UCC Centerstage presents new musical as the first in-person show in the COVID-19 pandemic

Published by Faith Byars on

Rehearsing and performing in-person helped the cast to better connect after the isolation that can occur during Zoom productions.
Photo by Faith Byars / The Mainstream

UCC Centerstage presents new musical as the first in-person show in the COVID-19 pandemic

UCC Centerstage, the college’s performing arts company, turned a popular Star Trek episode into an original musical with their recent performance of “Arena Gorn Superstar.” This is their first in-person production since the pandemic lockdown began in March of 2020.

UCC Director of Music Jason Heald composed all original music for the show.
Photo by Faith Byars / The Mainstream

The musical took the script from the original television broadcast and slightly altered it to fit their musical production. This means that a vast majority of the dialogue was verbatim.

“When you know the ending, you can enjoy the ride a little bit more,” UCC’s Director of Theatre Christina Allaback said.

With the pandemic disrupting day-to-day practices, many audiences took comfort in the various Zoom plays put on over this last season from UCC Centerstage. Allaback took inspiration from her past experiences to put together this unique sci-fi experience reminiscent of the early theater traditions of the ancient world. Minimal actors performed outside on the Umpqua Valley Arts Association stage with minimal sets and a large suspension of disbelief, similar to ancient outdoor theater in public squares.

“The explicit meaning is Captain Kirk fights a lizard-man. It is a battle of wits between the lizard-man and Captain Kirk who are beamed down to a planet by a race of aliens called the Metrons in order to prove their worth,” Allaback said of the play’s plot. “The implicit meaning is this: is there hope for us as humans? Do we ever outgrow our shortcomings? That is one thing that brings me to Star Trek over and over, this idea of who are we and what is our purpose? We have so many shortcomings as a species. Will we be able to overcome them? Star Trek shows that, yes, we will be able to overcome them, but we still will have more left. There is still more to work toward.”

This is an example of “science-fictionacation,” a term Allaback has coined to explain her version of Brechtian Theory where science fiction presents topics in a way that will allow them to look at issues in objective, rational ways.

The cast of “Arena Gorn Superstar” included UCC students, local community members and actors, and even some visiting actors. The cast consisted of Ariel Hicks as Captain James T. Kirk, Rin Brock as Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Alex Horton as Spock, Gavin Pike as the Gorn, UCC student Jesika Barnes as Una or Number One (in place of Hikaru Sulu), Jake Tranter as Pavel Chekov, Andrew Laniohan as Montgomery “Scotty” Scott and The Metron and Isadora “Izzy” Trinkle as Nyota Uhura. UCC student Nakela Hunt also worked on the production, largely building sets and props and contributing to set design and more.

This is not the first Star Trek musical put on by Allaback nor is it her first working with UCC’s director of music on the project. Allaback formally was part of a company that produced “Star Trek Next Generation in the Park.”

Allaback was thrilled to be putting on another Star Trek production: “It’s a way to bring my two loves together into one thing, which is always nice. I love doing musicals. It’s also just a bizarre thing! Who does that? Us, apparently.”

Heald, who composed all original music for this show and numerous others, was also very excited about the project. The two directors have worked together on multiple productions, including three just this year. Of these productions, this was the first student production they have created.

Heald too has a personal relationship with the show. The musical is based on “Arena,” one of the original episodes of “Star Trek: The Original Series” that he watched as a child.

“With any creative project, you establish what your parameters are, and that helps you go forward,” Heald said. “So, in the case of looking at Star Trek, there is a fixed story. I know what the story is ahead of time because it is a straight take off of ‘Arena.’ I know it is going to be very action oriented, so most of the musical selections are going to be relatively short and hard-hitting. This is not the first Star Trek musical that Chryss (Allaback) and I have worked on before, so knowing that the people auditioning are going to have a passion for Star Trek helped.”

The department hopes more and more students will attend the upcoming shows next year as productions are allowed to occur in-person.
Photo by Faith Byars / The Mainstream

Heald, when writing, also has to consider who will perform his songs.

