A Colorado theater group known for casting actors in dramatic readings of short fiction is expanding into new territory.
Stories on Stage typically takes one actor and has them play several roles. But for the latest production, the group is prominently featuring music, something it rarely does.
The subject is adapted from a 1925 supernatural novel called “The Wind,” which follows a woman in a small Texas town in the 1880s. After the wind uncovers the body of a man she has killed, the woman is driven insane.
This tale, immortalized in a classic film starring Lillian Gish, has fueled the creative minds of two Colorado artists, resulting in the production of the first live performance of this new solo chamber musical, featuring a small number of musicians.
Anthony Powell, the artistic director of Stories on Stage, says during the pandemic shutdown, composer David Nehls shared a full, virtual performance of the musical. Powell knew immediately that it was right for the company’s 23rd season.
“Stories on Stage is about a performer transforming, playing many different roles — a literary story — but then you add David's incredible music on top of it and it's really a chamber piece, something we haven't done before,” Powell said.
Nehls and performer Emily Van Fleet are grateful Stories on Stage is stretching its boundaries to present their piece.
“But it still has that idea of what stories on stage is in that it's a singular individual who's telling the story,” Nehls said. “And I think it's a really wonderful opportunity for Emily and I to take advantage of.”
Van Fleet said she’s ready, after first performing the piece on video during the pandemic, to finally perform it for a live audience.
“We did a Zoom live stream in 2020, and then in early 2021, we did this filmed version. So I am really, really excited to do this with real live audience members,” Van Fleet said. “I think that a very wise actor once said that the play isn't a play until you have an audience. It's when you can finally figure out what the story's about. And I cannot wait to add that extra element.”
Powell has been working in Denver theater for more than 30 years. In 2010, he became the artistic director for Stories on Stage. Over the years, he has witnessed the local arts community grow and is delighted to see the Wind production as an exciting extension of that growth.
Powell describes "The Wind" as a harrowing story, but he said that Nehls has added his own touches to bring different wrinkles to the story. He said he brought "humor into the piece."
"There are characters that are from the novel that bring a lightness to it. That is such a relief because a lot of it's quite serious. It's amazing,” Powell said.
Both Emily Van Fleet and David Nehls are busy theater artists in Colorado, but both find it rewarding to also create their own work for a production.
Van Fleet said she loves how this musical depicts a woman, “who isn't allowed to have any agency and the forces outside of her are so big and powerful that they drive her to, yes, madness, and also just find a way to take control of her life in one way or another."
“And I think it's really fascinating to watch that struggle and it feels a little bit like a cautionary tale that this is what happens to people if you don't allow them freedom of choice in their lives,” Van Fleet said.
Nehls said his excitement isn’t confined only to this project, but also by the sheer amount of new work being created in Colorado theater.
“I look at all the new work that happens in our community and this being a part of it is something I'm thrilled and proud of because I don't know that markets the size of Denver are diving into new works the way we do here,” Nehls said. “I have never had the kind of experiences in doing my own new work as I am privileged to do here. And I'm not the only one in this town who has new work being done throughout this community. It's really special and exciting.”
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