Developing Fine Lines: Interview with Melanie Chartoff

by Sarah Taylor Ellis
Saturday Jan 22, 2011

When a speech therapist urges the stuttering King George VI to release his voice by singing in The King's Speech, the technique resonates with writer/actor Melanie Chartoff.

She recently authored and workshopped a new two-person musical play exploring a decades-long relationship between a therapist and an actress, who reveals her voice through psychodrama. Dramatic monologues, role-playing, and original songs are a route to the woman's - and her male therapist's - newfound understanding of self and others in Fine Lines, "a musical tale of yearning, discerning ... and love."

Chartoff began developing Fine Lines in 2009 as a tribute to her many therapists over the years, which range from Jungian psychoanalysts to group therapists. She has always had a deeply vested interest in the "art of therapy," the vulnerability and potential release of opening oneself up to another.

The narrative is also steeped in the 1960s, an era of shifting social codes in the United States.

"Women went wild and men went wild with them," recalls Chartoff.

Yet even as teens and twenty-somethings grappled to redefine sexual mores, older wives often lacked a voice in the house; husbands who had returned from WWII maintained a harsh, militaristic distance and order.

For both Chartoff and her fictional character, the arts were a comfortable way to experiment with different voices and expressions of self. In the musical play, psychodrama allows the character to embody an array of perspectives and to creatively question the fine and overlapping lines between the regimented codes of the 50s and the sexual revolution of the 60s. Refreshingly, her male therapist develops and learns as much from the therapy as his patient.

Melanie Chartoff has an extensive history of creating unique voices as a writer, actor, and voiceover artist. Her television roles on Fridays and Parker Lewis brought her great acclaim, while a younger generation recognizes her as the voice of Didi Pickles in Rugrats and its spinoff All Grown Up. Yet Chartoff is continually drawn to live theater, with credits ranging from the notorious Broadway flop Via Galactica to ACT's Sunday in the Park with George.

Having previously penned both plays and screenplays, Chartoff branched into musical theater writing with a song-and-dance memoir Taught 2 Dance at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2007. Chartoff notes that Fine Lines is her first "book" musical, although she prefers to call it a play with music. In both structure and content, Fine Lines does seem historically aligned with Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill's 1941 musical play on psychoanalysis: Lady in the Dark.

For Chartoff, the story of Fine Lines demanded music: "To change identities, to do much more than sit and talk, is more galvanizing for an audience."

She thrives on the imaginative leap the audience must make in support of song, as well as the emotional depths and shifts in character that can only be achieved when underscored by music. Chartoff raves about her two composers' talents and range: Doug Katsaros (based in NYC) and Joseph Klonick (based in Chicago) both collaborated with Chartoff via skype and e-mail, often receiving her lyrics one day and e-mailing back a fully-orchestrated, emotionally-stirring song the next.

While she misses working in the same room with "such a braintrust of masterminds" as she did in Lehman Engel's BMI musical theater workshop, Chartoff appreciates the technology that allows for such long-distance collaborations.

Chartoff has lived with Fine Lines for nearly a year. But for a benefit workshop at the historic Santa Monica Playhouse on January 8 and 9, Chartoff had only fifteen hours of rehearsal with fellow actor James Morrison (the psychotherapist) and director Harry Mastrogeorge. Sustaining a two-person, two-hour musical play requires a great deal of stamina, commitment, and professionalism - all of which Morrison aptly brought to the staged reading. One of Chartoff's long-time acting teachers, Mastrogeorge directed an appropriately simple and clear production, focusing on the script rather than the spectacle in this developmental run.

Indeed, Chartoff says she has learned a great deal from the audience response to this first workshop of Fine Lines; she already has in mind a few dynamic narrative changes and hopes for a future run in Los Angeles. As she begins libretto revisions and plows into TV pilot season, Chartoff continues to teach acting throughout California, including a course playfully entitled "charismatizing improvising." This class encourages performers and nonperformers alike to find their own unique voices in collaborative improv games - and so Melanie Chartoff continues that life-affirming art of therapy far beyond the boundaries of the proscenium arch.

Sarah Taylor Ellis is a PhD candidate in Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA. She is also a musical theater composer, music director, and accompanist (www.staylorellis.com).


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