When asked who the best mentor for writing musicals is right now in Chicago, many lyricists, book-writers and composers immediately mention Cheri Coons, the new regional representative for the Dramatists Guild. Her thoughtfully mapped-out classes on story structure and lyric-writing at Chicago Dramatists have shepherded newbies and stone-cold professionals alike through the creative gauntlet of writing new musicals. Not only is Coons a successful lyricist, book-writer and singer, but she serves as a teaching artist and board member for Porchlight Theater, as well as mentoring incarcerated teens through her work with Storycatchers Theatre.
During a recent afternoon at a coffee shop, Cheri Coons and I talked about her diverse experiences as a mentor. She emphasized that being a good mentor starts with having been well-mentored oneself — the mentor passing along essential information and encouragement to those mentored and to find what is valuable and unique in themselves.
When I asked about her first mentors, Cheri Coons quickly named Fred Arnold, her junior high school theater director, and Louise Harms, her high school debate coach. Coons herself started mentoring other speech majors in college thereby becoming part of this “mentor food chain” at an early age.
“I had no idea I would be doing this in my life. It is one of the most impactful things I’ve done."
We briefly touched upon the many references to mentors in theater, such as the Greek classic, The Odyssey, with the character, Mentor, whose name became synonymous with someone who shares knowledge with a less-experienced friend or colleague. Coons also cited a few examples: Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady is a very bad mentor, setting out to educate Liza Doolittle only to win a bet, the title character of Mame is also a poor mentor because of her unwillingness to let her nephew become independent of her, but Mrs. Paroo in The Music Man is an example of a good mentor advising her daughter, Marian the Librarian.
For professional theater artists and writers, their education doesn’t stop with high school and college, leading Coons to start her book-and lyric-writing classes at Chicago Dramatists. There, one of her tasks is to assess who needs mostly encouragement and who needs to be pushed harder toward the next level of professionalism. Some participants are writing for personal enrichment, while others are prepping their work for Broadway and Equity theaters, both worthy endeavors.
Her work at Storycatchers Theatre involves shepherding incarcerated teens into writing their own plays and songs. But the project is much more than just creative expression; For some youth, this will not only be their first experience with theater as a viewer or participant, but perhaps their first time working with others toward a positive goal. This kind of program offers the opportunity to change the course of some of the teens’ lives. Coons says, “I had no idea I would be doing this in my life. It is one of the most impactful things I’ve done. We’re providing some transformative experiences for the kids, but it transforms all of us who work with Storycatchers Theatre, too.”
“It takes a village to raise a curtain.”
In Coons’ role as the new regional representative of Dramatist’s Guild, an organization for theater-writing professionals, the emphasis is less on craft and more on professional networking and strengthening Chicago’s theater-writing community. As a board member of Porchlight Theater, a non-profit company dedicated to the performance of musicals, she brings her knowledge of theatrical creation to the production table.
The value of writing musicals came up during our discussion. For Coons, it’s a matter of community storytelling. Sharing stories and songs have been part of man’s earliest history and she cited the famous Yip Harburg quote to illustrate: “Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.” She also reminded me of a quote from late lyricist Patti McKinney: “It takes a village to raise a curtain.” Theater is by its very nature a community endeavor, and mentoring, therefore, can be a group activity because the mentors encourage and support others who in turn become mentors themselves.
Not all mentors have to be in your chosen field, Coons points out, citing minister Jim Dethmer as influential in shaping her ideas about mentorship. One should not give merely to get something in return or mentor someone because it makes you feel good, Dethmer taught Coons. You are sharing your experiences freely, both successes and failures with another to help them on their journey. If it helps you crystallize how you feel about your own work by describing it, that’s merely an added benefit. So goes the creative chain of mentoring and being mentored.
I was the beneficiary of this chain of sharing as Coons started the interview with a gift, a copy of Marsha Sinetar’s book, The Mentor’s Spirit, which Dethmer recommended to her. Sinetar, who also wrote the best-seller, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, states that a true mentor is an “artist of encouragement.” Anyone interested in finding or being an encouraging mentor would benefit from this short, but informative book.
As Cheri Coons herself continues to create, teach and perform, she also encourages and shares her knowledge and enthusiasm for the art of making musicals with others through her ongoing mastery of mentorship.
Singer-pianist-composer-writer Elizabeth Doyle has performed across the United States and Europe. Doyle was a featured guest on the late Marian McPartland’s NPR program Piano Jazz, as well as a magnet at Chicago’s famed Pump Room. You can hear her perform every Friday night at Barba Yianni in Lincoln Square. Her blog features reviews on books, movies, TV, music and food.
Cheri Coons by Brian McConkey
Elizabeth Doyle by Scott Montgomery