Mo's Night at the Opera
It was the quintessential summer evening - the gloaming coming on slowly, tinting the sky with pinks and oranges. The rise and fall of the cricket chorus. A warm night, with a slight breeze. The buzz of a small biplane, going by. And, of course, outdoor theatre!
Where better to experience this glory of a summer evening than in one of my favorite artsy small towns - Yellow Springs, Ohio?! Yellow Springs is a college town (Antioch), boasts many amazing restaurants and shops, and is a hotbed of creativity. Enter Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse Artistic Director and pure genius John Fleming, who not only CREATES original productions, but teaches, produces, and makes theatre come alive for both kids and appreciative audiences.
The Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse is a true community gem, teaching students through annual original productions, arts classes, theatre training, and more. What I saw, on the evening I attended, was a pure love of theatre in these kids. They practiced with ease, ran with glee, whooped it up, and then came on stage like professionals.
Last week, I attended Opening Night of the original musical Mo's Night at the Opera, held outdoors at the Antioch College Amphitheater. Written by John Fleming, it is a GEM - full of clever references, pop culture, commedia dell arte, excellent acting, catchy songs, great talent, and unmistakable joy. There's popular culture, dancing, comedy, music, and plenty of energy.
I asked several of the actors if they loved doing this - there was a unanimous YES! I also asked several parents about their kids, participating - and got many lovely stories of confidence, learning, friends, and a great love of theatre. YES. This, this is summer theatre at its best!
We caught up with John Fleming and talked about Mo's Night at the Opera, writing inspiration, teaching Commedia delle Arte, the Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse, and more. Here's what he had to say...
WE: Please tell us about Mo's Night at the Opera...
JF: Mo’s Night at the Opera, written and directed by John Fleming, is derived from W.A. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and the Marx Brothers’ classic film A Night at the Opera. The influences themselves both nod to the Commedia delle Arte roots of pantomime and slapstick comedy that are presented in the show. The music combines original pieces by Neal Kirkwood as well as scenes that incorporate the score of The marriage of Figaro. The plot follows a tangle of relationships both on and off stage on the opening day of an opera.
WE: What inspired you, when writing this musical?
JF: While browsing in a used bookstore with Neal Kirkwood, I found a small book entitled The Story of a Hundred Operas. It inspired a discussion between us about the challenges, possibilities - and fun - of making a youth musical using the operatic form. The Marx Brothers came later.
WE: Is it challenging to teach kids Commedia Dell Arte?
JF: It was quite challenging to teach kids about Commedia delle Arte. The oldest person in the cast is 13 and so their slapstick references are quite small. Adam Sandler was a bit of a reference but Mickey Mouse was better. I have taught Commedia on the college level and am knowledgable of its history and style. I brought in pictures of leading characters – Pantalon, Harlequin, Brighella, Isabella – and compared them to Groucho, Cherubino, Chico and Rosa. I told the story of the Commedia more or less as a “Once upon a time…” They were rapt. Of course, since many Commedia scenarios are sordid if not downright lewd, I stressed the situational aspects of the scripts and the improvisatory aspects of the performance style.
You can read more about the connection (in my view) between Commedia, The Marriage of Figaro and the Marx Brothers on my blog at yskp.org
WE: How did you cast this musical? Are the actors all local talent?
JF: The show was cast from a non-conventional workshop audition in which we spent the afternoon learning mime, singing, improvising. The participants were asked to bring in a song and everyone who wanted to was given the chance to present.
All kids who audition are cast in the show. The workshop is a chance for me to place kids in roles and to fill out holes in the script to accommodate casting needs. (A benefit of it being original theater is that we can tailor the script as needed.)
It is performed by a cast of 31 youth from Yellow Springs, Xenia, Springfield and Dayton, Ohio – and Wisconsin.
WE: What would the audience be surprised to know, about Mo's Night at the Opera?
JF: I think they would be surprised at the acting craft level of the kids. They use the stage very well with large entrances, movement and pantomime scenes and dances. The character of Little Angel is a silent clown, a challenge for adult actors. In our show it is played by a 13 year old girl who nails it!
WE: What's the backstory of the YSKP?
JF: The YSKP started at the Antioch Area Theater, that is, the Theater Department of Antioch College. As such, it began and grew in an environment noted for innovation, experimentation and originality – and one that had a living theater tradition. The company was embraced from inception by the larger Yellow Springs community and has been supported by local foundations, parents and community members.
WE: What's up next for YSKP?
JF: We have classes throughout the year in acting, dance, singing, playwriting and African Drumming. Our holiday show The New Bremen Town Musicians combines a routine script with new writing by each year’s participants.
We also develop the summer show the previous year as we go from concept to page to stage. For a detailed description of the YSKP’s theater process, copies of The Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse Handbook for Theaters, Communities and Teachers can be purchased by contacting the YSKP. The book includes an education supplement for aligning developmental theater with learning standards.
WE: Thanks so much, John! This production - and the YSKP - is an extraordinary opportunity for kids - and an excellent example of intelligent community theater. Highly recommended!
Mo's Night at the Opera will run through July 22, 2012.
For more information, please see:
All photos courtesy and copyright Jessie Voigts