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In the past three theatrical seasons, productions from The American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, have transferred to Broadway and stolen the hearts of theatregoers and critics alike with their unique approach and innovative design. Encouraged, Sammi Cannold, a sophomore Theatre and History double major at Stanford University, took a page from A.R.T.'s book.
"We have a phenomenal grant program [at Stanford] called ReDesigning Theater, through which they encourage students to come up with ideas that are innovative and pushing the boundaries of theatre. Last spring, I was really inspired by the work going on at the American Repertory Theater — and all work all over the world that expands the boundaries of theatre via reinventing this 'relationship' with the audience — and wanted to do something that would push that," director Cannold told Playbill.com. "I had always been a fan of the musical Violet. I adore the music and was listening to [it] one night and thought, 'Wouldn't it be really cool if this musical, which is about a woman on a bus, was actually put on a bus?' and flushed out the idea from there. [Producers Kelly Gregg and Brandon Powell] came on board, and everything got rolling…"
The production essentially began "rolling" when producer (and Stanford junior, majoring in Human Biology) Kelly Gregg contacted Musical Theatre International to license Violet as well as the University's on-campus shuttle system, Marguerite, to charter a bus for the rehearsals, dress rehearsals and Nov. 14-17 performances.
"It was a unique conversation," explained Gregg of her conversation with the bus company. "I remember calling them up and being like, 'We have this sort of crazy idea. We want to sing and dance on your bus.' And, they were very open to the idea, which was so nice because I was very worried that they would think we were insane… It's been this constant contact between myself and this bus company as we rehearse and discover different things about this show. They've been very open to working with us to find a happy medium where the passengers and the driver are safe, and everybody is safe on the bus."
Safety was an obvious concern for the creative team of Violet, since the production would travel around campus while a cast of 12 would sing (and dance) in the aisles of the 34-seat bus. But, with the help of the bus company, the theatre department at Stanford and the show's original creators, the Violet creatives found the issues less "troublesome" than expected (and no additional safety insurance was needed, since all of the action occurs on campus).
"We've been very fortunate to have tremendous support from many of the original creative team," said Cannold. "[Composer] Jeanine Tesori, most notably, has been very integral in helping us develop this concept. I was fortunate enough to be able to observe on the Encores! production that happened at City Center this summer. It's through that I got the opportunity to talk to [director] Leigh Silverman, Sutton Foster, [music director] Michael Rafter and a whole bunch of other people who were working intimately on that production… They were all — Jeanine and Leigh Silverman, most especially — tremendously helpful in the development of that concept."
The concept behind At the Fountain Theatricals' Violet allows the story — of 25-year-old Violet, who hops a Greyhound to a televangelist in Tulsa, OK, in hopes to clear the scar on her face that she's been living with for over a decade — to be seen from the perspective of the passengers on Violet's journey.
"The buses we have are 34 seats. Six of them are filled by actors at any given time, and the rest of them are audience members, so they see the show from seats on a bus that you'd normally sit in if you were going somewhere — to give them the idea of being travelers," explained Cannold. "The show happens around them…so you're seeing a different story depending on your seat."
"A lot of the songs happen on the bus while it is stationary, and a lot of the scenes happen while it is moving, so characters are getting on and off the bus," added producer Brandon Powell, a senior English major. "There is a point where everyone — audience included — gets off the bus to walk into this chapel-looking lounge that we're using for the church." In keeping with the production's realism aesthetic, scenes in Violet that aren't actually set on the bus will take place in different locations on campus.
The biggest challenge in staging a full-length musical on a bus? The music, admitted Powell. "A lot of ideas were toyed around with," he said. "Could we have just a lone guitarist with some sort of accompaniment? Can we get a whole orchestra on a bus? We recruited one of our friends, [Makulumy Alexander-Hills], to be our music director, [and] over the summer, he worked to create instrumental tracks only for our usage that are true to the original score and sit as background for us."
Although the obstacles were many, the production team is riding high from the buzz around the Stanford campus. When tickets became available, Powell said that the production essentially "sold out" in seven minutes.
"That there were like 100 people sitting at their computers the minute the reservations opened so that they can be one of the [people] to see this show, is such an exhilarating feeling — to know that you have that backing behind you," confided Gregg.
She added, "Another thing that's really awesome is that we have this class for independent projects, and it gives you school credits for the work that you're doing. Brandon, the producer, and our stage manger Emily Ashton are both enrolled in that class, and each week they are able to go and check in with one of the professors, Linda Apperson, and get her general advice… Having support through that and also getting academic credit for the hundreds and hundreds of hours we are putting into this — because we are learning so much — [is] nice."
Performances of Violet will be offered Nov. 14 at 7 PM, Nov. 15 at 4 PM, Nov. 16 at noon and 5 PM and Nov. 17 at noon and 5 PM. For more information, visit VioletTheMusical.com or AtTheFountain.wix.com.
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(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)