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Local theatrical collaboration a lighthearted ode to acceptance

Murphy is thrilled with this chance to bring the groups together.
Courtesy/FW Youtheatre
Christopher Murphy is thrilled with this chance to bring the groups together.

Fort Wayne Youtheatre, in collaboration with First Pres Theater is presenting a local premiere of the hit Broadway musical “The Prom.”

The show opens March 1.

Based on a true event, the story centers on a female student who wants to bring her girlfriend to prom at an Indiana high school, and a group of down-on-their-luck Broadway actors who take up their cause.

According to Youtheatre’s Associate Director, Christopher Murphy who likes to call this kind of entertaining production with a point or Spoonful of Sugar Theater, "Inevitably, hilarity and naturally, chaos ensues. And then of course, we reach a happy ending as, as everybody in the community comes together."

Pastor Annie Epling notes that besides working with youth in a new way, this collaboration provides, "a way for the church to share its belief in inclusivity."
Courtesy/First Pres
Pastor Annie Epling notes that besides working with youth in a new way, this collaboration provides, "a way for the church to share its belief in inclusivity."

"The thing I love about theater is that it is a collaborative art by its very nature," he adds. "And so being able to take the staff, the volunteer bases of both of these organizations, and pool them in together, hopefully, you know, we're able to create something better than any of us could create individually."

Julia Meek discussed the fine points of the play and its important message with Murphy and First Presbyterian's head pastor Annie Epling.

Event Information:

Youtheatre & First Presbyterian Theater’s “The Prom”
At First Presbyterian Theater
300 W. Wayne St.
Fort Wayne

Friday-Saturday, March 1-2, 9-10, 15-16
7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 3, 10, 17
2:00 p.m.

For tickets and more information visit the Fort Wayne Youtheatre website and First Presbyterian Theater website.

Here is a transcription of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Christopher Murphy, Reverend Annie Epling welcome.

Christopher Murphy: Thanks for having us.

 Annie Epling: Thank you for having us.

Julia Meek: Your theater groups are kicking up the collaboration levels with this clever production. Congratulations. So before we discuss what everything's going to look like, Christopher, we need a one sentence synopsis.

Christopher Murphy: Okay, no pressure, here goes. So, a group of Broadway actors who are in desperate need of some good publicity read about an Indiana high school student who has been denied permission to bring her girlfriend to the prom, they rally to this small little Indiana town to take up the cause.

Hilarity and naturally, chaos ensues. And then of course, we reach a happy ending as, as everybody in the community comes together.

Julia Meek: It does sound like a wonderful prom night, and prom nights, who ever knows what's going to happen?

Christopher Murphy: Absolutely.

Julia Meek: At anytime. This touches all the right emotions, as you note, while really covering some tough topics there, all in an audience friendly way. It's also a local premiere. So why here? Why now is it important?

Annie Epling: I think it's important right here right now, because it speaks to this message of people coming together wanting to come together, hopefully, despite our differences. And this message of love thy neighbor, I think is just so desperately needed right now.

Julia Meek: Great points. And the fact that this is high school level, prom time is a, is a prime time in that age group for so many different reasons. Is it going to be helpful to present the message and everything else along with it with this cast of characters all being high school age, or related to the high school age folks?

Christopher Murphy: Yeah, absolutely. I think it makes it all the more relevant to have actual high school kids playing these characters. You know, proms originated in colleges as sort of like debutante balls and coming out parties.

And so I think it's really kind of beautiful to use the idea of the prom and the idea of coming out in the modern sense of the word coming out right now. And it's obviously really important at Youtheatre, that all of our students and any potential students, anybody who might want to come to your theater know that everybody is loved and accepted and welcomed when they walk through that door.

Julia Meek: In fact, both of your groups are used to tackling such fresh and focused work and topics like this, what does the teamwork here that you are putting together with the two whole theatrical troops do to make this really outstanding and maximize that impact?

