Tony Trout doesn’t believe in fate. Despite this, the impresario of Are We Delicious? Ensemble Theatre chose to helm a production about magic and the uncanny ability to defy human logic. It’s called Musical Fantasy, and its concept sounds slightly nuts: Six actors who can write and sing team up with six musicians who can compose and teach, and together they create a half-dozen mini-musicals in less than a week. Writing began on April 24, and performances take place at the Brink Lounge on May 1 and 2.
The thing is, Trout does believe in trust and the power of the creative process. Along with a team of associates, he hand-picks the stars of Delicious shows, creating a who’s who of local talent for each cast. Though he’s led about 10 of these whirlwind productions since 2012, music has never been part of the mix until now. But he revels in the dance with danger, the possibility of failure that drives these shows to be great.
“We’re trying to perfect the process,” Trout explains. “We believe we can make a great show in a week, or that people can. We want to be those people.”
Creating an entire production in a few days is an enormous challenge, so it makes sense that the creators have epic stories on their minds when they enter Central Library for the first writing session. There’s talk about fairy tales and fables, and sci-fi adventures like Star Wars, a series that’s changed the lives of many cast members.
Several of the writer-actors, including Matt Sloan, Brad Knight and Karen Moeller, have ties to Blame Society Productions, best known for the web video series Chad Vader. Its comic tales about Darth Vader’s less-famous brother helped Sloan become the voice of Darth for Disney. In addition to appearing on Chad Vader, Knight leads local improv troupe Monkey Business Institute and Moeller serves as an artistic associate for Forward Theater Company. Other familiar faces include Kelly Maxwell, who starred in Mercury Players and OUT!Cast Theatre’s Xanadu; Dave Durbin from Strollers’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and Sarah Streich, the leading lady from Four Seasons’ My Fair Lady.
Writing begins in a glass-walled room nestled in the back of the library, after Trout delivers a motivational speech about risk-taking.
“I believe in you,” he says earnestly. “Let’s go for it.”
The six playwrights gather around a table with a few other collaborators, such as assistant producer Autumn Shiley and music director Andrew Rohn. Two stage managers linger nearby. Surrounding the group are props and costumes, which remain cloaked until the writers have completed their warmup activities. Each writer has contributed one costume and one prop to the collection, whose contents range from faux chain mail to a small, squeezable orb aptly named “the blue boobie.” But in the beginning, all the writers have is the thing they dread most: a blank page.
Giving good prompts is essential to guiding the writers toward their five-minute tales. Trout clearly adores being a story sherpa. He and Shiley pose questions, the type one might hear in a creative writing class or improv workshop. Some are whimsical (What’s a real place you found magical?), and some are inspirational (What’s the most heroic thing you’ve ever done?). Some encourage the group to ponder personal shortcomings (What’s one thing about yourself you wish you could change?), while others explore morality and social justice (What is standing in the way of the world’s growth and freedom? What’s a curse you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy?).
Lists of answers are passed around the room. The richest story seeds are then plucked from them and distributed to the writers. Through an elaborate card game of sorts, each actor gets cast in the lead role of another writer’s play. One writer gets to star in her own play.
“This is so confusing and crazy!” Shiley squeals, grinning. She’s helping Trout keep track of the details. Though his idea-generation process is meticulously organized, things feel chaotic at the moment.
Several writers giggle at an answer to the curse question: “It must be a play about Vietnam.” This comes from Moeller, who acted in such a play with Trout, her husband, when they both lived in New York City.
Then the props and costumes are unveiled, adding more constraints to the writing process. Each item comes with a backstory. A sword is “endowed with an indomitable will and a desire to sing.” The chain mail once helped a gardener save his neighbors from vicious birds. A flowered raincoat “makes its wearer impossible to overlook.” It can help a shy person face her fear of standing out in a crowd, but it can also be used to drive her insane. Add to this a chimera statue, an olive-oil sprayer that teleports its user, and a wish catcher resembling a deep-fryer basket, and the writers have plenty of material for crafting fantastical tales.
