This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 8104 from Rock Ridge High School in Ashburn, Va., will make its International Thespian Festival main stage debut with a new school edition of Bright Star. The troupe previously presented Chapter Select performances of Ernest and the Pale Moon (2016), The Very Grey Matter of Edward Blank (2017), and Aida (2018).

STORY

Shreya Muju as Alice in Rock Ridge High School’s production of Bright Star.

Shreya Muju as Alice in Rock Ridge High School’s production of Bright Star. Photo courtesy of Rock Ridge Performing Arts.

In 1946, Alice Murphy is the editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, a popular literary magazine. Her life is secure, her career successful, and Alice loves her role nurturing a new generation of writers that includes a young man recently returned from the war. Yet, Alice finds it difficult to live fully in the present as a story from her past continues to haunt her.

In a flashback to 1923, a spirited 16-year-old Alice falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the mayor’s son. The two forge a relationship against the wishes of his father, whose ambitions for Jimmy Ray’s future do not include Alice. When the mayor discovers the young woman is pregnant, he hides her in a secluded cabin until she gives birth, then quickly takes the baby away to avoid potential scandal.

Alice never stops trying to find her child. As she searches for answers, her past and present worlds merge in surprising ways, and the mystery that has eluded her is finally resolved.

BACKGROUND

The fictional Bright Star was influenced by a true story. In 1902, as the Iron Mountain Railroad crossed over the Big River in Missouri’s Washington County, an infant in a suitcase was hurled from the train toward the water. A 72-year-old farmer found the five-day-old boy, and he and his wife opted to raise him. William Moses Gould Helms became known as the Iron Mountain Baby, growing up to become a newspaper printer and editor.

Helms’ story provided the spark of inspiration that set Bright Star in motion. Workshopped in 2013, the show by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell received its official world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2014. A pre-Broadway engagement played the Kennedy Center in 2015, and the following year the show opened in New York, where it was nominated for five Tony Awards.

Shreya Muju and Ian Underhill in Rock Ridge High School’s production of Bright Star.
Shreya Muju and Ian Underhill in Rock Ridge High School’s production of Bright Star. Photo courtesy of Rock Ridge Performing Arts.

TROUPE 8104’S PRODUCTION

Tony Cimino-Johnson has wanted to bring a show to the International Thespian Festival main stage for nearly a decade, since he watched the students of Bradford High School from Kenosha, Wis., perform Tarzan there in 2012. “This performance had a profound impact on me as an educator, and the spark ignited by Bradford’s students and their director inspired a dream,” he said. “I dreamed that one day my students would have the same opportunity to inspire and challenge new and veteran theatre artists alike to tell a beautiful story by performing on that stage at the International Thespian Festival.”

This June, Cimino-Johnson’s dream becomes reality. Troupe 8104 will make its main stage debut at ITF with the school edition of Bright Star they shepherded to life.

Cimino-Johnson fell in love with Bright Star’s Broadway production. In 2016, he approached Jim Hoare of TRW about the possibility of piloting a school edition. “At that time, TRW had just acquired the licensing for the production. Over the course of the next two years, a strong relationship formed between Rock Ridge and TRW as we continued doing our best to honor their stories,” he said. “When the producers agreed to release the rights for high schools across the country, we were thrilled when Jim asked us to premiere the school edition.”

That meant re-envisioning the production to make it more accessible to high school performers, designers, and audiences. “We aspired to ground the designs, transitions, costumes, and company in a way that would open this story to high schools with limited budgets, time, and resources,” he said. “As beautiful as the original Broadway designs were, including a spinning bandstand and a traveling train across the proscenium, we knew that not all high schools have the access or ability to produce those designs. With the help of our students’ creativity and ingenuity, we worked as a team to honor the original production but make it uniquely our own.”

Rock Ridge shows are typically student-driven and feature student designs. Thespian senior Alexa Janoschka created Bright Star’s lighting. “Bright Star was my seventh production as a lighting designer at Rock Ridge and my most challenging show to design and execute,” she said. “The design process started in November, and then we had one month to execute the plot and cueing. Due to snow days and my travel for college auditions, our cue-to-cue was pushed from weekend to weekend. In the end, I had eight hours total to cue the show. I was used to having 20 hours to cue over a week, so an eight-hour day to cue a full show was an amazing challenge for me.”

