By James Bartholomew, Staff Writer, All About Solo
Cynthia Shaw is thrilled to have won “Best Festival Debut” at the 2018 United Solo Festival for her autobiographical one‑woman piano show, “Velvet Determination ~ a young pianist’s journey to New York.” Born and raised in Pueblo, Colorado, Cynthia moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music and pursue a career as a classical pianist. She soon moved on to musical directing and finally to acting in theatre and film. Favorite stage roles: Claire, the strong woman standing up to her bombastic literary husband in “The Woman at His Side” (The Gallery Players); Mrs. Winemiller, the wacky mother in “Summer and Smoke” (Terry Schreiber, director); the rigid Grandmother in “After Tartuffe” (The Wild Project); self‑important Mrs. Drudge in “The Real Inspector Hound” (The Producer’s Club); the star‑struck Liz Fuller in “Me and Jezebel” (Kentucky Repertory Theatre); and both sexy Arkadina and clueless Ranevskaya in “Mr. Chekhov & Mr. Porter” (Medicine Show Theatre). Her films have been screened at the Cannes, SoHo, and Big Apple Film Festivals. “Mara,” in which she starred, was an Official Selection at the SoHo International Film Festival and won awards at fourteen other festivals, including Best Experimental Film at the Los Angeles Movie Awards. Her episode of the web series, “Brooklyn is in Love,” won two awards at the LA Webfest. All About Solo had the chance to sit down with Cynthia Shaw and discuss her incredible career and the development of her solo show.
James Bartholomew: What inspired you to create this play and share this part of your life with your audience?
Cynthia Shaw: I have been thinking about this story and the possibility of performing it for about 10 years. I always wanted to limit the story to my first year in NY, though as it turned out, I had to include my Colorado childhood to make everything make more sense. But, it was really two anecdotes during my first year in New York that drove me to explore my story more fully. The first was the falling piano, and the second was my NY piano teacher, who dismissed me while balancing her checkbook. I even wrote that up as a scene for an acting class. That’s how powerful that incident was for me. As I began brainstorming, other stories came to me: the epiphany moment in my apartment and the Salvation Army Officer, to name a few. I found that I had to tell this story. I was compelled to tell it. Maybe it was a way for me to unearth hidden feelings or questions I had about my first years in NY. Why did I never give up trying to get into graduate school? What was it that always held me back? I had to find the answers to those questions. Writing and performing have been truly cathartic. And from the responses I’ve gotten about the show, as it turns out, my story is cathartic for others as well. Didn’t expect that at all. People wrote to me that my story made them think about their own stories about coming to New York, and allowed them to reminisce about their own struggles and innocence. It made me very happy to be able to give them that gift.
How did you go about condensing years of your life down to a single play?
I started by getting the stories out of my head and just writing down everything I could think of, starting with my musical childhood in Colorado. I knew that getting into the Manhattan School of Music would be the end of the play, but everything else was open. I didn’t judge what I was writing, I just wrote. Then I started organizing it into chronological sections. I thought it would be more fun if the people in my story talked for themselves, so I wrote out scenes for the characters. I also knew I wanted to play the piano throughout the show and found places to insert piano playing that would emphasize a point or enhance the story. And I wanted to show the nervous piano player, as well as the accomplished piano player. Ultimately, I had to take out many scenes that either didn’t serve the story, or were a digression. And I wanted to skew the story to my time in NY, so had to take out a bunch of Colorado stories. I also struggled a lot with the section about my musical relationship with my father. I’m still not quite sure that I’ve really gotten full clarification about that. Still working on it!
As a performer how did it feel to be portraying these younger versions of yourself, and what challenges, if any, did that present?
It was really fun! I enjoyed reliving those experiences and seeing them as my younger self. And I could totally see all of those “younger me” episodes as clear as day. Like they happened just yesterday. Starting with seeing that New Yorker Magazine on the table in Dr. Smith’s waiting room, and going from there.
How important was it to keep “Velvet Determination” relatable to viewers who might not be familiar with the world of music conservatories?
That was an interesting challenge. I tried not to get too musically technical. But I also wanted to give people a sense of what it is like to audition for music school, and what is expected of young pianists. For instance, I talk about scales and arpeggios, which to me, of course, are second nature. But my director, Page Clements, pointed out that people might not know what they are. So, she suggested I actually play a scale and an arpeggio. I tried to use playing the piano as a tool to explain musical concepts. I hope I was successful…
Which of the show’s musical pieces is your favorite to perform?
I loved playing my childhood pieces! Especially the Cossack Dance and the Solfeggietto. They were my two favorite childhood pieces, and I’ve had them memorized since grade school. I was so happy to be able to find a place for them in the show. The final piece, the Debussy, with which I end the show, is a relatively new piece for me and very challenging. In fact, I always loved it, but thought it was just too difficult for me and I would never be able to play it. Just impossible. But then a few years ago, I decided that I did want to learn it, and that perhaps I should give it a try. So, I taught it to myself, one page at a time. Sure enough, I can play it. In fact, I have now expanded the show and play the entire eight‑minute piece at the end, instead of the small section I played for the United Solo performances. It is a funny kind of performance challenge I’ve created for myself: the hardest piece is the one I perform at the end.
What do you hope your audience will learn or take away from your piece?
That when you have passion for something that is really important to you, you can persevere and accomplish it. But you really need to have determination, and not let the obstacles overwhelm you. You can even have a sense of humor about them.
What advice or encouragement would you give to young artists who might be facing similar obstacles as you did as a young pianist?
I would tell them that life is long, and one has many opportunities to create beauty and move forward. It’s easy to forget that not everyone can play the piano and express music through this gigantic, powerful instrument. We pianists take our gifts for granted, and we shouldn’t. We have to be grateful for the hours we spend at the piano, practicing and practicing and practicing. Teaching ourselves to do what most people only dream about. That they can’t give up because of an obstacle, or a person who doesn’t believe in them. And that they need to surround themselves with people who do believe in them, and not to listen to naysayers. It is very difficult, but there are sparks of light and hope that we always need to acknowledge and hold onto. This little voice inside that says that we have something to offer, and that there are those who really want to hear us. We will always make mistakes, always mess up a musical passage. But if our goal is really important to our souls and our will to create and live and share, then we need to get up, dust ourselves off, and begin again. Just a little bit wiser, and with more knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. The sun always shines. There is always a new day and a new opportunity.
“Velvet Determination ~ a young pianist’s journey to New York”
Written and Performed by Cynthia Shaw
Directed by Page Clements
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.