An interview with Joe Barros, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Barn in New York, NY about NYTB’s work with Sammy Buck and Brandon James Gwinn’s Small Town Story (formerly Speargrove Presents), a 2011-2012 Writers Residency Grant recipient.
Small Town Story has a unique genesis. How did NYTB originally go about commissioning this show?
In January 2010, New York Theatre Barn assembled 17 writers, led by sole book writer Sammy Buck, to conceive a new musical. Real-life events in Rowlett, Texas pertaining to a controversial production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent provided an irresistible springboard for the writing as NYTB set out to create a show by a community of writers about community. NYTB’s involvement with Small Town Story actually led to a change in the artistic and institutional mission of the company. We became so attracted to telling untold stories about real people, and often based on real events, that we made it our primary focus.
After launching NYTB in 2007, we were given the unique opportunity by Daryl Roth Theatricals to produce a monthly show in their D-Lounge, and our core developmental platform for emerging writers and new work was born. Through this monthly program (now in its 6th year), I was immediately exposed to over 50 writers in the first three years alone. With such incredible creative resources at our fingertips, I knew we had to devise a piece together. While Small Town Story (then Speargrove Presents) started out as a piece written by committee, I ultimately made the decision to choose Sammy Buck and Brandon James Gwinn as its sole writers in order to give the piece clarity and authenticity, primarily in the score.
After working on the piece for about a year, the team went from 17 to 2 to improve the show’s cohesion. Buck and young composer Gwinn were serendipitously paired on a song to
transcendent results—and they were chosen to write the show. Their collaboration is unique in that this is the first show that they have written together; Sammy writes the book, Brandon writes the music, and they write lyrics together or separately.
Buck was raised in North Texas, and the “Speargrove” townsfolk he has created are imbued with the personalities he remembers from his childhood–a sensibility of North Texan suburban life is rooted in his flesh, bones and spirit. Gwinn (composer/co-lyricist) was raised in rural Tennessee. Country and pop music is his lifeblood–fresh, authentic and accessible. Moreover, Brandon understands intimately the students’ perspective, in perfect counterpoint to Sammy’s maturity. I am a huge supporter of these two writers and am mesmerized by the world they have created in Speargrove, TX.
The first version that Sammy and Brandon wrote together was completed in November of 2011, and we did a table reading in December 2011. Only three songs remained from the original version of the show—two were written solely by Brandon and one was written together. Following that reading, a demo was recorded and there were major rewrites that took place, including the creation of numerous new songs and an overhaul of the book (rearranging, cutting, adding new material). In May 2012, NYTB produced a workshop at The Cell (NAMT 2012 Writers’ Residency Grant). The workshop marked the first time that the piece was on its feet and the process elucidated for the writers precisely what themes upon to focus: (1) communication between parents and children, and (2) theatre as a catalyst for change. Since the workshop, the writers and the NYTB team have collaborated with NYTB’s community of actors on numerous private writers’ work sessions to explore new material aloud, as well as fine tune existing material that is constantly evolving. Significant revisions to hone the themes and storytelling have taken place over the past year, and the show also has a new title: Small Town Story. I am very proud of the new draft and am eager to see it on its feet.
The show will have a reading in at The Village Theatre in Washington this summer. We are very excited about this opportunity and to hear the new draft! Additional opportunities have come our way but are not yet confirmed—including a developmental production in San Francisco where actual teenagers would assume the roles of the students of Speargrove High School. New York Theatre Barn looks forward to producing the show in New York sometime soon.
We continue to see controversial productions populate headlines in the news that deal with the very issues that are explored in this powerful new musical—fear, communication and change. Following the recent headlines of Loveland, Ohio’s high school production of Legally Blonde and the firing of its director, I believe that the time is now to tell this untold story. New York Theatre Barn and the authors hope that Small Town Story engenders the types of open conversations that scare the characters in our show. We see that our show celebrates the mother lode of power in musical theatre.