High school: A time that feels lifetimes away but was only a few years ago. The person we once were is not who we are now. We’ve grown up, changed interests, developed beliefs and opinions and hopefully gathered a bit of responsibility. College is also a time of transition, but, whether or not we loved or hated high school, it still impacted who we are today.
“Formerly Known: A Devised Musical,” presented by Future Waitstaff of America (FWA), Vassar’s musical theater organization, will be going up Thursday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 20 at 9 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 21 at 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater. This show is directed by Ryan Eykholt ’17 and Naa Kuorkor Nikoi ’17, with Liv Rhodes ’18 as Stage Manager.
The show explores eight high schoolers as they confront the themes of friendship, mental health and other topics that are important to developing one’s identity through those formative years. The soundtrack comprises popular songs as well as original music that the arrangers composed themselves.
Devised was not always the plan for Eykholt and Nikoi. The original intentions were to put on “Heathers: The Musical,” based on the 1988 black comedy film, until issues occurred in the process of getting rights to the show from publishing company Samuel French. FWA’s other production, “Lemonade,” originally was supposed to be “Pippin” until similar performance rights issues arose.
“Our team was originally planning on putting on ‘Heathers: The Musical,’ but due the rights being highly restricted, we were unable to. So we kind of had to scramble in a week to figure out what we were going to do. We realized that there was a lot of things that fascinated us about high school and some of the themes in the show of ‘Heathers’ that we really wanted to focus on could be expanded in a different story and a different narrative, with a different environment and location too. So we knew we wanted to focus on high school and also identity formation and mental health,” Eykholt said.
In the process of establishing the basis for the show, Eykholt and the rest of the production team devised a playlist of songs that they felt meant something to them while telling a story. From this set of songs, Michael Oosterhout ’18 and George Luton ’19 were brought in to arrange these songs in a theatrical style.
“In a musical, certain ideas are represented by musical motifs threaded through a streamlined score. My role in this show has involved adapting popular songs to place them in a theatrical context in which they can carry along a story,” Luton said. “This production is based on a compilation of well-known songs that we’ve been weaving together to forge a story centered around the dreaded high school experience. These popular songs thread the work’s prominent themes throughout the show, hopefully providing a broader perspective on the familiar music and how it relates to memories of our own secondary education.”
As a sample of what this show has in store, the cast gave a preview at the FWA Cabaret in October, performing “Under Pressure” by David Bowie & Queen while wearing backpacks.
The rehearsal process has involved the ensemble members creating characters and character arcs influenced by a reflection on both their own and other’s high school experiences.
Production Manager Lydia Wood ’17 detailed the approach this cast and crew took into shaping this devised piece, saying, “We started out doing a lot of character building. So each person in the ensemble sat down and we talked about our own high school experiences and we talked about how that has shaped our experiences now. And so they kind of developed characters of who they wanted to explore.”
She continued, “Some of them are based partially on themselves or what they wanted to be in high school. Some are based on people they knew, taking ideas of that and putting together a composite character. And then we started improvising around with these characters that we’d created and put them to work and started writing.”
Despite the inspiration that came from “Heathers,” the trajectory that this show has taken has altered tremendously, swapping some of the absurdist elements for a much better reflective tone, allowing the audience to see themselves in the characters that these actors portray. It also offers the cast and crew an opportunity to create art that stems from their own perspectives, adding a more personal quality that a standard musical might not provide as easily.
Observing how they’ve seen this change occur and the greater importance this work can now have, ensemble member Imani Russell ’18 said, “I feel like we’re so separated from ‘Heathers’ at this point. At the beginning I guess it influenced in the ways [of themes it covered] like high school and relationships and how negative high school can be as an influence but also how positive it can be. But I think it’s such a separate show from ‘Heathers’ now because we created it on our own. The script is ours and something we can be proud of.”
This production has truly been a collaborative effort of the cast and crew seeing how they’ve changed and grown since coming to college. We might try to forget that those years happened or regret what we did, but the person we are today, though it’s definitely not the final product, owes much to what we learned in those years. The people that passed through our lives and the experiences we felt shape us, and this show devises that before our eyes.
In regard to how the process of devising “Formerly Known” has mirrored the themes it covers, Eykholt commented, “I would say what speaks most clearly to us is how it mirrors the process about how we’re never complete or finished. We’re constantly changing and evolving. And once we graduate from high school, even when we graduate from college, there are expectations for us to have everything figured out and to find yourself and have your identity solidified. And that just isn’t the case.”