Oct. 19 2016 11:14 AM

Collaborative theater project brings professional talent to work with MSU, high school students

MSU sophomore Anna Birmingham (right) rehearses a song with conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, who reworked the music for “Temple.”
Ty Forquer/City Pulse

Last week, actors, musicians and directors gathered in a brilliantly lit, mirrored-wall rehearsal studio in the basement of the MSU Auditorium, hashing out a complicated collaboration — well, a collaboration within a collaboration, really.

“Temple,” which comes to the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre this weekend, is the latest offering from imaGen, a collaboration between the Wharton Center’s MSUFCU Institute for Art & Creativity and MSU’s Department of Theatre. The annual project brings together MSU theater students, local high school students and professional Broadway actors for an intense, one-weekend run of shows. “Temple,” a musical based on the life of Temple Grandin, is shaping up to be one of the most challenging, complex, collaborative efforts of MSU’s theater season.

The musical centers on Grandin’s struggles with autism and the way she overcame significant obstacles to become a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a renowned autism advocate. As a researcher observing cattle marching to the slaughter, she identified with their anxiety and pushed for more humane treatment of livestock. She also invented the “hug box,” a device designed to calm individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

New York actor Zillah Glory, as Temple Grandin, sits atop a ladder, rehearsing a scene with MSU senior Hannah Martin.
Ty Forquer/City Pulse

Now back to the rehearsal studio, where a cadre of imported talent is getting to know the local cast. Playwright Sylvia Peto, here from her home on Bainbridge Island, Wash., comments and observes, tweaking a word or two when a phrase doesn’t feel right. Composer and conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos rehearses musical numbers with the singers. The in-demand conductor has recently appeared with the New York Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Indiana University Opera Theater. He’s known in theater circles for stints conducting the Tony-winning revival of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” and the Tony-nominated “A Catered Affair.”

I watch him at his keyboard, accompanying MSU student Anna Birmingham, who plays Grandin’s mother.

“If this is love, how will I know it,” she sings sweetly.

“Temple,” which debuted in 2005 with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, has been musically reworked by Kitsopoulos. The musical’s original composer, Norman Durkee, died of a blood infection in 2004.

“I’m hearing Constantine and his composing accompanying my words for the first time in this production,” Peto says. “It’s good — really, really good. He has heart.”

This production is the accomplished conductor’s debut as a composer.

“My music is designed to support Sylvia’s text, the heart of the story,” Kitsopoulos explains. “It’s all about her powerful words. My six musicians will be playing a very muted, chamber music style.”

Missing from the rehearsal is director Gabriel Barre, who will be flying in later in the week, fresh off a directing engagement at Japan’s Umeda Arts Theatre. Barre has been phoning in input and direction to on-site co-director and co-choreographer Jennifer Paulson-Lee, also a veteran of the Broadway stage.

“Yes, of course, we stay in touch daily, through video, over email,” Barre said via email. “We’ve worked together so much; we know each other’s styles and the ways in which we are alike and different.”

“Gabe and I have worked together on many productions,” Paulson-Lee says. “We can pretty much finish each other’s sentences, although, I have to admit … this was … .”

She trails off as she notices two actors working on a scene. She is back in director mode, her last sentence left unfinished.

For a good chunk of this rehearsal, Paulson-Lee works with New York actress Zillah Glory. The actress, who plays Grandin in this production, is precariously perched atop a 12-foot yellow ladder for one crucial scene. Paulson, the embodiment of a professional New York director, moves effortlessly around her actors, directing Glory down from her aerie.

Much of the play deals with Grandin’s struggles with autism, and the Wharton Center is making special arrangements for audience members with autism spectrum disorders or other sensory input disorders. A Saturday afternoon “sensory friendly performance” features toned down lighting and sound elements and other accommodations.

“Lights will not be as bright, we will never go to all black and sound will be modulated,” said Diane Willcox, Wharton Center director of marketing and communication. “We will have a ‘restless room’ for anyone who might feel overwhelmed and professional therapists on hand if the need for anxiety management occurs.”

Collaboration is a long-running theme in the MSU Department of Theatre. Kirk Domer, chairman of the department and professor of scene design, and Rob Roznowki, head professor of acting, even co-wrote a book on the topic, “Collaboration: A Practical Guide for Designers and Directors.” “Temple” follows on the heels of MSU’s season opener, “Punk Rock,” which included a showing of the film “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA,” several pre- and post-production discussions on gun violence and bullying and a fundraiser for the Michigan chapter of the Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. With “Temple,” the MSU Department of Theatre is trying to stretch the boundaries of collaboration even further.

“Our efforts this year mirror our textbook,” Roznowski explains. “We reject the antiquated idea of separate silos of education and learning for students in different aspects of theater. We’re adding breadth — exposure to professionals — for those who might want to be playwrights, choreographers, opera singers, dancers … .”

He pauses for a second, then looks at me and finishes the thought with a friendly chuckle.

“Even theater critics.”

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21 and Saturday, Oct. 22
Sensory friendly performance: 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22
$15/$10 students
Pasant Theatre
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com