DECATUR — To those who haven’t been involved in live theater, it’s natural to assume that shows are more or less static. A script that arrives for its first performance fully completed would certainly simplify things, but it’s rarely the way things actually work.
The students at Millikin University understand this better than most, thanks to the New Musicals Workshop. When playwright Adam Gwon arrived on campus back in 2010 to work on his play “String,” it needed an entire second act. And when he returned this month, he was still writing new music, just weeks before the premiere.
“I remember there was a day when Adam came back and he had written an entire song overnight, and now it’s a regular part of the show,” said senior Jessica Benson, who plays one of the three Fates of Greek mythology in Wednesday evening’s premiere of “String.” “This is such a cool opportunity for us, and one of the best things about Millikin. We’re part of the process, even when they’re still tweaking huge parts of the show.”
A handful of musicals have been shepherded through the New Musicals workshop, but “String” is the second to see its global premiere at Millikin after “Golden Gate” in 2011. Because it has been three years since Gwon’s first visit, however, only seniors such as Benson or Sean Doherty were there to see the initial workshop. Doherty feels it was an advantage to see the show in its embryonic state, although it has changed quite a bit since.
“There’s definitely a little added pressure the first night the authors are there because you’re realizing that you’re handling the material they’ve put so much heart and soul into,” he said. “They’re here to make the show better, so we want to give them the clearest view of the show as a whole that we can.”
“String” tells the story of the three Greek Fates, deities responsible for creating and measuring individual human destinies. Banished from Earth 3 million years ago for “pissing off Zeus,” they live among the humans, never interacting with them but continuing to go about their business. That is, until Atropos, the ender of human lives, runs into a particularly interesting human being in an elevator. And then, to quote Doherty, “chaos pretty much ensues.”
“It’s a modern myth and love story told through modern eyes,” director Lori Bales said. “It’s a story like something Neil Gaiman would write.”
As for the show’s music, the cast found it legitimately difficult to describe. Doherty said Gwon’s work was distinctive enough to be unmistakable, while Benson said each piece seemed very deliberate in its effect.
“There’s some stuff in it that is reminiscent of classical musical theater, and other stuff that is very contemporary,” she said. “It’s interesting to see which moments he chooses to use each one, and I’m sure it’s intentional.”
As author, Adam Gwon will be returning to Millikin again the weekend of Nov. 23 to see the students give life to his work for the first time. For the players, on the other hand, the chance to work with these nascent playwrights is a major part of what brought them to Millikin in the first place.
“I had a video conversation with a casting director in New York recently, and one of the first things he said was ‘I can’t believe you’ve worked with people like Adam Gwon,’ ” Doherty said. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”
Director Bales agrees. Having watched the musical go from the workshop to the stage, she’s seen the opportunities it has offered at each step along the way.
“Many of the roles here are actually modeled and named after the students who did the first workshop,” she said. “There are only a handful of colleges in the nation that do this, so it creates a national presence.”