This month, we chatted with John Simpkins, the Director of NAMT member Penn State Musical Theatre in University Park, PA about the school’s new commissioning program. The school just presented its first full production of a show developed through the program, and will be holding a concert reading of their most recent commissioned show next month.
Penn State Musical Theatre started a commissioning program for new musicals a few years ago. Can you tell us a little about Penn State’s history with new work and what inspired this program?
Penn State Musical Theatre has always been open to new work—and has done readings and workshops along the way inspired mostly by professional relationships and a desire to meaningfully connect the students to writers and process wherever possible. When I got to Penn State in 2015, one of the things I began was our New Musicals Initiative, whose key component is the commissioning program. The inspiration for this unique commissioning idea was driven by finding the intersection of multiple objectives. For the writer, we hope to give each team a safe and creative place to think write, collaborate, and experiment with talented young artists who hunger for opportunity and will apply the fullness of their artistic souls to everything they do. For the training process, there is no better way to teach character development and the ability to engage with new works than to have a new musical forming around and with the students every year. And for the collaborative engine of 21st century musical theatre, we are very proud to commission shows to add to the repertoire and even continue on as co-producers in the professional journey of some of the projects.
What specific opportunities does this program provide for musical theatre writers, and how do you work together with the writers selected to create a new piece of theatre?
Each year, we commission a writing team to visit our Junior musical theatre students for a few days. The students share work with the writers (and vice versa) and we have considerable time for them to get to know each other through discussions and activities. The writers leave after those few days and begin to hatch ideas to write a musical inspired in some way by those young artists (gender breakdown, age and anything else that loosely intersects with something they may already want to write). We then settle on an idea that feels mutually exciting to the writers and me, and the writing begins. The team returns the following Fall to deliver a first draft of a musical to the now Senior students. They drop in on us throughout the year (in person, via technology, or both) as we workshop and develop the musical. The project culminates in a concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below and a full concert reading on campus. Possibilities then exist for the show to continue on at Penn State into production and then beyond into a professional co-production with a professional theatre. We plan to expand this New Works Initiative soon to include possibilities for readings, workshops and productions of existing shows looking for a step in their journey—but for now we are focused on the Commissioning project and assessing that model of development and production. So far, so good!
The first show created through this program, Love in Hate Nation by Joe Iconis, just wrapped its full production. What were some of the joys and challenges that came about during this process?
Love in Hate Nation was our first commission—we began work with writer Joe Iconis in the winter of 2016. At the end of the year of development (Spring 2017), we were all excited to move it forward to full production in the Spring 2018 Season at Penn State. We hired a terrific team to help bring the piece to life with me and Joe—Dramaturg Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Choreographer Jennifer Werner and Orchestrator Charlie Rosen—and we all began in earnest with a production plan for what felt like the beginning of “phase 2” of development at Penn State. The process was nothing but joy, actually—we transformed a fairly traditional theatre into a very non-traditional usage of space, cast the show with the full availability of the program (since the original actors in phase 1 of development had graduated!), and we set about a terrific process where professional development was able to happen without the glare of professional pressures, budgets, reviews and expectations. The team was with us all through the process—and the show sold out its entire run. As we were hoping and gambling, the process being cast with students didn’t hinder our ability to learn about the piece in any way—in fact, their commitment and passion to the process made it an even more helpful development step than some theatres where new work can sometimes feel like the younger sibling of bigger programming. The show is a love story between two girls in an early 1960s juvie hall—and takes its musical cues from wall-of-sound Girl Group pop and Riot Grrrl rock and roll—so it was easy for the age and talents of the students to be perfectly utilized. At its core, Love in Hate Nation has themes of young people caught between eras of a changing America and their attempt to break out of some of the boxes society has created around them. It feels timely, fresh and perfectly suited to young people looking to find their revolutionary side! We are currently exploring our next steps and ideas for the show and actively looking for both a next theatre home as well as commercial partners—so please reach out if you would like to take a look at it!
Your next project, The Last Day by Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger, will have a concert reading in April. How were these writers chosen, and what makes the piece a great fit for this program?
I choose the writers for our commissions in part because of my own aesthetic for new musicals and in part because of how I think that particular team will intersect the group of young artists with whom they will be working. I thought Mike and Sarah would nicely capture the spirit and artistry of this particular group. They are grounded and intellectual artists who I thought would respond well to Mike and Sarah’s style. Mike has a folk and Appalachian sound to his music that I think nicely intersects this group as well. Since we don’t ever know what the piece or project will turn into, I rely on writers that I think will make a great fit for the program, not necessarily show ideas or specific pieces (at least not at the time of commissioning). It has been a great fit, as is the next commission we just announced for next year, written by Kirsten Childs. Kirsten has so much joy as a human and artist—and, to me, her work always seems to reflect a way of deeply challenging some of our thoughts and feelings, but does so inside the frame of a powerfully uplifting optimistic voice.
Why should everyone plan a visit to Penn State to check out next month’s concert?
Mike and Sarah’s piece The Last Day is tragic, timely and hugely relevant to the landscape of our current thoughts as Americans. The idea for the show sprung from a conversation about what we would do if it were our last day on Earth. What would we be most grateful for? What would we most regret? Mike and Sarah decided to put that context very close to our musical theatre students—a young man, who has grown up tormented by a secret he has never shared, is accepted into an elite musical theatre performance ensemble at a major university. He believes he can finally realize his potential. But as his junior year ends he is abusing drugs prescribed earlier in his life, isolating himself from his classmates and creating chaos for his peers. When he is dropped from the ensemble he believes they are responsible and sets out to destroy himself and to seek revenge. Through a troubled night, the other students in the ensemble help him to realize the value of his life and discover much they never realized about themselves.
We are so proud of the work the writers and students are doing in the New Musicals Initiative at Penn State, we would love a chance to share it with you—only a few hours from NYC!
Photo by Jack Bowman, featuring Amina Faye and the Girls (Caleb Smith, Lena Skeele, Morgan Hecker, Jasmine Forsberg, Mikayla McKasy).