Annie Epling: For us, it's an honor to work with Youtheatre. And it gives us an opportunity to work with youth and children in a way that we don't always do that.

It also gives us a way to use our theater, which is a beautiful theater and give people an opportunity to be on that stage. So we're able to bring that, the actual space, but I think also for us, it's a way for the church to share its belief in inclusivity.

Julia Meek: Of course, and the fact that you're doing it in a really savvy way. And Christopher, having the luxury of all the right ages for the right parts?

Christopher Murphy: Yeah, being able to bring everybody who is involved in both organizations together. Obviously, we're always stronger when we work together.

That's the thing I love about theater is that it is a collaborative art by its very nature. And so being able to take the staff, the volunteer bases of both of these organizations, and pool them in together, hopefully, you know, we're able to create something better than any of us could create individually.

Julia Meek: So what kind of a cast Then did you put together? And was it a hard one to assemble?

Christopher Murphy: Well, you know, it's always a hard one to assemble in Fort Wayne, Indiana, because we are so lucky. I think Fort Wayne, Indiana represents the absolute best of community theater, which is a term that sometimes gets a bad rap in the theater world, you know, but community theater to me is about people who for whatever reason, have chosen to make theater their application and not their vocation.

And so to have, you know, nearly 100 amazingly talented kids and adults who have participated in shows at both theaters, and quite a few who've never done either. So that was really cool to see some fresh faces walk in the door and to have to choose from them. It's simultaneously the worst part of my job and the most joyous part of it.

We have a cast of 30 amazingly talented human beings, some faces that people are going to recognize a lot of people that I'm really pleased, you know, to work with fairly regularly, a lot of really fresh faces too. And it's a really, really exciting cast that I think people are going to enjoy

Julia Meek: And a note on the collaboration, the specific connections here. Youtheatre alumni being one great big one. Speak to that and what else are you seeing?

Christopher Murphy: Yeah, so one of the things that I'm really excited about in our cast, and that I think is really cool is that we do have some Youtheatre alum who did Youtheatre when they were kids, and who would not necessarily be participating in a Youtheatre show at this point in their lives.

But because it is a collaboration with an adult theater, they're given this opportunity to sort of, you know, come home again, in a way, and in particular, our leading lady Emerson Connor, who plays the lead role of Emma was a Youtheatre alum, and is just one of the most extraordinarily talented people that I know.

And I'm so pleased that we're able to give her this opportunity to show off in this show,

Julia Meek: Besides making your heart sing at the reunion...

 Christopher Murphy: Yeah, it does my heart good to see all of those people walk through there.

 Julia Meek: How does it amplify your power with what you can put out with having someone you know to be good, you know you all work well together. And here we are back a generation later, or years later, however, that works?

 Christopher Murphy: Yeah its a really, really cool thing.

 Julia Meek: I do wonder with such a rich and whimsical plot and theme going on, how do you balance all of them. This is from the director standpoint, especially with a very serious message of understanding and the love we have and should have for everybody. What kind of finessing is necessary from director to the cast?

 Christopher Murphy: I think we're really lucky that it's a really beautifully written show, I was really taken by it, when I saw it on tour, it's a show that I think really wears its heart on its sleeve. It's a very, very earnest in its intentions.

One of the things that I really love about it is that it doesn't really present anybody as the quote unquote, bad guy. There are definitely people that hopefully you're not going to agree with their perspective at the beginning of the show, but they're definitely portrayed as three dimensional characters that you can relate to, you can understand and that you're really pleased, I think, when you see their eyes open by the end of the play.

So I think the show does most of the work for us. And of course, you know, we just have a terrific cast. And it is very, I call it "Spoonful of Sugar theater" in a certain way, because while it is a really important message, it does it in a way that's not forcing that message down your throat.

It's doing it in a very, very entertaining way where my hope as a director is that for the two hours that you're sitting in that theater, you're just having a great time and you're really enjoying the show.

And then when you get in the car, then you're going to stop and you're really going to stop to think about what you saw and take that message home with you.

