It is a late Wednesday evening in Elon University’s Roberts Studio theater. Actors in plain clothes squat in blue-collar conversation and trained voices quake rapturously. They are rehearsing for the upcoming performance of an original Elon production.
On the April 28, the department of performing arts will debut a workshop of “Deep Water Ballad,” an original musical that has been over a decade in the making.
“Deep Water Ballad” is set in the fictional coal mining town of Deep Water, West Virginia. When a devastating mining disaster happens the area spirals into the paranormal and the residents struggle to rebuild. The story follows a girl who tries to reconnect with her broken family in both the spirit world and natural world.
The theatrical piece was written by Nashville based-actor and fiddle player Douglas Waterbury-Tieman with music and lyrics written by musical theater director and Elon professor of performing arts Chris Rayis. The production is directed by Alexandra Warren, professor of performing arts.
The performance is on the 28, it will be the first time the musical is performed in its entirety.
Rayis has been writing and rewriting the piece for over a decade until it became a workshop at Elon. A workshop performance is a pared down version of a full performance that is a testing of new material.
After a reading period over January Term, rehearsals started the first day of spring classes. Students have been learning and growing with original material all semester.
Sophomore Ellie Schwartz plays the lead role of Grace and said her role is like nothing she’s ever done before.
“Because this role was created from the ground up, it requires fully committing to it,” Schwartz said.
Rayis said that there was a freshness to the production because of the cast and the originality of the piece. He said that the cast was instrumental in creating it; they filled their roles without knowing anything about them.
“Most of the time when the actors get a musical it's already been on Broadway," Rayis said. “This is something very new.”
Rayis added that with the actors not knowing anything about the show, “they have made it what it is.”
The actors wear simple costumes and use a more natural acting style in “Deep Water Ballad.” The stripped down sensibilities of the workshop and the musical itself differs greatly from usual theater production.
Warren hopes that the workshop will speak to those “from different walks of life” that don't usually go to theater.
With his music accompanying a unique show, Rayis said he seeks to tell the stories not often told in theater. He took direct inspiration from the people he met in West Virginia mining towns.
“I can’t tell you how many people have said “I’m from West Virginia and I’ve never seen anyone do a story set there,” Rayis said. “They see their own stories on stage in a way they have never seen before.”
Rayis also said he hopes to focus less on striking details typically shown in theater productions.
“This a musical that I hope, rather than being a big production, is purely about the people,” Rayis said. “This is a love letter to a region.”
“Deep Water Ballad” performances will be held at Roberts Studio Theatre April 28 at 7:30 p.m, April 29 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and April 30 at 2 p.m.