Janoschka says the process taught her a great deal. “I learned that I’m capable of a lot, and when you have an amazing support system like my theatre program, you can accomplish amazing things. Bright Star has been my favorite show to design lights for. Its lighting seems simple, but there is a challenge to capturing natural, flattering lighting onstage. Bright Star’s simple design pushed me to discover new ideas and concepts.”

Lighting plays an important role in setting the show’s tone. “A major design element used throughout the show is the progression of adding golds,” Janoschka said. “The 1920s scenes take place later in the day or at night, while the 1940s scenes take place earlier in the morning or afternoon. Inspiration for the use of day and night to tell time was thought of during a rehearsal of ‘Sun Is Gonna Shine.’ I played with the idea that anything before Alice’s child is taken away was a dark remembrance of the past, and Alice’s decision to look for her child was the sunrise of a new day.”

Thespian senior Shreya Muju says playing the strong-willed Alice was initially daunting. “The most obvious distinction between me and Alice is the fact that I am not a white, Southern girl but as brown and Indian as can be. I never worried about my race when crafting the character but instead focused on creating a character believable enough to make the audience forget about my race in reference to the historical context of the show,” she said. “The real challenge was making a clear, polarized separation between the older and younger versions of Alice. It was pretty seamless for me to play a 16-year-old girl, but it took a lot more exploration to transition into becoming a grown woman.”

According to Muju, getting the chance to pilot the school edition of the show was an honor. “It was an extremely humbling opportunity, and we wanted to ensure we took great care with this piece,” she said. “There is not a single moment in this show on which we have not worked extensively — down to every prop, set piece, light cue, sound cue, and scene change. It took a lot of trial and error to get where we are, and the only reason it was possible was due to the trust we established throughout the cast.”

Muju says Bright Star’s message comes down to one word: love. “Alice’s story is one of hardship and pain but more importantly love, hope, and redemption,” she said. “It is hard to articulate exactly what Alice means to me. Her story is one to which I relate personally, though definitely on a much lesser scale. Alice taught me the power of love — that love can overcome anything. And she taught me to savor pain, as embracing pain can make us deeply human, activating feelings we never before knew were within us.”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. Although Alice suffers a traumatic event as a teen, she becomes a successful adult. How has Alice moved on from her past? In what ways does that past continue to haunt her?
  2. The fathers of both Alice and Jimmy Ray make life-changing choices for their children. What motivates each of their decisions? In what ways do both try to make amends for their actions?
  3. Bright Star jumps back and forth in time to tell Alice’s story. What effect did this have for you as an audience member? Do you think the show would have the same effect if the story were told chronologically? Why or why not?
  4. The songs in Bright Star mix influences from folk and bluegrass music with traditional musical theatre aesthetics. How does this choice affect the tone of the production?
  5. Sections of Bright Star are set in the 1920s, while “present day” scenes take place in the 1940s. How do the production’s sets, costumes, lighting, choreography, and acting help root each scene in the appropriate time and place?

ACTIVITIES

  1. In Bright Star, Alice references many famous Southern writers, from Tennessee Williams to Eudora Welty. Choose one she mentions and dive deeper into that author’s life and work.
  2. Compare and contrast important social norms in the 1920s with those in the 1940s. Outline major shifts that happened in the United States during this period.
  3. Research the true story of the Iron Mountain Baby that inspired Bright Star, then compare this story with the one told in the show.

RESOURCES

Read
New York Times interview with Bright Star creators Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Variety story about the unique sound of Bright Star’s music
St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the Iron Mountain Baby

Listen
Bright Star original Broadway cast recording

Watch
Rock Ridge High School students learn they’re going to the International Thespian Festival
Bright Star Broadway production video for “Sun Is Gonna Shine”
Behind-the-scenes video from the Broadway production of Bright Star
PBS NewsHour interview with Bright Star creators Steve Martin and Edie Brickell

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

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