Bringing summer to the stage: Sankofa and set design in Mamma Mia!

Charles Murdock Lucas, Scenic Designer for Mamma Mia!, gives an insider look into designing a unique version of Mamma Mia! for the Village Theatre stage.

What should audiences keep an eye out for when they see Mamma Mia!?

“Audiences should watch for how a collection of relatively simple set pieces are used to create many different locations within the world of the play.”

Trina Mills, Lisa Estridge, Be Russell in Mamma Mia! (2022) by Angela Sterling.

How is the theme of “Sankofa” represented visually in the set?

“In addition to the Sankofa bird symbols that are carefully included in the spaces that belong to Donna, the sweeping shape of the set itself represents a journey forward while looking back to go forward.”
What is Sankofa? Learn more

Can you describe the process of combining a disco theme with the 1990s Greek Islands setting?

“Traveling to other places is one of the ways that humans grow and develop. Music is also a kind of travel, an internal journey that takes you outside of yourself and connects you with other people. The combination of ABBA’s music with this story create a rare alchemical reaction that on paper, shouldn’t work at all, but in practice, this show delivers happiness to audiences again and again.”

Christian Quinto & Varinique “V” Davis in Mamma Mia! (2022) by Gabriel Corey.

What has your experience been like designing with the Village Theatre team?

“I have been touched and impressed by the way that Faith and the whole Village Theatre team worked to create an inclusive sense of community and artistic generosity on the production.”

What has been the most rewarding part of designing for Mamma Mia!?

“For me, this show represents an exuberant and joyful return to in-person performance design – an adrenaline shot of pure joy delivered to the community.”

CHARLES MURDOCK LUCAS is a Scenic and Projection Designer based in San Diego, CA. His designs include: Sofia National Opera and Ballet (Bulgaria), Daejeon Arts Center (Korea), The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and Skylight Music Theatre. He is the Head of Scene Design and Projection Design at SDSU. Work exhibited: 2019, 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. He is also the Program Director for Opera Hack sponsored by San Diego Opera and OPERA AMERICA. Murdock is a member of USA Local 829.

Shabazz Green, Nathaniel Tenenbaum, Varinique “V” Davis, & Mark Emerson in Mamma Mia! (2022) by Angela Sterling.

Bringing the Peanuts to life: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown Choreographer Cy Paolantonio on Creativity and Play in Rehearsals.

We asked You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown choreographer, Cy Paolantonio, about her vision to make the “Peanuts” come to life on stage.

All of the characters in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown are kids, and yet the adult actors embody youth so well. How does your choreography lend itself to youthfulness?

“When I’m choreographing, I really like to set aside a bit of time at the beginning of the rehearsal period to gather the artists and lead workshops, which tend to be tailored specifically to each project. These workshops become the building blocks for the choreography I will teach, and the sort of “North Star” for any movement vocabulary we develop as a team. Before any movement began, I gathered our Charlie Brown cast in a circle and led them in a prompted round robin exercise. The theme was childhood. Each person was to say the first word that came to mind, without thinking about it. The word eventually expanded to a sentence, the sentences expanded to forgotten stories about our youth. It was incredible to see how each artist really sank into this exercise to tap into that childlike state. I believe that in order to truly embody a character, you must allow your mind to unselfconsciously reach into its depths to unlock things you might’ve forgotten. This allows for creativity to flow, and for the artist to feel they have permission to let these memories inform their movement vocabulary. I was never interested in a mock childlike way of moving. Most young children haven’t yet learned how to compose themselves physically, to self edit…movement is a pure extension of being in the moment and feeling what you feel, wanting what you want. I’m so glad that the choreography was an extension of that.”

Tell us about the rehearsal room – where else did the cast and crew find a sense of play?

