Putting the Muse in the Machine

Bradley Farmer in rehearsal Bradley Farmer in rehearsal
Bradley Farmer in rehearsal Bradley Farmer in rehearsal

Shining the spotlight on Miami Valley area performing arts students

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

Darius Fincher in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Thom Meyer.

When you’re a kid, “happily ever after” means just that: It’s completely black and white.

But what most fairy tales leave out are the real-life challenges that the average human being dodges throughout their individual “story books” – relationship struggles, difficulties bearing children, infidelity, death and so forth. Can there be a happy ending (beginning and middle, too)? Absolutely. Might there be a few beaten paths along the way? Definitely.

For the talented individuals at The Muse Machine, they say “Bring it on, sister!” with their latest production of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning “Into the Woods,” a hit musical that intertwines the stories of fairy tale characters to tell about their journeys to find fulfillment in life. The show will take place at the Victoria Theatre, running January 13 through 16.

“Audiences will be changed by this production,” said first-time Muse Machine Director Rufus Bonds, Jr. “They will leave this show different. I really do believe that.”

With more than 100 young people from throughout the Miami Valley on stage, backstage and in the orchestra, Bonds said that transformation is generated by the true content each one of them brings to the stage. Not only are they tackling issues that may seem a bit beyond their reach thus far in their lives, but they are working with a classic production that has been shaped to fit the Muse Machine’s style. The cast size took a giant leap, going from the show’s original 12-character production to 77 students in The Muse Machine’s adaptation.

“Early versions of ‘Into The Woods’ used very little dance, but we’re going to change that,” said New Orleans choreographer Lula Elzy in a news release. “Our performances will incorporate production numbers without changing the script – it will feel like they were always a part of the show!”

The organization also mounted its production of their first Stephen Sondheim piece during the year that will celebrate the composer and lyricist’s 80th birthday. Match that with a knock-’em-dead talented cast and you, my friends, have got a show.

“I have profound trust in the creative team who is putting this together,” said Executive Director Luke Dennis. “This is the show that Muse Machine can do brilliantly.”

The premise of the show leans on familiar fairy tale characters, like Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Cinderella and her prince, and Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” to tell the story the books don’t tell. Characters are faced with new life challenges, tackling them with nothing short of truly enchanting style.

“We can’t wait to bring a big, magical show like this to life,” said Producer Douglas Merk in a news release. “It’s the sort of show that will have everyone laughing at one moment and then really thinking about their own lives the next.”

Merk explained one of the hurdles the young cast had to conquer was the fact that many of them were working with issues they had yet to experience. Teaching the children how to step outside of their shoes and, perhaps, slip on their parents’ or another adult’s was a task, but it was one that was met with avid acceptance.

“What is so beautiful is that you have a bunch of young adults who are very talented and open [to these ideas],” Rufus Bonds said. “They want [their performances] to be right and that makes a big difference in how the message is conveyed.”

Bradley Farmer in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Thom Meyer.

Bonds explained one situation during rehearsals where an actress was struggling with the fact that her character has had an affair.

“She asked me, ‘If someone loves someone, then how could she do that?’” Bonds said, leading Bonds to explain to her the differences between love and infatuation.

“Taking those issues and having them see that it’s not about good or bad … it helps them to think on a broader scale,” Bonds said.

For some people, that might seem far off, primarily because society tends to think young adults have the inability to grasp some of the larger “real world” issues with which they have yet to come face-to-face. But for these students, including Micah Trout, a senior at Beavercreek High School, that challenge has been half of the fun.

“These are struggles that people deal with in real life – having children or an unhappy marriage – we just have a curse put on us by a witch,” Trout said of the story of his character, the Baker and his wife. “We really have to deal with all of the emotions people experience throughout their lives.”

Trout said one of his personal struggles laid within his approach to his character’s experience with a great loss. Bonds helped him to learn how to imagine and internalize this fictional tragedy, resulting in the realization for Trout that this was an emotion he would be able to convey on stage.

“I had to sit down and breathe for a moment,” Trout said of one particularly successful rehearsal of the part.

And it is those types of lessons that the Muse Machine crew is stellar at helping develop within young actors. Based on the idea that development starts within the classroom, the Muse Machine program was initiated in 1982 by founder Suzy Bassani under the premise that showing just one teacher how to use and appreciate the arts would result in his or her passing along that lesson to hundreds of students.

In addition to the annual winter musical, like “Into the Woods,” The Muse Machine’s primary work throughout the year is working with “Muse schools” and teachers to teach them how to incorporate the arts into everyday subjects like math and science. Activities include offsite learning experiences (OLE!) and summer workshops for teachers, as well as the inclusion of art-based experiences within the schools, like visits from local arts organizations.

“If children have and desire to do this, then this is the place to be,” Bonds said.

That success is a direct result of the students and the organization’s ability to work with talented people, like Bonds, Merk, Elzy andInto the Woods” Music Director David Düsing.

And people can’t seem to stop chatting about them: Director of Finance and Operations Therese Miller, was recently named the nonprofit CFO of the Year by the Dayton Business Journal; Michael Lippert, director of elementary programs, was awarded the Governor’s Award in the Arts for Arts Education for 2011; and Muse Machine recently received the organizational award for excellence for the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education.

Marry those accolades with The Muse Machine’s deep understanding of early arts education and you have, well, a happy ending indeed.

“Muse Machine has been one of my most rewarding experiences in high school,” Trout said. “Not only have these people helped me to create a character, but they have helped me to create my own character.”

Straight from the mouth of a 17-year-old. Sounds like “real world” understanding all the way.

Tickets for “Into the Woods” are on sale now through Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or online at www.ticketcenterstage.com. For more information about The Muse Machine programs, visit www.musemachine.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at CarolineShannon-Karasik@daytoncitypaper.com

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