Circus life hits the stage as Ball State students adapt Hoosier author's novel into musical

Topics: College of Fine Arts, Immersive Learning

April 19, 2010

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Cathy Day, author of "The Circus in Winter," took time to visit the students this semester as part of the collaborative process. She has said it~~~s "incredibly flattering" to have Turcotte~~~s class create a musical inspired by her novel.
How do you take tightrope walkers, elephant trainers and circus clowns and turn them into fodder musical audiences will love? 

That's been the semester-long challenge presented to Ball State University's Beth Turcotte and her team of 14 students as they create an original musical inspired by Hoosier author Cathy Day's novel, "The Circus in Winter." Through this immersive learning experience, the students have overseen every aspect of the production, from creating the script, to crafting the lyrics and writing the music. 

"I have always wanted to develop a musical," said Turcotte, an associate professor of theatre who's worked on the project through the university's Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. "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." 

After weeks of research, meeting with the author and visits from music and theater experts like Tony-Award winning Broadway actress Sutton Foster, the students have a working script ready for an audience. A first concert read of the musical will occur at 8 p.m. April 23 in Ball State's Sursa Hall. A $5 donation will be collected at the door, with all proceeds benefiting Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware County. On April 26, the group will perform a second concert read at 7:30 p.m. at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace in Chicago. 

When fact meets fiction 

Senior Eric Byrer said the project has opened up a new chapter of Indiana history for him. 

"You drive into Peru (Ind.) and see a sign welcoming you to the circus capital of the world and you think, 'Who knew this was in our backyard?'" said the musical theater major who'll play the role of an elephant trainer in "The Circus in Winter." 

Day's novel is a collection of stories centered on the fictional inhabitants of Lima, Ind., circus people of the Greater Porter Circus who spent their winters in the town from 1884 to 1939. Day grew up in Peru, Ind., home of the International Circus Museum and, for decades, the winter quarters of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, making the novel a fictionalized history of her hometown. 

Sophomore Christopher Swader said working with Day has been a highlight of the project as she's given them her blessing to make adaptations to her novel's storyline for their script. As written, the musical will focus on the lives of several key characters of 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's an honor to have the class interpret her novel for the project. "When I visited them in January, 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," said Day, who will attend the Muncie reading of the musical. "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." 

2011: Year of the Circus?

With the semester's end in sight, the group will continue to work on the project in the months — even years — to come, professionally recording the musical in addition to performing another reading in Day's hometown of Peru, Ind., later this summer. "It's crazy to think we've focused so hard on just constructing the story that we still have this whole other world of costuming and casting to delve into," said J. Max Gosman, a directing major. "There's so much more that's left to uncover."

Long-term, the group wants "The Circus in Winter" to become a production of Ball State's theater line-up for the 2011-2012 academic year. Recent popularity of the circus in books and film — Sara Gruen's best-selling novel, "Water for Elephants," is being adapted for a 2011 film release with stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson attached — may even provide cross-over appeal for "The Circus in Winter" when it does hit the stage.

"The timing may be perfect for this production to really take off," Turcotte said. 

To learn more about the project, follow the class blogFacebook group or on Twitter.

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