“Our incredible Director, Jimmy Shields, had the brilliant idea of setting aside 30 minutes for recess most days. This sort of free choice play time was where anyone in the room (or even in the building) could select from an exciting array of childlike activities: Legos, blocks, puzzles, jumping rope, hula hooping, basketball, coloring and sticker books…there was something for everyone. We even enjoyed one day of recess outside. Some folx tossed a football around, some tiptoed along the train tracks, others practiced cartwheels in the grass. How great is that?”

Many iconic moments make an appearance in the show, including the Peanuts theme “Linus and Lucy” by Vince Guaraldi! What other iconic Peanuts moments are present onstage?

“My wonderful Associate Choreographer, Nehemiah Hooks, and I had checked out about 20 Peanuts books from the library between the two of us. We studied these and watched many documentaries and cartoons together. Our goal was to identify what made Peanuts recognizably Peanuts. While we knew our version would be its own modernized thing, we wanted to honor certain iconic stylings: the way Lucy leans and lounges on Schroeder’s piano; the direction Snoopy lays down on the doghouse with the head to the left and legs to the right; the turned out feet; the exaggerated angles of the body. And of course, we’d remiss to do this show without incorporating be those quintessential dance moves from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.”

You’re next on stage as a cast member and Dance Captain in Mamma Mia! What has it been like moving from choreographer to cast member at Village Theatre?

“I am so thrilled to jump into Mamma Mia! as a Performer and Dance Captain! It really is such a blessing to be able to have this much variety in my career. 

While I believe these various job titles have transferable skills, being a cast member requires a whole other set of muscles, endurance, and patience than being a member of the Creative Team, which usually requires a good chunk of planning, preparation, and problem solving. 

Being an actor requires more bodily energy whereas choreography requires more of my brain power.

As far as being a Dance Captain goes, I think having a Choreographer’s brain really sets me up for success when it comes to my duties: keeping track of who goes where when; maintaining the integrity of the movement; making adjustments for understudies/swings and injuries; and being an advocate and go-between for the cast and other departments.

The best part though? Creating characters, wearing fun costumes and wigs, and inspiring the next generation of artists!”

Mamma Mia! Dramaturgy

By Dramaturg Jeanette Sanchez-Izenman

Village Theatre’s 2022 Production of Mamma Mia! brings a new perspective to the familiar story. Read on for more about how the Sankofa lens and a disco soundtrack both enhance the show.

The Meaning of Sankofa

That bird is wise,
Look. Its beak, back turned, picks
For the present, what is best from ancient eyes,
Then steps forward, on ahead
to meet the future, undeterred.

– A. Kayper-Mensah

Mamma Mia! director, Faith Bennett Russell, says, “We’re going to breathe new life into this production of [the show] by reimagining what it could and should look like today. Part of that is having a beautifully diverse cast of storytellers, where we can ground and root the themes of our show in a very real way. All the fun and great songs that we love, anchored in something real, intentional, tangible, and inspiring. I am rooting one of our themes in the West African word, Sankofa. A simple translation means ‘to retrieve’ or ‘go get it.’ A more in-depth translation says: ‘It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.’ In our show, Donna is on her own personal Sankofa, as well as Sophie. Sometimes, you must go back, before you can successfully move forward.”

Sankofa is an Adinkra communicator that originated with the Akan people of Ghana, who speak Twi and Bono, among other dialects of Akan-speak. W. Bruce Willis cited its meaning in 1998 in The Adinkra Dictionary as “Se wo were fin a wo Sankofa a yenkyi” (It is not a taboo to return and fetch it when you forget). Usually depicted as either a heart-shaped symbol or a bird facing backward attending to a gem or an egg, Sankofa is not simply a symbol, or visual representation of an object. It communicates a proverb or a way of living. These communicators are called Adinkra.

Scholar Christel N. Temple writes in her 2010 article, “The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States: A Modern History,”

Adinkra communicators express timeless values and philosophies, not shallow symbols. A symbol is a representation that indicates something else by association, when we describe something as a symbol, we identify a very basic relationship of a material object (a writing, drawing, or shape) to something invisible or abstract. A symbol’s character is basic and mathematical. In contrast, a communicator offers the interchange of ideas, knowledge, wisdom, and philosophy.

