How will ISU Theatre’s spring musical “BABA” look and sound when it opens in Fisher Theater on Thursday, April 7? Even the cast and creative team aren’t 100% sure. ISU Theatre is workshopping a brand-new musical for the first time, collaborating with New York-based composer Elliah Heifetz and librettist Jessica Kahkoska.
Workshopping, in theatre terms, gives playwrights, producers and composers a chance to develop and improve their material before scaling a full production. They can see how audiences will react to a story, learn if the material is ready for actors and singers, and even write new pages or songs up to the last minute.
The workshop process is an innovative hands-on learning opportunity for Iowa State students.
“Out in the real world, if you’re lucky enough to be working on a new production, you will have people responding in real-time,” said Cason Murphy, assistant professor of theatre and the show’s faculty director. “It’s less theoretical than what we talk about in our classes. We’re bringing the playwright and the composer right to them. This is thrilling and exciting because it gives students some say over the final product in a way that usually doesn’t happen.”
Teen climate activist meets Baba Yaga
Last summer, ISU Theatre issued a call on the New Play Exchange, a digital script library, for new musicals to workshop. Murphy received over 100 submissions. During a conversation with Heifetz and Kahkoska about their pitch, he learned they had another story on the backburner that seemed to tick all the right boxes for ISU Theatre—a contemporary musical with an ensemble cast and a story focused on relevant, timely issues.
“BABA” is the magical tale of teenage climate activist Sylvie who lives in Appalachia at the edge of a forest. When Sylvie ventures into the forest on a mission to save it, she meets an old woman who turns out to be Baba Yaga, the mythical witch of Russian folklore. Slowly, Sylvie and Baba Yaga realize they are entangled in the strands of a bigger, darker story, and the pair must learn to trust one another. The contemporary musical score interweaves the enchanting sounds of Americana, Russian folk and pop.
‘Pieces of gold’
Like Sylvie, ISU Theatre students have been on a journey into the unknown. Workshopping a production gives students better insight into industry practice, where a show is created over months, or even years, with many revisions. “BABA” is also the focus of Iowa State’s new Advanced Musical Theatre Seminar class, allowing students to learn inside and outside the classroom.
The students offer feedback on all aspects of the show, from character development to plot points. Heifetz and Kahkoska, who are serving as artists in residence, spent a week in Ames in March, where they further collaborated with the “BABA” team in rehearsals, workshops and classes. After the pages rise to life on the Fisher Theater stage, the artists will continue to refine their work, hopefully for a future regional or national audience.
“Every time I come into rehearsal, I’m most excited to learn from everyone else,” said Breanna Penenger, senior in music and cast member. “The cast and team bring in these little pieces of gold to every rehearsal, which inspires me to dig deeper as an artist and contribute as well.”
Workshopping a production together has given students a new understanding of what it means to embrace each step of the process. They know they’ll need to be flexible for last-minute changes, even the possibility of using scripts on stage.
“We truly don’t know what will happen in April, but we know that our hard work will pay off,” said Abbigail Markus, cast member and senior in performing arts. “Adapting to this mentality has been very rewarding. The suspense is rather tricky but thrilling.”
Lessons of the liberal arts
Murphy said workshopping “BABA” has uniquely engaged students’ imaginations and challenged their problem-solving skills.
“It makes them more dynamic as theatre-makers,” Murphy said. “That’s what we’re after in this department. It’s not a conservatory approach. It’s a liberal arts view of creative people who are engaged with all aspects of this art.”
Performances for “BABA” take place April 7, 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m. and April 10 at 2:00 p.m. All seating is general admission. Tickets ($25 for adults and free for Iowa State students and youth) can be purchased at the door, through the Iowa State Center Ticket Office or any Ticketmaster.
For more information, visit theatre.iastate.edu.