Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Backstage with Schoolhouse Rock

City Circle - We recently had a chance to talk to Chris Okiishi, the director of City Circle's next show, Schoolhouse Rock - Live! (Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.) I am sure many of us remember those funny (and informative) cartoons playing on Saturday mornings. My favorite was "The Bill." After reading our interview with Chris, feel free to share your memories of Schoolhouse Rock in the comments.

Talk to me a little bit about the collaboration with Englert and the Iowa Children's Museum. Do you meet with those groups and come up with a show together? Or do you bring ideas to them?

Chris Okiishi: In the case of both Seussical and School House Rock - Live!, the idea to work together came first, then we sifted through some ideas of what might make a good collaboration. Seussical came simultaneously to the museum and to me, and Schoolhouse Rock was the brainchild of Beth Bewley-Randall of the Englert. She had worked on the original Chicago production and hoped for years to bring it to the stage here.

Who is in the cast? Can you tell give me the inside scoop on any stand out performances we'll all be talking about the next day?

Chris: This is a fantastically diverse cast--many new to our group and some new to the area. They are all so talented, it's hard to pick a favorite, but watch the chorus folks as they find ways of stealing scenes--my favorite acting jobs were always in shows like this where the chorus could gobble up four or five little "bits" and walk away with the show!

This show was originally supposed to be done with just a few actors, but my understanding is you're doing it with many, many more actors than that. Can you tell why you've gone that route and what challenges or advantages that has brought to your production?

Chris: The show was designed to be performed by a group of six friends in a small bar in Chicago. It was developed as a response to the talents available and in particular to the space they had. In moving into a much larger venue such as the Englert, some re-imagining was necessary and I seized the opportunity to expand the cast to its current 32. In some cases, this has resulted in a greater match to the original source material (Elbow Room, Great American Melting Pot) and in other cases, we still only feature a few actors at a time (Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Ready or Not Here I Come). But we are doing our best to fill the theater with life and energy while still keeping the educational message intact.

Who is doing the choreography? What can you tell me about that aspect of the production?

Chris: There are four choreographers. Leslie Nolte is working on Ready or Not Here I Come which will also feature her troup of dancers. Jessica Netolicky provided the infecteous Interplanet Janet dance, which we will actually teach to the audience at one point. And Michelle Altmaier and Lily Huber produced a roller skate dance to Figure 8. The rest of the choreography was developed in conjunction with the ensemble. We are really proud of how we manage to keep telling the story while still reflecting the style and movement of the music.

Were you a big fan of the Saturday morning cartoons that are the basis of this show?

Chris: Oh, you becha! My brothers and I knew many of these by heart--and I still could sing "The Preamble" on cue at any moment before working on the show. That said, there are many lesser-known gems ("Victim of Gravity", for example) which have become new favorites.

I admit I have never heard of "Victim of Gravity". Just to follow up with that... during rehearsals were there lots of talk about everyone's memories? How did that help the production?

Chris: Oh yes. Ellen Stevenson, who is in our show, was also in the ICCT production that went up one week after 9/11. She has some amazing stories to tell of that production and the memories our production trigger for her.

Also, several cast members in addition to me are being regularly transported back in time to our childhoods and in particular to how we used the information in the songs to learn more efficiently. And now at least two of the younger cast members proudly report improved science grades as a result of the Circulation song!

That's what we want to hear! So what else do we need to know about this show?

Chris: This kind of a show is tricky--it seems like it's all about the kids, but really, there is almost more for adults here. For me, the most fascinating aspect of the show is to see how songs like "Sufferin' for Suffrage", "Elbow Room" and "Great American Melting Pot" say as much about the time they were written as the historical lessons they teach. Imagine, for example, an unapologetic pro-immigration song playing on Saturday Morning today! So in a way, it's a history lesson about mid-70s politics and values as well--and a chance to revisit how we thought about history then and compare it to our views today.

Thank you, Chris, for taking the time to give us a glimpse backstage.

Check out Schoolhouse Rock Live! this weekend at the Englert. For more info, go here.

(Above photo supplied by City Circle features Christopher Carpenter as The Bill.)

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