“The Picher Project” is a story about humanity and all of its complexities – be it loss, love, pride or the deep yearning we all feel for a home. At a time when protecting our earth is so crucial, “The Picher Project” lends a voice to the silenced story that is still ongoing, a story in which we can all see a bit of ourselves. Lauren Pelaia.
New Jersey singer, songwriter, and composer Lauren Pelaia has created the music, book and lyrics with Quentin Madia for The Picher Project, beginning previews on September 28 and running through October 21. This original musical focuses on Picher, Oklahoma, designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the country’s number one the Superfund site, the most toxic place in America. Locals, confronting the prospect of losing their homes, were forced to confront their political divides, complicated history, and the mysterious illnesses plaguing citizens. Based on interviews, personal stories, and the often forgotten experience of the Quapaw Nation, the musical features a bluegrass and folk infused original score.
Lauren orchestrated an original score for the play, Our Town. She wrote original music/arrangements for the dance narrative, Bridesmaids, that premiered at Symphony Space. For the last few years she has worked on the music and lyrics to The Picher Project, debuting its score at 54 Below.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
I wrote my first “real” song after the 2016 election. Walking in a rally mere days after it occurred, I was so moved. My brother had sent me a short text that was ringing in my head. I sat down at a keyboard once I was home and thirty minutes later, there was a song. Was I now a songwriter? I didn’t know it at the time, but that song was the beginning of my journey.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
It wasn’t so much appealing as it is natural. It is where my heart is and I had to follow it. I will always be drawn to the authenticity and joy of it all. I just love it.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I did a lot of saying yes to things I had never done before. Whether that was writing a musical theater song or orchestrating music with instruments I had barely even seen played before, I knew I was capable of it and I wanted to give myself the opportunity. I didn’t go to school for songwriting or composing, I went for Women and Gender studies as well as American Studies. This very much fuels my interest and curiosity in all of the people and stories that live on the margins that I hope to amplify through song. I have met and learned about so many incredible women along this journey so far, including Rebecca Jim who is our leading character in The Picher Project. Hearing their voices gives mine new life.
When it came to learning about music however, I rely so heavily on my talented friends. I often use the same musicians in my pits because they “get” me. Not only are they good people and dear friends, they are good at what they do. I ask, I take risks, I try, and they have always been encouraging and helpful in sharing their own wisdom.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I think there was a mixture of both. While looking at society there are not a lot of female composers that exist on the bigger stages and screens, no one in my personal life discouraged me from writing. Pursuing my passion of music, there was definitely some hesitation but, if anything, reassured any doubters. My songwriting and composing have come so naturally that all of those I hold close could see that and have been very supportive. I feel very grateful for that.
The cast of The Picher Project (Photo Credit: Peter Yesley)
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Always. Though, I feel like I am always questing what direction I want to go in. My head and my heart are often in different places. What makes me happy is hard to do, and realistically, there needs to be some time of balance to also maintain stability. I don’t have the answers for this yet, not sure I will ever have them. Right now, though, I have a feeling of what my purpose is and I owe it to myself to keep at it.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I’d say I reached a tipping point after writing “Trying to be Brave” for The Picher Project. When the project first started, I convinced myself that some of the pieces I made were just a fluke, a one-time occurrence that I would not be able to do again. For this specific song, we knew there needed to be a moment for our leading character, Rebecca, but that was all we knew. I had the concept of learning how to be brave for a while. I didn’t know how I’d be able to capture this emotion into a suitable song. We were less than two weeks from our 54 Below show, still nothing. Until one day I came in with the whole song. I was reassured of my purpose and to this day I am moved by the song.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Imposter syndrome!! Every project, rehearsal, new venture – I constantly feel like an imposter. Whether it’s because I may be the youngest in the room, one of the only women, I often feel that I don’t deserve to be in the places where I have truly earned my place. This is a constant battle I still face.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
It sounds silly, but believing in my purpose. In a field where a lot of people will doubt you, where you look around and see a lot of people that don’t look like you, you need to believe in yourself and your purpose. It is difficult at most times, but if I can manage to trust in my purpose enough to get myself into the room, I know that my material can do the rest of the talking.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of some of the pieces I’ve made for The Picher Project. More specifically “I Won’t Lose You Here” and “Trying to be Brave.” These two songs delve into the delicate complexities that exist in love, loss and courage as a woman. To be able to capture in a way that had validated and resonated with so many women goes beyond what words can describe.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Be you, follow your gut and trust yourself. When the material is authentic and purposeful, trust it and believe in it.
The Picher Project
Conceived and directed by Quentin Madia, with music, book and lyrics by Quentin Madia and Lauren Pelaia. Additional Materials by Alex Knezevic.
161A Chrystie Street
September 28 through October 21, 2023
Top photo: Lauren Pelaia and Quentin Madia