Talented actress Brittany Bullen has written the book, co-written the lyrics and music and appears in SHELTER, a new pop/rock musical opening Thursday, July 26th as part of the 2012 New York Musical Theater Festival. SHELTER tells the story of Jeanine, a woman with a troubled past who is faced with the challenge of counseling residents of a Philadelphia women’s shelter. The women she meets and the struggles she faces help her to begin to start over. Filled with romance, laughter and tears, this contemporary story is about what it means to be a woman and to really live.
Bullen's other works for the stage include Hello, Lemon! and Yellow, which was most recently produced at Brigham Young University. Her acting credits include The Spitfire Grill (Percy Talbott), Jane Eyre (Title Role), Seussical, The Musical (Sour Kangaroo), A Christmas Carol (Belle) and Urinetown (Little Becky Two Shoes).
The actress chatted with BWW about why she hopes future productions of SHELTER may serve to benefit communities throughout the country.
What originally made you take on the subject of homelessness for your play?
Well actually, at the time I knew very little about homelessness. All of this started because I was talking with my friend Brighton, who is actually our director, about how she was always looking for shows to direct for a lot of women because as you probably know, there are tons of women who want to do musicals, and not as many men. So I started brainstorming about what a musical like that would look like and that's where the idea came from.
And what made you decide to incorporate a rock score?
Well, it seemed to be kind of a natural connection seeing how we wanted to set the show in present day. And we wanted to capture the feel of the struggles that these people face. It just seemed like the most natural connection.
I understand you worked with your brother-in-law on the score.
Yes. I had about half of the songs kind of written in my head before I sat down with him. I would go to his house three days a week, he would sit down with his software and his keyboard, and I would kind of sing it out for him and give him suggestions as to the general feel for the orchestration I wanted it to have, and then he would help me flush it out.
Had the book been completed at that point?
Yes, at least the first draft had been completed, but then of course there were revisions since then.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced when you were writing the book?
Probably the number one thing was at the time, when we first undertook the subject matter, I wasn't familiar with anything about homelessness, so we really had to learn about what that experience was like, what kind of people you might find in homeless shelters as well as the details of ins and outs of what it means to be in a shelter. We wanted to portray them accurately and with sensitivity. So finding that balance - the accuracy was probably the biggest thing.
So you actually visited homeless shelters?
Oh yes, several times.
Is the story based on the lives of the residents you met at the shelters?
Absolutely. Some of our story lines come from people that we actually talked to who were homeless at the time, some came from people that we knew who had experienced or who had had brushes with people who were homeless. We had one character for instance, who is not homeless herself but has a sister who has mental cognitive, physical difficulties and for that reason, can't live a normal life. So she keeps going to the shelter to try to get her to come home but her sister keeps running away and ending up back in the shelter where she came from. So that was a real story of someone we knew who had been in that situation with their sibling.
You act in the play as well. What has that experience been like?
It's been really fun. As a performer myself, and that's really where most of my experience is, I think I would be sad to not be in the show. But I didn't want to be the kind of person who writes a show for myself, so it's more of a cameo. My role is non-speaking for most of the show.
Is it hard for you to watch someone else direct your play or is that something you enjoy?
I do enjoy it. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to have that role as well. But it's nice because Brighton is a friend of mine and the process has been very collaborative from the beginning. She has always been very open to my input and we really developed the show together from the beginning.