In The Language of Adinkra Patterns (1972), A.K. Quarcoo describes the meaning of Sankofa as:

Learn from or build on the past. Pick up the gems of the past. [It is a] constant reminder that the past is not all shameful and that the future may profitably be built on aspects of the past. Indeed, there must be movement with the times but as the forward march proceeds, the gems must be picked up from behind and carried forward on the march.

Sankofa communicators have been found on clothing made specifically for important people in Ghana, only worn on occasions like funerals. It was on a coffin found in 1991, when excavation of a freed-slave cemetery in Lower Manhattan uncovered one decorated with tacks. In Ghana, it was painted onto walls. As it became part of the Ghanaian Diasporan culture in the United States, the two versions of it became ubiquitous in textbooks on Black studies, on coming-of-age event flyers, as tattoos (Janet Jackson has one), on clothing and as business names.

The communicator Sankofa is coded, privileging folks inside the West African diasporan so that outsiders do not comprehend or only faintly know the complexity of the picture when it appears. Dr. Michael L. Blakey, the director for the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of Williams and Mary, gave an interview to Archeology magazine in 2003 talking about the Sankofa found on a coffin in lot 101 in the African American Burial Ground discovered in lower Manhattan in the 1990s. He said:

But the most important thing to many people about 101 is that heart-shaped symbol on his coffin lid. That symbol nagged me for a while. I was sure that I had seen it somewhere before, but it was vague to me. One day, early on in the project, I was sitting in an African American cultural event and the program had several symbols on the cover. And there it was. The symbol that I thought I had seen. I had the lab in New York send me the drawing of the symbol. Then I took it to an art historian at Howard who specializes in this area. I tried my best not to appear too excited. He too saw that it was some version of a symbol called the Sankofa.

And the Sankofa symbol is so perfect. It resonates so completely with the African Burial Ground. It has to do with the idea that you need to go back and search in the past, to let the past be the guide. It has to do with the connection with past and present. That you have to look backwards in order to look forwards. It means to revere ancestors and to respect elders—all these kinds of ideas about the relationship between the past and present are wrapped up in that symbol. I think the African Burial Ground has helped disseminate knowledge of that symbol and its message. Which is a real reversal of the ahistorical thinking that Americans have been bombarded with. It’s also an example of how being an African American put me in a place where I would encounter the symbol.

Later in response to an article that claims this shape may only be a heart shape, he told the New York Times in an email: “We often are unable to ascertain which meanings persons in the past held for the objects they created. … The Sankofa is one of several plausible meanings of the design, and one that most perfectly expresses the meaning of the site for many people around the world.”

Sankofa and Mamma Mia!

Returning to the past to retrieve something essential to their present and their future is essential to the journey of Mamma Mia!, for the characters and the audience alike. For Donna, it is bringing back the self-confidence she had as Donna, head of the Dynamos. Sophie begins on a path to find her father but instead discovers she has everything she needs in her mother (and wisely, finds that there may be more adventures out there for her to enjoy before marrying her Sky). Donna’s former suitors retrieve memories of their youth and their time with her, and it helps them to find joy. Donna’s friends seem most like the bird version of the Sankofa, looking back to the past Donna left behind, and bringing her strength back to her.

The show Mamma Mia! already acts as a Sankofa for the audience, by guiding them back through the music of ABBA to another era, one of pre-AIDS America. Sure, we had a war going on, but back home it was nights in the discotheques and a world where a battle-of-the-bands could launch musical careers like that of ABBA. We go back to an age of disco where BIPOC artists made the fastest-selling albums and dominated the radio waves, so much so that their disco fever sparked a rage in those who preferred familiar rock and roll hits. If disco was a utopia where the party felt like it would never end, then the backlash was the systemically dominant in the United States setting out to reset the structures of power that gave them control. Disco is resistance and always has been.

