Arvada Center Blog

Building the world of Bright Star

Building the world of Bright Star

By Leslie Simon

How do you transport audiences from a wooden stage in Arvada to different locations and decades in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina? Award-winning Scenic Designer Brian Mallgrave puts deep thought and colorful imagination into creating immersive environments, something he has done for over 100 Arvada Center productions.

Brian’s latest work is for our fall musical Bright Star, by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. His designs for this musical take the audience to a specific place – Appalachia – and portray the passage of time as the musical flashes back and forth between the 1920s and 1940s.

Brian Mallgrave – Bright Star set color rendering

“The main vision of the setting envelopes the story through the use of a vintage 1930s map wall to “marry” all periods and locations- ascending into a silhouette of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The flooring is representative of the porches and decking attached to our various cabin dwellings, grounding all moving scenic elements.”

Brian uses the floor to create various locations as well as add extra symbolism. “The flooring creates the symbol of a connecting star in the center- as all characters connect and grow- and starfields illuminate the sky areas above to encompass our Bright Star theme.”

In general, the set is representational – meaning it creates an illusion of reality rather than fantasy. Lighting creates an extra dimension in the two-dimensional buildings and cabins.  “Much of the play is memory, and the cabin slatwork, being semi-transparent, offers interesting opportunities for lighting, representing the layers of transparency and fragments that our story often revisits.”

This use of light and movement works with the movement and passage of time in the musical. It covers a span of over 20 years – moving back and forth in the story. “There are many moving parts in the line set (used to move things up and down), background structural elements, and castered (rolling) furnishings that move to parallel the storyline as it seamlessly transitions through time periods.”

Based on music, book and lyrics written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Bright Star’s bluegrass and Americana-tinged sounds influenced the stage design that Brian created. “The musical style is a big motivator and regional influence, thus the band is featured onstage, to reinforce the impact of this element.”

Whether you are a lover of bluegrass or just a fan of a good story, there is something for everyone in Bright Star. Tickets are on sale now – it opens September 6! 

The Making of Bright Star

The Making of Bright Star

By Amberle N.

The story of the musical Bright Star begins with garlic crackers. 

Steve Martin met a rather shy Edie Brickell at a dinner party and offered her some, causing the renowned comedian and the indie music legend to become fast friends that night. Such a small story of breaking the ice set the stage for their friendship. In 2011, after listening to Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers’ album Rare Bird Alert, Brickell praised his songs and proposed writing music together. As Martin would admit to Stephen Colbert – though he’d written songs on his own and played banjo for other people’s songs – he had no idea how to write a song with another person from scratch but he went ahead and said yes. 

Martin and Brickell

Their musical partnership resulted in the 2013 album Love Has Come For You. In 2014, the title song won the Grammy for Best American Roots Song – a vindication of Martin’s musical talent with the banjo and Brickell’s return to the music scene after a long hiatus.

The idea for the musical came while Brickell and Martin were composing the album. One of the banjo compositions they created inspired the writing of a “train song,” and Brickell’s curiosity led her to discover a fantastic event in the history of the Iron Mountain Railroad. The traditional folksong “The Iron Mountain Baby” inspired Bright Star and forms the core of its narrative – an ideal story for the event of a lifetime.

Describing her appreciation of the Iron Mountain Baby to CBS, Brickell said “I love miracles and I read that story and said, it’s such a beautiful miracle and it’s so weird that anybody can do such a thing. And it just did – it sparked my imagination.” 

“So Familiar” Album Cover

The songs of Love Has Come For You are themselves a set of tiny stories, some funny and some serious. The album’s songs heavily inspired Bright Star, capturing the adventuresome highs and lows of the setting and serving as a point around which many characters were crafted. 

In a 2016 interview with Steven Colbert, Brickell described her experience of Bright Star’s lyrics as “singing a character’s heart,” in terms of who they are and how they feel. Martin sent her banjo compositions and she would sing to them until a song solidified, and that spirit carried into Bright Star as the two of them composed songs around the characters.