 Julia Meek: Meanwhile, you're at the prom.

Christopher Murphy: Absolutely.
Julia Meek: And Annie, you've seen the play. Do you agree with Christopher?

Annie Epling: I do? I do. And I think it's a fun show. I think it is absolutely something that people can sit down and laugh and maybe even laugh at themselves in a way, which I think is important.

But then also to realize, Oh yes, there is this message of inclusivity and love and acceptance that is so important to get across. But it does it in a way that you just enjoy it. And I think that's important.

Julia Meek: One of those cases where you might even learn something along the way? (chuckles)

 Christopher Murphy: And I think that's the best way to reach people.

 Julia Meek: Indeed. So you expect and it sounds like you are getting a lot from this great and combined actor's pool you have going here. Even so any surprises along the way with this production?

Christopher Murphy: Oh, there always are, there are always going to be people that walk in the door that you've never seen and who wow you.

I will say in particular, one of our leading ladies that plays the character of Alyssa Greene. I've worked with her on a couple shows before but in much smaller capacities. And this is the first time that I've really seen her have a part like this where she can really stand center stage and really shine like this.

And she makes me cry every single night--in the best way. (all chuckle)
 Julia Meek: That's a good thing.

Christopher Murphy: Yeah.

 Julia Meek: Annie, you wear a lot of hats over there at the church to be sure. And one thing is the whole arts enrichment with the theater with the little art gallery that's around the theater. What is it about that great facility, the theater itself that makes a show like this fit that space,

 Annie Epling: The space itself, because it's an intimate space, but the stage is still large enough, the audience is still large enough to do a show like this. And no matter where you are in that theater, you feel like you are a part of the production because of the space itself.

 Julia Meek: And Christopher, you by now are still exploring every nook and cranny on that stage. But you have had lovely presentations there in collaboration already.

Christopher Murphy: Oh, absolutely. I love the space at First Pres. For me as a director it's exactly what Annie's talking about. It's a chance to bring in a sizable audience in a way that nobody is too terribly far removed from what's happening on stage and you really can connect with even the person who is sitting in the very back corner.

Julia Meek: Put that together with the thought provoking pieces that tend to be presented there, running the whole gamut of all theater. Does one feed the other? Does that enhance the intimacy of the physical space still more?

Christopher Murphy: Yeah, I think so, I think they just work perfectly together and create a really terrific experience for everybody who's going to walk through the door.

 Julia Meek: Okay, so what's the word on the street, in the theater district, if you will, about doing the show? (chuckles) It's a premiere.

Christopher Murphy: Well hopefully, people are excited, we're certainly very excited to be doing it. So hopefully, people are going to hear the word on the street, as you say, and, and come down, because it's certainly a show that we want everybody to experience and see.

 Julia Meek: And who do you expect, hope to see, in those audiences?

 Annie Epling: I would expect to see people of all ages. It could be the high schooler who's getting ready for his or her prom. But it could also be the grandparent who has the grandchild going to the prom.

It could be the person who went to their prom and had a horrible time, and wants to relive it and have a good time (all laugh) the second go around. It could be anybody and everyone.

Christopher Murphy: Absolutely you know, some of us skipped our proms to do shows at various theaters in high school. So it's a chance to go to the prom just by directing this show.

Yeah, I 100% agree. I just want to see everybody walk through the door, "A" because I think it's a terrific show with an incredibly talented, hard working cast that deserves to be seen, but also with a show and a message that deserve to be heard.

Julia Meek: And with this user-friendly theater space and nine showings.

Christopher Murphy: Plenty of opportunity.

Julia Meek: That is, that is simply great. Now the community has come to look for the inspirational, the thought provoking, the unexpected, really literally, from First Pres Theater for the past five plus decades, and they haven't been disappointed.

They've been very, very pleased. Annie, how does that resonate with you personally?

Annie Epling: So, when I first heard that the church had a theater, I didn't really know what to expect. And like so many people, the first time I walked into the theater, I said, Oh, it's a real theater.

