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.
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.
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/
One of our greatest passions at Endstation is developing new work that is relevant to our audiences. For the last two years we’ve supported the development of UNEARTHED: an Appalachian Musical thanks in part to the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Today on the blog we meet Nick Lantz who wrote the book and lyrics for UNEARTHED.
How did UNEARTHED originate?
I believe Dan Gallagher wanted Endstation to produce a locally focused opera/musical, and he brought in Kelly Bremner and Scott Gendel, and Kelly in turn brought me in on the project. After doing some quick initial research, I pitched a series of plot outlines to Kelly—some of these versions were similar to the final story, and some were quite different, but many included some version of the Stranger character. I have a longstanding interest in folk tales and mythology, and I very much wanted to write the sort of story in which gritty, everyday problems are complicated by something magical or fantastic. Everyone was game for that, so that’s what we gravitated toward.
How did you get connected with Scott, Kelly, Dan and Angie?
We all met when we were living in Madison, Wisconsin (we all went to grad school at UW-Madison). A few years ago, Kelly brought me in to write an opera with Scott, so we’d already worked together on a project. It was a good feeling, going into UNEARTHED knowing the strength of my collaborators.
Tell us about the research involved for UNEARTHED.
I started with books, mostly about the history and folk life of the Blue Ridge. My goal, particularly when writing about the characters from 1900, was to build a vocabulary that would sound authentic. I wanted to know the kind of objects and activities that would be part of these characters’ daily lives, because those would be the details they would use as points of reference in the dialogue and songs. I also listened to a lot of traditional songs from the Blue Ridge and Appalachia (Scott Gendel and I actually exchanged playlists, and found we were often drawn to similar artists and songs). I wrote the lyrics of several songs in UNEARTHED to mimic the style of those folk songs, but some of the songs themselves provided inspiration for the story itself.
One example of that is the folk song “The Two Sisters” (which comes originally from England but has many American variations), in which one sister betrays and kills another over a romantic rivalry. That idea inspired the love triangle between Alzy, Cora, and Gaither in UNEARTHED, though the outcome in our show is quite different. In the summer of 2012, Endstation gave me the opportunity to come to Virginia and explore the Amherst area firsthand. This stage of research involved a lot of field trips, and again, this provided a lot of background texture, little details that arise in the dialogue to lend it authenticity but that aren’t essential to the plot. Some outings led to more substantial aspects of the show. For example, several of us took an afternoon trip to the Piney River, which I ended up using as the setting for one of my favorite songs in the whole show.
I pitched a variety of different story ideas at the outset of the project, but even after we settled on one idea, a lot of the details changed, and any change tends to send out ripples. For example, Wade’s mother was originally going to be a character in the show, but she needed to be cut for reasons of dramatic economy. But then I felt it was conspicuous that even though he’s returning home we don’t see Wade reconnecting with his family, so I decided to change his backstory so that he’d been raised by Melia’s family, which completely changed how I understood their relationship. In my early research for the show, I listened to several versions of “The Wreck of Old 97,” which is a terrific railroad ballad about a train wreck that took place in Virginia 1903. I really wanted a fictionalized train wreck based on that event to be a major part of UNEARTHED’s plot and to write a song that paid homage to the original ballad. But as the script developed, the wreck’s importance to the plot kept diminishing, and eventually I felt I had to drop it. One of the changes that was the most difficult (and rewarding) for me was the lullaby that Melia sings in Act 1. It was one of the first songs that Scott and I wrote for the show—it was spooky and dark, and I loved it. But as I wrote the rest of the script, it became clear that the song no longer fit, so we had to scrap it and start over. It was heartbreaking to let it go—I was proud of the text, and Scott’s composition was absolutely haunting. So I was on a train, departing Lynchburg after my visit last summer, and I wrote a completely new version of the lullaby on that train ride. That version is (with some minor revisions) the one that appears in the show now. As much as I was sad to see the original go, I dare say the current version is even better, and the changes to the text allowed us to use it again in Act 2 in a way that I think will really surprise anyone seeing the show for the first time (I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil it). The changes that song has gone through really exemplify the way that letting go of something good can make room for something better that you didn’t expect.
Do you have a favorite character in UNEARTHED?
Boy, that is a tough question. The easy answer is probably Melia, though perhaps for selfish reasons. Many of the lines of dialogue and bits of song text I’m most proud of as a writer are hers, though not by design. The more complicated answer is that because playwrights depend on actors to actually embody their characters, a character who is more minor or a bit “thin” on the page can end up being one of the most memorable parts of the show because of the actor’s performance. I’ve had health problems that prevented me from coming to Virginia this summer, but I’ve been watching a lot of rehearsals over the Internet, and I’m continually surprised and impressed by the life that the performers bring to the characters. So my answer to your question probably changes every time I watch part of the show, which is a great feeling. I think every character in the show gets his or her moment to really impress or surprise the audience.
Tell me about some of your other projects.
While I’ve written several plays, I’m mostly a poet. My third book of poetry, How to Dance as the Roof Caves In, will be published in March of 2014 (though it’s already on Amazon!). The manuscript just went to the typesetter and I’ve seen the cover, which is pretty sweet. I’m currently writing another poetry collection that is all poems about animals and our (sometimes problematic) relationship to them. Right now I’m reading a lot about taxidermy as research for that project.
