If you have always wanted to see a hunting-themed musical, but don’t want to give up a small fortune (and your self-respect) to see the proposed Duck Dynasty musical in Las Vegas, then this is your shot.
Combined Efforts Theatre (CET) and Iowa City Community Theatre (ICCT) are collaborating on an original musical by CET director Janet Schlapkohl. Camo: The Musical is a comedy that takes place in a small farming community during the late 1970s, where the men go hunting in packs while their wives get together for coffee klatches.
The musical is an unabashed comedy, complete with male posturing and Lamaze hijinks, but it also devotes serious attention to the impact that the Vietnam War had on small farming communities. Some characters are men who left their farms to serve in the armed forces, then had trouble adjusting after they came back.
“It was difficult for someone to return home and feel any amount of pride in serving,” Schlapkohl observed. “There were no parades. That was a watershed moment when we started to react differently towards being involved in war.”
One character, My-Dep, is a “war bride” who stands out as one of the few people of Asian descent in her small community. In discussing the character, Schlapkohl recalled one of her teachers, a German woman who married an American soldier after World War II and was able to fit seamlessly into Iowa’s large German communities. My-Dep, meanwhile, has no similar community to ease her transition into American life.
“She didn’t have camouflage,” said Schlapkohl. “How do we try to blend into our surroundings and fit into the culture around us?”
This production is the first time that another theatre company has collaborated with CET, and Schlaphokl feels that the theatre has learned a lot from the experience. She and ICCT board member Brenda Christner came up with the idea during a conversation last summer. CET is the only Iowa theatre company that is purposefully inclusive of performers with disabilities, so accessibility was an important factor when they considered a partnership, and ICCT’s location is very accessible—even in the dressing rooms.
“In my opinion, collaboration between local theatre companies is essential for our collective success,” said ICCT vice-president Rachel Howell. “We can each bring something unique to the table.”
Nothing can be more unique than original material by local artists. Schlapkohl based Camo on hunting stories told by her brother-in-law, Rolley Miller, and set the stories to music written by Chris Okiishi, a member of her playwriting group.
“She mentioned she was looking for someone to write ‘some songs’ for a show. That evolved into writing 19 songs,” said Okiishi. “I like musicals where people would be singing songs that they would have listened to or know in their hearts.”
The songs all reflect music from the late 1970s, as well as older songs that would have been familiar to people at the time. Okiishi said that the audience will be able to recognize the styles of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Jackson Browne.
“The amazing thing about working on a new piece is that you can bend the music to fit your actors and musicians,” said music director Jessica Palmer. “We have a wide range of voices in the show, from the Combined Efforts Men’s Choir, to classically-trained singers, to local musical theatre buffs.” Sometimes multiple changes can be challenging for the production team, and at one point Palmer was getting a new script every few days. “I believe that is a necessary part of something new—reworking until you get it right.”
Director Krista Neumann has directed several shows for ICCT, but she has also volunteered with CET since she moved to Iowa City in 2009. She considers it a “dream come true” to stage a new script.
“Working with a playwright and having input on what’s working and what’s not, and being involved in solving the problems, is totally creative,” Neumann said.
Camo: The Musical is an unusual choice for a December show, but in its own way, it is a minor winter miracle. Two local theatre companies are working hard to create an original musical about stories that people in other parts of the country might overlook. In the darkest time of the year, that is something worth celebrating.
Jorie Slodki earned her MA in Theatre Research from University of Wisconsin.