Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bloody Ground in Ohio

That's Marlin Miller, the principal tenor soloist at the Gratz Opera House in Gratz, Austria.

As far as I'm concerned, Marlin's voice is one of the great gifts of our generation.  All of us who grew up with him knew that. 

Marlin and his wife Ingrid will be performing a duet from the developing opera on Friday, August 11, at the end of the show, and at a reception before the show.

Bloody Ground is being composed by the great American composer Myron Fink as a vehicle for a lyrical tenor (I'll let you guess who's going to be premiering that role).  

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Over spring break, I went to San Diego and wrote the final treatment, or summary, of the story.  I'm now making this story of Bloody Ground available to you -- it can be found by clicking here.

The story within the actual script is somewhat different -- but not by much. 

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The opera is based on an historical event.

On the night of December 15, 1811, Thomas Jefferson's nephew -- Lilburne Lewis -- gathered his slaves in the smokehouse of his Kentucky plantation, and murdered one of the slaves.

At 2 AM the next morning, Lilburne and his brother Isham were in the midst of burning the body when the first of the New Madrid Earthquakes hit the plantation.  The earthquakes continued for approximately nine months, until Lilburne committed suicide.  That's a fact.

The odd thing was this:  previous to the earthquakes, the great Indian chief Tecumseh had predicted to his braves that he would "stamp his feet" and "make all their houses fall down" -- and indeed, they did.

The opera Bloody Ground examines why the murder took place (it happens offstage).

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Hartland Theatre Company will be using the next two weeks to develop this new opera, and prepare it for the next development stage in Los Angeles. 

And if you'd like to place an ad in the playbill, or buy tickets early, please email the show's producer, Dick Gotschall: ($12.50 for Adults; $10.00 for Seniors and Students $10).

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I fly out of Los Angeles for Cleveland this Sunday at 6:30 AM.  I'll be in rehearsal for the next two weeks, developing the script. 

Although the actors will perform with scripts in their hands, it will be a full bare stage production, in every other way.

Auditions:  Monday, July 31 - Wednesday, August 2.

If you live in the area and you'd like to audition -- most parts will not require musical training, since this is first and foremost a play at this point -- please email my stage manager, Amanda Swinehart, to arrange an audition:

Rehearsals:  August 3 - 9.  Potluck meals each evening so that the cast can spend time together.  Work onstage from 7 - 10 PM.  Short, intense, and meaningful rehearsals.

Three performances:  Thursday, August 10 - Saturday, August 12.  Shows will begin at 7:30 PM each evening.

The show should be short -- I hope to bring it in at well under two hours each evening.

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The production is already attracting excellent local performers.

Todd Ranney has agreed to play Isham Lewis, baritone.  Ranney is the artistic director of the Akron Lyric Opera.

Ken Kramer has agreed to play James Rutter, bass.  Kramer is a director at Kent State University and has performed with the Ohio Light Opera for eleven seasons.

I'm really delighted to be working with these two.  What an honor.

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The fun of thisshow?  Each night will be a slightly different experience.

Because this show is in development, sometimes the performance can change drastically from night to night.  The actors will be carrying scripts in their hands, and will use them for the most unfamiliar scenes.  Translate that as NEW.

And here's the kicker:  the theatre in which we're working -- Theatre 8:15 in Green, Ohio -- only holds 80 seats.

And my producer is brilliant at filling seats with bodies.  Both sleeping and awake.  So -- audience members who wait to buy their ticket might find themselves out of luck.

Should be fun. 

        *          *          *

The primary goal of the production is to develop the opera itself.

The composer, Myron Fink, who is  best known for his opera Jeremiah and The Conquistador, will join the cast in rehearsal, beginning August 7.  He'll be seated at a Steinway piano.  As I stage the production, he'll be working with the singers in the show, developing music for the opera.  He'll also accompany the show, playing under and between scenes in the show.

This is Myron's seventh opera.  Marlin's mentor, Peyton Hibbitt, co-founder of the Tri-Cities Opera Company, introduced me to Myron in 2001, suggesting that we collaborate.

What an amazing artist and perfomer Myron is.  I knew he was gifted from the beginning, because Marlin immediately genuflected when I mentioned him.  And Marlin has the best musical taste of anyone I know.

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Another goal of this production is to develop a workable script that can move to Los Angeles this winter.  We're going to be paying careful attention to the audiences and actors.  Once we're finished with the production, I'll make changes -- based on the feedback I get.