One of the first lines from the musical is, “If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell,” and the entire narrative occurs as a deeper look into the lives of characters who are stepping out of a background role as writers for others to tell their own story. It’s a story that does the work of paying attention to love, and the musical carries a sweetness that is rooted in tradition and the optimism of post-war America.

Bright Star plays at the Center from September 6 – 29.

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Storytelling tradition of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Storytelling tradition of the Blue Ridge Mountains

by Leslie Simon

Deep in the “hollers” of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you can hear the sound of stories old and new being told in kitchens, on front porches and in the farm fields. When electricity was hard to come by, instead of radio and TV you provided entertainment with storytelling. This oral tradition is an important aspect of Appalachian life, with generation after generation passing down stories that teach us about life through historical fables, metaphors, and exaggerated tall tales. Listen closely and you will hear unique speech patterns like double negatives, clever wordplay, and unique spellings (“I’m a-goin’ down the mountain”) that involve much of the language of Colonial America.

This unique tradition of the Appalachian people combines tales from Celtic and European folklore, myths of the Cherokee, fables from African American slave culture, magical tales about meeting oversized animals with supernatural powers, and the ever-popular “Jack Tales” that follow the adventures of the trickster Jack. These Jack tales are kin to popular stories like “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and they teach important lessons in cunning behavior and believing in yourself.

This generational passing down of stories allowed for some very old topics to be kept alive in what residents called “the Back Country.”  When folklore archivists like Richard Chase and Alan Lomax traveled to the Blue Ridge Mountains area after the Great Depression to record these stories for cultural preservation, they found themes and subjects that went as far back as medieval knights and seafaring adventures. Often starting with the mother sharing stories with the children while working around the house, these tales were passed down from generation to generation, a vibrant tradition that still continues to this day.

Ray Hicks, Storyteller

In Bright Star, we see this storytelling tradition carry on. Inspired by the old folksong “The Ballad of the Iron Mountain Baby,” Steve Martin and Edie Brickell have created a story of love, loss, and the hope for a better life that keeps us going. Watch and listen as we follow Alice through years of her life, striving to create a home for herself while pondering over past life choices. We hope Bright Star leaves you with a story that you can pass on to others.

Denver dance scene pivots and turns: 15 years with Wonderbound’s Sarah Tallman

By Leslie Simon

 

As Denver grows, so grows its dance scene. For 15 years, esteemed Colorado dancer Sarah Tallman has entertained fans with her fierce ballet performances with award-winning local dance company Wonderbound. 2019 marks her final year performing as a full-time dancer, but audiences need not be worried- she will still be working behind-the-scenes creating new works and guiding future generations of Colorado dancers through her unique and powerful choreography. We spoke to Sarah about her 15-year journey with Wonderbound, having transcendent experiences while performing, and what she sees for the future of our local dance scene. Join us here at the Arvada Center on June 14-15 for Wonderbound’s production of Boomtown and see Sarah dance in her final two performances.

Sarah Tallman and Ben Youngstone, photos by Amanda Tipton

Q: What has working with Wonderbound over the course of 15 years taught you about yourself?

A: Oh my goodness… I love this question. Over the last 15 years, I have had the opportunity to appear in over 30 Garrett Ammon ballets, which means there has been an enormous opportunity to explore different characters and emotional arcs that humans experience in the course of a day or even a lifetime. Through that exploration, I have observed myself navigating both the simple and the complex emotions that we all go through. They are all reminders that we are alive!

Each of these roles encouraged me to look within and explore myself. As I journeyed through creating the most authentic expressions of each of these characters and roles, it’s been an opportunity to explore the most authentic expression of who I am and how I interact in the world. The more I deepened into the nuances of who I am or who I think I am as an individual, the deeper I have been able to move through the art form. I have learned a lot about love and what it feels like to express that love. I’ve learned to be rigorous and have fun while doing it!

Image by Amanda Tipton Photography

Q: What’s your most memorable moment in working with Wonderbound?

