Something That Doesn’t Sound Like Everything Else: The Regional Theater

In this series of posts,  I’ve been having discussions with a wide range of people who are involved in developing new musicals. This week I talked to Robert Hunt, the Executive Producer of the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington (in the greater Seattle area.) The theater was founded in 1979, and makes the production of new musicals a central part of its mission. Opening on March 20 is a full production of The Tutor, by Andrew Gerle and Maryrose Wood; the show was featured in the Village Theatre Festival of New Musicals in 2004. Another prominent graduate of the Village Theatre is Next to Normal, which was featured at the theater in various stages of development, starting in 2002 (as Feeling Electric.)

ROB HARTMANN: What has been your strategy for getting audiences interested in new musicals?

ROBERT HUNT: We started developing new musicals early in our history in the 80s. Then we outgrew our original space and built a new 488 seat theater across the street — but we kept the old one. We jumped into doing developmental (but fairly full) productions in the small space. And what we found was some of the musicals weren’t quite ready for that level of production. So we took a step back, and put together a festival which has new musicals in reading format, and we came up with the idea of a development program which has members — “Village Originals.”

So the members participate in the development of these new musicals at all phases. They’ll come to the readings, the workshops, the developmental productions and supply feedback. There’s not a huge number of them, but they are very vocal, and they can spread the word. That helps when we put a new musical into our mainstage season — they’re spreading the word because they’ve already seen the developmental steps of that show.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Trailer for IRON CURTAIN at the Village Theatre (Book by Susan DiLallo, Music by Stephen Weiner, Lyrics by Peter Mills)

Hartmann: How do you determine whether a show needs a reading or a process that gets it up on its feet?

Hunt: It really depends on what is most needed. Some shows really need to have a physical production because they have some sort of uniqueness to them that would require movement in order to see how this show can work. Other shows, it’s really more that the writing needs to be right.

One of the challenges we have is that authors sometimes think that the show will be better if you have the whole physical production — when really the writing in that case might be the problem (laughs.) If the writing doesn’t work, it won’t be solved with a physical production.

Hartmann: What grabs you in a new musical?

Hunt: Oh boy. We’re interested in a fairly big variety of shows. We send scripts out to a couple of readers evaluate the shows for our program. And if they’re recommended for further development, then our artistic team — including me and Steve Tompkins our Artistic Director, and Tim Symons our Resident Music Director — will all read them and listen to the music, and then we select our shows for the festival. We do look for a variety — for shows that might be a little more edgy, that would perhaps be destined for the LORT theater world, and maybe not our mainstage. And we look for others that might eventually go to our mainstage.

We look for music that has hooks or has some meat to it. And we’re looking for the meshing of the book and the music — so it’s not just a scene and then a song, that the book, lyrics and the music are all moving the story along as part of a whole, and fit together well.

We also look for something that is producible: to see that the writers have in fact thought things through. Does this make sense on stage, or is this cinematic, popping from one scene to another so that it’s impossible to do? Those kinds of things.

We’re looking for something that doesn’t sound like everything else. Also — the integration of dance in the storytelling — that’s something that isn’t as common as I would like it to be — that the writers are actually thinking that way. It really is part of the musical experience to not only hear the songs and the dialogue, but also to see the dance and the emotion of the dance. I’d like to see more of that.

Hartmann: What is your feedback/critique process like?

Hunt: Well for instance, for a reading, it’s read for an audience of 200 to 400 people. They have the option of writing their responses online or on paper. And they’re fairly serious about it. They’ll stay for a half hour after the show writing their comments.

Our members have been involved in this process for quite a while, so they’re coming from a place of supporting the writing process and supporting the writers and trying to improve their piece.

We gather up all the written responses and we put them in a package and send them to the writers, along with comments from our artistic team — what we gleaned from the process, and what we think they should consider as they move forward to the next step.

Hartmann: What advice would you give to musical writers?

Hunt: Don’t be too tied to material. Musicals are so difficult because you can take the same material and move it around and have a dramatic impact on the way the audience is receiving the show. I think writers really have to be open to that process, and, you know, collaborate with the producers in maximizing that audience reaction.

It’s funny sometimes listening to writers, “Well, they just didn’t understand it.” Well, yeah. And that’s the challenge in writing – it’s a very nuanced thing. And small moments make a huge difference.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Trailer for The Village Theatre’s production of CLOAKED by Michelle Elliott & Danny Larsen

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