Sunday, September 18, 2011

Finishing the hat by Joelle Charbonneau

Joelle Charbonneau has performed in a variety of operas and musical theatre productions across the Chicagoland area.  She now teaches private voice lessons and uses her stage experience to create compelling characters in her books.  The first of the Rebecca Robbins mysteries, SKATING AROUND THE LAW (Minotaur Books) was called “Sexy and funny” by Kirkus Reviews.  The second book in the series, SKATING OVER THE LINE, will hit shelves on Sept. 27th, 2011.  The first of her newest series, MURDER FOR CHOIR, will be published by Berkley in the fall of 2012.


Finishing the hat
Joelle Charbonneau

I titled this post after a song from the musical Sunday In The Park With George by Stephen Sondheim because—well—I’m a theater girl. I always have been and always will be.

Most of my high school life was spent in the scene shop or belting out songs on the stage. Unsurprisingly, in college I majored in the performing arts and ended up singing and dancing on the professional Chicagoland stages. And I loved it: the curtains, the costumes, the lights, my fellow performers and everything else that went along with the lifestyle. 

Eight shows a week is challenging, but so much fun. Each day gives the cast a chance to create something brand new. That last sentence might confuse a non-performer. I mean, every show is technically the same – same dances, same songs, same script. But every show IS different. Why? Well, the most obvious answer is that the audience is different. Every audience has their own energy. What one audience finds funny, another audience might scowl at. The cast feels that energy and feels off it. A line that doesn’t get the typical laugh changes the pacing and the reactions from the cast members on stage. Not a lot, but enough to create something new. Something different and special.

That ‘different and special’ is why I will always love performing. Some audiences are more challenging than others, but I love the challenge of phrasing a musical line to reach into their hearts and make them feel what the character is feeling. I love the subtle shifts in the other characters on stage that make my character react in new and different ways. Each performance uses the same script, but tells a different story.

I guess it shouldn’t be so surprising that I decided to try my hand at writing. (Although, I admit it shocked the heck out of me!) Theater and writing have so much in common. They are both about creating characters that even at their very best or worst feel real. The best serial killer is one that repels us not only because of the horrible crimes he or she commits, but because something about them feels human and real. More than blood or gore, it is that connection that makes us cringe when the character steps across the page. The same can be said for the outrageously funny characters that we love to laugh with. While those characters are doing their favorite Elvis impersonation or interacting with a hat-wearing circus camel, there is something warm and admirable that shines from within. (At least, I hope so!)

Until I started writing, I didn’t recognize the similarities in the two fields. Now that I am smack in the middle of both, I can easily see the same burning desire to take the impossible and make it seem possible. The need to get the tone and the timbre of a scene or a song just right – to ‘finish the hat’ and make it perfect for the world to see. In Sunday In The Park With George, the character of George is driven by his need to get the hat or the tree or whatever he is painting just right. When Mandy Patinkin played George on Broadway the audience was able to see and feel the struggle that all artists feel when they try to get the character just right. Whenever I experience that struggle, I remember that there are actors, writers, singers, painters and all types of artist who feel the same frustration when the character doesn’t ring true and elation when a true moment clicks into place. As a performer and a writer, I am constantly striving to create those moments that draw the audience and the reader into the story. Who the heck knows if I ever achieve my goal, but I can’t help but keep trying.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Joelle - Hi and Welcome!!!

So glad to have you here, and VERY much enjoyed your comparisons of your fields of work in this piece. Thank you!

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Kaye - Thanks for having me. I am so delighted to be here! Theater and writing always seem so similiar to me, which is funny since one field attracts extroverts and the other tends to be filled with introverts.

Bobbi Mumm said...

Joelle, these books sound terrific! I will look for them. You're lucky to be able to sing. If I watch Annie or Mama Mia, my family has to live in misery for days! :-)

Phyllis said...

Joelle, I will certainly look for your books after reading this enjoyable meander. Your comparisons reminded me that mathematics and music also have a lot in common--and also often share the introvert/extrovert division. I myself have always said that I was naturally an introvert, but my various jobs in teaching and administration had forced me to function as an extrovert. Now I am happiest with my cup of tea or coffee (or glass of wine)and a great mystery. Would your books go better with jasmine tea or pinot noir?

Joelle Charbonneau said...


Ha! I'm thinking that a fabulous glass of red always goes well with a book:)