We journey back to this past to find something we thought was lost or forgotten.

Disco – Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah!

Disco was named for the discothèque of Paris which were nightclubs that resorted to playing records during the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s. In the U.S., the word started being used to describe fashion at first. It later became a name for the clubs that were playing disco music typified by its beats, syncopated basslines, synthesizers, and electric rhythm guitars. It was culture built on subverting the way music had been made before.

Dr. Debi Jenkins, founder of Share the Flame, LLC:

Social equity refers to the systemic levels of oppression. … When we talk about minority status, we could talk about being minoritized because that explains what is happening to a person, but minority doesn’t necessarily explain what’s happening, because it’s not always about the number as it is about the access. …I came up with the language systemically non-dominant and systemically dominant because it keeps the language where the challenges are.

The real challenge is within the systems of oppression. If we focus on systemically non-dominant, it’s about the system that is created and how it impacts specific social groups. Who are the benefactors? Systemically non-dominant, of course, are those who the system was not put in place to benefit. Systemically dominant are those who are systemically benefactors of that system.

This helps us clarify what we’re talking about. It also helps people to understand why we’re not talking about individual experiences or exposure to racial prejudice or any other type of prejudice or whether we’re talking specifically about bias. We’re focusing on systems.

“Disco became popular because it taught white people to dance.” – Gloria Gaynor

Intersectionality at the Disco

Disco was a form of resistance to social systems in the United States that oppressed women, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and gays. It was an intersectional culture of music that grew out of the gay and BIPOC clubs in Philadelphia and New York City and celebrated the movements of the 1960s that shook the establishment and the systems of oppression that kept certain people in power. It united what Dr. Debi Jenkins coined the systemically non-dominant in dance clubs where they could meet, mingle, dance, and celebrate.

“There is an affinity between out gay men and successful black women because we’ve had to swim upstream of the same stereotypes most of our lives and had the same enemies and the same joys.” – Roger McFarlane, 70s NYC Clubber in the BBC documentary, Queens of Disco.

Disco started as a mostly Black and Latino musical genre, coming out of Motown and R&B, laying down syncopated beats and repeated melodic phrases. It made stars of Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”), Donna Summer (“I Feel Love,” Love to Love You, Baby,” and “Bad Girls”), Chic (“Freak Out,” “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah!)”), Earth Wind and Fire (“Boogie Wonderland,” “After the Love is Gone”), and The Village People. Abba’s music came just as the music scene was going mainstream on Pop top lists. Disco author, John-Manuel Andriote said, “What Saturday Night Fever did for disco was precisely what Elvis did for Rock and Roll. There were black musicians making Rock and Roll for years and suddenly you put a white face on it and suddenly it became the hottest thing in the world. And the same thing happened with disco.”

Like Mamma Mia!, which set the record for opening in more cities faster than any other musical in history, the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever sold over 20 million copies very quickly. Katherine Karlin wrote, “The film is wrongly credited with sparking the disco culture; it’s more accurate to say that it marks the moment when disco—up to that moment a megaphone for voices that were queer, black, or female—became accessible to straight white men, and thus the moment marking its decline.”

Anti-Disco Movement

By 1979, Disco was so popular that it spawned its own anti-disco movement. This movement often consisted of small acts of violence, committed by mostly white men toward the mostly BIPOC and members of the queer community who frequented disco clubs.

July 12, 1979 – Disco Demolition Night in Chicago

From Rolling Stone “Flashback: Watch ‘Disco Demolition Night’ Devolve Into Fiery Riot”

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/flashback-watch-disco-demolition-night-devolve-into-fiery-riot-206237/

For many fans of traditional rock that had little love for disco, the incident was nothing more than a bunch of drunks having harmless fun on a summer evening. Disco had dominated the charts for the past few years, stealing the spotlight from their heroes or causing them to actually record disco music themselves, and this felt justified.

