Directing duo Maria Goulamhoussen and Emily Maltby came together for the acclaimed TikTok musical, For You, Paige. The production marks the first commissioned musical for the fast-growing social media platform and it’s setting the precedent for what can be done with this new format.
Maria Goulamhoussen is a New York City writer and director who’s known for directing projects for Disney, Marvel, Spotify, PBS, and Balenciaga. Also based in New York City, director and choreographer Emily Maltby’s credits include Penelope at the York Theater Co, Evita at New York City Center, Allegory, Lolita, My Love, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and the world premiere ofToast.
The in-demand duo spoke to Awards Focus about accomplishing their goal of mixing the live theatre experience with the intimacy of a TikTok video, merging their creative visions, and the keys to a success collaboration.
Awards Focus: Can you talk about your approach directing For You, Paige? This first of its kind venture for TikTok has a lot riding on it, and I’m sure finding the tone is very important part.
Maltby: We had an interesting task with this project which was to create a piece that honored two very distinct mediums. It needed to capture the experience of live theater and accessibility and intimacy of TikTok. We were very committed to honoring what is unique and exciting about these two mediums individually and finding a way to bring them together cohesively.
Goulamhoussen: We come from two very different backgrounds: Emily comes from a theater background and I come from film and TV. This proved to be extremely beneficial. One of the first things we did was to go through the script and discuss story and character and decide which story beats leaned more theatrically and which felt more cinematic. This guided how we approached the creation of the piece. For example, it was clear to us that Paige’s gorgeous ballad “Out of my Mouth”, written by the brilliant Morgan Reilly, needed to feel intimate and to capture the powerful performance of Sri Ramesh. This led us to a more cinematic approach with very little staging paired with sweeping camera shots, without cutting to other cameras.
Maltby: On the flip side, the Utopia Medley which is our “show within a show”, really wanted to be experienced like a theatrical piece. It wanted to utilize bodies in space and choreography to tell the story, rather than camera movements. This led to a decision to shoot that whole sequence on our wide camera to attempt to capture that front facing live theater experience.
Awards Focus: How did you work with the camera and creative teams to bring the big energy of Broadway to a mobile screen?
Goulamhoussen: We worked incredibly closely with our camera operators. It was really important to us that they understood our vision for the project and could collaborate with us. While we were in rehearsals, we planned out every shot and filmed everything across three iphones so that we could edit together a rough cut of each scene and communicate our vision to the camera operators. Our steadicam operator, Victor Lazaro, was such an integral part of the process and such a creative and generous collaborator.
Maltby: He was our hero! The steadicam was as choreographed into the numbers as the dancers. He had to hit really specific marks, on very fast music cues, with nine dancers jumping around him. We wanted the piece to feel effortless which, of course, meant that it was incredibly effort-ful! I worked with a brilliant choreographer Katie Spelman who has experience working on Rent Live! and has such an innate understanding of how to build movement for camera. This project really required all of our brains working together to accomplish. It was a true collaboration.
Awards Focus: So much of the success of this hinges oncollaboration. How did you work with the writers?
Maltby: We have found that the key to any great collaboration is a shared common goal and a lack of ego. We all wanted the same thing. There were so many times when the text ultimately had to change to support the storytelling of the camera, as well as moments when the camera or staging needed to get out of the way of the text. It was the definition of a “best idea wins” process which is, in our experience, the only way to accomplish something this ambitious.
Awards Focus: What first inspired you in your early years to pursue this craft, and what was your first job or break in entertainment?
Maltby: I grew up surrounded by musical storytelling. From an early age musicals were to me the purest form of communication – able to cut straight to the core of the human condition. I used to watch my father, who is a writer and director, work after school and grill him on every detail trying to understand how these exciting ideas and characters would be manifested on stage. As I began to pursue this professionally, I have always been driven by story and form: What am I trying to say and what is the best way to say it? It’s the most simple mantra but I have found it to be the essential north star of all my creative work.
Goulamhoussen: I grew up obsessed with Disney and wanting to somehow be involved in telling stories. At that age I didn’t know what it meant to be a director but I did know I loved having an overall vision for something and wanted to find a way to blend music and picture together. I studied at Berklee College of Music and started directing music videos for all my artist friends in Boston and that’s where it all began. My first big break was actually working for Disney, so talk about a full circle moment!
Awards Focus: Are there any key works that inspired either of you on For You, Paige?
Maltby: We had so many influences for For You, Paige! Different moments drew inspiration from different places. For example, ‘Grease Live!’ inspired Paige’s song, “Out of My Mouth”, ‘Bring It On’ inspired “Let the Moment Shine”, ‘High School Musical’ inspired a lot of the tone, and ‘Wicked’ inspired elements of the Utopia medley. I could go on and on. We are endlessly inspired by the work around us – both in theater and in film.
Awards Focus: What were the biggest challenges you faced as you delivered TikTok its first ever musical?
Goulamhoussen: I think the biggest challenge, which ended up being our biggest source of inspiration, was just the very idea of creating a stage musical for a 9×16 vertical platform. We had to rethink how to demonstrate scale as we never wanted to have it feel like a horizontal medium that was simply captured on a phone. We also used the language of TikTok to our advantage by implementing close ups, two shot framing, and quick cuts.
Maltby: We particularly had to really get creative with how to accomplish big group numbers. We learned quickly that we had to keep the cast or the camera moving (or sometimes both!) in order to experience the scale of the moment. We also really explored depth of field and foreground/background in a way that is unusual for live theater. For example, we coined the phrase “kaiagonal” to represent the diagonal shot first introduced for Kaia’s entrance. This angle allowed us to feel distance between characters without the width afforded for a standard wide frame or live proscenium theater. This opened up a world of possibility for us and is so specific to this mixed medium.
Awards Focus: With Emmy voting ongoing, what would awards recognition for For You, Paige mean to you?
Goulamhoussen: The talent on TikTok is mind blowing. What we did with For You, Paige was something that had never been done before and we had no idea if it was going to resonate until we saw it reach around 40 million people! That’s wild!
Maltby: There is so much brilliant content being created on TikTok. Particularly during the darkest days of Covid lockdown, it was so inspiring to watch what these creative voices were making. To have this work recognized in such a powerful and mainstream way would provide so much opportunity and show the world the legitimacy of these incredible talents who are creating masterpieces in their bedrooms.