The door to the practice room opens, and music mixes with voices. Kendall Uslan can be heard giving blocking information while Kai Anderson runs one of the lead actresses through her solo. Even to the closest follower of broadway, however, these scenes and songs are not familiar.
Many people dream of writing and publishing their own content but for Christine Sells, Anderson and Uslan their dream is becoming a reality. The three have such a strong passion for musicals, that they wrote one themselves.
“The Icarus Project” is what they call “steampunk rock,” loosely based on the myth of Icarus. It follows inventor Ariadne, who is hoping to save her city which is falling from the sky. The musical also follows other inventors at an inventors fair in the city sponsored by a powerful corporation Helios.
Although enjoyable and rewarding, writing an original musical has not been an easy task for the trio. The concept for the musical originated in January, then scratched and entirely reworked in July and August.
“It was a crazy idea but we decided to start over. We started with a project that I’d been sort of brewing in the background a little bit for a concept album about the Myth of Icarus and we just talked about it and we had great ideas,” composer, lyricist and music director Anderson said. “It flowed more naturally and so we just dove into it and started working on it and it progressed further than the previous show had in six months in one month.”
They were then given the opportunity to turn their concept into a real product through Florida Southern’s Theater After Dark (TAD). The program gives students both inside and outside the theatre department a chance to perform their own creative works.
Both majors and non-majors can participate in themed cabarets, which are nights where students can perform original songs that they or someone else wrote, and more recently, it opened the door for this student show.
“I think that having new productions especially at FSC is definitely a big step forward when it comes to theater and future productions, because I think one of the big things that not only ‘Icarus’ but also TAD and vagabonds, which are our clubs on campus, are working to do is to create more opportunities for students and also to give opportunities that haven’t been available before,” book writer and director Uslan said.
Because of its focus on student involvement, “The Icarus Project” is being written and produced very differently from what is commonly seen in the world of theatre. The directors are creating much of the blocking, how the actors move on the stage, and even dialog in collaboration with their actors rather than handing them a completed script.
Typically when a show is put on, the director will purchase the full script and musical score and will hand the completed package to their actors. Although there are still creative liberties with this method, the focus is on performing what the actors have in front of them, rather than creating the characters and scenes around them.
“Rather than trying to write the whole show and then throw it on actors, what we’re really doing is developing the show with the actors as we rehearse… ‘here are our ideas, here are some scenes we have written, let’s work together to develop the characters, develop the scene, develop the structure,” Anderson said. “I think I speak for all of us when I say this show is very early in development and so with that comes some growing pains.”
This unique approach allows the actors and actresses to really connect to their characters and let them develop naturally. They are not building off of a version of the show they have been watching for years, or even that they have seen once. They are truly making their characters come to life for the first time.
“I think it’s like every theater kid’s dream to do something like this— to originate a role. Basically everyone in there is creating the characters,” said Sarah Conte, who plays the character Ariande in the musical. “Book writers are giving us baselines, but kind of just making a character your own and not having anyone else’s performance to base it off of is a really cool experience that not a lot of people get.”
It is to be expected that the process of producing an original show comes with both its upsides and its downsides, and that has proven true for Anderson, Uslan and Sells. There have been parts of the process that have gone very smoothly, while challenges inevitably arose as well. One large challenge they faced was the time it takes to write a musical.
Sells explained that the process of creating a show is exhausting, especially when people are going on vacation or working over the summer and dealing with the demanding academic and social expectations of the school year alongside writing and rehearsals. Uslan added that working as a team on a creative project, though worthwhile, was a challenge.
“A lot of the songwriting is just songwriting. It’s just what does this melody sound like, okay what does it look like on the page, lets get it for actors,” Anderson said.
The process of creating The Icarus Project has been both a challenging and rewarding process for everyone involved.
“I love being a part of theatre. I’m a theatre arts major right now, but like this is my passion. I love seeing people follow what they want to do, so it’s very cool seeing this whole show come together,” ensemble member Jadyn Koneski said.
The show will have a likely online stage in the near future, according to Sells. Because the show is still early in development, the stage reading will not include sets or costumes, but it will be an opportunity for students to see the work that Anderson, Uslan, Sells and their entire cast put forward.
“Something that came from your brain exists outside of your brain and outside of the theoretical but into the practical. It almost gives you chills,” Uslan said.