How does being a poet inform your work as a playwright?
I actually feel like poetry and drama come from very different parts of my brain. Part of that is the medium in which the audience encounters each genre. A poem is complete on the page, as text, but plays aren’t complete until they’re embodied by performers in a physical space. A poem can’t depend on the presence of an actor or scenery to create an image—the poem’s magic is that it can create a powerful, vivid image from words alone. As a playwright, I have to always be mindful of the fact that a real live person will have to stand on stage and speak/sing these words. That frees me from some of the obligations of poetry but imposes others. For example, in UNEARTHED, the way that past and present intermingle is inherently physical in a way it could never be on the page. Even though the show contains songs, the lyrics of which resemble poetry in some ways, a song is not a poem, and a poem is not a song. Added to that, the songs in UNEARTHED are so different in style from the poetry I usually write that there’s very little crossover for me. A final difference is that a poet surrenders his or her text to the interpretation of a reader—that’s a reasonably straight light between author and audience. In theater, the text is mediated through the interpretation of directors, composers, dramaturgs, designers, and actors before it ever reaches the audience. The end product rarely if ever matches exactly what the playwright had in mind. A musical like UNEARTHED is the result of extensive collaboration, and the significance of that can’t be overstated. Working with the show’s creative team and watching the rehearsals, I’m continuously amazed by and grateful for the unanticipated details and dimensions that all my collaborators have found in the text.
Endstation is proud to present Unearthed: an Appalachian Musical with book and lyrics by Nick Lantz, music by Scott Gendel and direction by Kelly Bremner. The studio production in development at Endstation will premiere this weekend July 26, 27 and 28 at 7 pm in Babcock Fine Arts Center. Click here for tickets.
If you’ve caught either of Endstation’s Shakespeare productions this season you’ve seen Endstation newcomer Denee Lortz in the lead female role. Denee comes to Endstation straight from graduating from the BFA program at Florida State University. This weekend Denee, along with the cast of Cymbeline, will be performing at Old City Cemetery on Friday, Poplar Forest on Saturday, and Presbyterian Homes & Family Services and the Family Alliance on Sunday. We sat down with Denee to learn a bit more about her and her experience in Central Virginia this summer.
You play more than one role in Cymbeline. Tell us about each of your roles.
DL: I play Winnie, a young girl growing up during the Depression with a huge imagination. While in “timeout” she tells the audience her favorite story about a beautiful princess named Imogen. She uses her magical spoon to turn her family into the characters in her story and even herself into Princess Imogen. Imogen is the second character I play. Princess Imogen is a very beautiful woman but spends half of the play disguised as a boy searching for her banished husband.
Your characters in Cymbeline are very different than your characters in Taming of the Shrew. Was it hard to keep track of both when you were performing them simultaneously?
DL: My characters in both shows were so VERY different it made it easy to separate them. Kate is extremely grounded and masculine. Imogen is much more feminine and Winnie is playful and youthful. Also, both shows had such distinct styles which helped keep characters different. I found myself having more difficulty keeping Winnie and Imogen separate. I would switch back and forth multiple times throughout a scene and sometimes the lines would blur, especially in the beginning stages of rehearsal.
In your opinion, what can audience members expect when they come to see Cymbeline?
DL: Cymbeline is a magical experience. This production is full of life and surprises. Cymbeline isn’t one of the Shakespearian shows done very often which is a shame. It’s a fairytale-like show with poisonous apples, wizards, battles, and princesses. It’s suitable for all ages.
You’ve worked with several of your Endstation colleagues in a university setting. How has the experience been different at Endstation?
DL: My last show at school was Much Ado About Nothing. Chris Martin and I played opposite each other as Benedict and Beatrice with Walter Kmiec directing. It was exciting and terrifying all at once because I’d never done a Shakespeare show before. At school the directors are getting graded and all the actors are students. Here the rehearsal process is much shorter because Endstation has professional actors collaborating with professional directors.
You’ve just graduated from college and came straight to Endstation. What is next for you?
DL: Whats next for me….good question! I’ll be heading out to LA at the end of August to meet with a couple agencies. Stay out there for a few weeks to see how I like it. After that trip I’ll decide where I’ll be starting my career but it’s looking like either LA or Atlanta. Wish me luck!
Good luck Denee! Thanks for all your beautiful work this summer. Be sure to catch Denee in her final weekend of performances on the historical tour of Cymbeline July 19-21. To learn more about the shows or purchase tickets click here.
Running a non-profit organization entails a lot of things. One of the most important aspects of running a non-profit is fundraising. There was a point in Endstation’s early years that I despised this activity. Asking people for money can be a daunting task. Raising money is still difficult but over time I have come to view it differently. This is due in large part to the incredible people who give to our organization and the relationships I have built with them over the years. These are a group of selfless people who care deeply about their community. They want to live in a place with rich cultural offerings. They recognize the importance of the arts and the role the arts play in improving the quality of life and the arts ability to strengthen a community’s economy. Live theatre brings people out of their homes, sharing an experience with other members of their community, and engaging in the place they live.
