This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

Quilters marks the first International Thespian Festival main stage invitation for Troupe 6826 at Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, California. The troupe also boasts two recent Next Generation Works winners, Sarah Sparks (Silent Night, Thespian Playworks 2019) and Mitchell Huntley (How to Get a 5 on the AP Test, Thespian Musicalworks 2018).

STORY

In lieu of a single, sustained plot, Quilters offers a patchwork of separate, narrative scenes and songs stitched together to create a unified, living tableau of women’s lives on the American frontier.

Elderly matriarch Sarah picks up the musical’s first thread when she decides to create a “legacy quilt” representing her “memories, hopes, dreams, and prayers.” Each quilt block is performed by one of Sarah’s several “daughters,” played as distinct characters within parallel families. Despite the apparent lack of blood ties or even acquaintance, these women remain connected by 16 common threads — from universals of girlhood, childbirth, and death to the more prairie-specific log cabins, twisters, and country roads. Each pioneer daughter unfolds a quilt block illustrating her piece of the legacy tale.

The musical combines folk dance and a cappella harmonies with both direct-address and choral narration to explore a chapter of women’s history through quilting — at once domestic function and expressive art form. In the end, the separate blocks combine in a vibrant, multicolored quilt manifesting the warmth, humor, and tenacity of the women behind the American Old West.

BACKGROUND

Quilters was adapted by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek from a slim collection of tales gathered from women in Texas and New Mexico about the intersection of textile crafts and their daily lives around the turn of the 20th century. The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art, an Oral History, written by Patricia J. Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen, was published in 1977, a time when, according to the authors, “the art of quiltmaking [had] burst upon the national consciousness” following an exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in the early 1970s.

The musical, combining collective national folklore and specific oral history, was originally produced by Denver Center Theatre Company in 1982. It uses techniques of Story Theatre, developed in the 1960s by The Second City founding director Paul Sills when he staged a sampling of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables. Like Sills, Newman and Damashek pieced together related stories through mime sequences, choral speeches, folk dances, and other dramatic devices.

On route to Broadway, Quilters enjoyed considerable success in regional theatres and special events such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, where it won a Fringe First Award. The musical opened on Broadway in September 1984, and despite a brief 29-performance run, it received six 1985 Tony Award nominations, including best musical, best book of a musical, and best original score. With its unconventional storytelling structure and colorful dramatization of American folk history, Quilters remains a favorite of community and educational theatres across the United States.

TROUPE 6826’S PRODUCTION

Director Karen Rymar waited years for “the stars to align” to bring Quilters into the lives of her Thespians — and back into her own. Rymar’s “long, emotional connection to this show” dates to 1987, when she performed the musical with Laguna Moulton Playhouse in Laguna Beach, California. The following year, the same cast brought Quilters overseas to represent the United States in an international community theatre festival in Dundalk, Ireland.

“To this day we’re close; we’re still family,” Rymar said of her former castmates, several of whom attended Troupe 6826’s performance together. “I wanted to share that experience, and I’d been waiting to have enough girls to really sink our teeth into it.”

In fact, Rymar and co-director Amelia Barron double cast the Orange County School of the Arts production, due to “an abundance of talent” among their students this year. The dual casts (dubbed the Thread Cast and the Needle Cast) allowed for eight performances and built in much-needed recovery time between shows.

In Quilters, the actors remain mostly onstage and active during the two-plus hour performance — each shifting among multiple characters, addressing high-stakes themes, navigating complex blocking, and singing multiple-part harmonies.

“In almost every scene, everybody’s in it, whether they’re ensemble or speaking, or a cow, or a door, or they’re creating fire,” said Rymar, who serves as assistant director of OCSA’s Musical Theatre Conservatory. While the script requires fluid character shifts, directors may customize each actor’s track according to her strengths. Rymar created and distributed a “casting logistics” spreadsheet modeled after the document her director used 33 years ago.

“We received this chart with all the characters we were going to play in columns, and I remember how stressed I was because I’d never had to play so many characters in a show,” said Bridget Phillips, a sophomore whose main speaking role was Dana and who also played Windmill Blades, Papa, Midwife, and a Storyteller (among others).

For sophomore Grace Osier, figuring out how to embody disparate, contrasting roles meant looking outside herself. “I played a lot of strange characters, like Cowboy John versus the mom in ‘Log Cabin.’ I realized developing those individual stories needed to come from the relationships I had with other people in the scene,” she said. “At first, I was so focused on those characters, but as we kept working, I realized it was more important than that. It was more about the connections they had with each other.”