A: Wow. There are so many moments that I have cherished; it’s difficult to distill them into one! I absolutely adore performing and have had transcendent experiences on stage where I felt really locked in with the moment. In those instances, the technique and the emotions simultaneously clicked, and I became a conduit of the work rather than a person executing moves. Those moments feel almost like out-of-body experiences, which is funny because it’s through the body that they have taken form. Those experiences make way for a connection and a deepening of our own humanity. My hope is for at least one person to feel something move within them or to ask a deeper question of themselves. I have seen and experienced these moments with my co-workers as well. It’s quite remarkable.

I also value the relationships we create with our many community education programs. Very recently, I observed a 3rd grader completely change his physiological capacity within a matter of seconds after being exposed to dance. Dance is for everybody, and to observe its resonance with the community as an audience member or participant makes for memorable moments.

 

 

Q: What will you miss the most about dancing full-time?

A: I will miss working in the studio with Garrett in the creation of a new solo, and the time with Dawn as a coach. It’s been an unexpected gift to spend the majority of my career originating new roles in brand new ballets that re-awaken the art form. These types of exchanges come along once in a lifetime. I appreciate each one of them and hold them dear to my heart.

The nature of these experiences have allowed me to sink my teeth into the work and go deeper. That’s the secret, when you find work you love, keep going. I can compare it to seeing the ocean for the first time. The ocean is beautiful from the shoreline, but when you jump in and see what’s beneath, there is suddenly an entire world beyond what was witnessed at first glance.

The rigorousness of this type of process has inspired me to create these types of relationships with future artists as I continue my journey as a choreographer. I will miss the everyday vigorous nature of dancing full-time and the connections that are created with audiences and co-artists. I will miss performing, and at the same time, I look forward to discovering new realities through working on the other side of the room as an artistic team member at Wonderbound.

Image by Amanda Tipton Photography

Q: There is an important symbiotic relationship between your writing and your choreography. Can you walk us through your process in creating a new work?

A: Absolutely! Each time I create a new work, I know a little more about what might happen throughout the process, but no two processes are alike. Firstly, I spend a lot of time with the music before I’ve attempted to make even one step. The music generally will cultivate some sort of feeling within me that will then create images in my brain and off I go. My next step is to sit down with paper and pen and just start to free-write. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not. As I step into the studio for the first time, I have an outline of the beginning, middle and end of the work. That being said, it’s just as important to not get attached to the “plan” on paper in order to give space to what comes forward once the steps are created.

I’ll often go back to the writing throughout the process. The words help me to envision and create textures, nuances and concepts as the ballet begins to unfold. The next steps are sort of rinse and repeat. At the end of the day, I take what I have learned in the studio and start to form pieces of a puzzle until it’s complete. I lean into the dancers’ artistic voices and interpretations to help further the process and together we begin to make connections.

 

Q: How does your yoga practice affect your dance practice?

A: I first became a student of yoga at a summer program years ago. I initially fought the training, but then realized it allowed me to experience and understand technique in a different way. Essentially, I used it as a way of cross training. I soon discovered it also provided time to listen to my body and sense my environment differently. Yoga has helped to create a balance internally and externally which prepares me for whatever a rehearsal day or performance might bring.

 

Q: What changes have you seen in the Denver dance scene over the past 15 years?

A: Denver has changed so much over the last 15 years. It’s really become a city that values art and dance in particular. The level of awareness and our community’s artistic palate has become more diverse. There is no formula to what our audiences desire to experience, other than that they know it will always transcend and surprise. Art has been and will continue to be the heartbeat and grounding of a community. The more we push the envelope, the more we clearly carve a place for dance to exist. It’s impossible not to see art at the forefront of this city’s development. Simply driving down the street, one can’t help but notice the immersive quality of art. It truly is everywhere. I believe Wonderbound has been at the forefront of changing what we can do with our art form. Wonderbound’s collaborative vision has created a palpable energy, making it a stalwart for dance in Denver.

Image by Amanda Tipton Photography

Q: What changes do you hope to see in the next 15 years?

