'The Battlefields of Clara Barton' dives into life of famed Red Cross nurse, activist and teacher
This is how you know Austin's performing arts are healing.
From July 11-13, Austin Playhouse — which worked quietly on its new permanent home and staged mostly video performances during the pandemic — will present a live and in-person concert version of a new musical at the Stateside Theatre, next door to the Paramount on Congress Avenue.
Take that in: a workshop of a musical in the making. That's the kind of hopeful project you produce when all your other ducks are lined up in a row. It's an incredibly inspired and ambitious choice for the troupe's big return to the stage.
Featuring music by Jenn Hartmann Luck — and words by Luck and award-winning Austin playwright Suzan Zeder — "The Battlefields of Clara Barton" tells the story of the nurse, activist and teacher who founded the American Red Cross.
Again, not a facile subject for a new musical, which makes director Lara Toner's show all the more enterprising and admirable.
"The Austin Playhouse workshop is a dream come true for me and for the project," says Zeder, "as it will focus primarily on the music, with a compressed and tightly edited script linking the 32 songs of the show. Lara has put together a totally stellar cast and we are all so very excited to be live and in person with actors, musicians and audiences."
Already five years in the making, "Battlefields" started with time Zeder had spent at Imagination Stage in Washington, D.C., where she had written and developed her play for young audiences, "When She Had Wings."
"The theater was right near Clara Barton’s house — which was the first headquarters of the American Red Cross — and I walked past it every day," Zeder says. "A passing remark from the director of that show sparked my curiosity about Clara Barton, about whom I knew very little."
Initial research into the reality about what Barton faced on Civil War battlefields and elsewhere convinced Zeder that this would not end up another play for young audiences. So she approached the University of Texas and Northwestern University for development partnerships. She did not want to tie the project down to one particular venue or theater troupe, however, which would be putting too many eggs into one basket.
"Clara Barton’s story was simply too big, too bold, too contemporary to be constrained by the limitations of a commission," she says. The first workshop was staged at Northwestern in Chicago in fall 2017. "All I had then was the first act, lyrics for musical numbers, and no composer."
In December 2017, Jenn Hartmann Luck came on board as composer — her style for the show has been described as "folk/rock/historical/contemporary" — and the duo knocked out the first full draft of Act I with all its songs.
Hannah Wolf, then a graduate student at UT, directed a cast of college students and Austin veterans in March 2018.
At that point, actor Michelle Alexander became attached to the project and has remained so for the next several versions.
Zeder wrote Act II in January 2019, and K.J. Sanchez directed a workshop of that section, again with a mix or veteran and student actors. A third UT workshop — in partnership with Zach Theatre — in October 2019 put both acts together, this production directed by graduate student Jess Shoemaker.
In June 2019, the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern booked "Battlefields" for a culminating workshop aimed for May 2020.
"We all know what happened to May 2020," Zeder says, "so we rescheduled for September 2020, and we all know what happened to September 2020, so we rescheduled for April 2020, and we all know ..."
The show will be staged at Northwestern in Chicago — back where it started — in the fall, but first the American Music Theatre Project team will come down for the Austin Playhouse performances.
"The constant touchstone throughout the now five years of the developmental process has been Austin artists, educators, students, professional actors and musicians," Zeder says. "I have always said that 'Clara always has gotten what she needs to become her fullest self' — and this Austin Playhouse production is the latest stop on this wonderful journey."
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
'The Battlefields of Clara Barton'
When: July 11-13
Where: Stateside Theatre at the Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.
Cost: Tickets start at $30.
More information: austintheatre.org