But for minority groups, the incident had highly disturbing undertones given many of the perpetrators were white men and the genre was incredibly popular amongst homosexuals, blacks and women. “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning,” Chic’s Nile Rodgers once said. “This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco.’”

Disco Demolition Night was an event created and promoted by Chicago DJ, Steve Dahl, after he was fired by a radio station that switched to a disco format and found a job at a rival rock station.

His antidisco movement culminated in attacks on clubs. From a Washington Post article written on October 7, 1979 titled “Stop Disco,” “Dahl’s antidisco legions have staged raucous rallies around Chicago, invading suburban discos, pelting dancers with marshmallows and planting antidisco bumper stickers.” The Disco Demolition Night left Cominsky Field littered with broken records, bottles and cherry bombs, and was called a riot. The city trains and tenement buildings “are decorated with ‘Disco Sucks’ slogans. In Detroit a pair of WWWW morning jocks organized a Death to Disco Ducks (DDD) society, encouraging listeners to parade outside wearing white sheets.”

From “Stop Disco” Washington Post:

For years, the rock establishment ignored disco, dismissing it as a short-lived dance fad nurtured by New York City’s huge ethnic population. As one influential radio consultant said, “You can’t compare New York to anywhere else. It’s the ultimate disco environment. No other city has such a heavy mix of blacks, gays and Puerto Ricans, who’ve always been the cutting edge of any dance craze.”

One plan—still in the discussion stages—calls for huge rallies around the country, heralded by a caravan of jeeps and trucks. Sponsored by the local Abrams station, the road show would feature a rock concert, emceed by Dahl or a local deejay, who would blow up disco records between performances.

“Disco is taking us back to mediocrity,” charged KROO’s Insane Daryl Wayne. “It doesn’t have any intensity or involvement.” So far, Wayne’s disco funerals have been placid affairs. “We don’t want to encourage any violence,” he said. “We just want to bring people’s apathy levels up.”

Learn more about the anti-disco movement in these articles

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/19/disco-demolition-the-night-they-tried-to-crush-black-music

https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/ct-ent-disco-demolition-bee-gees-showtime-1219-20201218-2s3uhxsjsbduvl4kqswnvpswny-story.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/10/07/stop-disco/b74d0a54-022b-4307-9279-f2ede292a627/

Lyrics from “I Will Survive”

It took all the strength I had not to fall apart
Kept trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart
And I spent oh-so many nights just feeling sorry for myself
I used to cry
But now I hold my head up high…

“I think that the people who started that sort of disco sucks and all of that craziness were people who were making their money in other genres of music and really wanted disco to die, but it hasn’t died yet.”
– Gloria Gaynor

Lyrics from “Mamma Mia”

Mamma mia, here I go again
My, my, how can I resist you?
Mamma mia, does it show again
My, my, just how I missed you?

What is a Dramaturg/Dramaturgy?

A dramaturg is a dedicated person on the creative team whose primary task is to support the play’s development by asking key questions, starting conversations, researching, providing context, and helping the artists as they work together to tell the intended story.

Since each piece of theater is unique, the role of a dramaturg is further defined on a project-by-project basis. Each process requires a customized approach that begins with a deep understanding of the play and of the generative artist’s goals.

http://www.beehivedramaturgy.com/whatisdramaturgy

Sources

Alexander Campbell, Nia. “Being a Black American Woman in Athens.” Black Girls Abroad: Giving Voice to Underrepresented Experiences. Jan. 19, 2020. https://www.blkgirlsabroad.com/single-post/black-american-woman-in-athens

BBC. “Queens of Disco As told by the BBC.” YouTube. BBC. Apr. 30, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aqyw0_xAD90

BBC. “When Disco Ruled the World.” YouTube. Dec. 30, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-MDun9lyDk

