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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2014

Yeasts: Dawn of New Age on Earth…And in San Francisco Musical Theatre?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Lily Janiak

Lesson learned: It never hurts to cold-email.

For Jason Hoover, artistic director of Ray of Light Theatre, a 14-year-old company that produces two musicals a year, it paid off handsomely. 

In fall 2013, Hoover wrote to Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, the New York-based team behind Urinetown, about producing their show Yeast Nation (the Triumph of Life), which has had productions in Juneau, Chicago, the 2011 New York Fringe Festival and a Brooklyn home school but has not yet had its splashy New York premiere. The musical is about earth's first life forms; like the characters in Urinetown, the single-celled, singing yeasts in Yeast Nation must cope with a scarce resource: specifically, the salt on which they feed.

The Yeast Nation team at Ray of Light, July 2014. Photo: Eliza Leoni

If that premise sounds a little weird, that's exactly what Hoover was looking for. After producing Into the Woods and Carrie in 2013, Hoover decided that he wanted this year's season to have "shows that people a) haven't seen and b) probably have never even heard of." Earlier this summer, that meant a riotous, campy production of Triassic Parq, which featured a transsexual dinosaur; with Yeast Nation, Hoover hoped to maintain the euphoric silliness but scale down from giant reptiles to asexually reproductive, single-celled fungi.

To Hoover's delight, Kotis (book and lyrics) and Hollmann (music and lyrics) were on board.

"The positive way to put it is that this is a very self-selective show in terms of people who are interested in it," Kotis said in an interview. "That [Ray of Light] wasn't a major, regional company—I didn't care because Mark and I come from non-Equity theatre. We know that brilliance can happen just as easily—it may be even more likely—in a basement as it can in one of the grand, hallowed halls of theatre."

The pair was in town in early July for a weeklong workshop with Ray of Light, where they tested new material, concluding with an invite-only staged reading. Hollmann and Kotis then returned to New York to work on another round of revisions before Ray of Light begins full rehearsals next week. The show, which has a cast of 18, opens October 3 under Hoover's direction at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco.

Mark Hollmann, Greg Kotis and Jason Hoover conducting a discussion after the invite-only reading of Yeast Nation. Photo: Eliza Leoni

Hollmann and Kotis have been working on this show since 1995, which predates their work on Urinetown. Kotis got the idea for the show on a trip to Transylvania, where he saw a Greek theatre company's coproduction of Antigone. That got him thinking, "What is the oldest play?"—as in, what is the oldest story that could be told?

Though, as the script itself details, earth's first life forms were actually prokaryotes, there are marked advantages, Kotis said, to basing the show instead on yeasts: "It is that magical word—it's unlovely. It has the virtue of being one syllable, which is good for our purposes. It's a terrible"—i.e., hilarious—"word to try to pronounce in meter and song. It's us embracing the worst possible thing out of stubbornness"—or because Kotis "feels bad" for "outcast words."

I asked Kotis and Hollmann how they held a creative spark, a drive to do the same project, for decades. Surely they, and their musical theatre interests, have changed over the years?

"You would think," Kotis joked.

In fact, though, the lengthy development process afforded the pair the chance to develop points of view they might not have understood as well in their younger years. For instance, pregnancy features prominently, reflecting the two children they've each had since 1995. Additionally, in writing, Kotis and Hollmann adhered to a strict rule—"to not refer to anything that's not in this world," meaning characters talk about only nouns like water, sun and muck. Part of the goal of that, Kotis said, is to free the show from being grounded in any era, which made it easier to work on over time.

Kotis also attributes his and Hollmann's years of work on the show to sheer stubbornness. "We want it to be perfect, which is impossible. It can't happen, but I think that's the thing that drives me. [There's a] promise that if you just put these words in this order, it will be a pristine, perfect thing.

"We go through fevered periods of working on it, and then we sort of take a break, or, if we're lucky, work takes us elsewhere. Then it's something like Jason emailing and saying, 'We'd like to do it! How 'bout it?'" Then we think, 'Why not? Let's do that.' That's another opportunity for us to tackle this again and see if we can make it that perfect thing, as impossible as it is." All of this means, he continues, that "there's no hurry, and there's an urgent hurry, all the time."

Hollmann and Kotis's experience with Urinetown also fuels their work ethic. "We spent more than a decade doing storefront theatre," Kotis said. "Maybe [our show] got good reviews; maybe it disappeared into the ether—as is, I think, the reality for 99% of people who do theatre. We had the crazy-good fortune to have one of those plays become teleported into the realm of plays that are done all over the place, which is something I don't think we ever anticipated. We know from experience that it is possible, so maybe it'll be possible for this, too, one day. Or maybe not."

Since they've been developing Yeast Nation for so many years, Kotis and Hollmann knew very specifically what they wanted to work on during their workshop with Ray of Light. They clarified the opening, which faces the difficult task of introducing the audience to an alien world with very particular rules, cut a bridge and added more background vocals to further develop the chorus's role. They've also changed the way (spoiler alert!) one character dies. (Hint: it's still great fun for that actor.) In making these changes, the pair found the workshop and staged reading very helpful. "There's no substitute for a production to focus your mind on a project and try to see past the murkiness," Kotis said.

In terms of the show's broader message, though, Kotis couldn't be clearer. Both Yeast Nation and Urinetown explore a Malthusian vision of the world, one in which population growth and scarce resources threaten the survival of the planet. "I feel that the consequences of our success as a species [are] the defining fact of our time," Kotis said of his ongoing interest. "To me, it's like, 'There's a big comet heading for us…Look, it's still there. Let's go to sleep.' Then you wake up: 'Oh, the comet's still there.'" He paused. "'I gotta go to work!'"

For Hollmann, the team's refusal to tie a bow on difficult issues is one of its greatest strengths. "The musical [as a form] earned its bad reputation by telling stories in which problems are posed that could be solved by the community or by a hero leading a community," he said. "I'm talking about shows that I revere like Oklahoma! The fact that Greg's point of view is made into a musical—we have people come up to us and say, 'I didn't think that I liked musicals, and then I saw Urinetown.' The reason for that I think is that Greg is telling a story that has a terrible ending, and yet we're putting that on stage as a musical. We're doomed, and we're singing about it."

"That's the reality of our existence," adds Hollmann, "so why not tell that story? It feels to me more of a relief than to obscure it."

With Ray of Light's work on this show, Hoover hopes to develop the perception of Ray of Light as a center for developing new musicals. "You would think [SF] would be teeming with musical theatre," he says. "The love for and the desire to watch musical theatre are here. The talent is here. But I think the ability to produce musical theatre is difficult. You need a space with 150-200 seats to break even, and there are very few theatres that have that capacity and are affordable." But with projects like Yeast Nation, he said, he hopes that "other artists, other composers who have a new work but can't necessarily get it where it needs to go in New York will look to us as a place to develop musicals."

In the meantime, you can find out more about Ray of Light's coming production of Yeast Nation here.

Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also a theatre critic for SF Weekly