Shakina Nayfack Found Herself While Founding Musical Theatre Factory

The founder of the brand new development hub opens up about the company’s and her own gestation.

BY JONATHAN MANDELL

Shakina Nayfack stopped suddenly in the middle of her speech at the end of the first gala for New York’s Musical Theatre Factory this month, overwhelmed. Composer/lyricist Joe Iconis introduced Nayfack as “a force in every sense of the word,” but this force suddenly felt the pressure of so much happening so quickly, both personally and professionally.

“Over the last 18 months,” Nayfack, MTF’s founding artistic director, had just finished saying, “900 volunteers have worked 15,000 cumulative hours on more than 80 new musicals.”

The crowd at Merkin Concert Hall, a block north of Lincoln Center, had spent the previous few hours witnessing another measure of MTF’s efforts: a glamorous evening of newly orchestrated selections from four new musicals in development, commissioned for the 35-piece Chelsea Symphony orchestra, which is about three times larger than the average orchestra on Broadway. Beth Malone, off on Mondays from Fun Home, sang the role of Marie Curie in Radioactive; Ashley Park of The King and I was among the performers in The White City, about America’s first serial killer, seen through the eyes of the women in his life; Jay Armstrong Johnson, most recently in On the Town, was onstage forOnly Anne, a musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion; and Karen Ziemba, who was in the original run of A Chorus Line and nine Broadway musicals since, performed in The Firebird, based on the true story of an American woman who sent back the Russian boy she had adopted.

The New Orchestrations series, as it’s called, is the latest ambitious project of a company of musical theatremakers that didn’t even exist until March, 2014. That’s when Nayfack, who had moved to New York less than three years earlier, sent out an e-mail to 40 friends—“all making musicals, all strapped for cash”—suggesting they form what amounts to a mutual aid society. The aim was to centralize resources so they won’t feel so alone. “When you’re writing a musical, you’re on a boat in the sea trying to get people to swim to you,” says Nayfack.

Until MTF’s existence, Nayfack didn’t completely exist either, as the director, choreographer, producer, and performance artist would surely tell you. Just a few months later, Nayfack traveled to Thailand to have what is popularly called a “sex change operation” (and what the transgender community prefers to call “sex confirmation surgery”), a journey she has recounted in two solo shows with music, One Woman Show and Post-Op.

“I’ve built myself as a woman while building the company,” says the woman who was born Jared Alan Nayfack. It’s no coincidence that the initials for Musical Theatre Factory—MTF—also stand for Male To Female.

Onstage, Nayfack—towering, tattooed, with amazing Technicolor tresses—can look and sound as imposing as the Statue of Liberty, a role she actually played in a new musical entitled Manuel vs. the Statue of Liberty. But in the modest offices of the Musical Theatre Factory, on an upper floor of the same theatre district building that houses the Drama Book Shop, Nayfack is low-key as she tells the story of the two MTFs that have run parallel in her life.

It was in 2007, shortly after she legally changed her name to Shakina, for example, that she was driving past a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles and had the idea of “a factory that made nothing but musicals.” Eight years later, the Musical Theatre Factory mimics an assembly line, Nayfack says, with a four-step process.

First is the Factory Salon, a monthly open mic for new songs, curated by an established theatre artist. The “4X15 Series” stages 15-minute excerpts from four new musicals for a public audience and “a panel of industry professionals.” Nayfack then selects the most promising of these works for Development Residencies, which vary depending on what she determines the show needs—“from a reading or choreography lab to a chance to try out new music arrangements,” as something called the Factory Manual puts it. Finally, the process culminates in a showcase production; Nayfack hopes to do three a year.

For her work, Nayfack received a Lilly Award, given for contributions to the American theatre made by women. “Nobody’s doing what she’s doing,” explains playwright Marsha Norman, the president of the Lilly Awards Foundation. (Was there any debate because Nayfack is transgender? “Absolutely none,” Norman says.)

No show developed at MTF has gone on to a full run yet. “We don’t have commercial success stories because we’re so young,” Nayfack explains. But, she says, “If we can hit the five-year mark, I’m confident that some of the shows we worked on will be on Broadway and Off Broadway.”

Nayfack believes that all 120 early-career musical theatre makers with whom they have worked are aiming—as a fantasy if not a concrete goal—for a Broadway hit. “Broadway is the highest recognized venue and platform for our genre,” she says.

Still, she says, “A musical, once it’s brought into the world, will tell you its best path. Some shows want to be Broadway or Off Broadway; some want to be immersive shows downtown. Others will have life in schools or productions at regional theatres.”

Meanwhile, MTF is going to have to move by the end of the year. The only reason the company was able to afford such a prime location (on 40th St., across the street from the New York Times) is because she’d kept in touch with a college classmate who had become a porn entrepreneur, and he offered her the back room of his porn studio to build a black box theatre, then let MTF take over the remaining year of the lease. That will end soon, and Nayfack says she’s currently “in talks with other commercial production companies and cabaret venues” for 2016. MTF hopes to have its own space by 2017.

That was the reason for the fundraising gala, which included a silent auction offering such items as a signed sheet of music by Jason Robert Brown, original artwork on a musical theme, and, for a final bid of $550, “Dirty Talk and Dry Martini with Tonya Pinkins and Shakina: Talking about sex—having it, changing it, and everything in between.”