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Directing Urinetown

Dec 31, 2015

Before 2015 closes, I’d like to write about a pretty cool thing I did this fall – I directed and choreographed an entire musical production, Urinetown. NASA Goddard has a Music and Drama club (MAD), which, as a relatively low-key group where people can try new things, allowed me the amazing opportunity to lead a project way larger than I ever have before.

In the World of Urinetown…

…there has been a severe drought for several decades. This drought led to the “Stink Years”, when there was looting and hoarding and everyone thought the world was ending. Everyone except for the enterprising Caldwell B. Cladwell, who was tough enough to cling to tomorrow. With his influences in the government, the politicians made it illegal both to use private toilets and to pee in the streets. Everyone had to then use pay-per-use public toilets, which were owned and operated by Mr. Cladwell’s Urine Good Company.

Now, twenty years later, the divide between the rich and poor is wider than ever, and the poor just can’t hold it any longer. Time is ripe for a revolution.

Urinetown Connections

Besides this being a ridiculously fun musical, I also chose this show to direct because of its tie-ins with current events and NASA’s Earth sciences, much of which is being performed right here at Goddard.

I’m sure you’ve heard about California’s recent water woes.

NASA’s Earth-observing programs have been working hard to monitor current droughts and better understand rainfall, soil moisture, and other aspects of how droughts work.

There are so many facets to the drought issue, like understanding the science and figuring out what approaches to dealing with drought would be most effective, economical, politically viable, and environmentally responsible. There are no easy answers. But one thing is for certain – it’s not a problem that can be ignored, because droughts are just going to keep coming. And they will probably be extreme. Check out these megadroughts predictions by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies:

So human-induced climate change is another facet to our Urinetown reality. And climate change will be contributing not just to extreme megadroughts, but all sorts of extremes. Hey, extreme can be exciting! Hope humanity and the world is up for the challenge!

And of course yet another facet is that amidst all that, human population has approximately quadrupled in the past century, placing more and more strain on resources and infrastructure. The Urinetown cast all shout “Hail Malthus!” at the end of the show. Thomas Malthus was an academic in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who was concerned that population growth would eventually outpace food supply.

It’s all interconnected. More people use more water, and more people have increasing effects on their environment, sometimes in ways that can actually cause more droughts. Check out this NASA story about ancient Mayans and Aztecs:

So people of the Earth, particularly in drought-prone regions, we have our work cut out for us – scientific study, conservation, infrastructure, policies, smart agriculture, curbing carbon emissions, and taking increased population into account. This is Urinetown. It’s a whole lot to juggle, and the characters in the play failed to balance all the factors, to the detriment of everyone.

At least those with enough money can just escape to Rio, right? Ha, maybe we should have changed that location in the script. Southern Brazil is actually having enormous drought problems of their own. But then, we would have lost one of our many musical references, this one The Producers.

Directing Urinetown

Directing and choreographing Urinetown was a long and arduous but fantastically rewarding experience. Had I directed before? Nope. Had I choreographed before? Nah. Do I immediately strike people as a great leader? Not at all; I’m quiet and socially awkward. Was any of that going to stop me? Apparently not.

An early dance rehearsal

When I submitted my application package to the MAD board last April to direct Urinetown, I knew I had a lot to offer. I knew Urinetown was a fantastic musical that had obvious connections to our NASA community. I had already witnessed how Urinetown could be directed and choreographed well, because I participated in a great production of the show at the University of North Dakota. I didn’t know what exactly my directing style would be or how I would navigate the twists and turns to come, but I was excited to find out. I knew that I’m pretty good with storytelling, and that I would be able to implement things I learned from my college theatre coursework. I knew that my experiences with diplomatic people-navigating would come into play and that skill would definitely be exercised and tested. I knew I was looking forward to being in charge – my dream in first grade was that the bus monitor would get sick so I could take over and tell people what to do. I had always wished for the opportunity to give motivational speeches to a team I believe in, like I had seen from so many good leaders. I knew that directing this musical would be enormously helpful in developing the skills of coming up with a creative vision, communicating it to other people, and having them implement it – skills hugely beneficial in my current video production work and for my ultimate goal of creating my own scripted television show.

Me (on the right) in UND’s 2012 production of Urinetown

That ultimate goal, yeah, it’s far-fetched. One of the many doubts had always been – would I ever be able to make people take me seriously, and have the leadership skills needed to take on such a ridiculously huge project? After all, up until recently, I could barely even make a phone call without writing down exactly what I was going to say and having my heart hammer in my chest. My heart still does the hammering thing if I attempt to actually ask a question after a presentation or something. But, this year I was able to prove to myself and everyone else that my personality type does not prohibit me from such ventures.

Giving notes after the preview performance

To elaborate, because I’m really freaking proud of myself – a musical production is a huge three-ring circus, and I was in charge of the whole thing. Not only that, but actually, I was co-in-charge, because there’s a creative director (me) and a producer. Ack, working with a partner! (Though he was great.) So the people skills, organizational skills, creative skills, and teamwork skills involved are enormous. In case you are unfamiliar with what all goes into a musical, let me briefly list who all is involved. You have designers for the set, costumes, lights, sound, and hair/make-up. You have the business manager, sales manager, house manager, and stage manager. (And usually a publicity manager, but I actually took on a lot of the publicity tasks.) You have people in charge of set construction, props, and the program. You have the music director, vocal director, assistant director, and usually a choreographer but that was me. You (well mostly the producer) liaise with the MAD Board, the Goddard Employee Welfare Association, the Rec Center managers, Goddard security, and the rights holders for the show, Music Theatre International.

Crew, orchestra, and cast on closing night

Notice I haven’t even gotten yet to the show performers – the orchestra and cast. The orchestra was conducted by the music director, and the cast had rehearsals four nights a week led by myself and at times the vocal director. Luckily, my cast was amazing, definitely making my job less difficult than it could have been. Not Broadway-level amazing of course, because this is a recreational club at a NASA center. It’s a different type of beast.

But as I told my cast on opening night, one of the great things about theatre is that anyone with passion and commitment can do it. It is so awesome to see this wide assortment of people, whose day jobs may be engineering or astronomy or going to high school or being retired, come together and perform something that is both incredibly entertaining and meaningful. Come closing night, many of the folks involved shared how much fun they had and how much the experience meant to them. Closing night was honestly one of the happiest moments of my life.

Urinetown montage signed by the cast

Waving goodbye to the adoring audience on closing night

The Urinetown chapter is now over. On to new projects in 2016!

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