Senior Juliette Boland’s central role was Sarah, the elder mother whose legacy quilt frames the musical. For her, that meant “getting the mentality of an older pioneer woman who’s facing every single challenge you can imagine, with everyone’s trust in her, able to lift all her daughters through every storm and give them hope.”

Many of the vignettes concerned themes outside the students’ lived experiences. “I played characters with challenges I’ve never faced before, especially childbirth and a woman having to go through an abortion,” said junior Zoe Seare. “It was really hard to bring that emotion to the piece and accurately show these things they went through in that time. The good thing is that [rehearsal] felt like such a safe space to experiment and take risks.”

The actors of both casts did research, not only to explore unfamiliar life events but also to understand them through the musical’s unique sociohistorical lens. They read the original source material by Cooper and Allen, researched American Western expansion, and discussed their characters in depth — with each other, with female family members, and with the musical’s co-writer Molly Newman.

During Newman’s Facetime chat with the troupe, she emphasized the unsentimental grit of women managing frontier households and noted the benefit of Rymar’s previous experience with the play. “She was glad it was in the hands of somebody who knows what it’s supposed to be, because this show can easily be just dreadful if you make it too precious or too theatrical, or treat it in any way except with deep honesty and heart,” said Rymar.

The troupe’s guitar player, Mark Turnbull, is also a Quilters vet, having served as musical director for the Laguna Moulton Playhouse production. “Mark put it really beautifully. He said, ‘It’s kind of like a sour dough starter; [it helps] to have someone who was a part of [a Quilters production] in the past because it brings it all together, and it rises from there.’”

One challenge for this production was adapting Rymar’s vision — based on the previous, much larger production in which she appeared  for the school’s 49-seat black box theatre. Student designers used limited set pieces and featured textile arts created and donated by the Long Beach Modern Quilt Guild and the Orange County Modern Quilt Guild. Rymar noted that Thespian senior Kaelin Tester garnered praise from EdTA adjudicators and audience members alike for her inspired lighting design.

Barron, theatre instructor at OCSA’s Musical Theatre Conservatory, pointed out that “this piece is so dependent on the storytelling, with none of the technical razzle-dazzle you normally get to rely on.” Barron’s role in Quilters shifted abruptly from production manager to co-director just before rehearsals began, when Rymar was hospitalized for two weeks.

“Had I been brought in to direct any earlier, I would have been completely overwhelmed,” mused Barron, who instead jumped “into the fire with no time to be scared. It was beautiful to watch these young women grow and tell these stories focusing on the female endeavor in a way that’s almost completely unfiltered and true to the human condition.”

Don Amerson, theatre instructor at OCSA and director of Troupe 6826, recalled the first time he observed a rehearsal of the all-female production. “It’s almost impossible to do it justice trying to describe it,” he said. “You are going to come out of this transformed in a different way than you’re normally transformed in theatre. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter where you come from. Even though these are distinct stories, there’s a universal appeal.”

Rymar sees the show’s unique impact as rooted in an integrated emotional, narrative, and technical structure, which she said parallels the art of quilting. “It’s like [patchwork] piecing,” she said, describing at once the processes of assembling character tracks, blocking scene transitions, and — most importantly — bonding among female cast members.

“When we first got told who our casts were, we knew each other, but we weren’t close,” said Seare. “We decided to stay after school and hang out in our little quad area. We sat on this bench, and we just talked about our lives and got to know each other. That’s when I realized we were going to be a family.”

Freshman Peyton Kirkner saw the two cast lists and thought, “Oh my gosh, there are so many older people in this show, and they’re all so good, and I’m going to have like 13, 14, 15 idols now to look up to. I was so nervous about it. But when we go to do the show, we just feel like one big family — and we really did feel like sisters.”

Family-style bonding takes courage, according to Charlee Rubino. “For me, it was a big trust game,” the Thespian junior said. “I had to just dive in and go for it, or else I wouldn’t have been able to make the acting choices I did. That was the biggest challenge: putting trust in myself and in my castmates, because it was a very vulnerable show, and you had to put your vulnerability and trust in their hands.”

Sophomore Makenna Olsen recalled one powerful moment when the cast struggled with the song “Never Grow Old.” “Ms. Rymar told us to go outside. And she had us sit in a circle, hold hands, close our eyes, and sing without seeing each other,” Olsen said. “It just came together magically.

“And when we sang that song together onstage for the last time — then [later] as this huge legacy quilt gets hung at the end — I think we all stepped back and felt, ‘This is what we’ve created.’ And we realized how connected we were and how this bond we made together will be with us forever.”

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