WORDS Jenny Boulden
IMAGE courtesy Elliot Nemeth
You have to believe they are magic, nothing can stand in their way … They’ll bring all their dreams alive … for you.
Forgive the paraphrasing of “Magic,” one of the signature tunes in Xanadu, Olivia Newton-John’s zany 1986 disco roller skating movie musical that was transformed into a Broadway hit. That Tony-nominated musical is this month being staged by students at the Future School of Fort Smith’s (FSFS) first summer drama camp.
The musical is popular for the pure joy of its commitment to embracing all the campiness of its movie predecessor. The story is about an immortal Muse who comes to Earth temporarily from Xanadu to inspire (and, of course, fall in love with) a struggling artist to help make his dreams come true. Which dreams? Why, a 1980s-style roller disco, of course. Worthy cause, right?
The theater camp got underway June 28 (the camp had not yet started as this magazine went to press). The students are spending several hours each day to prepare for their performances July 15 and 16 inside The Bakery District in downtown Fort Smith.
Dwight Curry is directing, with the assistance of music director Alisha Smedley, choreographer Beth Knox, stage director Heather Carroll, creative director Blakely Knox, and 2022 FSFS graduate Emily McKinney is designing makeup and costumes. John McIntosh is handling publicity for the school’s first production.
Dwight has a strong background in community theater and is a Broadway enthusiast.
“The night I saw Xanadu on Broadway, Olivia Newton-John was there sitting two rows in front of me,” he says. “Being able to see that fantastic production, and see her reaction to it, was so fun.”
Getting the gang back together
Dwight, who has been a strong supporter of FSFS for about four years, previously ran a theater program through First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith. He said the school had been wanting to stage some sort of Future School production for years, but the timing was never right – including having plans set back by two years of pandemic.
But in December, he happened to run into Beth, who told him she missed working on the productions they used to do together. Then, within a matter of weeks he had dinner with Alisha, also a past collaborator, who brought up the idea. Finally, he ran into Heather, who was also on board with the idea. “It got me thinking maybe I could get these different people who I’d worked with in the past back together for something new,” Dwight says. “It was always a team effort.”
Alisha, who teaches choir and drama at Poteau High School and is heavily involved with Poteau’s community theater, does drama camps every summer, and has directed Xanadu twice before, but says she’s still excited about engaging these particular students.
“I’m really pumped that this is going to be a new group of kids I’ve never worked with before,” she says. “The biggest thing I love about music theater is watching the kid who is super-shy then come alive when they get to play someone else. That’s so fun to watch, and to watch their confidence grow. It’s extremely rewarding to go from Part A to the final production and watch people grow and change. I direct adults, too, here in Poteau, and it’s amazing to me how it works the same with them as well. There’s something special about learning to put yourself out there and do that in front of an audience. It helps us all grow.”
Inspiring growth, no immortal skating Muses required
Personal growth is at the core of the Future School of Fort Smith’s mission. It is an alternative public high school that provides nontraditional educational approaches for students who aren’t thriving in traditional high school environments and could benefit from personalized attention. Emily, who attended from 10th through 12th grades, was one such student.
“It’s a really good school. To be honest, I hated, dreaded going to school every day in middle school. I couldn’t force myself to focus and do work in the traditional way. They knew that people were like that, so the school caters towards that kind of student,” Emily explains. “But because of how different the teaching style and the environment is there, I actually enjoyed going to high school. I really started shining, started getting As, started to do stuff like Cosmetology Club and Student Council stuff. It’s very directed towards supporting you, yourself, as a student.”
All-inclusive silly fun
Dwight says he chose this particular musical for its humor, life-affirming heart and its scalability.
“It’s a great show. It’s campy. It’s fun. It’s a little bit over the top. Eighties pop music is highly singable, and it can be done with a cast as small as nine or as large as thirty,” Dwight says. “When it was revived on Broadway, they did it with nine actors and actresses and double cast a lot of parts. Plus, the show’s never been done in Fort Smith. It celebrates diversity. It celebrates humanity, the arts. I think the students and our audiences will enjoy it.”
Emily is headed this fall to the Downtown Dallas School of Design. She started in early summer digging into her makeup and costumes planning, saying weeks before the camp started, “So far, I’ve been researching makeup looks for the 80s and making sketches, going off TV and movies that were in the 80s or based off them. I’ve also asked my mom, who was a teenager in the 80s. She said big, poofy hair and blue eyeshadow. It’s going to be fun to create. And I like how it doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
The students will meet from 10am to 3pm on weekdays, and some on weekends. The schedule should allow students to maintain summer jobs and other activities, Dwight says. While primarily made of members of the newly formed Future School Drama Club, Dwight says they intentionally made the free three-week theater camp available to any local high schoolers with an interest in theater. “There are some who don’t have access to free, open, comfortable programs. We’re trying to remove a lot of barriers to entry that might keep people from being involved in drama otherwise,” he explains.
Dwight says that although The Bakery District doesn’t have a stage, they’ve been accommodating about the Club’s vision for a temporary stage. “We’re working with Annidale Sound to bring some sound in, and with a vendor from Northwest Arkansas on audience risers. We’re going to perform the show on the floor, so the audience will be built up to see everything,” he says.
That “everything” includes catchy tunes, outlandish costumes, disco balls and, yes, roller skating. The skating is integral to the play, but Dwight says for safety’s sake, they won’t be doing as much of the heavily choreographed, whole ensemble skate numbers as the show originally contained.
Theater wise, he says, plans for what kind of FSFS theater school programming and productions come next are still up in the air. But he thinks the extracurricular drama club will continue through the school year for the “theater kids.”
“We’re really trying to create something that will be a good basis for the drama club and core to light a spark and see where it takes us,” Dwight says. “I’m not a trained educator, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be involved. This is about the love of theater. This is about the joy. This is about working together. This is about discovering talents. That’s what our whole purpose is. To give students who have an interest in or a talent for theater a place to explore that and develop it. I’m glad the stars aligned so we finally could do this production.”
And if that production has plenty of leotards with leg warmers, heavy blue eyeshadow, cheeky dialogue and talented teens singing their heads off while disco roller skating their way to that theatrical and personal development?
Well, then. You have to believe it’s magic.
Performances of Xanadu will be held July 15 and 16 at The Bakery District, at 70 South 7th Street. General admission tickets for all ages are $10. Future School of Fort Smith students and their families’ tickets will be $5. Purchase tickets at XanaduFS.com.