Last month, we caught up with alumni Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor about the development of their 2013 Festival show, The Sandman, with Playing Pretend and their upcoming production in Denmark.
Drawn from the more nightmarish fantasy of E.T.A. Hoffmann, author of The Nutcracker, comes a new and darkly comic musical tale: The Sandman. When Maria, the wife of an ingenious German clockmaker named Albert Strauss engages a new nanny, Fraulein Kaeseschweiss, to care for the two children, Nathaniel and Theresa, a series of bizarre and unnatural events begins to unfold. As Theresa falls mysteriously ill, a flamboyant and unconventional physician, Dr. Copelius, is summoned upon the nanny’s recommendation. The doctor comes with a young ward in tow, Clara Stahlbaum, recently orphaned after her entire family was incinerated in an inexplicable Christmas tree fire. And as the Strauss family is thrust ever deeper into chaos, the sinister and Machiavellian forces at play are gradually revealed—forces from which only the children may be able to save them.
What was the feedback like after you presented at the Festival?
The feedback immediately following the presentations was very strong. This included members approaching us directly after the performances and at the followup “meet the authors” events. There were certainly a lot of questions about how the story ended, the true “fear factor” and the appropriateness of the material for various age groups. From our point of view this was a perfect response because it meant we had used the presentation to introduce the material, but not give the whole thing away and to make people curious about whether or not the show was right for their theater. It seems to us that the best thing an author can do is to present an excerpt that makes the members want to read and listen to the complete work.
You are now working with NAMT Member Playing Pretend to develop the show. Tell us a bit about all of the exciting developments on the show since the Festival.
Playing Pretend came onboard the project because of Stephanie Cowan, who served as our NAMT Consultant for the Festival. It was really her enthusiasm that brought that production company to the table. With them, and our director from the NAMT Festival Sam Buntrock (Sunday In the Park With George B’way revival), we have had continued conversations about the dramaturgy of the piece and have had the luxury of a week-long writing “summit” in New York that culminated in another private table reading of the complete work, incorporating all of the changes and new material. We have also secured the participation of several key design and creative collaborators who will be absolutely essential in giving the show an indelible look and physical vocabulary—one that we expect will be as surprising and unique as the story itself. We have on the calendar over the next few months several workshops with each of these artists to develop their particular contributions to the work. We expect all these elements to be brought together in a developmental workshop sometime in 2015. So far these collaborators include Michael Curry designing all sets, props, costumes and puppets; Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer designing the lighting; Sam Pinkleton creating the choreography and Teller (of Penn and Teller) designing the illusions.What type of work have you done on the show since the presentation beyond the expansion of your team with Playing Pretend?
Since the Festival presentation, we have continued to streamline act one: incorporating many of the edits we made to make the piece work in the festival time limit. We also added two new songs in act 2: one, a comic production number, and the other a song which deepens the emotional connection to one of the supporting principles, lending an additional layer of humanity to the piece as a whole.Also, this February the show will premiere in Denmark at NAMT Member Fredericia Theatre. This is not affiliated with your work with Playing Pretend but what are you hoping to get out of putting the show up on its feet in Denmark?
We are thrilled that Soren Moeller took such a shine to the piece and followed through on his excitement by offering a full production. The fact that this production will be its own entity in terms of direction and design has more to do with the schedules of our U.S. creative team than anything else. That being said, we are actually looking forward to having the experience of handing the piece over to a completely new creative team and stepping back to allow them to do essentially as they please with it. And there is much to learn in the European approach to developing new work which relies less on multiple readings, workshops and notes by committee and more on putting the work before an audience and trusting that the authors themselves will see clearly what works, what doesn’t and what they wish to change for future full productions. Naturally this approach saves any new work from dreaded “Development Hell” that sadly swallows most new works here in the States where production costs are so high—and not state or federally supported—and theaters are therefore extremely risk-averse. For the Denmark premiere we will have the privilege of having the score orchestrated by the brilliant Bruce Coughlin as well as having the material interpreted by an internationally recognized director who is Argentinean by birth, but lives and works throughout Europe. We look forward to what their combined life and artistic experience will bring to the bizarre and twisted world of our show. And lastly, as The Sandman is a fairy tale—albeit a macabre German fairy tale—fewer countries have a closer connection to the art of the fairy tale than Denmark. We expect to learn much about the tone of the piece in how these artists approach the material and how these audiences react to it.What are you hoping will be the next steps for the show?
We hope that the next steps for the show are ones that organically arise out the needs of the piece itself. If the show, as we suspect, benefits greatly from unique designs that might be better executed and experienced in a non-traditional venue, then the next steps we would hope for would be ones that allow the design team to fully explore and develop these options. Once that has been fully realized, then surely the right venue for the production as it has been conceived would be self-evident and the producing team would move to secure it and present the show to the public. That particular venue and presentation might not be a commercial run in a proscenium theater. But once the show has had the opportunity to be experienced in a possibly unique venue, then a further step might be taken to find out if the show works in a more standard theatrical venue which would allow for a traditional commercial run.For more information about the show and to listen and download the demo recording featuring Mary Testa and Patrick Page, please click here.