With one source of anxiety out of the way, the writers start worrying how the music will fit into their plays. Should they pen lyrics or propose spots in the script for songs?
“No,” Trout says. “Think of the musicians as magical people who show up and give your play another dimension.”
He compares the composers to characters in a cartoon he watched as a kid. Elves snuck into a home late one night and cobbled shoes for the family living there. Everyone laughs. This kind of image would be a blast to bring to life onstage.
Now for the music
As the playwrights work their way through a few drafts of their scripts, the musicians begin their writing process. Each composer gets paired with one script. Any style of music is acceptable, from ballads with bawdy lyrics to something more subtle, like an ambient soundtrack. But the inspiration must come from the writers’ words. After receiving their assignments, the musicians disperse to tackle their tasks as they see fit.
For Meghan Rose, the best route leads home, where she can concentrate quietly. Serendipitously, she’s been paired with Maxwell, her bandmate in local rock act Little Red Wolf.
“In Delicious, a lot of people err toward comedy, but Kelly chose to do a serious piece, which provides a nice change of pace,” Rose says. “It’s about a sorceress…who needs to sacrifice herself, so I knew I needed to add a tragic song at a moment of high emotion. I had to try to make people cry.”
A pianist since age 4, Rose has long loved grand melodies from Broadway hits like Phantom of the Opera. She used Andrew Lloyd Webber as inspiration for her piece, “I Have To,” an orchestral work featuring Gomers frontman Biff Blumfumgagnge on violin and composer Scott Lamps on upright bass.
Sean Michael Dargan also looked to Broadway when putting together a song called “Unicorn Love.” He doesn’t often write about mythical creatures, but composing music for a play about mermaids seemed to call for something out of the ordinary.
“It’s sort of a cross between West Side Story and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with a little bit of Little Shop of Horrors,” he says.
He had to indulge his love of jangly pop, too.
“A bit of Crowded House or the Smiths usually sneaks into my songs,” he says.
Lamps, meanwhile, wrote a Celtic-sounding war hymn called “Overcoming Family” for Brad Knight’s play, which features the singing sword.
“The sword is asked for advice in certain situations, so I started by thinking, ‘What’s the character of the sword?’ Since it’s an ancient weapon, I’m using battle music that’s very rhythmic and drum-heavy and exciting,” he says.
Excitement is also at the heart of a fable written by Streich. As she explains how a witch has banished music from the kingdom, the rest of the cast acts out the story with exaggerated expressions. Though their lips move, no sounds emerge. But Blumfumgagnge’s gospel-tinged “Sing for Your Supper” helps tell the story as Streich belts out the vocals.
Down to the wire
Trout admits that the plays were in relatively rough shape on Saturday. But within 24 hours, they evolved in miraculous ways. The musicians convinced him the production was on the right track.
“They were just sitting around a table with keyboards and guitars. The music was absolutely beautiful, and the lyrics were hilarious. It brought tears to my eyes,” he says. “Usually I trust we’re going to make it to the finish line, but that morning I wasn’t so sure. That moment with the musicians is when I stopped doubting.”
Now it’s down to the wire to polish each play as much as possible. Sunday was filled with rehearsals in the basement of First United Methodist Church, with the actors in one room and the musicians in another. Since then, the group has completed “tech day,” in which the cast and composers gather to run each play three times — in three hours, if possible.
The musicians have sounded more confident with each rehearsal, and now that all of the songs have names, they seem more real. For instance, Stephanie Rearick’s catchy ditty is named “Salty Demon,” and Rohn’s hard-rocking number is “Scream at the Silence.” And the actors have learned their lines so well that they can seek out opportunities for extra fun. Moeller hams up her role as a maiden who rebuffs a king’s marriage proposal, and Maxwell wants to choreograph a dance for the forest creatures in the fable. Durbin, the forest’s snowy owl, realizes he needs an instrument to play during a song. The blue boobie becomes a tambourine he thwacks against his hip.
With just a little more time until the curtain rises, anything seems possible.