“They may be Star Trek fans first before they are necessarily singers or musical theatre fans,” Heald said. “So, you need to devise your selections around the people who will come in the door. You may not have as technically accomplished singers and musicians as you might with another demographic. So, you design tunes they can perform and perform well.”

Heald wanted to have fun with the history of the original episode and took inspiration from the surf music of the mid to late sixties from artists like The Ventures and Dick Dale.

“It is fun to musically create that vibe, and it just happens to go well with action-type productions,” Heald said.

The process of composing is largely identification, looking for opportunities to insert a song to express the sentiment at that moment, Heald said.

“When you write tunes for a musical, you are not forwarding the plot usually. Usually you are adding to the character or to the emotion of the moment. So, you find those opportunities for celebration or emotional crisis or relationship that you can enhance through music,” Heald said. “Sometimes you can take a character and give them a dimension that is not even implied in the script. That is always kind of fun. You imagine a backstory and then you create depth for that character. Those are the kinds of things where you can step outside the box.”

Heald said that working with Allaback is continually great, not just because she is herself a performer and recognizes talents in others, but also because of their built sense of trust and their collaborative process.

“You have to write with a specific idea in your mind, but my experience is that it is a collaboration,” Heald said. “You have to let the director express themselves because they are the visual experts. I find with good directors, if you give them the room to go out and do what they do, they always transcend what is in your mind’s eye. That’s when you know you are working with a great director.”

While directed the play’s music, Heald also performed with musicians Debra Gaddis and Collin Hurowitz.

Students Barnes and Hunt participated as an actor and a set designer.

Hicks (Captain Kirk) is from California but came to visit Oregon when the opportunity to star in this role was offered. She had previously starred in UCC Centerstage’s Zoom productions.

“Jason is a genius with music. Meeting him and working with him was so fun. Everyone was so welcoming,” she said.

Student participation in this musical was seen largely in the areas of acting and set design with Barnes and Hunt.
Photo by Faith Byars / The Mainstream

Trinkle, a local performer and elementary school music teacher, said she loves participating in these local productions and meeting fellow lovers of theater. She enjoys the collaborative process of creating a new production. She particularly enjoyed working with Heald on Uhura’s love ballad in the musical.

Barnes, like most in the cast, has loved Star Trek since she was a child. She also enjoyed the process of working with Allaback to develop characterization. What she enjoyed most about working on the musical is that, for the first time this year, she truly felt like she was back in a cast. While fun, Zoom productions like other online practices can feel isolating. Actually getting to interact with fellow cast members made this production one of Barnes’ favorites, she said.

The cast said they were very excited to perform as almost all were long-time Star Trek fans and thrilled about playing these iconic characters.

“In what other setting would I get the chance to play Captain Kirk?” Hicks said.

One of the reasons for Allaback selecting this script was that much of the events happen on the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise during the show. This allowed for social distancing during a majority of the play, Allaback said.

Masks were worn during rehearsals, said Allaback, and were worn at times during the production when needed. These were embraced and added into the story as well to not detract from the suspicion of disbelief for the audience. The audience area of the UVAA campus was divided into squares for guest seating. Each square was sized for either two or four people, and the squares were placed six feet apart on the lawn.

“What I love about theatre is that you have to solve these problems theatrically,” Allaback said.

The play, even in the pandemic, was still timely.

“It is a theme of hope which I think is important right now. I love working with Jason Heald because his songs are always awesome. Jason and I work really well together, so it is nice to have a colleague that you can do work with, and it is good work,” Allaback said.

The show was considered quite the success by participating students. According to Barnes, about 50 people attended each night during the final weekend.

The department hopes more and more students will attend the upcoming shows next year as productions are allowed to occur in-person.

“It is a great opportunity to support the theatre at UCC and in the community,” Allaback said.

To learn more about upcoming UCC Centerstage productions, visit their Facebook page.

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