Pandemic Perspective: A Conversation with Preston Max Allen
“I know that people are going to be, as always, afraid to hear perspectives that challenge their comfort, but I really hope the theater industry is prepared to amplify those voices more than anyone.” -- Preston Max Allen, May 13 2020
I sat down with Preston Max Allen in a midtown cafe, pre-quarantine, to discuss his work. But due to the pandemic and Preston’s relentlessly impressive consideration for the future of the musical theatre community, we reconvened mid-pandemic for a virtual chat. I fell in love with Preston’s work when I saw a workshop of the musical “Agent 355” in a room in Ripley... RIP. His children’s musical Bradical was recently created and performed entirely on Zoom. If you don’t know him yet, you will now. We are in awe of his work and his respect for the shifts taking place in the industry due to the pandemic. - Clara Cox
Clara: I want to ask you about Bradical. I loved it, first of all. Second of all, I would love to know why you decided to do that piece on Zoom, and what that was like. What was challenging and what was surprisingly easy for you?
Preston: You know, I am very lucky with Bradical in that the team is incredibly resourceful and creative, and I didn't have much to do with that. I was like, you're the book writers, you have all my songs, go forth. When they approached me about doing Bradical on Zoom, with Sammy and Ben and Melissa as producers and directors, it didn’t surprise me at all that they were immediately thinking, “How can we make this accessible? How can we tell our stories anyway?” Like immediately, which I really envy. My first month was a lot of, “Why even bother generating? We don't know the future. I'm trapped in this mindset of uncertainty that's really quite scary.” So I'm really thankful for people like the Bradical team who're like, “We’re gonna make this fun and we're gonna be creative and we're gonna do things that we haven't seen before.” I was a little bit in the back seat for that, but I was very moved by what it was.
Where are you finding creative inspiration right now? Are you finding creative inspiration right now?
It's tough. I'm in a healthier place than I was. The first month was really hard for me, and eventually, I found a little door to creativity. I'm just playing with instruments because it does get me out of my head a little bit.
Yeah, there's so much “productivity porn” on Instagram and it can be really detrimental, I think. It's fascinating how quickly these trends of needing to create or needing to be the best at quarantine catch on.
I think setting these kinds of goals or having that kind of mindset is partially a coping mechanism, because it's still very scary when you think about the enormity of what's going on. Having an agenda and being able to check things off and being able to say, “Oh I did this, this and this today. I feel great!” is a way of blocking out what's going on. So, it's really healthy for some people, and it's really healthy at certain times for me, but it is really scary. We're seeing the news of Broadway getting pushed back and back and back, and [those announcements] are really hard to cope with. I think the way in which our brains respond to that is something that we have to learn to be at peace with.
Do you think there's a silver lining within the forced halt of our industry?
Yeah! I'm so thankful that you're letting me come back and chat with you again because as I was reading our first conversation, I realized I was responding to an active environment, and I had this kind of active, combative nature to my speaking. The way I feel now, since we're not active, is much more reflective and thoughtful.
In terms of a silver lining… There's some people who were like, “Oh, this was actually good for us!” I don't agree with that, but what I hope is that the industry is more aware of its shortcomings. And maybe in these moments, along with planning how to bring theater back (not only on a physical level of bringing it back in a healthy way), we feel mentally healthy when we bring it back. I think certainly some people are taking that into consideration. There may be some healthy habits that come out of this hyper vigilance that we could have used all along. We're really used to saying “Whatever it takes, whatever it takes! Whatever the producer needs; whatever I need to do to get cast, even when it is physically unhealthy and damaging - vocally unhealthy, mentally unhealthy.” I think we may get out of that a little bit.
I hope so too. I totally agree. What does our industry look like after this, in an ideal world, to you?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, not only for my career but taking into consideration the fact that my new projects will be set back. I think we'll see a lot of smaller theatre, which I'm excited about. A lot of smaller stories and the risks that smaller theaters are taking are very powerful in ways that we don't see in the mainstream. I think we'll be seeing a lot of that. I think those theaters will be able to come back sooner because of the quantity of people. I'm looking forward to seeing support of new artists and what new artists are generating, or even have generated.
When we come out of this, I think that we're going to feel a massive cultural change. And we're going to want to hear from artists who have lived through this and how this experience affected them. Even if it's a story that took place before [the pandemic], the writer is someone who has experienced this kind of jolt. I want to see the art that has come out of that through them. So, I'm writing something that does not take place in a quarantined world, but I am, in certain places, acknowledging it. Maybe I will be even more specific about that when and if this is able to go into production.
I do want to see, from artists and different communities with different circumstances, the stories of how [this pandemic] affected communities who were not taken care of. I hope that the artists who are creating from that perspective get featured en masse when this is over. I know that people are going to be, as always, afraid to hear perspectives that challenge their comfort, but I really hope the theater industry is prepared to amplify those voices more than ever. I think we've gotten to this position, in many ways, because people hate their comfort being challenged.
What's a piece of art that you discovered in this time that you might not have had we not gone into quarantine?
Overall I was very stressed about musical theater. I would not necessarily go to it for comfort before the pandemic. I'm reconciling and healing my relationship to theatre as an artist who was really stressed out and challenged by it. I'm in it for a reason, because at my core when I need something that I love, it is musicals.
Can you give me a teaser as to what you're working on right now?
I am working on two things, and they're very different. I'm working on a very grand scale absurdist musical that will hopefully be like a radio play musical with my friend Edward Pract. We did a Christmas musical together last year called A Very Netfl*x Christmas Musical, and we have re-teamed to do a new show. That's what I'm doing a score for. Hopefully we'll have information where that can be heard in the coming months.
I'm also working on a series. I'm looking at pivoting a little bit into film because I think that will come back faster, so I'm working on a couple episodes of the television show I really want to develop with an entirely transmasculine lead cast (and a mostly trans and non-binary cast in general)! That's been the project I've actually been able to put some more personal energy into.
Transmasc representation is not as present as I would like it to be. I really want to see transmasc characters living and interacting within a community. There's something, you know, that is a little special about being with your community. I want to see that from a transmasc perspective. These characters are extremely varied in their personalities and their interests and their jobs and ages. I want to see that from characters with whom I share an identity with.
Thank you being willing to be interviewed again, and for being so honest about how circumstances changed post quarantine. We were all feeling it. I got your email about wanting to redo this interview right as I was going through the next phase of, “Okay, we need to make a shift. This is no longer about rigidity, that's not serving us anymore.”
The clean slate and the need for low budget and intimate projects is going to be really important for new work. It’s what’s already happening behind the scenes; it's just not what you're seeing on the largest stages. I really hope we come back taking care of each other.
I think a good thing that will also come out of this is what Hamilton is doing is - shows that are able to come back and restage and film, and then go back into quarantine. I think having recordings of shows is going to make theater massively more accessible for people and going to bring much more interest to it.
Absolutely. You’re the best. You have such a good perspective. It's so full of empathy and insight and people want to hear from you.
This feels a little lighter, you know? A more hopeful conversation can be a little more healing for people.