Fourteen Ball State students, working under the direction of theatre professor Beth Turcotte, turned Hoosier author Cathy Day’s novel “The Circus in Winter” into a new musical that was performed not only at the University Theatre in the fall of 2011, but also in New York City in October, 2012. It was one of eight productions performed at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s 24th Annual Festival of New Musicals.
The New York appearance followed a series of national awards won by “The Circus in Winter” at the 2012 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Major awards included Outstanding Production of a New Work, Outstanding Director of a New Work, and Outstanding Scenic Design.
“I’ve always wanted to develop a musical,” Turcotte said, “I’ve just been waiting for the right combination of people to come into my life and make it happen. Everything fell into place with this.” Turcotte and her students worked on this immersive learning project through the university’s Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry.
As part of the creative process, the students spent weeks researching the time period of Day’s novel, studying the book, meeting with the author, and soliciting advice from visitors in the theatre industry, including Tony Award-winning Broadway actress Sutton Foster.
Day's novel is a collection of stories centered on the inhabitants of a fictional town, Lima, Ind. The tales involve people connected to the imaginary Greater Porter Circus, who spend their winters in Lima from 1884 to 1939. Lima is a stand-in for Day’s real hometown—Peru, Ind., home of the International Circus Museum and, for decades, the winter quarters of the real-life Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.
"You drive into Peru and see a sign welcoming you to the circus capital of the world and you think, 'Who knew this was in our backyard?'" said Eric Byrer ’10, a musical theatre major who spent part of his senior year working on the project. The students had complete control of the production, from creating the script to crafting song lyrics and writing the music.
Twin brothers Christopher and Justin Swader, ’12, designed the production’s large, hand-crafted elephant, operated by puppeteers. Christopher Swader said working with Day was a highlight of the project, and that she gave them her blessing to make adaptations to her storyline for the script. The musical focuses on the lives of several key characters from the novel, such as circus owner Wallace Porter and Jennie Dixianna, one of his most famous performers known for her "Spin of Death."
Day said it was an honor to have the class interpret her book for the project. "When I visited them in January 2010, I got to listen to people sing songs about the themes of my novel—the stuff that's been in my heart since I was a child—and it was very moving to see that," she said. "It's also wonderful to know this is a project happening here in my home state—a group of Indiana students learning how to become artists with a text about Indiana."
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