Chan, Sewell. “Coffin’s Emblem Defies Certainty.” The New York Times (New York, NY), Jan. 26, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/27/arts/design/27sankofa.html

Dahl, Steve. “The 1979 Night That Keeps Staying Alive.” The Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), July 8, 2009. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2009-07-09-0907080604-story.html

Goldstein, Patrick. “Stop Disco.” The Washington Post (Washington, DC), Oct. 7 1979. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/10/07/stop-disco/b74d0a54-022b-4307-9279-f2ede292a627/

Greene, Andy. “Flashback: Watch ‘Disco Demolition Night’ Devolve Into Fiery Riot.” from Rolling Stone. July 12, 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/flashback-watch-disco-demolition-night-devolve-into-fiery-riot-206237/

Hann, Michael. “ABBA lifted the Political Gloom of the 1970s, Who Will Save Us Today?” The Guardian. July 4, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/music/shortcuts/2017/jul/04/abba-lifted-political-gloom-1970s-exhibition

Jenkins, Debi. “About Us.” Share the Flame, LLC. https://www.shareflame.com/about-us

Karlin, Katherine. “What We Don’t Remember About Saturday Night Fever.” Bright Wall/Dark Room. Issue 72. June 12, 2019. https://www.brightwalldarkroom.com/2019/06/12/what-we-dont-remember-about-saturday-night-fever/

Svedenland. “ABBA’s Secret Political Agenda.” Svedenland Blog. June 26, 2011. http://svedenland.blogspot.com/2011/06/abbas-secret-political-agenda.html

Temple, Christel N. “The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States.” Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 41, No. 1. pp. 127-150, 2010.

The Village Theatre. “Mamma Mia!” 2022 Season. https://villagetheatre.org/shows/mamma-mia/?tribe-bar-date=2022-06&tribe-bar-search=%3Ci%3EMamma%20Mia!%3C/i%3E


“Pillars of Mindful Creation:” The Second Life of Front Street’s Legacy Cypress Tree

Village Theatre’s Francis J. Gaudette theatre has stood on Front Street in Issaquah since 1994, and for most of those years a giant Cypress tree stood in front of the building. Now, the Legacy Cypress lives on, fashioned into a beautiful and unique abstract sculpture titled “Pillars of Mindful Creation”.

The Legacy Cypress was one of the oldest Cypress trees in Washington state when it was removed in the fall of 2017. Unfortunately, this historic Cypress had to be taken down because it was rotting from the center and in danger of collapsing under its own weight.

Village Theatre wanted to honor the life of the tree and decided to give it new life by transforming it into a wood sculpture that could become part of historic downtown Issaquah, just like the original tree was a beloved part of Front Street. The bottom 14 feet of the tree were retained for this purpose. 

In the fall of 2021, once the tree had been cured enough for a large-scale, carved artwork, Village Theatre contracted Jacob Lucas, an artist from Bonney Lake who is well-known for his large wood carvings, to create this unique piece of art.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is jake-before-pic-3.jpg

With “Pillars of Mindful Creation,” Jacob honored the life of the tree as well as the legacy of our founding Executive Producer, Robb Hunt, with its three branches forever representing the three pillars of Village Theatre’s programming: Mainstage, New Works, and Youth Education.

This piece creates a wonderful and welcoming entryway into downtown Issaquah, now a designated Washington State Creative Arts District.

To see more of Jacob Lucas’ work, visit his website!

