Caesar the Elephant stomps onto the stage, each footfall a drumbeat, his bellow a shrill trumpet. There’s an awed gasp from the audience, his exterior so real that the legs of two men hoisting him up don’t fracture the onstage reality luring the audience away.
The elephant is part of The Circus in Winter, a musical play created by students at Ball State University based on the novel by Peru, Indiana native Cathy Day. The story follows Wallace Porter as he purchases a circus and falls for the sultry mysterious acrobat Jennie Dixianna.
The play debuted at Ball State in September 2011 with several successful performances. In January of this year, it was performed at the Region III Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Illinois and then traveled to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where it won Outstanding Production of a New Work and Outstanding Scenic Design.
And now the circus has made its next stop: New York City and the National Alliance of Musical Theater showcase. It was one of eight new works selected from 152 entries presented October 11-12, featuring a professional cast highlighted by two-time Tony award winning actress Sutton Foster.
Raising the Tent
“I had always wanted to develop a musical,” said Beth Turcotte, Ball State University associate professor of Theatre. With support from the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, a Ball State program that annually funds select immersive projects for students, she and a group of 14 students were on their way to fulfilling that dream.
During a brainstorm session, one student suggested a play based on the circus. Another student went a step further and brought up Day’s book, which was being taught on campus. Within 48 hours the author and her agent had granted the program the right to produce the musical at no cost.
The Circus in Winter is a novel in stories. The narrative extends across decades and characters, each—while not directly connected—sharing a bond with the circus history of Lima, Indiana. The book was inspired by Day’s hometown Peru and its own circus history. Once the winter quarters for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, Peru still celebrates its circus heritage today with an annual summer amateur circus. The city is also home of the International Circus Hall of Fame museum.
The play first attempted to pull those many generations and characters into a cohesive two-hour musical. “It wasn’t Hoosier enough,” Turcotte says. “It didn’t show enough of the Hoosier spirit. I felt the first three stories—the Wallace Porter stories—had such a strong sense of ‘pioneer overcoming obstacles and making bold decisions’ and I became more and more attracted to that story.”
Last month in New York, the play did four 45-minute readings for an audience of theater professionals from across the country. It’s been bolstered by a revised script by Ben Clark, who wrote all the original music for the play, and John Cariani, who wrote the 2004 hit play Almost, Maine. Professional performers took over the characters, led by Foster, who is now starring in the acclaimed television show Bunheads, and Emily Behny, a member of the student group who began bringing the play to life and, post-graduation, has been starring as Belle in a national tour of Beauty and the Beast. Jonathan Jensen, another member of the original group of students who is currently managing a theater in Kansas City, participated in the staged reading.
It was the culmination of 30 years of teaching for Turcotte. “It takes a long time to—one—trust yourself and—two—trust others and be patient enough to wait for the right people to enter your life to make a project happen,” she says. “And I think that’s what happened.”
The Circus in Peru
The Circus in Winter began as a nonfiction essay for Day about her hometown, the circus, and not fitting in. When she arrived at the University of Alabama to work on an MFA, the stories that would make up her novel began to take shape. “Twelve years later when the book finally comes out that’s still kind of what it’s about—even if it’s fiction by then,” she said.
The novel-in-stories approach was inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ poem Spoon River Anthology, which led her to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Both texts told a tale about towns using interconnected stories. She knew she wanted to adopt a story cycle form for her project.
Since The Circus in Winter’s 2004 publication, Day has followed up with a memoir, Comeback Season, which intertwines her search for a husband with the Indianapolis Colts’ championship season.
By the time the play was nearing completion, Day had been hired as a creative writing professor at Ball State. The students did readings of their work in Peru, and Day joined them and read the stage directions. When the play opened at University Theater on the Ball State campus, she was there to show her support. “It’s always an honor to have someone take something you write and make it into art,” she says. “Seeing it staged—it’s very surreal to see your inner life dramatized. And most of the time when you write a book you aren’t there when people are reading it. So it was strange to be there in the audience and there are people laughing and responding to things I had written or characters I had created.”
Not knowing anything about musicals, she didn’t have any preconceived notions about what her work would transform into. “What mattered to me was they were a bunch of kids who were probably mostly from Indiana and they would be learning how to be artists by working with a book about Indiana,” she said. “I saw it as a way to help them.”
Circus Sights and Sounds
The behind-the scenes appearance of a musical involves a whiteboard covered with plot points and storyboards that stretch around an empty Ball State classroom. Two men sit at a table—Ben Clark, a recent Ball State graduate, and professional playwright John Cariani—half-finished take out food between them, laptops open. A lone guitar rests on the floor by Clark. It’s not particularly needed. They are focused on story. They are focused not on the words the characters sing, but the reasons why they sing them.
Clark, who also performs as a local singer-songwriter, wrote the music and lyrics for the play. He’s also been onstage playing guitar throughout the performances, but is looking forward to letting someone else take over that duty. He’d like to sit in the audience and watch for once.
