This month, we chatted with with Ellen Fitzhugh (Paper Moon, Fest ’95), Joseph Thalken (Was, Fest ’03; Harold and Maude, Fest ’03) and Ashley Robinson, the writers of Fall of ’94. The show is about to receive a reading at Red Mountain Theatre Company’s Human Rights New Works Festival. We chatted about the musical’s development and what they’re looking forward to learning through their participation in the Human Rights New Works Festival.
Fall of ’94 is a very personal coming-of-age story of five 12-year-old children in rural Union, South Carolina. Set during the unfolding of the Susan Smith tragedy, the eyes of the world were on this small mill town. While the kids focus on perfecting their annual Halloween spook house, the excitement of a media frenzy consumes everyone around them and brings the town’s dark secrets to the surface. Just down the hill from where they are building their spook house, the answers to the Nation’s questions lay in John D. Long Lake. Fall of ’94 asks what effect events of violence and an atmosphere of racial tension have on children and young people.
How did you first get the idea to write Fall of ’94, and what brought you three together as a team?
Ashley Robinson: Well first off, I lived it. I’m from the little town where the Susan Smith tragedy occurred, and I’d wanted to write a piece about the event for years, but found it rather boring or crass to write directly about her story. I also had an idea swimming around in my head about a kid escaping his bullied, lonely reality by falling into his passion for horror films and building spook houses at Halloween. So, I just put the two together. Joe, Ellen and I had been looking for something to do together, and lucky for me, I was able to con them into this idea.
Joseph Thalken: A while back, [Ashley] started sending me early drafts from parts of the script, and I was knocked-out by the vibrancy, humor and honesty of his characters. Ash paired me with Ellen, whose work I have loved and admired for many years. As new script pages and lyrics started to pour in, I realized this was something very special. It’s been a true joy to work with both of them.
Ellen Fitzhugh: Ashley actually lived it, so for him it was an obvious choice. Then, as often happens, someone knows someone they think would be right for the music, right for the lyrics, and it turns out serendipitous.
What has the development process looked like for the show so far?
AR: We did a workshop very early on of the book with only a few songs at Mountview Academy, a fantastic musical theater conservatory in London.
JT: [The workshop] taught us a lot, and since then, we have continued to develop the piece.
EF: [It’s been] unbelievably painless—for me, at least. Ashley and Joseph have done most of the heavy lifting, letting me play in the field I love most: “I rhyme, therefore iamb.”
What excited you about RMTC’s Human Rights New Works Festival, and why did you decide to present the show at the Festival?
EF: We live in a time hyper-aware of the issues surrounding human rights, so a festival of shows illuminating our treatment of one another was a natural magnet for our musical.
JT: The chance to hear this piece out of the mouths of real kids from the South was very exciting! I really admire the Festival’s commitment to new and socially relevant work, and we are all so jazzed and honored to be a part of it.
AR: RMTC, we’d heard, had a first rate youth theater program, and the idea of getting to do [the show] with authentic Southern kids was perfect for us. And to be able to present the piece in a Human Rights Festival and with an organization that promotes healing was a truly amazing element, as the piece is all about healing.
The Human Rights New Works Festival partners writers with community organizations that do work related to topics tackled in the pieces presented. What community partner are you working with for the Human Rights Festival, and do you think this partnership will shape the work you do at the Festival?
JT: We’re partnering with Crisis Center Birmingham which is, by all accounts, a great organization. [Note: Crisis Center Birmingham’s mission is to serve the unmet needs of people experiencing personal crisis or mental health issues and respond with services that promote coping, emotional health and well-being.] Our show deals with a very specific crisis that affects the lives of everyone around it, and how the community, particularly a group of kids, tries to heal afterwards. To hear the perspective that members of Crisis Center Birmingham have to offer will definitely be enlightening and helpful to our process.
AR: Crisis Center Birmingham seems absolutely amazing. If Susan Smith had had this organization to support her, maybe this tragedy would have never happened.
EF: We’re looking forward to partnering with the Crisis Center Birmingham, whose members will certainly recognize the “community in crisis” presented in our show, and will surely offer us many insights.
Why should everyone plan a trip to Alabama to check out Fall of ’94 and the whole Human Rights Festival?
AR: New work, community outreach. What a wonderful and unique combination.
JT: Because it’s a remarkable festival that brings new and vibrant theater works to an audience that is eager to see new work and share their thoughts on it. And rumor has it that Birmingham is very nice in March…
For more information about Fall of ’94 and Red Mountain Theatre Company’s Human Rights Festival, visit the Festival’s website.