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Talking technology, without technology, on the stage

Young actors, writers make history with 'Project Élan' at The Rep.

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MAKING MUSIC: SMTI takes on interpersonal communication.
  • MAKING MUSIC: SMTI takes on interpersonal communication.

A group of alumni from the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's Summer Musical Theater Intensive (SMTI) program are blazing new territory this spring by putting on a wholly original new musical. "Project Élan," opening Tuesday, May 5, aims to connect to audiences through our experiences of disconnection in the wake of modern technology and cultural shifts.

"We could have done another musical revue, or 'Annie,' or 'Oliver!' but we're trying to be innovative and say something about what's going on today," writer Conly Basham said.

What makes the play stand out, though, is that rather than the usual formula for this theme — an older perspective judging the younger generation or warning us about where the future is headed — here we have a group of millennial writers and actors working (and playing) through these issues themselves.

"This is much more than a 'kid's show,' it's an opportunity to put us on the map by producing an original work," said director and co-writer Nicole Capri, who's been leading the SMTI program for nearly a decade now. "These young artists are brave, they're talented and they're competitive. They're doing something unique because they want to do this for a living. They take it seriously."

The storylines in "Project Élan" mostly revolve around relationships, either between romantic partners or family members, and focus on how technology has impacted the ways in which we communicate with each other. One story also involves a young veteran who's been participating in military actions abroad via remote technology at home.

The new musical mixes light-hearted moments of humorous self-observation with some real depth and weight. While it's certainly focused on the younger generation, "Project Élan" touches on universal themes and hinges on the idea that every generation still longs for connection and love. "It's a hopeful play," Capri said. "Whether or not we're tethered by technology, we can find answers together."

Music from the show will also be performed live, with some of the writers and cast members playing live instruments. Fans of the Broadway show "Once" should enjoy this style of performance, a contrast with the orchestral scores of traditional musicals. "We wanted a score that sounds like what's on the radio now, but which would appeal to a wide range of musical tastes," Capri said.

While the play isn't the first work of art to touch on themes of connection and contemporary technology (think Spike Jonze's "Her"), you'd be hard-pressed to find a work of musical theater that covers this territory. "I think live theater will connect to people in ways that television or film does not," Basham said. "It's much more of a challenge to theatricalize these topics." Indeed, there is no way to have text messages scroll across the screen, or have flashy visuals emphasize that we are experiencing technology.

The actors and writers of "Project Élan" are instead banking on the quality of their work to connect to audiences without gimmicks. That's pretty gutsy: These young artists are taking on a challenging topic that's never really been done on the live stage in quite this way, and they're doing it more or less by themselves.

"The rules and expectations are changing so rapidly, it's hard to keep up," said Capri, who along with Basham admitted having her own moments of disconnection with some of the younger cast members, who range in age from 10 to 30. "We had written a song that referenced 'Darkwing Duck,' which was a favorite show of mine growing up, but none of the younger actors knew what we were talking about," Basham said. The writers presented the songs in workshops to the younger cast members, who are current participants in the program, and adapted them so they would ring true for the younger generation.

Rather than having a single writer for the songs, the musical features a broad collection of artists bringing different lyrical and musical perspectives. "All of the young writers involved are developing their own budding careers and it's awesome to have such a diverse group who all grew up in the program," Capri said. Along with Capri and Basham, the writing team includes Bobby Banister, Mark Binns, Sam Clark, Robert Frost, Jimmy Landfair and Charity Vance, who are all Arkansas natives who got their start with the SMTI program.

"Project Élan" plays through Saturday, May 16. Special events include an anniversary celebration Friday, May 8, marking 10 years of the SMTI program and a benefit concert featuring original music from the show Tuesday, May 12, with proceeds going to the Young Artist Scholarship Fund. Find more information at therep.org.

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