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Festival Show Update: Ace

This month, we checked in with Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker about a new version of their 2005 Festival show Ace, which recently had a staged concert production at The Nevada Conservatory Theatre after a few years of revisions. We also chatted with Ace director David H. Bell (below writers’ interview).
Set in 1964, ACE follows the journey of twenty-one-year-old Danny Lucas returning home to discover the truth about his mother’s hidden past.  The unexpected appearance of a grandmother he never knew existed leads to an emotional battle over the legacy of Danny’s real father.  Uncovering a saga spanning three generations of Ace fighter pilots through two World Wars, this original musical explores the trials and triumphs of a family in search of true heroism.
Ace had quite the extraordinary trajectory right after the 2005 Festival with a handful of full productions starting in 2006 leading up to a production at The Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA.  But this was a unique situation where you went in to rehearsals for a full production without ever really having done a reading or a workshop.  What did you learn about the show as you worked your way through the multiple productions?
We learned that the core story of the three generations of this American family and the score they sang resonated deeply with audiences.  We also learned that the central character was entirely passive with no control over his destiny and without true stakes or even an identifiable antagonist.  And we learned that the majority of the first act was expositional and that the stories of the past didn’t arise organically from the present.  Perhaps the most striking thing we discovered was that by deciding to have a lead character who was a child, it demanded there be a host of other ancillary characters to provide the realistic infrastructure for a child’s needs which naturally confused and diffused our central story.

You have made some major rewrites to the show as you have started to hone in on what the show always wanted to be.  Why did you find it important to refocus the story in this way? 
While it was an incredible gift to have the full regional productions, we found that there was very little time built into the process to rewrite the show in any meaningful, structural way.  We knew that there were deep structural problems that were becoming clearer with each production.  And of course there were some very astute critics along the way who (quite publicly) affirmed our fears that the showwhile pleasing the audienceswas not living up to its potential dramaturgically.  They could see that we had made the error of trying to create a show that would be all things to all people.  And we knew that if we didn’t take the time to seriously deconstruct the piece and strip away anything that wasn’t essential to the story of this family then the show would have limited opportunities for a lasting future.

You had the great chance to go out to Chicago and the American Music Theatre Project to quietly put the new Ace on its feet.  What was it like to finally see the show on stage more accurately telling the story you wanted to tell all along?  
It was a revelation in so many ways.  David Bell’s direction [see interview below] was astounding in that it was the first time we saw how the past could organically spring to life from the present.  He visually maintained both the past and the present in the same space which led us to further explore that element in the writing.  It also proved that there was incredible magic to be made out of that theatrical conceit which was more exciting than the ‘magic realism’ we had been attempting previously.  It was also rewarding to see an audience respond so deeply to these characters in a very grownup way.  We had decided clearly which show (out of the several it had been) we wanted to develop and to watch an audience embrace this version was validating to say the least.  Also, it was our first opportunity to hear the full score which had nearly 60% new material.

With a strong new script and score in your hands, you made a very smart move and found a chance to get the show on its feet with a full cast and orchestra.  How did the staged concert at The Nevada Conservatory Theatre come about and why did you decide to go that route?
We were invited by The Nevada Conservatory Theatre to have an original piece presented in concert for their annual benefit.  While we had discussed doing one of our other shows like The Parenting Project which we knew was finished and had had successful regional productions, we knew that if they could take on the demands of Ace, wecouldn’t pass up the chance.  It was also a good self-imposed deadline to finally finish the complete orchestrations and get the script and scores in publishable form.  In addition, it was a safe environment in which to present the piece.  Being a benefit with such a limited run, we knew there would be no reviews.  And we knew that we could privately invite key people from New York – including representatives from the licensing company TRW – without engendering a premature industry awareness.  Lastly, it was also a way for David Bell to more fully realize his vision for the piece.  [You can see exclusive highlights of this production above.]

What was response like after that concert production?  
The response was overwhelming.  Ace has always been an emotional work, but in its new formtighter, clearer, sharperit delivers an emotional punch that took the audience and in fact the entire company by surprise.  Few people were prepared for the power of what they saw and heard.  The central battle between the two main characters over the truth of who Ace was became a conflict the audience deeply invested in.  And they cared about the reconciliation of this family in a way we hadn’t seen before.  Those that had seen the original version unanimously favored this new structure.  And the response to the new score, almost filmic with its full orchestrations, was incredibly enthusiastic.

What are you hoping is next for Ace?  
We hope that NAMT member theaters take an interest in seeing what can happen when authors legitimately take on the challenge of deconstructing a show down to its bones and rewriting it.  There seems to be a myth surrounding Ace that it has somehow been “over developed”.  In truth, it was under developed when it had its initial introduction.  What we’ve done – privately and carefully – is to do what should have been done before it was submitted to NAMT in the first place.  We hope that people will take the time to discover this show anew – without prejudice of its earlier incarnations – because this is the show we always wanted to write but ten years ago didn’t know how.  And we hope that this story and its score, of which we are extremely proud, gets that rare opportunity to be reborn.


Below, we chat with David H. Bell, who supported Taylor and Oberacker in their refocusing of Ace and directed the new piece at AMTP and The Nevada Conservatory Theatre. 

You came on board to direct Ace when it came to AMTP.  What drew you to the show?  
I was introduced to the show by one of the producers of Ace at the time, long time friend Nancy Gibbs. Richard and Rob had done four fairly successful productions of the original script at some very impressive theatres, but they wanted to radically refocus the story. The mission of AMTP is to provide support for just that kind of workso I agreed.

I was drawn to the story immediatelyit was always a very moving piece about three generations of a family – and the quest to discover one’s identity by understanding, embracing, and even forgiving the generations that have preceded us.

How have you seen the show change from AMTP to the staged concert at The Nevada Conservatory Theatre?   
In its original form it was a sprawling epic. In bringing the show to AMTP the authors started a process of cutting characters, and telling the story from the point of view of a twenty-one year oldcollege kid returning to St. Louis from University to bury his mother – and meeting his grandmother for the first time. Together they forge a relationship as the boy discovers how he connects to a father and a grandfather that he never knew he had.

Five years ago at AMTP Richard and Rob made an impressive start at totally re-conceiving their show but in reading the script for The Nevada Conservatory Theatre, they had finessed all of their re-write concepts, giving the script a powerful sense of immediacy and offering a unique theatrical magic in how the past interacted with the present.

What was the audience response like at The Nevada Conservatory Theatre?    
The audience response at The Nevada Conservatory Theatre was explosive. The story has always been moving, but at The Nevada Conservatory Theatre it was so thrilling to see the musical transcend the beauty and power of its separate parts – and have an audience so thoroughly embrace the journey of the whole show. It was one of the most thrilling experiences that I have ever had in the theatre.

For more information about Ace, watch the video of The Nevada Conservatory Theatre concert production, or contact Jessica Amato at The Gersh Agency (212-997-1818) or Theatrical Rights Worldwide at www.theatricalrights.com.

 

 

 

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