Bloomington and Indy team up on rock musical

Lisa Ermel and Chris Roe in a promo photo for SPUN at Phoenix Theatre.

The future of theater will be defined by collaboration, says Bloomington Playwrights Project artistic director Chad Rabinovitz, who's teaming up with Phoenix Theater this month to bring a musical first staged in Bloomington to Indianapolis. SPUN, directed by Rabinovitz and commissioned by BPP, tells of how two estranged 20-something siblings try to reconnect after the death of their father.

"It benefits the art form for us to collaborate in this way," Rabinovitz says. "That's the future of new plays. The future of our art form is in collaboration between companies. It shares the risk; it minimizes costs. It's just better for everyone."

To that end, both Phoenix and BPP are members of the National New Play Network, which commissions playwrights, endows paid residences for MFA graduates and coordinates "rolling world premieres" across its network of non-profit theaters.

Rabinovitz, who assumed his role as artistic director in 2009, can be credited for a rebirth at BPP, founded in 1979 as a venue to workshop and produce new work.

"In the past four years, we've doubled our subscribership; we've nearly tripled our production budget and the national renown of the shows that we are doing has grown significantly," Rabinovitz says.

Indianapolis audiences might recognize the work of BPP from their IndyFringe Festival offerings, including an offbeat paean to community radio (Death Metal Family Radio Hour) and micro-theater grab-bag The Blizzard, a Fringe staple featuring 30 plays in 60 minutes.

It was more than two years ago when Rabinovitz commissioned SPUN from Emily Goodson (book) and Jeremy Schonfeld (music and lyrics).

"Jeremy and I had worked on a musical prior, and he's just a brilliant composer," says Rabinovitz. "And Emily did a show called Lady Bits at IndyFringe, which was ridiculously funny. I wanted to put them together on a project, so I commissioned them both to write the musical together."

After taking a month to land on a topic for the show - "the intangibility of truth" between siblings, says Rabinovitz - the duo, with dramaturgical help from Rabinovitz, spent nine months working on the script sans music.

"Emily wrote 700 pages, and it's a 120 page play," he says. "That's how much editing went into this. And we're still editing. After nine months, we started to talk about adding music. We really wrote this so that the story was so important that we had to break into song. It was a full year until we had it on its feet. We had a couple of readings and a production [in Bloomington], but we've been developing it further during this past year to ready it for the Indianapolis production."

As the artistic director of the only theater in the Indiana whose sole focus is developing new work, Rabinovitz understands the risk of producing only new plays.

"It's exciting, but it takes a lot of work to create new theater," he says. "That's why we are a rare breed. There are a lot of challenges involved in writing them, and then in getting people to see them. We don't have that name recognition."

Instead Rabinovitz focuses on selling the experience of new work to Bloomington audiences.

"My audiences, just like the Phoenix audience, are intelligent people who want something that they can't get anywhere else," he says. "I sell excitement. I sell uniqueness - the fact that you are getting a behind the scenes look at a play that no one else in the world gets to see. Our community takes great pride in that they were the ones to help shape the play by their reactions."

Phoenix audiences, too, will have the chance to help shape this new play with their feedback. Rabinovitz, Goodson and Schonfeld are still very much in the process of refining the production.

"I would be shocked if we ever felt like we were done," says Rabinovitz. "I think we're really close, but I won't know until we see how people react. Whether or not we make changes to it afterward is up to the Phoenix audience."


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