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Arts and Entertainment

Springfield Contemporary Theatre Presents Online Version of "Fugitive Songs"

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(Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)
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Next week Springfield Contemporary Theatre will present the online premiere of the musical revue, “Fugitive Songs.”  The show’s director, Rick Dines, visited us on “Arts News” to talk about the production. It presents numerous separate characters who, Dines said, have one thing in common: they all have to “make a decision if they’re going to break away from the path they’re on, and head in another direction—or not.                                                                                           

“Some of those are really bold choices, and some of those are just everyday kinds of choices. But really, it's a very dynamic piece as we meet all these different people in all these different circumstances, some outrageous and crazy and some some very relatable.” Are they fleeing from something? Are they fleeing toward something?  Once thing is for sure, said Dines: “they’re kind of on the run, in a way.”

“Fugitive Songs” is described by SCT as “half musical, half hootenanny,” which, says Dines, is an absolutely accurate description. “It is not a traditionally structured musical. There are times where the songs are very ‘story’ songs, and they are very much telling a story. And there are times where the songs are there in celebration, in… there's one song in the show that honestly was the song, as a director, I was most struggling with. And this is where having gone to college with the lyricist was a handy thing!”

Dines was referring to current Grammy nominee Nathan Tysen, who, along with composer Chris Miller, wrote “Fugitive Songs” for an off-Broadway production in 2008 (it was nominated for a Drama Desk award for “Best New Revue” that year). “I picked up the phone and called Nathan, said ‘Nathan, this song… I’m not….’  And he said that song is a meditation on the journey itself. And I went, ‘OK, I know what to do with this song now! That explains it, that’s what I wasn't getting my head wrapped around.’  So there's another example of—it's not a song that's set out just telling a specific story. It's a meditation on the journey itself. So the show goes in lots of different directions, some really great things in there.”

Among the on-the-run characters featured in “Fugitive Songs” are a disgruntled sandwich shop employee, a jilted ex-cheerleader, and a “stoner” who has to rob a convenience store against his will. “He kind of gets caught up in a robbery that he didn't initiate. And it's really, I think, the funniest song in the show,” said Dines. “It's also, once we committed it to film, really kind of the most remarkably staged song in the show.”

Since “Fugitive Songs” will be presented only as an online stream, with no live performances, the show had to be pre-recorded and edited. Dines feels that the biggest challenge for him as director was “trying to thread that needle, of keeping it uniquely ‘theatrical’ and keeping it a ‘theatrical’ production, but at the same time using the language of film, because we had that ability to push in with a camera and do certain things that we couldn't do putting it on stage.”  The idea was never to produce a movie or video musical, but rather a theatre piece recorded on video. For one thing, Dines said, “I didn’t have the budget to make a full-on movie musical! But we also didn't want it to just feel static and look like a single-camera archive copy of the show either. We wanted the audience to very much feel like they were still—safely—breathing the same air as the actors, like they would if they were in the theater.”

Dines said some of the numbers were shot with three cameras, others in single-camera format. The approach varied from song to song, how the number was being staged and how Dines and his crew conceived putting the number on video. But everything in the show was pre-recorded in early January. “We've been editing it and getting it ready to go since then.”

Rick Dines felt like “an old dog” learning “lots and lots” of new tricks by staging a musical revue strictly for video recording. “I've learned more new things in the past two months than I would have expected. Our director of photography, Tom Baker, is one of the few people I know who comes from a theater background, but also is very much a film person—and a film person on both sides of the camera.” He said Baker’s collaboration was “vital, and his work was very important” to translating “Fugitive Songs” from stage to video. “Also our music director, Alex Huff, since the pandemic has taught himself tons of new skills, from sound mixing to video editing. He's been putting together some interesting full-orchestra and choral video pieces, where people are all recording in their own homes and he's mixing video and sound to look like something amazing. You know, between the three of us, I think we've put something really nice together with a really remarkable cast. So I'm very proud of it. And I think audiences will be surprised.”

Dines admitted that “putting this show on stage would have been a lot simpler. I would have probably staged the show once and tweaked it a bit. I kind of staged and staged and restaged the show as we kept figuring out how it was being shot, and safety protocols and everything else. So the level of complexity kind of just kept growing, just doing it. Not to mention that the show's costing a lot more than it would have cost us if we just put it on stage for a three-week run. There's a lot more involved in putting the show together the way we did.”

