Visit the Boston Playwrights' Theatre Web site for information about our programs, tickets, and more!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Birdie for Thanksgiving: Q&A with Karmo Sanders

Gold Rush Girls, a new musical with a book and lyrics by Karmo Sanders (a.k.a. Birdie Googins -- more about that in a minute) will have its world premiere at Cyrano's Theatre Company in Anchorage, Alaska next July, after a long development process. Recently, Karmo took a break from some rewrites to talk turkey.

Karmo Sanders

KAM: First of all, congrats on the world premiere run of Gold Rush Girls next summer! That’s fantastic. The development process of the show has been a long one – according to the project history on the Web site, a decade. Was that frustrating, or necessary/by design? Or both?!

KS: You’ve got me laughing here. Has a decade been frustrating? You bet. Was that necessary?  Apparently. 

We all know the art of crafting theater is precise and demands honesty and perfection.  Lucky for me, over the years with encouragement and help from Kate Snodgrass and Rick Lombardo, we had a series of wonderful readings at BPT and a great two-week workshop at The New Repertory Theatre. We’ve been ready for the next phase of collaboration for about a couple years now. Of course the reality is once the piece is finished you’ve got to embark on a whole new journey of selling the fruit of that passion.  Because you hit a point where as the writers you must have an opening.  I need that team of actors, director, dramaturg and theater, to move onto the stage, work the material and give Gold Rush Girls a chance to shine.  I’m ready to see these “ladies of the night” singing and dancing their way through the dance hall. 
And I’m really proud of the musical. I love musicals – music is an immediate access to emotion. I love that.

So - yes - we’re thrilled to be headed to Cyrano’s working with Sandy Harper and Jayne Wenger. Since Gold Rush Girls is set in the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush, Anchorage is the geographic perfect fit for our opening.

KAM: What drew you to this subject?

KS: My friend, Lael Morgan, wrote the book Good Time Girls which is about the "ladies of the night" in the heart of the Klondike gold rush. The minute I saw the pictures on the cover I knew those ladies were my sisters. I felt like I knew these girlfriends. At the time I was in the Boston Playwrights’ Masters program. Inspired by the book, I wrote a scene for class.  That night when I got home Jerry was actually writing a song: “Sweet Understanding.”  I loved it! I told him I wanted that song, read him the scene and said let’s write a musical. If I’d known then what I know now… a decade?  Gulp.

KAM: Tell us a little bit about your collaborator.

KS: He’s a great collaborator, I trust him.  Jerry and I’ve been together nearly 40 years. We began working on musical theater projects in the early 90’s. He grew up in the Mid-West with all those 60’s Rock and Rollers where he and his best friend Steve Gaines, of Lynard Skynard fame played in bands together. Being a rock and roll drummer he tends to love rhythm. He’s a self-taught pianist; just now learned how to read music. He can write a hook better than anyone else I’ve ever met.  You name the style he’s got it covered.  I love his music. And he’s a great lyricist.

One reason we’re able to easily collaborate is that we can talk through anything. Reaching to allow one another the respect to hear thoughts, feedback, and viewpoints and celebrate individual discovery. Then put it into form.

I enjoy co-writing lyrics. Interestingly we’ve had some feedback that the musical is using near rhymes and not perfect rhymes.  I’ve finally come to be able to say – yes, that’s our style. And though not hitting the perceived musical perfect format of perfect rhymes – I think we’ve met our goal - that you’ll be able to step out of the theater, read the program and find you can actually remember and sing the songs you just heard. Leave the audience humming.

KAM: With the production planned for summer, you have a little time on your hands. Are you doing any work on the piece right now, or waiting until you are actually in Alaska?

KS: We’re in contact with our director/dramaturg who has some suggestions which we agree with, so there are rewrites happening right now.  Also we’re re-working some of the music, adding reprises where they belong and have actually re-inserted a song I loved which was taken out but needs to be back. So all exciting!

KAM: And speaking of Alaska, what happens once you’re there? I imagine, being a musical, the rehearsal process will probably be pretty intense.

KS: I can’t wait.  It will be a thrill and I’m sure a little intense. But we’re ready and we’ll be ready. Interestingly a great number of people on this end are planning trips to Alaska for the opening and we’re working on finding discounts for air fares. Let the games begin!

KAM: Another thing that sounds intense is that “hey-the-sun-is-out-at-1:00 a.m.” thing that happens in Alaska. Are you ready for that? 

KS: I think it might be lucky that I enjoy whiskey and vodka. And I always enjoy sunshine.

Birdie Googins
KAM: You’re a playwright, and a performer too. What are the pleasures and pitfalls of creating material for yourself, and what is your development process like for those solo works?

KS: I feel extremely fortunate to still be performing, and lucky as well to have been an actress before becoming a playwright. It’s so helpful to know every aspect of the craft.

The pleasure of my solo performance is that I am: “Accidentally Maine’s Only Supermodel -- Un-Registered Maine Guide – And Possible Future Queen.”  Up here I’m a very famous commercial television personality known as the Mardens Lady. These commercials air all over the State, I’m the spokesperson for a discount warehouse. Leading me to say: “I may be cheap but I’m not surplus.” 

When I finally realized the statewide popularity of this character, I named her Birdie Googins, wrote a one-woman stand up comedy show and hit the road. I’ve been touring the state for five years now, actually making my living with this project. Which is a lot of fun, Birdie hits an extremely wide demographic and for some reason they all love her.  Lucky me.

Pitfalls of creating solo material?  I don’t know, I think a solo show requires the ability to be really absolutely honest. Which is no different from anything else. No hem hawing around, you better know what you’re talking about and what you really want to say.  The show has to be a ride, like grabbing your surfboard, getting on a wave and swooshing it home. Any slack you fall off.  Over time writing and performing solo shows, I have discovered some basic rhythms that really work.  

It seems I’ve become really good at writing comedy – though I never expected to be a stand up comedian. But people love hearing dry Maine humor coming out of a woman’s mouth.

The only real pitfall of a solo show – is that I deeply miss the thrill of interacting on a stage filled with my fellow actors. Developing and emoting together is something I really miss.

The only other pitfall is that I’d like to take this character national and I’m from Maine. Which is one of my great challenges in moving the musical forward as well.  Being up here we are definitely out of the loop. And as Mainers say: “You can’t get there from here.” But I’m determined that I’m going to dispel that silly rumor.


  1. I am fortunate enough to have heard some of the wonderful music from Gold Rush Girls and hope to be among the groupies that go to Anchorage for the debut. Good Time Girls is a great read and Gold Rush Girls does it justice. Karmo and Lael both excel at their craft. Mainers both and I am proud to know them.

  2. I'd travel to Alaska by dog cart to see that play....and I hope you'll find a theater in Boston. YOU GO GIRL....and Jerry, too! Best of everything. Joy Harmon