On Thursday, July 18th we will celebrate our donors at Apocalypse Ale Works in Forest (a brewery we were excited to have with us earlier in the summer at a Taming performance. Excellent beer, really excellent.). This celebration will include Apocalypse Ale, Poke Joe’s Barbecue and music from the band Chamomile and Whiskey. It is going to be a great evening of food, beer, and music.
Many of our staff and performers will be in attendance and this gives us a chance to say thank you to these incredible people who give more than the price of their ticket to keep our organization strong. It is also our way of thanking these donors on behalf of our community. We truly believe in the work we bring this area and while trying to remain humble, we recognize that our community is very fortunate to have these incredible artists in their community every summer. Our donors are providing a service to every audience member who enjoys one of our performances, for every student we provide a workshop for, and for every local business that gets a boost from our presence.
So, thank you donors. You allow us to keep doing what we do. We love you and hope you enjoy an ale, some barbecue, and some great music. It is our treat.
Taamu Wuya, one of Lynchburg’s favorite performers, returns to Endstation to play the role of Flick in VIOLET as well as Wade in UNEARTHED after performing last year in BIG RIVER and MACBETH. We sat down with Taamu to ask him a few questions about his experience in VIOLET.
Describe Flick for someone who hasn’t seen VIOLET yet.
He is an African American soldier trying to live a normal life in the 60′s during the civil rights movement. Even with all the racial tension that surrounds him, he maintains a positive outlook on life. He grabs a hold of the opportunities in front of him and has a confident spirit about his journey toward becoming a better man. He is not afraid to stand up for what is right and encourage others along the way. Flick is a character that I think many people will find genuine and lovable as they see his journey unfold.
You’ve said you’re very comfortable playing the character of Flick. Why is that?
Flick has a few characteristics that I see in myself–like his humor and genuine style of confidence. I’m always trying to find the joy in any situation I face, and Flick definitely does the same thing. He is just so fun to play!
The moment Flick sings the song “Let it Sing.” Even though he sings this song to Violet, I believe it also transcends to all the other characters in the story. This is the moment Flick explains why he lives life to the fullest.
What is it like working once again with the Endstation team?
Phenomenal! Once again I’m welcomed with open arms to a team of professional artists who aren’t afraid to take risks and who encourage the community through performance. This summer has been special because of the new work we have been exposing the community with, and the dedication everyone is pursuing to make this summer theater festival stand out.
What can audiences expect when coming to see VIOLET?
Audiences can expect a powerful story that has enough truth in it to make them reflect on life. Although this is a musical, it is truly a wonderful play with music in it. They will be swept away and may need a tissue or two.
Don’t miss seeing Taamu this weekend in VIOLET. Performances are tonight (Friday) at 7 pm, tomorrow (Saturday) at 2 pm & 7 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. Buy tickets here or call 434-826-0391.
If you’re like me there are certain images that you associate with summer.
Maybe it’s grilling out, floating down the James River, fireworks or a Hillcats Game. For an increasing number of Central Virginians it is taking in an outdoor production produced by Endstation. Since our first outdoor production in 2008, thousands of audience members have brought a blanket, packed a picnic and enjoyed a glass of wine while watching the Bard’s classic stories.
This season we have four more opportunities to enjoy Shakespeare under the stars on the beautiful campus of Sweet Briar College:
1. This Sunday July 7 Taming of the Shrew’s final performance will be accompanied by wine from Hickory Hill Winery.
2. On Wednesday July 10 Cymbeline will be back for a special Wednesday performance with our neighbors down the road Lazy Days Winery from right here in Amherst County.
3. Friday night July 12 promises to be a great evening at Cymbeline with Devil’s Backbone pouring their delicious locally brewed beer.
4. And for our final outdoor performance of the season at Sweet Briar, Sans Soucy Vineyards will be joining us for Cymbeline on Sunday July 14.
This season we’ll be capping off our outdoor performances with a historical tour to three beautiful area locations: Old City Cemetery (7/19), Poplar Forest (7/20), and Presbyterian Homes and Family Services and the Family Alliance (7/21).
July 19 at Old City Cemetery Cymbeline will take place on a picturesque hillside in the Old City Cemetery gardens. Wisdom Oak Winery will be there pouring. It’s sure to be a memorable evening at the oldest functioning cemetery in the commonwealth.
July 20 at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest will be an exciting evening. Patrons can opt to come to Thomas Jefferson’s private escape to enjoy the show only or you can enjoy a discount for a tour of Poplar Forest and a premium ticket to Cymbeline for $32 (adults) and $23 (students.) A tour of Poplar Forest and a general seat ticket are available for $25 for adults and only $15 for students. A food truck will be on property and beer will be available. This is a night not to be missed.
July 21 at Presbyterian Homes and Family Services and the Family Alliance is a special night for the whole family. We’re trading wine for ice cream at this special kid-friendly performance. Study guides will be made available to children. This will be a sweet evening in the heart of Lynchburg.
July gives you seven opportunities to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays under the stars. Make a memory. Join us at Endstation.