The cast for “Fugitive Songs” includes Lavelle Johnston, Mary Kim, Joey Myers, Andy Phinney, Erin Scheibe and Darby Vincent. Dines called them “a remarkable group of younger talent who are wonderful singing actors, who really embody these characters so well.”

The streaming webcasts of the show will take place Thursday through Sunday, February 11-14.  Following the special Thursday night premiere, where the festivities begin at 6:30pm, Friday through Sunday streams all take place at 7:00pm, and none of the streams will be available on-demand. Patrons must view it at the designated show time—just as if you were attending in-person. 

But on the premiere evening, Thursday, February 11th, there will be a sort of “live” aspect to the presentation. Springfield Contemporary Theatre will partner with Broadway Unlocked, which Rick Dines described as a “national virtual-theatre venue” providing theater companies a place to video-stream their productions. “The CEO of the company, Jessica Ryan, is also a Missouri State alum and a very close friend,” said Dines. “Pre-pandemic, she was developing this virtual theater venue so that theater companies could broaden their audience beyond their geography, and make their work more accessible to people who couldn't physically get to the theater.” At the outset Ryan “was really struggling to get theaters to understand why they would want to utilize it.”  That identity problem disappeared with the COVID-19 quarantines last year; it “now became the thing they absolutely needed! And now she is working more hours a day than she ever dreamed, and has a huge and growing staff to make it happen. We're thrilled to partner with them to present the premiere.”

Broadway Unlocked will provide special interactive activities before, during and after the premiere stream of “Fugitive Songs” on Thursday the 11th. Rick Dines called it “truly the closest you'll come to feeling like you're having a shared theater experience without having to leave your house. That shared communal experience of being in the theater still exists in this platform, which is really remarkable.”

Starting at 6:30pm on Thursday February 11, a half-hour before the show itself starts streaming, Broadway Unlocked will offer several different “rooms” on their website where patrons can go to interact with other patrons. In addition, one of the “rooms” will feature a kind of “fireside chat” with show creators Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, hosted by Springfield Contemporary Theatre resident director Gretchen Teague. This will be a live chat, complete with an American Sign Language interpreter on-camera in the room. In another “room” will be a sort of “Newlywed Game” featuring three theater couples who will be joining via video chat from around the country, all of whom have worked with SCT in the past. “So they’re SCT ‘fugitives,’ as it were,” joked Dines. Annie Crumbaugh will host that virtual “game show,” with viewing patrons contributing questions.

“And then, because the show is written by, and the platform is created by, and the theater company producing it is run by, all MSU alums, we are partnering with the (Missouri State University) Alumni Association. And they are going to have what's called the ‘Maroon Room,’ which is a lounge for MSU alums who want to hang out and chit-chat in that half hour pre-show and see who's there. And we knew we were going to have lots of friends from all over the country joining us. So we thought it would be great to have a place for them to kind of coalesce and chit chat. So Jermaine Blackwell is hosting that room from New York” during the pre-show.

“Then at seven o'clock, the live event starts, and that is hosted by Nathan Shelton, one of our resident directors who's now based in Chicago.” Miller, Tysen, Rick Dines and others will participate, followed by the actual stream of the full production of “Fugitive Songs.” Post-show will “kind of parallel (SCT’s) opening-night lobby receptions we’ve been doing for years,” said Dines. “Right after the show, you can go back up to the ‘mezzanine level’ and each of the actors has their own room that you can jump into and go on-screen or just chat with them, and meet and greet with the actors. There will be a ‘general lobby’ for people that want to just kind of spill into the general lobby and see who else is there and chat with people about the show or other things. And then the MSU 'Alumni Lounge' will also be open post-show, that time hosted by Jessica Ryan, who runs Broadway Unlocked, and Nathan Tyson, the lyricist of the show. So it's going to be a full evening of fun, and the ability to actually feel like you're out seeing people while not having to get out, not having to wear shoes!”  Of course, patrons can simply buy the opening-night stream and just watch it from home without feeling like they have to participate. “All you do is buy the ticket. The day before, you'll get an email with a link in it. Click, watch the show. If you're on it from a device that has a camera or a keyboard—a computer, a tablet—then you can get interactive with it. But you can sit back and just watch the show. The only difference between that and our opening night receptions (is), this time you have to provide your own wine.”

To view the opening-night online gala on February 11, or just the stream of “Fugitive Songs” by itself as presented February 12-14, visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org or call 831-8001.  If you feel skittish about trying to sign up for the stream, Rick Dines said, “I have a feeling I’m working every day” next week, “so just give us a ring” if you have questions.