They used to develop shows like this in the old days -- doing New Haven, they called it, in which you changed and developed the show before taking it to The City (where if it didn't meet the expectations of the critics, it died an efficient death).

Incidentally, the adaptation of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (which I wrote with Steven Huey and developed with The Players Guild of Canton in July 2003) has been selected by the Hollywood Repertory Theatre for production this fall.

As challenging as this rehearsal process seems -- it really does work.  

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How did the writing go?

Cutting myself off from the world -- going to the desert, writers call it sometimes -- really works for me.  I drove to San Diego on Saturday, July 1, set up my computer, and began work on Sunday, July 2.

For eight days, I ate, slept, and drank the script.  When I was tired, I slept.  When I was hungry, I ate.  No email.  Few phone calls.

Myron Fink, my composer, and his wife Bonnie, provided a quiet home in which to work, and gave me amazing support.  Healthful meals.  Inspiring conversations. 

And Myron read and reacted to everything I wrote within minutes of my handing it to him.  His feedback was specific and helpful.  It was truly a collaborative effort.

By Monday, July 10, I was heading back to Los Angeles -- the first draft of the script completed.

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Okay, the fact that we've spent the last three years -- about a weekend every two months -- working on developing the story itself didn't hurt. 

The clear blueprint (treatment) we created together made it easy for me to write the scenes themselves. 

There was only one day, when I was writing the last three scenes of Act Two -- I had to spend the day rewriting the treatment, reworking the scenes -- when I didn't reach my daily goals.  So I had to write into the night.

The dialogue ofthe blue-blood characters (Thomas Jefferson's family) is written in blank verse. 

I only realized how deeply I had sunk into the writing process when I called my mentor and friend, Walt Walker.  I was talking about what it was like to write in blank verse when he suddenly stopped me.

"Steven, are you aware that in the last minute and a half, you've been speaking in blank verse?" 

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It's been over a decade since Marlin and I have actively worked together on a project.  In that time, he's become well known within the opera world for his voice and his acting.

Besides being cousins, we've been close friends since high school.  Music was our common bond.

We both attended the same little high school in a little Midwest town, Hartville, Ohio, located between Akron and Canton. 

We had the same English teacher, Myrrl Byler, from grades 7-12.  Other teachers accused our class of worshiping him.  He was also our senior advisor -- he and his wife were our friends as well as our mentors.  In view of the fact that our class was an impossible group to every teacher but Brother Byler, I don't blame them for resenting us.  Or him.

Marlin and I began a men's quartet -- along with classmates Stephen Sommers and David Miller -- during our freshman year at Hartville Christian High.  That quartet grew into a men's ensemble called The Harvesters, which performed from 1977-1989.

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Did I mention that Marlin and I are both going home for our high school senior class's 25th Year Reunion?

So this will be interesting.

I have no idea how many of my classmates will attend.  There were only 16 in our graduating class (I told you it was a small school).

I think I became a high school English teacher because I admired my own English teacher -- and the way he profoundly affected every one of us who had the privilege of attending his classes.

He taught us to question the way we lived -- for the first timeinour lives.  Our classroom discussions were profound -- at least that's what we thought at the time.  And he stayed an extra year in order to graduate us.  We felt special.

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That's right.  Our English teacher left the classroom when we graduated.  But he didn't leave the Mennonites, and he couldn't leave education behind.  Instead, he spent several years with his wife in China as a missionary of sorts.

Today Myrrl Byler heads up the China Educational Exchange, sending other teachers to China.  He has occasionally asked me when I plan to spend a year abroad there.

Perhaps, some day.

        *          *          *

My English teacher's most profound impact on my life, however, came through his encouragement of my writing.  He didn't overdo it, mind you.  Just made sure I knew about a certain poetry contest.  I sent three poems, and they were published in a book of high school poetry -- published nationwide.

One of the proudest moments of my young life came when I went to him in his office and showed him the letter that told me I was special -- that I was good enough to have people read something I wrote.

So I suppose the fact that I'm producing my latest play in Ohio at the same time my classmates are gathering to celebrate the fact that we're not punks anymore -- that probably means something.  I guess. 

1 comment:

headnorth2ak said...

Hi, this is emily, on petes id. Thats interesting that one of the plays you wrote got picked... thats exciting! And about marlin... id never heard much of him before, but what i did wasnt that favorable. But it sounds like he is quite the guy. I am sure you will enjoy working with him. I am possibly moving to Florida next month.... find out more by going to