Today on the blog Kelly Bremner who directs and developed Unearthed shares her perspective on bringing this new piece to life. Don’t miss Unearthed this weekend July 26-28 at 7 pm in Babcock Auditorium at Sweet Briar College.
Tell me about how you came to be involved with Unearthed.
Four years ago I met up with Dan Gallagher and Angie Sweigart-Gallagher in New York. I knew them from grad school, and Dan and I had worked on a few shows together in those years. Over drinks Dan told me all about Endstation Theatre Company and its mission to produce material that speaks to Central Virginian audiences. He said the company was going to start doing musicals, and he wondered if I might be interested in developing a musical work with my husband Scott that focused on Central Virginia. At the time Dan had also been lighting a lot of opera for City Opera in New York, and he was interested in seeing if we could work with Central Virginian source material in the same way that opera develops certain types of characters and epic plots. I thought Dan’s ideas were so amazing, but I felt funny taking on a regional work from a place I didn’t come from. I put it on the back burner….
Call it fate or what have you, but five months later I was hired at Emory & Henry College in nearby Emory, VA. Suddenly I was “from here” even though I was a transplant. I turned my mind back to the project after my first year at Emory as I started to fall in love with the Appalachians. Geoff and the company invited Scott and I to campus that summer to pitch ideas to get this musical off the ground. At this point, I knew I would need a playwright, and I had just come off an amazing collaboration with Scott and playwright Nick Lantz, and we were all eager to work with each other again, so I told Nick all about the idea and asked him to share some ideas of potential plots. I vividly remember meeting with Geoff and Dan at Oh What a Blessing bakery, reading a handwritten note with a number of potential plot synopses, and bursting with passion about the project. Apparently my passion came across because here we are.
What is the design concept for this production?
The opening stage direction of the play is one of my favorite bits of writing from the script. “Two houses are connected by some woods but separated by 100 years.” This meant we needed to capture two distinct time periods, and the vastness of an Appalachian forest all on one stage. Originally we really wanted to do this production in an alternative space like a black box, or even outdoors because I wanted the musical to be acoustic, and I wanted as much intimacy with the audience as possible. For a number of reasons, we ended up in Babcock Auditorium, but we kept working with the idea of keeping the play intimate.
Early on, Krista proposed a poetic/non-literal take on the idea of a forest to get at the sense of fairytale and magic in the script that I wanted highlighted. The result is the abstracted forest, with the houses on the far sides of the stage. Krista placed a passeral on the downstage edge of the stage in order to get my singers as close to the audience as possible. This space becomes a literal bridge between the two time periods, and serves as a place where characters can dream in song right next to my audience. As a director, I am blessed to spend all this time inches from some of the most amazing singers, and I am hopeful that my audiences will get the same thrill out of being so close because of Krista’s design. It also allows us to put the band right in the middle of the set literally, which is awesome.
As you can imagine the lighting for the show needed to be amazing, since the idea for the show comes from a lighting designer. The abstracted forest drop becomes a playground for light, and Dan expertly manipulates the light through the space to both give us a sense of realism, and of magic. It is through the light that the idea of a fantasy world really gets driven home.
In the costumes we again went for a sense of heightened realism. You’ll notice denim on nearly everyone on-stage, as well as a color palette which ties them all in with the forest. Katie Friedman, one of the interns this summer, was entrusted with the designs, and her work has been just amazing.
A shot from one of the team's previous collaborations "Iphegenia at Aulis." Music by Scott Gendel, Lighting Design by Daniel Gallagher, Directed by Kelly Bremner
What is it like collaborating with not only your close friends, but your husband?
There are couples for whom this doesn’t work so well, but for Scott and I? It works brilliantly. Scott is a genius, anyone can hear that in his music, but my expertise in the practical realities of staging a show helps him keep his feet on the ground. This is our third major collaboration, and in all three I have had to ask him for at least one major revision. These conversations aren’t easy in any collaboration, but having them within the framework of also being married could be a scary prospect. These kinds of conversations are professional, but when talking about music that you have written, they very quickly become personal. I have combined expertise in both music and theatre because of my background, and I think Scott trusts me to not ask for something I don’t think is necessary, and I trust him to listen and disagree if he needs to. For budding Unearthed fans, ask him about the re-write of the first song, Cass’s song, the elimination of a duet with Gaither and Alzy, and a complete re-envisioning of the end of the play. There is some amazing music on the cutting room floor of this show, but I am glad he trusted me enough to let me encourage the changes I think the script needed.
Scott and I have worked well together since well before we were married, but I will admit this is something that has gotten harder since we had children, since it means we need to find to childcare. For this reason, we don’t work together as often as we used to, so Unearthed is a real treat.
2 of the cast members also happen to be your students at Emory & Henry College where you are a professor. How does working with them differ in this context?
It is just awesome. I don’t want to embarrass them, but I am beaming with pride at the work my two students do in the show. I try to share my passion for new work with my students, and thus they have heard me talking about Unearthed for years. However, as much as I love my students, out of respect for both their educations and the quality of the Endstation productions, I could not give them preferential treatment in casting. They needed to get this job without any special help, and both Jackie and Devin should be applauded for getting here on their own.
The three of us made a pact at the start of the summer that we wouldn’t be student/professor for the summer, but would instead be friends and collaborators. It has been such a treat to get to know them this way, and to watch them grow as performers in this more professional context. I can’t wait to see where both Jackie and Devin go from here after such a great summer with Endstation.
What aspect of Unearthed gets you the most excited?
Yeah right, you might as well ask me which child I like the best.
Seriously, I love everything about the show. Nick’s words, Scott’s music, the design, the story, the way it is inspired by this area, the way it re-interprets the music and folk tales of this region, watching others fall for Unearthed like I have, imagining a future for the work, the people I have gotten to know while putting it together…
This show for me has been almost like bringing a child into the world with a 4 year pregnancy. The love I feel for this show in unlike anything I have ever worked on, and I hope audiences leave as touched by this play as I am.
Unearthed is playing this weekend only Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at 7 pm in Babcock Auditorium at Sweet Briar College. For tickets call 434-826-0391 or visit endstationtheatre.org/get-tickets/