Essential Stories is an autobiographical musical theater piece that tells the story of my fertile family roots, of my up-and-down adventures as a performing songwriter and high school history teacher, and of the joys and traumas of parenting, with themes of social justice woven throughout. The music is drawn from 25 years of my songwriting catalog, and perhaps from songs yet-to-be-written.
A few years back, I started thinking about the concept of a cabaret-type show, where my usual improvised stage banter between songs might be scripted into more of a structured narrative, and a more intimate interplay with the audience. In this consideration, I received great initial support from friend/fan/promoter Tom Honan, and later from theater producers Michael Rubenstein and Robin Milling, who encouraged me to keep developing this rough idea into what can now be called a unique theatrical concert.
Accompanied by my trusty trio of Jamie Fox on electric guitar and my husband Stephan Crump on acoustic bass, I performed a first draft of the yet-untitled show in 2018 during our annual fall residency at Barbés Brooklyn. Next was a January 2019 showcase at the APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) conference in NYC, which led to bookings that year at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson, Texas and the Cutting Room in NYC, as well as performances during our summer tour in New England and Canada. All the while, my script was changing considerably to reflect my family’s shifting reality in learning to confront a dramatic mental health crisis afflicting our son.
Under the guidance of the wonderful dramaturg and director Jonathan Cerullo, we last presented Essential Stories as a house concert (complete with my four-bean chili for dinner) to a packed theater industry audience in late January 2020, just as the world was about to be turned upside down by a global pandemic. Strangely, with pain and loss hitting millions outside our lockdown bubble, my family was brought whole again by quarantine, and my script was updated once again to its present happy conclusion.
I am unsure of what will happen next with this effort, but I am determined to bring it to more stages sometime, somewhere, somehow. Many questions remain. Will I write more songs specific to the show, to add to the past works that have somehow become more true in the context of Essential Stories? Will we design audio-visual elements, projecting art and video behind myself, Jamie and Stephan as we talk, “act”, and play the songs? Will there be props, or an actual set to further enhance the visual aspects -- or would those just weigh this nimble touring trio down? Will my son, now happy and healthy, lend his own voice to the many words being spoken and sung about him in this creation? And how is any of this possible, when I now have a full time job teaching history to teenagers?
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Thanks for reading,
Jen Chapin, Summer 2021