Hijacked by pirates: Know No Stranger's "Heck Above Deck" musical 

Go behind the scenes of Know No Stranger's first musical

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Since 2009, Know No Stranger (KNS) has tried their hand at all sorts of zany projects — from elaborate puppet presentations to no-holds-barred variety shows. But never in their years of creative fun has the Indianapolis performing arts collective put together a musical, until now.

On Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, the Indianapolis Museum of Art's performing artist-in-residence will present Heck Above Deck — an original musical idea that they've had in their pocket for just about two years now. Set to music that they wrote themselves, the show's plot takes place on an intergalactic space liner and features aliens, swordplay and more.


"This cruise liner is called The Apogee's Kiss, and it's advertised as an adventure cruise, so there are these wealthy people who want to experience some kind of adventure but then go back to their cabins and be comfy and cozy," explains Know No Stranger member Brandon Schaaf, who wrote the music for Heck Above Deck along with fellow KNS members Rachel Leigh and Matt Helfrich. "Basically what happens is the ship is hijacked by a pirate, and all the cruise guests roll with it, thinking that it's part of the experience. So the story moves on from there and tells the story of this hijacking through the perspective of an incessantly optimistic orphaned teenage linen boy on the ship."

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In the early stages of conceiving the show, all the members of Know No Stranger sat down and discussed what their version of a musical would look like while touching on what they like and don't like about musical numbers in movies and theater. "The types of musicals that I tend to get excited about or become a big fan of are the ones that subvert the traditions of musical theater," says Know No Stranger member Ryan Felton, who wrote the script and all the lyrics for the songs in the show. "So I'm a big fan of Little Shop of Horrors, Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, Hamilton and stuff. When you sit down, you might be expecting a certain experience, and the production turns it on its head." From this initial discussion, the members began sorting through more specifics, like characters, plotline and point of view.

"In my head, it was like, 'We're making a movie,' and it was hard for me to grasp," says KNS member Emily Gable, who primarily worked on building the puppets for Heck Above Deck. "And then through slowly creating this and seeing rehearsals and seeing it all come together, I realized we are doing it our way. The way that helped me look at it is not calling it a musical but calling it our spoof on a musical."

Considering that Know No Stranger is an all-encompassing performing arts collective, some members of the group are much more musically inclined than others. Nevertheless, everyone has managed to work with the skills that they have to make things work. "Maybe not all of us are top-tier singers, but we have characters that lend themselves very well to being character-y in their delivery of a song, where it doesn't have to be a really crystal clear, beautiful voice," says KNS member Jake Watson. "I mean, it'll be in key, but the fun of it is more important than everyone being really great singers." Also unlike past shows, the KNS crew has been challenged with making longstanding set designs for this 90-minute production.

"For this show, it's been really fun to experiment and branch out from what we're used to, but we're experimenting and branching out with traditional theatre, which is kind of funny," says Schaaf, adding that Know No Stranger has consulted with fellow theater groups in the Indy area like Phoenix Theatre and Carmel's Civic Theatre. "It's been really fun to see how they problem-solve, and they've been super gracious in letting us put our own twist on it."

Heck Above Deck marks the first time Know No Stranger has worked with a director (Michael Hosp), as well as the first time the performing arts group ever cast outside of its own group. "We definitely have cast a wider net of associates, friends, and collaborators, which is really cool because Know No Stranger has always been a collaborative endeavor," Felton says.

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