Living an authentic life in ‘Harmony’Entertainment Feature Thursday, June 28th, 2012
Harmony, Kansas now playing at the Diversionary Theatre is the brainchild of Bill Nelson and Anna K. Jacobs. It’s getting its world premiere here in San Diego, after a few out-of-town workshops.
Harmony tells the story of seven Kansas farmers who are gay but not publicly. They secretly form a men’s harmony group under the guise of a weekly poker game.
The show sprouted in New York after Nelson and Jacobs graduated from NYU and it has been in the growing since the summer of 2008. While they have collaborated on school projects, this is the first large-scale piece they have worked on together.
“Anna and I collaborated on small school projects during our time at NYU; nothing big,” Nelson said. “But during our time there we fell in love with each other’s work, and became good friends as well.”
The idea for the show does mirror a little bit of Nelson’s life as he used to sing chorally with a group of gay men in Missouri.
“I sang with the Heartland Men’s Chorus (Kansas City, Miss. gay men’s chorus) for nine years before I moved to New York. When I sang with the cosmopolitan, 100-man Kansas City chorus I’d see men there singing who I never saw at the gay bars or anywhere else.”
Nelson explained that most of these men weren’t into the gay scene at all, but they came to sing with the chorus and the fact that these men lived in rural communities and lived as farmers fascinated him.
That started the proverbial ball rolling, and he said he knew from the beginning that he wanted the show to be about the importance of community.
“While at NYU I mentioned [to Jacob’s] that a musical about a gay men’s chorus is something that hasn’t been done,” Nelson added. “When we graduated, Anna approached me about writing it.”
Nelson knew that Jacob’s had choral experience and was a singer and a composer as well, and thought she’d be a great fit for the project. According to Nelson it was in fact her idea to set the piece in a rural setting.
The show itself has been through two readings and has undergone a lot of changes, even more since it’s premiere at Diversionary.
Director James Vasquez has been with the show since its second out-of-town reading and, like Nelson, agrees that the show has developed nicely over the course of the last year.
“The script has changed immensely since I came on board,” Vasquez said. “Over the course of the year, the script has gotten much tighter and clearer. We spent two weeks work shopping the show at Goodspeed Opera House. That was invaluable to be able to hear the story out loud by voices other than ours. The bulk of the changes have come really as a result of that experience. In the last few weeks here at Diversionary, scenes and storylines have been tweaked and clarified, songs have been added and rewritten and given to different actors.”
Vasquez, a much sought-after director these days, commented on how much he enjoys working on original pieces like this and what drew him to the piece to begin with.
“New pieces are a blast,” he said. “I love that my job is telling stories – so to be in on the ground floor of helping create how that story is told is really exciting. I [also] love the underdog. I like seeing the underdog rise up and succeed. At the heart of it, Harmony, Kansas is about seven underdogs who come together, form their own little community, and make a place for themselves in this world. I love the message of self-acceptance and the willingness to take risks in life.”
Jacob Caltrider, who plays Heath, also weighed in on working with a new piece; how things have changed and what went into creating the character of Heath.
“I have worked on a few early versions of shows in the past, most of them through Diversionary actually,” he said. “As for Harmony, Kansas, and Heath … Heath goes through a hell of a journey in the show, and I feel like I’ve gone through a journey of my own while working on it. From the initial reading to where we are now, I feel like I take on the task of creating a character differently than I have before – and definitely with more confidence in who I am and how I approach the work.”
While Harmony, Kansas is the main thing on the minds of these three men, all of them do have other projects waiting in the wings after they are done here.
Vasquez will be directing both Pippin and Birds of a Feather at Diversionary this season and he will be returning to direct the 15th anniversary of The Grinch at The Old Globe. He also has a film production company called Daisy 3 Pictures and is working on a new script he hopes to be filming in the summer of 2013.
Nelson admits his main focus is definitely Harmony, Kansas, but that he is working on a new musical with one of his favorite collaborators, Will Aronson.
And lastly, Caltrider will be headed to Carlsbad for his next job working with New Village Arts in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next To Normal.
The sense of community and individual strength is what seems to resonate with all three of these men, in regard to the show. That, and as Nelson puts it “the transformative power of music.”
“That’s something Anna and I strongly believe in,” Nelson added. “I guess what I’d like people to take away is that being yourself and living an authentic life is vital and worth the risks involved. And, as a former loner, I’m happy that the show illustrates the power of community.”
Harmony, Kansas runs Thursdays through Sundays and closes July 22. For more information call 619-220-0097, or visit diversionary.org
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