Theater Preview: Katherine Burkman’s ‘Coffee Shop Blues’ Premieres in Digital Form
For many years, Katherine Burkman has been a steadying, forward-thinking presence in Columbus’ literary and theatrical worlds. As a professor, novelist, playwright, director, and the organizer of collectives Women At Play and Wild Women Writing, she’s helped Columbus grow into the vibrant scene we’re all lucky to share.
It’s no surprise that as word circulated Burkman was planning her swan song, Coffee Shop Blues, the run planned for the intimate space of the Chocolate Cafe for the summer, the performance was well on its way to selling out in January. As with so much else this year, COVID and its attendant safety measures led Burkman and her collaborators, songwriter Stefan Farrenkopf, the original cast, and her filmmaker son David Burkman, to shift to a video presentation.
Coffee Shop Blues is a charming musical about nostalgia and the purpose of making art that features a stellar cast and some warm, earworm songs. The silver lining is this approach opens the work up to a wider audience, but it wasn’t always easy getting here. I spoke with Burkman (writer, director, co-lyricist) and Farrenkopf (composer, musical director, actor, co-lyricist) by Zoom.
Burkman cast a wide net for Coffee Shop Blues with some of the finest actors in town and was lucky to keep the cast that would have performed it live for this digital presentation. This is her first time working with Ashley Woodard, who is remarkable in this piece as Calli, an analogue for the writer.
“I could tell from the picture that she was very tall, like close to six feet and I’m four feet 11. And I said, ‘Well, she looks very interesting, but she could never play me,’” Burkman said. “When she came over to read for [a supporting part] and sang three notes, I said, ‘She’s it. Let’s give her the part.’”
The remainder of the cast includes Farrenkopf’s daughter Emma, Jon Osbeck as the artist who Burkman worked with in her Women at Play group, Chiquita Mullins Lee from Burkman’s Wild Women writing group, and a range of actors she and Farrenkopf auditioned at her home.
Burkman described the roots of her collaboration with Farrenkopf.
“Stefan was a student of mine at OSU about a 100 years ago,” Burkman explained. “I subsequently went to see him in a play and decided that he was a terrific actor and I needed to put him in something of my own… He wrote music for [that play] and that’s what made the play. So I knew he was somebody I had to work with again.”
Sitting in a coffee shop, Burkman learned a flame of hers from her youth had passed away and that sparked the idea for the piece.
“I just started writing,” Burkman said, “And before I knew it, I had this overly long play. Originally it was going to be [set to] blues music. But when I contacted Stefan about doing the music, he said I was all wrong.”
Farrenkopf laughed, “I didn’t say you were wrong. I said, ‘If you want blues, I’m wrong.’”
He picked up that thread.
“[Kathy’s] a powerhouse and you know that when you say yes to a little thing that Katherine does that you know that it’s going to take over, like, a significant portion of your life,” Farrenkopf said. “Regrettably, I’m always reluctant, but I have a little post-it note in the back of my head to just say yes to Katherine. When she said she was writing a musical, I know what she was thinking. I know that she was thinking we’re writing a musical. And I wasn’t sure if I was on board. It takes a lot of time, but I was open to the idea and she sent me the script and I was really kind of charmed by it. I hadn’t seen that kind of love story before. And I thought that there was a sound to it.”
Farrenkopf set about bringing that sound to life, using Burkman’s draft lyrics as a guide.
“She’s a poet, not a lyricist. [So] there was rhyme and there was meter, but there weren’t choruses, there weren’t verses; they all kind of had the same sort of pattern and rhythm…I mean, some of [her lyrics] were very nice, so they’re sprinkled throughout,” Farrenkopf said. “And there were moments in the songwriting that I thought were opportunities for storytelling or for thematic emphasis. Once] I came on, it took me much longer than I originally told her.”
As it took shape over several months, “When I first started sending her songs, I put a little bit of time into working out arrangements so that they would sell better.” Farrenkopf said. “When it became clear that I would be in the show and playing, I didn’t think the show would really work with artificial instrumentation. I wasn’t really interested in doing a lot of synthesized parts. I didn’t think we were going to be hiring a string section.”
That led to Farrenkopf’s suggestion and Burkman’s agreement to strip the music down to a single piano. Then, as Farrenkopf said, “[We] got hit by COVID. So I had this mix of demos that had arrangements, and then I had some that were just piano vocal, and then we got hit by COVID.”
In the rearranging process, Farrenkopf said, “I sang all of the parts in order to arrange it and to write it, but then I asked Ashley [Woodard] what keys would work for her? Because I’m a big fan of Ashley’s. [After transposing,] my vocals didn’t work. So I had my daughter [Emma Farrenkopf, also a performer in the show] learn my parts and sing those. There was a lot of sweat [but] I’m actually looking back at it with a lot of fondness. It was pretty fun to be in that room and working with my daughter [even with] some late nights.”
For safety, the entire cast recorded their performance on individual devices in their homes according to David Burkman’s technical instructions. Katherine Burkman talked a little about the challenges of directing actors in those circumstances.
“We had one reading [before COVID] and two Zoom rehearsals and I said, ‘That’s it. You don’t need any direction.’ I had notes on a few phone [recordings],” Burkman said.
Farrenkopf spoke to those challenges from a musical standpoint.
“It was really important to me [when we cast Woodard] because I was terrified of the idea of being in the show and the composer and the arranger and the musical director,” he said. “I knew that Ashley was somebody that could help the other people learn the music. We didn’t need that in the same way that we thought we would when we went to COVID, but she was the one who decided which gray ladies would sing which part and helped assign different vocal parts to different roles and not just to people. And I think she did a lot of training and coaching with the gray ladies that we don’t even know about.”
Burkman said, looking at how Coffee Shop Blues has evolved, “This project has kept me going through the COVID, it’s what I look forward to working on every day. I’d never told my own story in quite that way. I’m feeling very good about it. And I’ve learned so much from Stefan and from my son. They would sometimes gang up on me, the two of them. But that was all right, because I’ve learned a lot and it’s been quite a joy.”
Farrenkopf concurred with that.
“I really liked this show,” he said. “I feel like we are trying to figure out this new form. Like culturally, everybody’s trying to figure out what theater people do when we can’t be in a room together. And then when you add musicals. You can’t sing together, you can’t do anything at the same time together. The COVID situation and the technological situation put brakes on some things. I mean, there’s some scoring that could happen in a live performance. I was kind of looking forward to interacting with the performance, while I sat at the piano and putting music under things.
“And so I think that with David’s expertise, we figured something out. I think it would be nice and inspiring to say, ‘This musical ended up finding this new form and so here it is.’ But I would [still] like to see it staged. But maybe someday down the line, I’d like to see this with lights and real people, in real-time. I wasn’t looking for this project. I was really glad to have engaged in it. I’m really fond of Kathy. I thought it was kind of an honor to try to do justice to her story.”
Burkman didn’t hesitate to respond, “And he did.”
Coffee Shop Blues streams December 1 through December 15. Tickets are available at coffeeshopblues.eventbrite.com.