“I don’t even like musicals,” says Donna Swift, writer and producer of more than a dozen musicals and founder and excutiver director of Troubled Shores Inc., a not-for-profit theatre organization. She is sitting on a newly painted stage prop for her latest production — a reworking of the Seventies musical Godspell — in the cafeteria of the Oak Bluffs elementary school.
“I try to put that in my writing, though — to say, ‘Look how ridiculous this is — I’m singing now.’”
Godspell Jr. opens this weekend. The ‘junior’ part of the title may sound redundant (the original Godspell production transposed the Bible’s gospel of St. Matthew to the schoolyard), but Ms. Swift deemed some original scenes too racy for its Oak Bluffs audience. Cut material includes Judas’s betrayal and a song which has Mary Magdelene teasing Jesus with a feather boa. “This version is really G-rated” she says, with a beatific smile.
Ms. Swift, 39, is rather particular about all this. Working with young adults as well as small children, she is keen to avoid gratuitous “blueness,” as she puts it. “Teenagers want to push the envelope,” she says. “They want to throw in four-letter words, but you don’t need that. I tell them, ‘You’re too smart, too creative for that. What can you do instead that’s a more creative choice?’”
While this may be a censored Godspell, it is the musical’s intrinsic subject matter that might be racy for those who prefer to keep God out of schools. Ms. Swift feels she has circumvented that controversy by producing it as an after-school project.
Brian Weiland, Oak Bluffs school music teacher and collaborator with Ms. Swift, has joined her on stage to sketch out a backdrop and backs up her argument. “No one feels like they’re going to church here,” he says. “Plus, the central theme of the play is the same as the school’s, which is, treat other’s as you’d treat yourself. It just happens to be in the Bible too.”
“But if we were doing a play in class,” Ms. Swift continues, “we would have thought, ‘Yeah, it’s a great play but maybe we’ll do another one.’”
The two have worked together on seven productions for Oak Bluffs school, adapting an existing play in the fall and producing original material for a spring show. They have found that people’s hackles are raised much more readily by pejorative references to religion in the material, however obscure. The Wizard of Oz offended some who felt that witchcraft negatively influnced children. Putting on Damn Yankees in 2004, they found the title alone was enough to get some parents riled, while depicting — as it does — the devil singing showtunes really wound them up.
Ms. Swift calls hers a typical Vineyard life story: She came here after studying drama at Emerson College, planning to stay a year, spend time with her parents and contemplate her next move, to New York or Chicago. Here she still is, married to Scott Elis, the Edgartown assistant fire chief (a man she describes as “reluctant to leave Edgartown, let alone Martha’s Vineyard”).
The summer she arrived on the Vineyard she fell in with a group of actors who had recently formed an improv troupe; they were a weekly fixture at the old Wintertide cafe in Vineyard Haven. They called themselves WIMP, Wintertide Improv.
The fixture was a success but actors gradaully began to peel off, to pursue acting careers or go back to college. Donnna was quick to spot that the end was beginning. She also was growing tired of the weekly slot.
“They say if you get bored with improv, then teach it,” she says, explaining her decision to start holding adult improv classes. These doubled as a recruitment drive for the troupe. She proved a natural teacher and soon someone suggested adding a kids’ class. IMP was born. She applied for a grant for the project and raised the rest of the money she needed by organizing a fundraiser, in the form of a play. “Best way to raise funds? Put kids on a stage,” she says. By the time WIMP troupe trod its last board in 2005, IMP was fully fledged.
In 2002, Ms. Swift was running a house-cleaning business when she attended a session with the Island Threatre Workshop’s Children’s Theatre. She was paired with Ross Mihalko, an award-winning writer, to create a 10-minute play. Within a month she had sold the cleaning business and was concentrating on theatre full-time. “Ross and I just clicked and I knew I was meant to do this,” she says.
The two are now a writing partnership. They are keen to see their projects picked up by one of the three major U.S. musical companies, though they are yet to hit paydirt. “They say straight off the bat, ‘Don’t expect to hear back from us even initially for at least six months,’” Ms. Swift says, shaking her head and returning the subject of her ambivalence over this, her chosen medium. “This might be why there’s so much bad stuff out there for kids.”
She is effusive though when it comes to working with Mr. Mihalko. “It really works. He’s good on details, I’m strong on the big picture. I can write lyrics, but he’s a genius at it.”
Mr Mihalko spends most of his year off-Island (he is currently based in North Carolina after years in Los Angeles), so the pair have an unusual creative process. Collaborating largely via telephone, they write throughout the year. This even works for the music, with Mr. Weiland. “If Ross has an idea he’ll sing it down the phone,” she says, “and Brian will either use it, work with it... or chuck it!”
As much as she enjoys acting and writing, Ms. Swift is foremost a manager and teacher. “I’m one of those people who takes things as far as they’ll go,” she says, referring to her ever-growing theatrical empire. Troubled Shores currently runs three improv classes; IMPulse (for second grade and up); IMPish (for middle schoolers); and IMPers (the seniors — they get to wear red shirts). Then there’s Sketchy Teens, an improv comedy troupe directed, produced and written by its players and overseen by Ms. Swift. She also started up IMP summer camp. She even has IMPterns.
“At first people were reticent about going to see kids, and there are still summer visitors who see the lineup and go, ‘Kids? Why would I want to go and see that?’ But when the IMPers got to Chicago — that was huge. WIMP tried to, as adults, and never got in.”
The IMPers were selected to perform at the Chicago Improv Festival last year, a nonprofit showcase of international and domestic improv theatre.
Ms. Swift puts the kids to work, Dickens-style. From acting, set management, sound, lighting, writing and design, down to hawking the advertising on the programs, the children are involved in every area of theatre production. In fact the students of Oak Bluffs Godspell Jr. were responsible for selling all the ad space in the program to family, friends and strangers. That revenue goes a long way towards financing the production which, as an extra-curricular project, can only spend what it stands to make back.
But with IMP numbers swelling to the size of a small army, the kids don’t seem to mind some hard graft. “They’re all after the red shirts” reasons the tireless multi-tasker Ms. Swift, no doubt as much of an inspiration to the young players as the coveted IMPers uniform.
Godspell Jr plays tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Oak Bluffs school.