about mental illness. Did you suspect from the outset that there was a full length musical waiting to be uncovered in these stories?

[Rachel Dean] Honestly, not at all. This was very early in our collaboration (I think until this point we had written one or maybe two songs together), and I was just enjoying the chance to work on something with David that was so meaningful. I figured maybe we’d get a few good cabaret/audition songs out of the process, but I don’t think I really had an inkling that it could lead to a fully realized musical.

[David Brush] In fact, I would even suggest we didn’t know it was going to be anything MT at all – just a vehicle for lifting up voices of mental health in a time when that seemed extremely important. Once we started receiving submissions, we were blown away at the honesty and the forthcoming nature of how people WANTED to share – even if it was with strangers. We immediately felt a responsibility to do something with their stories that both elevated voices and maintained anonymity. 

The Anxiety Project Cast Album Trailer

You wrote and released a new song on a weekly basis in response to these submissions. Did having the weekly deadline hold you accountable to writing the show, and how did this process differ (or not) from the way you might typically collaborate on a project?

[RD] Yes! Having the weekly deadline was perfect. As someone who works best with a deadline, I always prefer to know that I have to finish something by a certain time; otherwise it might just not get finished. I was in college while we were working on this show, and I remember dedicating every Sunday afternoon/evening to writing music and recording demos for the songs. I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have been as productive without the weekly blog deadline.

We often end up writing or revising drafts in response to upcoming deadlines for applications or performances. These past few months, though, David and I work whenever we have the time and space, which is perfect for this moment.

[DB] 100% agreed. Forced deadlines are VITAL at any time with writing in ANY genre/field. But when Rachel and I were not in the same room, it was even more important. I would say it also forced my hand in terms of self-editing too soon. A common trap for first-time collaborators is to polish it too much before presenting it. The unique angle from which we were coming at this piece meant we had to move along the “dating” process and allow each other to see very raw early work and trust that each other saw the direction. That could have gone sour really quickly – but for us it was the opposite – we discovered that we were remarkably compatible stylistically and conceptually. 

The Anxiety Project seemingly follows in the tradition of other documentary based theater projects, such as Runaways, A Chorus Line and the work of Anna Deavere Smith. Were you thinking about these examples during the writing process and, if so, were there elements of documentary theater that you wanted to either lean into or approach differently?

[DB] It’s interesting you mention Runaways which is seeing a much-deserved and far-too-late renaissance. I think that’s a fair comparison and we are happy to be in that company. Anna Deveare Smith’s work is certainly defining in an enormous way and her verbatim-style is going to be thrilling to see play out in MT when lyricists have to consider scan and purpose-driven lyrical drive. She is a genius and is paving the way for expanding into the MT world in a way that is both driven by the need to tell real stories AND the limitations Covid has placed on theatre as a community and an artform. For our show, I think the documentary-style was less a deliberate choice than an honest understanding of the nature of a piece on mental health. The docu-style was a later decision that I believe made the piece approachable in a way that traditional (albeit contemporary) libretto work would not lend. 

A show like A Chorus Line has a rough plot in the sense that the characters are gathered together for a reason (an audition for a Broadway musical) and the show is working towards a specific moment (the selection of a cast).  How much, or how little, did you want to think about how plot may shape the individual stories that were forming within each new song you were writing?

[DB] Many people described The Anxiety Project as “A Chorus Line for mental illness” early in the process, but I don’t think I was ever thinking that way. But it makes complete sense in terms of the one link connecting these otherwise disconnected characters. Any other way would’ve been a disservice to both the original stories AND the artform itself. However, no connecting plot was considered early on. We felt that if we began the process in the service of honesty, we would always have that as the root of the piece no matter what shape it eventually would take. The early songs (many of which are still in the show in some form or other) were confined in their own dramatic box intentionally. In hindsight, that has served the piece well. Additionally, these were heavy stories, so musically and lyrically we had to avoid the trap of an evening of sad, dark ballads. Using honest comedy and shared experiences afforded us opportunities to vary the score and the lyrical scan from song to song. 

[RD] All that being said, once we decided it would be a book musical, we did have to pay attention to the plot, and we wanted to be careful not to shoehorn these stories into a form that didn’t fit them just for form’s sake. Now I think it’s safe to say that the show does work toward a specific moment (through a central relationship we follow over the course of the show), but not at the expense of the individual stories. 

What’s next for The Anxiety Project?

[RD] Right now, we’re working towards the release of the cast album on streaming platforms – hopefully in the next few weeks! (The album was released on Youtube last month.) The show would lend itself well to a virtual or distanced performance, so we’re looking at a few possible avenues in that direction. We also think that off-Broadway would be a great home for the show once theatre returns to NYC.

“Should’ve Known Better” feat. Alexia Sielo from The Anxiety Project

What are you two up to now? Are you tackling any new writing projects during the pandemic?

[DB] Writers are always up to something, right? But yes – we do have a few things in the pipeline. Several we are not at liberty to discuss, BUT we do have two semi-announced projects. One of them is a contemporary exploration of Amelia Earhart based on Candace Fleming’s detailed account from her book “Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart.” Ms. Fleming herself has such new insight into this woman we all THINK we know and offers a new view of a woman finding her place in a world dominated by men. 

Additionally, we are working on a new original work called Ghostlight Coffee which – much in the same docu-musical style of The Anxiety Project – explores 4 major events – a mass shooting, a tornado outbreak, a KKK rally and a global pandemic – that all occurred in the same calendar year. We see these events through five coffee shop regulars who experience a city changed in 12 short months. Normal people who represent the resiliency of a city seemingly under siege. 

If you cannot tell yet, we are drawn to the triumph of the underdog. 

You can see more of Dean & Brush’s work at 10glo.com/user/deanandbrush

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