Bringing a Hipster Sweatshop to the stage

Photo by Michael Reuter/Capture Imaging

For acting challenges, it is hard to top this. A dozen USC School of Dramatic Arts students had five days of rehearsals –five days – to learn 15 musical numbers and create original characters for a new, full-length musical, Hipster Sweatshop. After this undernourished schedule, which consisted primarily of evening rehearsals held after the actors were in classes all day, the cast presented two performances of the musical to audiences on Jan. 21 in Tommy’s Place in the Tutor Campus Center.

Although the actors read from scripts and had minimal blocking, the songs were mostly memorized. Four professional musicians backed them up in the varied pop-rock score.

Hipster Sweatshop was the second workshop of a contemporary musical in development the school has sponsored this year in a new series, LiveRead@SDA. During Fall semester, the musical Emojiland had a similar workshop residency on campus.

The students received no class credit or pay but, to an actor, were thrilled to have the opportunity.

LiveRead@SDA epitomizes the School’s commitment to new theatre, new opportunities for its students and new networks to benefit theatre professionals and students

“If you only have a week, it forces you to make serious choices,” said freshman Emma Kantor, who made hilarious choices as a bored, deadpan employee in a hip jewelry showroom. As the creative director of LiveRead@SDA, VP Boyle pointed out, the actors can’t get insights by listening to a cast album. “We are the first ones and we get to create these characters,” said Kantor.

MFA actor Brett Wyman said the brief time for rehearsals meant actors had to surrender to the idea of making mistakes, which was liberating. (Although, truth be told, the performances were astonishingly polished for what was little more than a cold reading.)

Hipster Sweatshop is the product of a creative trio that has been working on the book, music and lyrics for three years. Kyle Puccia, Kurtis Simmons and Darryl Stephens were on campus from casting through performances. During the two performances, they were intently gauging audience reaction, making mental notes on the onstage action and asking audience members to fill out digital surveys afterwards to help the creative team further refine the show.

“I’m like a proud poppa,” said Stephens. “I’m more nervous than the actors are.”

The students brought unexpected ideas, new details and improvements to the musical, he said. For example, David Shadman, who played one of the lead characters, Jesus, a UPS delivery man, turned out to be an experienced beatboxer. That talent made its way into the show.

Series creative director Boyle said successful musicals emerge after much trial and error. “You can’t skip a step,” he said. If there’s a troublesome character or a song that doesn’t work, “you can’t cut it out in post.” It has to be worked out in workshop after workshop.

It is rare for universities to offer intensive workshops for new musicals. Dean David Bridel said that LiveRead@SDA epitomizes the school’s commitment to new theatre, new opportunities for its students and new networks to benefit theatre professionals and students.

For this year’s two workshops, Bridel and Boyle reviewed a portfolio of industry recommendations, referrals and curated proposals, and chose projects that highlight the contemporary voices and diversity of Los Angeles.

Puccia, who was the team’s music director, said the trio hopes to advance to a full theatrical production of the musical, but also is working on a half-hour TV pilot version. “My dream for this is to make a film out of it – this generation’s High School Musical,” he said in an audience talkback after the second performance.