“The way I did things was I wanted to have an outline of the story and certain structures in order to figure out what kind of song went where,” he said. “It’s also a little more complicated because you have to write from the perspective and mindset of all these characters.”
Cariani had developed a relationship with the theatre department beginning with Ball State students performing scenes from his hit play Almost, Maine. When the Circus script began revisions for its submission to NAMT, he was asked to come to Muncie and help clean it up. He had no experience writing musicals but had acted in them before. “The biggest thing is trying to tell a story with song. The song has to be a good song but it has to tell the story, too,” he said. “I think a lot of songwriting is freeform poetry and ideas. You can do that more on an album, I think. But for a musical you have to make sure the story is told and moving forward all the time—that people have a reason to stay with it.”
Working on someone else’s project was a new experience for him. He’d always had the luxury of putting his own stories down on paper. “I’ve seen a production of the play so a lot of it just trying to focus and clarify what is already here,” Cariani said. “And not ruin it.”
Two of the key issues the writers tackled were character development for Wallace Porter and Jennie Dixianna. In the previous version of the play they felt Porter just floated along with his world. They want him to be a more dynamic character, to take control of his destiny.
They also worked to improve Dixianna. On stage, Erin Oeschel had stunned local audiences with her portrayal of the character, bringing both fiery passion and melancholy into Dixianna’s life. The writers wanted to make sure the audience understood her backstory. They wanted to show she hadn’t had a successful relationship with any man–having been abused by her father–and that also echoes in her current relationship with the circus’s trainer, Elephant Jack. They faced another challenge by showing Jack’s feelings toward Jennie were legitimate when a relationship begins to brew between the acrobat and Porter. “We didn’t want [Jack] to be maniacal but we do need to make the way he does things a little twisted,” Clark said. “There’s a big difference between mustache curling and being someone an audience can understand as an antagonist.”
One aspect that wasn’t on display in New York City was the award winning set design by twin brothers Justin and Christopher Swader. While helping write the play, they immersed their classmates in images that helped everyone visualize how the characters and setting might appear.
“In designing the set, Justin and I wanted to find a common denominator between Midwestern Indiana and the spectacle of the circus, so we chose a round barn to serve as the focal point of the space,” Christopher explained. “As Indiana once served as the round barn capital of the world, and the circus winter quarters used the round barns for rehearsal, it seemed fitting to use this piece of Hoosier history to help tell the story. We wanted to create a space that could seamlessly become all of the locations with the change of a light and minimal props. Crates and barrels could become chairs, a door could form a table, and a stack of trunks and crates could transform into the New York skyline.”
Perhaps their biggest challenge came in the shape of Caesar the Elephant. How do you create a life-sized elephant that’s versatile enough to stomp around on stage? “In order to tie in the rustic barn element of the scenic design to the puppet, we merged materials including distressed fabric, old rope, twine, and fisherman’s netting to create the textured body of the elephant,” Justin said. “Two puppeteers were completely visible to the audience, and they controlled the movement of the puppet, as well as the head and the trunk. Getting the opportunity to work on such a giant endeavor like this was such an incredible opportunity.”
“I can remember reading the lyrics ‘Home is where the heart is’ in composer Ben Clark’s music, and that was kind of a starting point for the basis of the design,” Christopher said. “Wallace Porter, the central protagonist in the musical, is a Midwestern man at heart, so Justin and I wanted to keep the look and feel of Indiana present at all times. The script has a theme of working together to build something grand, almost a ‘barn-raising’community feel to it. Hopefully, that came across in the design.”
There have been a lot of changes and opportunities for the play since its success in Washington, DC. A producer heard a sampling of songs on Bandcamp and contacted Turcotte with an interest in representing the show, and soon signed a two-year contract with Ball State University. Clark and the Swaders, based on the awards won at the Kennedy Center, received scholarships to study during the summer at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Connecticut. The play itself was temporally cut down to a 45-minute performance for NAMT.
And, of course, professionals fielded the roles once occupied by students in Muncie, highlighted by Foster. “When you get an artist of that caliber who is willing to invest her time and talent in an unknown project, they will often bring other folks to it who might not otherwise trust the work quite yet,” says Turcotte.
Turcotte sees a lot of pride from the students who have spent years working on the play but also understands there was some disappointment as the circus headed to New York with out them. “We’ve had—probably from start to finish—two or three hundred students who have participated in the play in some capacity. Each time a new person comes in they give us new ways of looking at things,” she said. “Even though the students may not perform it now, their imprint is still there. I would love to have more students involved in New York but Emily and Jonathon will represent us well. But down the line, when the play hits the professional stage, I hope some of the students who were involved will get a shot.”
Click here for more images from the student production of The Circus in Winter.
Music from The Circus in Winter can be heard here.