I think people sometimes expect a stage in fellowship hall or something. No, it's a real theater. And we have a dressing room and green rooms and work rooms and the whole nine yards. For me personally, we talk about enriching our faith through the arts at First Pres.

And I just think that that is a both fascinating and also really inspirational way to view one's personal faith, one's worldview. through the arts and really get one thinking about how do I think about this? What's my approach to this?

And perhaps this musical, this play comedy, drama, whatever it happens to be, can help me shed some light. You know, I've heard people say for them, churches, the theater, and I think I think that's okay, dare I say that as pastor of the church? (all chuckle)

Julia Meek: Yes, thank you for saying that!

Annie Epling: But it can be and we're created to be creative people. And so what a wonderful way to express that.

 Christopher Murphy: Yeah, and at Youtheatre, you know, it's interesting that she says, we're created to be a creative people. One of the things that we talk a lot about at Youth Theatre are what we call art scars.

I'm not saying we're encouraging--we're discouraging art scars. But art scars are sort of rooted in this notion that in order to be the fullest version of ourselves as human beings, we all need a creative outlet.

But for so many of us, when we are a kid, somebody looks at that drawing that we made, and they tell us it's bad. They look at the way we dance, and they say, Oh, you dance like a horse, and we shut down and we never draw, we never dance again.

And so, you know, our mission at Youtheatre is to make sure that every young person who walks through our door feels free to create and be creative and hopefully carry that forth into the rest of their lives.

 Julia Meek: No wonder the collaboration is such a power collaboration on such a great thing for the community to say to both of you and your organizations. Now, sans spoilers, can we look forward to future Youtheatre First Pres Theater collaborations?

 Christopher Murphy: I would certainly hope so.

Annie Epling: Sure.

Christopher Murphy: I mean, you know, we're very lucky we already perform most of the rest of our season at First Pres anyway. And like I said, it's a terrific venue. They are terrific partners, and a wonderful staff and you know, everything about it is certainly something we love. So hopefully,

 Julia Meek: And should you continue, as we all are hoping right here right now, we're praying, I might say (chuckles) are there pieces out there to be had that you are already anxious to do that you couldn't do before because you do need the adults and the full kids cast also?

 Christopher Murphy: I always have a list of shows I'm looking to do.

Julia Meek: And you have done plenty of shows in the community on all sides on all stages.

Christopher Murphy: A few. Actually, I did a list the other day I have done 249 shows in my life.

Julia Meek: Well, you're still young. (all laugh)

Christopher Murphy: Right, that's right! I got 249 More in me. (all chuckle)

Julia Meek: Good for you. And can we count on at least some of those being collaborations?

 Christopher Murphy: I certainly hope so.

 Julia Meek: That's fantastic. Now it sounds like our combined team has a real winner here. The team is a real winner. And so is this production. So last question, what does it mean to you both to share such a story with the community? And what do you hope every audience member takes away with them in their heart when they leave?

 Annie Epling: Hmm. Good question. I hope people have fun. But I also hope that they take away this idea that life is a gift. Love is the point. And I'll leave it at that,

 Julia Meek: Christopher?

Christopher Murphy: I completely agree. I don't know how I'm supposed to follow that answer, that's perfect. But I do, I want people to come I want them to have a great time.

I want them to be moved and touched to go home and think. We live in such divided times. And whether you're talking about the LGBTQ issues that this show centers around, or other things, there's just always so much more that we have in common as human beings than the things that divide us.

And I can think of nothing more human than wanting to stand and dance with the person that you love at the prom or anywhere. I love the idea of bringing people together.

Julia Meek: Christopher Murphy is Fort Wayne Youtheatre's assistant director and Annie Epling, head pastor at First Pres. Thank you both for sharing this story, It is a great one, on with the show now.

Christopher Murphy: Always a pleasure. Thanks, Julia.

Annie Epling: Thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.