Learn about NextStage with Curators, Jes Spencer and Dedra Woods

  • What inspired you to start NextStage?
    • “I’ve always thought that people are called through to the arts by a deep emotional or spiritual calling. And the call doesn’t normally happen the same moment in time for each person. Currently, our industry is so focused on learning skills through a higher education program, and I wanted there to be a space where actors at any stage in life could jump in and give things a try no matter your current level of experience or training.” – Jes Spencer
    • “I was inspired to partner with Jes because the need for professional development that is accessible for all artists is lacking in our community.  It felt like a great way to connect with artists during the pandemic and keep our artistic juices flowing. ” – Dedra Woods

  • Why is something like NextStage important?
    • “NextStage is important because it meets the artist where they are, and doesn’t force them to be anything other than themselves.  Lots of programs are based on experience level and we have really tried to take down that hierarchy with this program.  It allows an even playing field for artists at any level to participate and create community with others regardless of experience or financial ability.” – Dedra Woods

  • What is the most valuable thing to note about NextStage?
    • “Our “untitled vision” comes from a brilliant piece of knowledge and wisdom that Dedra just dropped one day, as she does. She made the beautiful point that “NextStage is designed to feed an artist’s soul rather than asking them for more.” NextStage really is designed to refuel and reinvigorate artists. The classes are one offs and the topics may seem random, but they are definitely created to foster support and techniques around current conversations and the needs we hear being voiced by the artist community.” – Jes Spencer

  • Where do you want NextStage to go? / What is the vision?
    • “My long term goal for NextStage has always been to have the resources and staff to provide year round classes and workshops. I also dream of a NextStage residency program that is a living wage residency where artists get to learn, train, and work in different areas of theatre. Theatre is not just about being an artist, whether that’s a designer, technician, actor etc, it’s also about learning about arts administration, marketing, fundraising, community engagement, front of house, patron services, the list can go on! Getting access to learn about those different departments and the work that goes on there is tough. Many people discover the theatre bug via acting but don’t even know that where they SHINE might be production management. Learning the full scope of what it takes to make theatre also helps to make artists more employable. After college I said yes to pretty much every opportunity I received to do ANYTHING in theatre, and I believe it was those opportunities and the perspectives I gathered that makes me a strong arts administrator. I want others to have access to those opportunities and to not have to sacrifice pay, or caring for their families, in order to say “yes”!” – Jes Spencer

  • Who is NextStage for?/What is it about?
    • “NextStage is a FREE class series designed to illuminate, support, and encourage the professional artistic experience through practical instruction and conversation. All artists and theatremakers are welcome, no matter your level of experience or training. The only requirement is that you are at least 18 years old. We host classes that are truly around conversations happening in the industry a space where people can come and listen and then dialogue and ask questions. We host classes that are about specific skills where folks can learn practical application – most of those have been via zoom but we are so thrilled to have hosted our first in-person classes in May!'” – Jes Spencer
    • “To put it simply, NextStage is for any professional artist. It is about connecting, exploring curiosities, and creating a stronger more connected artistic community.” – Dedra Woods

