Twin Cities DG member Janet Preus wears many hats in her creative life: journalist, director, playwright, songwriter, lyricist—and to top it all off, she’s writing a book (creative, historical non-fiction). A core member of the New Musical Theater Exchange (a musical theater development circle and Member Organization of the Playwrights’ Center), Janet regularly brings work-in-process to the table, including material she was exploring about communication and surviving emotional abuse which ultimately became her new play Welcome to Hell. As she explored songs and scenes early in the development process with NMTE, she learned that the story she was working on was not in fact a musical, but was a straight play, and one she was interested in reconceiving for deaf actors. Interestingly, the play itself is not about deafness, nor are there deaf characters, but in casting deaf actors and engaging with the deaf community, Preus was able to explore themes which resonate deeply within the deaf community, where relationship abuse is a serious concern. Preus worked hard to find appropriate collaborators to join her in this project, finding a wonderful partner in a non-arts non-profit called ThinkSelf, an organization that provides “culturally appropriate bilingual education, programming and advocacy services to Deaf and DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and Hard of Hearing adults.” ThinkSelf received a Partners in Arts Participation grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board in support of Welcome to Hell and came on board as producer. The grant is designed to broaden opportunities for Minnesotans to participate in the arts by inviting health or human services organizations to (among other things) work with artists to “design experiences tailored to meet the needs of the constituents they serve.”
Preus’ vast experience as a musical theater collaborator made the process of collaborating on Welcome to Hell with non-musical theater artists (and a non-arts organization) a natural one. She describes the process of working collaboratively with ThinkSelf and both deaf and hearing actors as an exercise in listening. “I did not intend to tell this story from the point of view of someone who is deaf. I was simply telling a story with a cast that consisted of two deaf actors and two hearing actors who ‘co-played’ the roles of ‘She’ and ‘He’. My job as the playwright was to listen. What do my actors have to say? How might the script need altering to make sense inside American Sign Language? The experience was so satisfying, and the result was a deeper, more nuanced version of the script.”
ThinkSelf produced the show this past summer at Open Eye Figure Theater, an intimate jewel box theater and “creative haven for artists” located in South Minneapolis. Open Eye is itself an incubator for new work, having recently launched FUSEBOX, “a new artist-in-residence program geared toward developing multi-disciplinary work that explores new intersections in performance, dance, song, puppetry, and object theater.” The run at Open Eye sold out, and the deaf community was well represented at every performance.
An update from the New Musical Theater Exchange in honor of this musical theater issue: DG member Maureen Kane Berg’s musical A House Divided (co-written with Tom Berg and Mike Salmanson) had a world premiere production at Narberth Community Theatre in Philadelphia following several public and private readings in Minneapolis (in conjunction with NMTE) and at The Bluegrass Opera in Lexington, Kentucky. In February, the NMTE presented the first public reading of DG member Brian Vinero’s verse play with music, Stirring the Plot, (or, the Tragedy of Chef III) after two years of development in the workshop. The New Musical Theatre Exchange continues to network with other writers and musical theatre development groups across the country and around the world. They meet monthly at The Playwrights’ Center to workshop new material and work collectively towards getting members’ work further developed and produced, and have also recently started topic-specific symposiums, including a recent symposium on opening numbers.