When second-year University of Arizona instructor Matt Walley submitted a proposal to produce a show for the theater program's Studio Series, he had a vague sense of what the piece might be.
But because it was to be a student-developed original and collaborative work, he knew that what he would really need to do was shepherd his students as they sought what they wanted to do—what subjects and themes to explore, and how they could negotiate working as collaborators.
"I am drawn to stories about the apocalypse, so I proposed that we would develop something with that starting point," Walley said. "But I discovered that the word 'apocalypse' was from the Greek and meant something more like an unveiling of the truth, or the unknown. So my idea evolved to something less about the end of days, and more about the unveiling of the truth. And I thought, 'That's exactly what theater is.'"
Walley and his students discovered that the ancient symbol of the Ouroboros—traditionally illustrated as a serpent eating its own tail—was a symbol of wholeness, of the circle of life, and was frequently associated with creativity. So the Ouroboros became the foundation for their process as well as the title of the piece they would create.
Five students were selected at auditions to work as collaborators. They agreed that the symbol suggested the life cycle, so each performer took one phase of that cycle—birth, adolescence, adulthood, old age and death—and through both physical and textual improvisation, they developed the piece, which will be presented this weekend.
Walley, who works with students who are not necessarily theater majors, said he felt that his job as director was to support his actors' vision.
"Usually, actors are called on to support the director's vision. This process was different," he said. "In our first meetings, we discussed how they could each develop their own point of view (while) working as an ensemble as well. So we developed some rules to work by. We decided how, as a group, decisions would be made; this is critical for collaborators. And then I helped them develop a mission statement—what and why they were doing what they had chosen. As the director, I felt my job was to help support their vision, to mediate, and to help keep them on track for their mission, to keep them true to that."
Walley, who is a member of the acting company at the Rogue Theatre and is a creative director for Theatre 3, which is a part of Live Theatre Workshop's more-experimental arm known as Etcetera, said he is impressed with the "really mature and refreshing ideas" his actors have developed, and which they offer with great honesty.
"It's really compelling. They have definitely created a piece which is more than the sum of its parts," he said.
"In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
How things do change.
We can only guess what Cole Porter, who wrote those lyrics for the 1934 musical Anything Goes, would think of what has become not so shocking 78 years later. But we do know that the musical has endured as more-than-delightful entertainment.
As recently as 2011, it was revived on Broadway, by the Roundabout Theater Company, with direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall. The touring version of this production will sail into town next week, brought to us by Broadway in Tucson. The show has just begun a national tour and will play in more than 20 major cities.
It's sort of a silly story involving disguises, misguided love, an evangelist-turned-nightclub singer, and a gangster of indifferent notoriety—all aboard an ocean liner headed from the U.S. to London. The things that makes Anything Goes, well, go, are the musical numbers, which include some of Porter's most famous and beloved songs: "You're the Top," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "It's De-Lovely," "You'd Be So Easy to Love" and, of course, the title song, "Anything Goes." The book has been tweaked a number of times over the years, with songs shifted around, but it obviously still works. It won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical in 2011, as well as the Tony for Best Choreography, for Kathleen Marshall. Sutton Foster won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Reno Sweeney, the leading lady.
And a plum role, it is. Just ask young Mackenzie Warren, who in her second year out of college has not only landed a place in the ensemble of the touring show, but is also the understudy for the role of Reno, played by Rachel York in this production.
"It's a little daunting to be covering Rachel York. She is such a star. It's a thrill to work with her and watch her every day," Warren said. "So even if I go on for only one performance, it would be so thrilling."
And guess what? It's rumored that she will be given that chance for at least one performance in Tucson.
Originally from Lexington, S.C., Warren graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a master's degree in musical theater in 2010. She then moved to New York.
"This is such a big step and so exciting," she said. "And I have packing down to a science."
And to think that about this time a year ago, she was working as a "Bloom-ette," a dancing shopping bag at Bloomingdale's.
"It was a riot, one of the most fun things I'd done in New York," she said.
"I'm really excited to be coming to Tucson," Warren said. Because of the opportunity to appear as Reno? "There's that," she said sheepishly. "And I've never been west of Oklahoma!"