Voices of BTM XXIII: Mark Evan Chimsky and Zev Burrows

L-R: Zev Burrows and Mark Evan Chimsky
L-R: Zev Burrows and Mark Evan Chimsky

Tell us a little about your play.

We’re excited that we have the only ten-minute musical in this year’s Boston Theater Marathon! As a musical theatre writing team, we seek to create meaningful musicals celebrating a shared humanity with an eye towards social change. Our musical Albert, based on the life of transgender pioneer Albert Cashier, will have its premiere at BTM XXIII on Tuesday, April 27, at noon.

Albert is being presented by Boston Conservatory at Berklee and we’re grateful to be working with a dream team of collaborators: our actors Mack Elliot Schaefer as Albert and Alex Leondedis as the Translator, our director Helen Deborah Lewis, our music director Isaac Leaverton, and our producer Sarah Ford. Each of them has contributed their creativity, insights, and passion to this project and we’re thrilled to see them bring it to life for the first time.

Albert is about Albert Cashier, born Jennie Hodgers, a true figure from the nineteenth century who fought valiantly in the Civil War and lived afterwards in a small village in Illinois. Though he worked odd jobs and was known as a quiet man, Albert was remarkable for his time, daring to live his truth in an unenlightened age. This short musical is meant to inspire everyone who fights to live their truth, despite the obstacles that society puts in the way.

What made you want to tell this story?

For the past two years we have been working on a full-length musical called Translation, about five transgender and gender-fluid figures from history—spanning the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They meet in the Afterlife, share their stories as they confront their pasts, and gradually become a community.

We first discovered Albert Cashier while developing Translation, and he is one of the central characters in the musical. Last year, we decided that we’d like to also give him his own ten-minute musical and that’s how Albert came about. We feel an urgency to tell his story so that our present generation knows what a courageous person he was—he’s one of the transgender and gender-fluid pioneers who are part of the fabric of our collective LGBTQ history.

As the authors, we feel passionately connected to the material—Mark (librettist and lyricist) is a gay writer and Zev (composer) has a transgender sibling so it’s personal for both of us. Now, with transgender rights under attack in so many states, we feel it’s more important than ever for Albert’s story to be told.

What interests you in the ten-minute format?

In addition to Albert, we’ve written the ten-minute musical J & Dot, which tied for “best play” at the Equity Library Theater’s Summer 2020 Virtual Play Festival. We love discovering ways to tell a story in miniature, to cast fresh light on lives that intrigue us. It’s a challenge to compress a story into ten minutes and to find ways to give it room to breathe within that constraint. For musicals, in particular, we have to figure out how to fit musical numbers into the mix, which puts even more weight on songs to help tell the story we want to tell. But we enjoy this test of our storytelling skills and we’ve learned valuable lessons from working in the ten-minute format—about pacing, about leaning into specificity, about going for the essence of a scene—that we’re able to apply to our writing of full-length musicals.

What are the particular challenges to writing for (or adapting to) Zoom? Are there benefits to working in this medium? Were there any surprises along the way?

We feel that we’ve been living on Zoom over the past year—our musical J & Dot was performed virtually and one of our new musicals, A Broken Play, was presented online as part of the Dramatists Guild’s Friday Night Footlights Reading Series of new musicals. What has surprised us most is how audiences can connect with stories that are told by actors in boxes on a screen. Even on Zoom, it’s possible to experience a personal moment, an unexpected intimacy that feels communal even when we are all in separate places. For any musical on Zoom, the challenge is how to make a song work, taking into account the audio delays that can occur and the way a recorded performance, which looked and sounded great live, can fall victim to sync issues that make it difficult to watch. But for all the exasperation, we’re glad to be writing musicals during this time that audiences can see virtually.

What’s next for you as a playwright (or producer, actor, student, teacher, etc.)?

As collaborators we’re developing a new musical called Swagger, which is about a contemporary boy who learns from William Shakespeare himself about his forbidden love affair with a Muslim ambassador from Morocco in 1600. Right now, we’re fairly immersed in the sixteenth century and we love the opportunity to do research and to discover aspects of Elizabethan life that we never knew before (for example, we learned that in 1601 the Secretary of State Robert Cecil drafted a proclamation to deport Muslims from England, a fact that reveals how history tragically repeats itself).

In addition to Swagger, we are working on another full-length musical, The Pledge, about a college freshman who discovers the dark side of fraternity life when he is hazed and almost dies. The Pledge has received staged readings at the Sitting Shotgun theater company in Brooklyn and at James Madison University’s Madison New Works Lab in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

We are also delighted to be inaugural members of the Theatre Now National Musical Writers Group where we have the chance to share our musicals in development with a wonderful group of fellow musical theatre writers and composers.

You can find out more about our projects by going to our website: chimskyandburrows.com.

Don’t miss Albert on April 27. Boston Theater Marathon XXIII: Special Zoom Edition continues Monday-Saturday at 12 noon ET through May 28!  More