Interview: Director Elizabeth Tracey on City Circle’s upcoming musical, ‘1776’

City Circle presents: 1776

Coralville Center for the Performing Arts — opens Friday, Apr. 29

1776 at City Circle
Robert Steger, K. Michael Moore and Jo Anderson rehearse a scene from City Circle Acting Company’s ‘1776,’ which opens Apr. 29 — photo by Danforth Johnson.

City Circle Acting Company’s production of 1776 opens Friday, Apr. 29 at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. They couldn’t have chosen a better moment. The world is agog with Founding Fathers fever, with the new musical Hamilton having just won the Pulitzer, and politics in general — and the question of America’s greatness in particular — central to the public consciousness in this moment.

This 1969 musical, by Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book), is a timeless and timely way to come together across the (theatre) aisle(s) and take a musical lens to history. Director Liz Tracey spoke with Little Village about her experience with this show, her history with City Circle and contemporary vs. classic theatre.

1776 runs through May 8; tickets are $12–27.

How long have you worked with City Circle? When and what was the first show you directed for them?

Shortly after I moved to Iowa City, I was searching for a way to get involved with the local theatre scene. I responded to a request for a director for City Circle’s A Christmas Carol and interviewed with Megan Keiser and Chris Okiishi. That was 2012 and I have been collaborating with City Circle ever since.

Do you consider City Circle to be your artistic “home”? How do you decide where to dedicate your talents, in an area flush with theatrical opportunities?

I fill a very needed role at City Circle as their producer. My theatre training has been very useful in helping the company adapt to their new home at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. That being said I have directed for Dreamwell and would love the opportunity to direct at some of the other smaller venues in town. I started out directing edgy, experimental theatre.

What drew you to 1776? What is your favorite element of the show?

Actually I was not slotted to direct this show. Pauline Tyer directed it 15 years ago for City Circle and was set to do the revival but became too ill just before casting. I was her producer and stepped in as the director. I have grown to love this show, especially the ensemble aspect of it. In act 1 there is a scene that is approximately 30 minutes of acting and no music! Everyone knows the outcome of the American Revolution but with moments crafted like that scene we end up caring about the characters and realize how conflicted the continental congress was.

You directed Oliver! earlier this season, which has a similarly male-centric cast. How is that for you, as a female director, especially in terms of guiding character development?

I did not consider Oliver to be a male-centric cast. I thought of it as a children-centric cast. I had over 40 children, more then half of them female, in a cast of over 70 actors. Two of my leads, Oliver and The Artful Dodger, were children. How to get that show to the production level I wanted and not stress out the children was always of utmost concern to me. I needed to push them but never too far. It was important for me that everyone should have a positive and productive rehearsal process. I would say that aspect of my directing style is no different when working with a male heavy cast. I like to be clear with my expectations and vision of the show. I think men and women respond similarly to a well organized rehearsal process.

CCAC's 1776 at the CCPA
The cast of City Circle’s ‘1776’ takes the stage at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts — photo by Michael Blake

How does it feel for you to be engaged with a show like 1776 during an election year? Do issues of contemporary politics come up in rehearsals, or play into your storytelling?

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I try, to the best of my ability as a director, to stay true to the text. If I can do that, the honesty of the story telling will most certainly conjure up parallels to today’s politics. But I like to leave that to the audience to discover. I don’t want to hit them over the head with my own ideology. I think it is very important for people to be reminded of their history, lest we idealize how this nation was founded.

You’ve been directing a lot of musicals lately, but you’ve directed plays in the area as well. Which do you prefer?

For me it is not a matter of preference but a matter of variety. I love challenges. I don’t want to become complacent with the work. So taking on a straight play after a large musical is very exciting to me.

Where do you place the importance of doing classic musicals in a modern context? Are there more contemporary works you’re eager to direct?

Some musicals lend themselves to new interpretations and when that can happen, I find it exciting. The recent revival of Pippin is one such example. I was blown away! Something more contemporary? I would like to direct Spring Awakening.

What will be the biggest surprise in 1776 for audience members like me, who are only familiar with the movie? What is your favorite disparity between the two?

I wouldn’t want to give away the biggest surprise if you have not seen the musical yet! You will have to let me know what you think after you see this production.

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