From Ball State to the Big Apple: 'Circus in Winter' advances in national theater festival

Topics: College of Fine Arts, Immersive Learning, College of Sciences and Humanities

June 29, 2012

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Students perform in the 2011 Ball State production of "The Circus in Winter." Professional actors will play the roles in 45-minute readings of the production when it is staged this fall at the Festival of New Musicals in New York City.

"The Circus in Winter", the immersive learning musical created by students and faculty at Ball State University, will travel to New York City this fall as one of eight new musicals selected for inclusion in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's 24th Annual Festival of New Musicals.

The competition is the premier industry event for professional new musicals to be staged for future national and/or international development. More than 75 percent of shows participating in the festival during its 23-year history have gone on to subsequent productions and tours, been printed in publishers' catalogues or recorded on cast albums. These include notable off-Broadway and Broadway productions such as "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Children of Eden."

"To have an undergraduate institution create, submit and make it as one of eight new musicals selected as finalists in a festival of this caliber is unheard of," said Bill Jenkins, chair of Ball State's Department of Theatre and Dance. "This is a testament not just to the quality of this specific piece of work, but the tenets of immersive learning and what can be accomplished here at Ball State."

Preparing for the festival

The musical is an adaptation of Ball State English professor Cathy Day's novel by the same name and follows the lives of Indiana stable owner Wallace Porter and the crew of talent he hires when purchasing his own circus. Its original creative team included theater professor and director Beth Turcotte and 14 students who created "The Circus in Winter" as part of a Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry immersive learning project in spring 2010.

The musical was staged at Ball State in fall 2011 and went on to win a series of major recognitions — including outstanding honors in production, direction and scenic design of a new work — at the 2012 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival this spring.

To prepare for submission in the festival, the university enlisted the skills of New York-based playwright and actor John Cariani ("Almost Maine"). Turcotte said Ball State is indebted to Cariani's contributions to the project.

"We wouldn't have taken this script this far had it not been for his coming to Muncie for two weeks this spring to help us tighten it up," she explained.

Also working with Cariani and Turcotte has been Ben Clark, lyricist and composer for the musical and one of the original students who created the project in 2010.

"We've worked so hard to improve on this script and make it even better than we felt it was," said Clark, who graduated in 2011. "Making it into the festival is just another great step for the show."

New actors, new director, new opportunities

Turcotte and Clark will have a large say in the casting of the director and actors participating in the performance of "Circus" while at the Oct. 11-12 festival in New York City. The eight new musicals will be showcased over two days in 45-minute presentations in front of audiences comprised of producers, directors and theater owners from around the world. 

"We can put our dream list of actors together and see whom we can get," said Turcotte, who wants to enlist former Ball State students now working in theater in New York for the project. "This could be a chance for us to help some of our alumni progress in their careers."

Jenkins said he and other members of Ball State's theater department strongly believe the musical will do well and field interest from professionals attending the festival.

"If you've seen this show, you know it's magical," he said. "When we look at the trajectory 'The Circus in Winter' is on, we are just light-years ahead of where most musicals are in development at this stage. We look forward to seeing it get the national attention it so greatly deserves."

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