Learn about NextStage with Curators, Jes Spencer and Dedra Woods

  1. What inspired you to start NextStage?
    • “I’ve always thought that people are called through to the arts by a deep emotional or spiritual calling. And the call doesn’t normally happen the same moment in time for each person. Currently, our industry is so focused on learning skills through a higher education program, and I wanted there to be a space where actors at any stage in life could jump in and give things a try no matter your current level of experience or training.” – Jes Spencer
    • “I was inspired to partner with Jes because the need for professional development that is accessible for all artists is lacking in our community.  It felt like a great way to connect with artists during the pandemic and keep our artistic juices flowing. ” – Dedra Woods
  2. Why is something like NextStage important?
    • “NextStage is important because it meets the artist where they are, and doesn’t force them to be anything other than themselves.  Lot’s of programs are based on experience level and we have really tried to take down that hierarchy with this program.  It allows an even playing field for artists at any level to participate and create community with others regardless of experience or financial ability.” – Dedra Woods
  3. What is the most valuable thing to note about NextStage?
    • “Our “untitled vision” comes from a brilliant piece of knowledge and wisdom that Dedra just dropped one day, as she does. She made the beautiful point that “NextStage is designed to feed an artists soul rather than asking them for more.” NextStage really is designed to refuel and reinvigorate artists. The classes are one offs and the topics may seem random, but they are definitely created to foster support and techniques around current conversations and the needs we hear being voiced by the artist community.” – Jes Spencer
  4. Where do you want NextStage to go? / What is the vision?
    • “My long term goal for NextStage has always been to have the resources and staff to provide year round classes and workshops. I also dream of a NextStage residency program that is a living wage residency where artists get to learn, train, and work in different areas of theatre. Theatre is not just about being an artist, whether that’s a designer, technician, actor etc, it’s also about learning about arts administration, marketing, fundraising, community engagement, front of house, patron services, the list can go on! Getting access to learn about those different departments and the work that goes on there is tough. Many people discover the theatre bug via acting but don’t even know that where they SHINE might be production management. Learning the full scope of what it takes to make theatre also helps to make artists more employable. After college I said yes to pretty much every opportunity I received to do ANYTHING in theatre, and I believe it was those opportunities and the perspectives I gathered that makes me a strong arts administrator. I want others to have access to those opportunities and to not have to sacrifice pay, or caring for their families, in order to say “yes”!” – Jes Spencer
  5. Who is NextStage for?/What is it about?
    • “NextStage is a FREE class series designed to illuminate, support, and encourage the professional artistic experience through practical instruction and conversation. All artists and theatremakers are welcome, no matter your level of experience or training. The only requirement is that you are at least 18 years old. We host classes that are truly around conversations happening in the industry a space where people can come and listen and then dialogue and ask questions. We host classes that are about specific skills where folks can learn practical application – most of those have been via zoom but we are so thrilled to have hosted our first in-person classes in May!'” – Jes Spencer
    • “To put it simply, NextStage is for any professional artist. It is about connecting, exploring curiosities, and creating a stronger more connected artistic community.” – Dedra Woods

Brandon Ivie on New Musicals

Associate Artistic Director for New Works Brandon Ivie discusses new musicals and why he loves them. 

Tell us about your favorite memory of creating a new musical.

My favorite memory was in the development process of The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes. For the mainstage production we conceived a 10-minute finale fantasy sequence that was a loving homage to musical theatre. We spent a few days in a rehearsal room mapping out the structure of this giant dance break sequence with colored notecards and spread them out, moved them around, and made some real magic. It was an example of going into the room with nothing and then leaving with a really exciting new number!

What new works are you excited about now? 

I’m very excited about the next two new works we are developing in Issaquah – Eastbound and Miss Step. We have been developing both shows for years and are taking big steps forward. Eastbound is receiving a Beta production this June after being in our 2019 Festival and doing a 2020 Zoom reading, and Miss Step is getting a movement workshop later this spring. It’s an aerobics musical so movement and dance are going to be a huge part of it!

Why should audiences try seeing a new musical? 

New musicals are like the Netflix or Hulu of the musical theatre world. Seeing revivals of shows you already know and love is one kind of thrill, but getting the chance to experience something brand new that is pushing the boundaries of the form and what musicals are about is so exciting! And I truly think you will be able to say, “I saw it first!” after these shows go on to big success in the future.

What makes Village Theatre’s New Works program different? 

We develop musicals at every single stage of their process. Some shows come to us with great writers and a germ of an idea, and they come out to Village and just start to dream and begin writing. Other shows come more fully formed and are ready for a reading. Some shows need to be in production or get up on their feet to discover their next steps. We do it all! 

Learn more about Village Theatre’s New Works programs here, and stay tuned for more information about this summer’s Festival of New Musicals, returning August 19-21. 

A Message from the Desk of Robb Hunt

January 3, 2022

Happy New Year to all of you!

As we approach opening night of Songs for a New World, I am looking forward to all the exciting things that come with the opening of a show on our stages. It has been a long time since we have brought together every aspect of a fully produced musical to our stage and I am grateful to the artists, staff, and theatre makers at Village Theatre who are bringing all their amazing talents back to our rehearsal hall, shops, and stages.

A few things I wanted to share:

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