Students at Ball State University have produced an incredible musical by adapting my friend Cathy Day’s novel, The Circus In Winter.
What I saw was an amazing performance that rivals and even exceeds many of the professional performances I’ve seen over the years. And, if the announcement at the beginning of the play by department chair Bill Jenkins was true, this is the biggest performance of any play in the Ball State Theatre’s history. That’s saying something, because I’ve gone to plays at Ball State as far back as 35 years ago. And the theatre department is way older than that.
The story follows the life of Wallace Porter who falls in love, marries, loses his wife, buys a circus, falls in love again, and learns what it’s like to be a circus owner in Lima, Indiana in 1896 and 1897. I don’t want to tell you too much more about the story, because I want you to actually see this show. But let’s just say there’s a fight, kissing, some swearing. And an elephant. A beautifully-made, hand-crafted elephant.
The play opens with an incredible, energetic, colorful performance of the song, “Amazing,” and takes the audience through 25 more songs that tell Wallace’s story with his regular family and his circus family. The play was directed by BSU Theatre faculty member Beth Turcotte, who started working with the student creators on this project more than two years ago.
The show was written and created by 14 people all working on it, as part of the Virginia C. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. As someone who has worked on committees before, any group that can make a decision about lunch in less than an hour has accomplished something. What these people did in two years is mind-blowing.
The two-act play relied on one backdrop, the interior of an old barn — which, if the rumors I overheard were correct, were actually built from an actual old barn — but changed settings through simple prop changes.
The music was written and performed by Ben Clark, Nick Rapley, Jess Gaze, and Joe Young, who performed nearly the entire two hours of the show. The music is a rock-acoustic blend that uses a lot of energy, but is not overbearing or demanding. And the songs that were sung varied from high energy to soulful, exciting to sad.
When the performance finally ended, it seemed a lot longer than its advertised two hours, but I wasn’t ready for it to end yet.
For the last few months, I’ve been tweeting about “Cathy Day’s show,” telling people they need to see “Cathy Day’s show.”
“It’s not my show,” she tweeted to me yesterday. “These students did their own production. I had nothing to do with it.”
While I appreciated the distinction, it never made much sense to me. An adaptation of a book is usually taking some lines out and putting some lines in. But when it’s all done, it’s still the original book.
Then I saw what these students wrote. I heard the music. I saw the set (which is the only thing I was able to take pictures of; they didn’t allow pictures of the performance). I heard the new stories and met the new characters. I even saw the hand-crafted elephant lumber out on stage. (Apparently, I was not the only person to think, even for a few seconds, “Is that a real elephant? How the hell did they get a real elephant?” I heard from several people who all thought the same thing.)
“That’s not your book,” I said to Cathy when I saw her after the show. “I didn’t get what you meant earlier, but I get it now. That’s their show.”
Cathy and I stood around and waxed rhapsodic about what I had just seen (and what she’s seen twice already), and how they made a show that deserves to be seen in bigger cities and by bigger audiences (looking at you, Indiana Repertory Theatre!)
The show runs October 6 – 8 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $16 for the general public, $14 for faculty and staff, $12 for senior citizens, and $11 for students. Contact the University Theatre box office at (765) 285-8749 to order them, or visit www.bsu.edu/theatre for more information.