A: My hope for the next 15 years is that we continue to push the boundaries of what is being created. Curiosity, exploration, wonder. These are all important attributes that will carry Denver forward. It’s important to respect what has been and then give way to future moments as they unfold. Denver has a very real opportunity to become a destination city for art as much as it is for its environmental attractions. We can evolve a city that people come to in order to see world class dance.

A Conversation with Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical’s Gary Holmes

By Leslie Simon

 

Travel back to the time of the cultural hotbed that was the Harlem Renaissance – the music was swinging, bands were big, and the jazz scene continued to rise in popularity and influence. A funny and heartfelt look at love, Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical rediscovers the music of prolific songwriter J.C. Johnson in a story about love, set in Harlem when the culture defined cool and the scene was hot. We spoke to Gary Holmes, Co-Bookwriter of Trav’lin, about his inspirations, J.C.’s music, and the journey this musical has taken since the beginning of its creation.

Q: The Arvada Center is excited to produce the regional premiere of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical. Why do you think this story set in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance is so appealing and resonates with audiences outside of Harlem?

A: TRAV’LIN is a story about LOVE.  That is what J.C. Johnson wrote mostly about and was the main factor in my determining what tales TRAV’LIN would tell.  The show delves humorously into the follies of love and then digs deep into the hurt that love can be. And those foibles and hurts go beyond a time and a place. The three couples of TRAV’LIN represent three different stages and aspects of love, with all of them are trying to figure what it’s all about! Add to that the energy and raw feeling of the music and era underlying it all and….

Q: It is almost one hundred years since the setting of Trav’lin took place. What is it about the songs of J.C. Johnson that make them so timeless, and why do they still resonate with audiences so strongly?

A: J.C. wrote very simply and directly. His lyrics go right to the core of whatever emotion the song required. And if he was just composing the music, as he often did, he had the ability to exactly match the tone of the lyrics, whether it be a big band, jazz or blues beat. He often said he learned his craft on the streets. I believe that’s where his got his ability to hone in on what the tune or lyric was about, and go right there. No flowery words or heavily intricate tunes. And he really knew how to write a tune!

Q: How has the musical grown and evolved since its debut at the New York Musical Festival?

A: I started developing the show while I was at the Dramatic Writing Department at Tisch. The basic structure, plot and characters in the show were pretty much set back then and are essentially the same to this day.

The New York Musical Festival experience was great. NOTHING helps you figure out what needs to be done with a show more than putting it up in front of an audience not made up of friends and relatives, and having it done with excellent actors and crew. This describes the presentation at the New York Musical Theater Festival, which was extremely well received. And while the basic structure, character and plots have stayed constant since the show was first conceived, that and succeeding productions have shown and allowed us to refine and deepen the show to balance out the lighter and more serious parts. We even changed some of the characters’ intentions and foibles.

We have been blessed to see several sets of excellent actors do full productions of the show – and each production and each actor has brought new revelations. Some were like “How did we NOT see that flaw in the writing before” to “Wow, that actor really opened up other possibilities. Let’s think about that and expand on it!” And we know that the wonderful actors at Arvada (under Rod’s direction) will teach us even more!

Q: What was the most important lesson you learned from your mentor, J.C. Johnson?

A: OH, this is easy! Respect your fellow human being and don’t be too quick to judge. Also, he enjoyed the little things in life, he noticed the little things in life – and he respected them, which is what made him such a good creator and person.  One interviewer of J.C. wrote about him: “He was a gentle flower of a man.” And he was.

J.C. Johnson

Q: What do you hope Arvada Center patrons take away from the musical?

A: I certainly hope they are entertained and enjoy the songs and characters’ roller coaster ride, but I also hope they are touched by J.C.’s music and his message about love. And while TRAV’LIN is anything but a history lesson, I hope the music and stories encourage folks to be open to discovering more about J.C. and the amazing place Harlem was (and is) and that era and the everyday folks who lived it.

Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical closes this Sunday, April 28.