EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the first installment in a three-part series about the making of Penn State Centre Stage’s production of “American Idiot” — the Green Day musical. The second and third installments will appear in the Monday and Tuesday A sections.
To put herself in the right world, Erin Farrell Speer watched old Green Day music videos.
She was in middle school when the punk band’s 1994 album “Dookie” came out, and she’s been following Green Day’s journey for as long as the band has had commercial albums available.
Now, the second-year Master of Fine Arts candidate is directing Penn State Centre Stage’s production of “American Idiot” — a high-intensity punk rock opera about a generation of young Americans (led by friends Johnny, Tunny and Will) trying to find meaning in a post-9/11 world.
The show, which opened on Broadway in 2010, includes every song from Green Day’s 2004 “American Idiot” album, as well as several songs from its 2009 album “21st Century Breakdown.”
“I think there’s a danger of the show being too squeaky clean, and it’s not a clean show at all. It’s really rough. It’s really ragged. It’s very, it’s Green Day. And it shouldn’t feel — even though they’ve been very commercial in the last 15 years, especially after the ‘American Idiot’ album — they’re still very much a punk band, and it needs to live in that world,” Speer said.
A lot of the cast has loved the band — which has been around longer than most of them — for awhile, Speer said.
Johnathan Teeling, a junior Bachelor of Fine Arts musical theater major who’s playing Johnny, was “revved up” about the show since he found out the School of Theatre would be performing it.
“I’ve been a Green Day fan since like third grade when ‘American Idiot’ came out. I had my little Walkman ... . My mom was like, ‘you can buy it, but you can’t curse.’ I was like ‘deal,’ ” he said with a laugh.
‘The son of rage and love, the Jesus of Suburbia’
Auditions happened a few weeks after Election Day, and hopefuls had to come prepared to audition for not only “American Idiot,” but also “The Light in the Piazza” — the other spring musical.
On the first night, Speer said students were asked to prepare a punk rock song in the style of Green Day and, if they played guitar, to accompany themselves or play a sample.
The following night was the dance call.
Michele Dunleavy, the show’s choreographer, set a section from the song “Jesus of Suburbia” where they just sort of thrashed around, Speer said.
“What happened in that room was really remarkable,” Speer said. “I felt like (they) took all of their stress, all of their rage, all of their frustration and maybe some of their feelings of ineptitude from the election, and just like threw it on the floor. And not just the floor, the walls. Like they were flipping off the walls and just like flinging themselves around and it felt like a cathartic moment.”
What happened in that room was really remarkable. I felt like (they) took all of their stress, all of their rage, all of their frustration and maybe some of their feelings of ineptitude from the election and just like threw it on the floor. And not just the floor, the walls. Like they were flipping off the walls and just like flinging themselves around and it felt like a cathartic moment.
Erin Farrell Speer, director
For some, the show has been a way to give voice to the discouragement they felt after Donald Trump was elected president.
It’s an opportunity to be active, make art and stand up, Speer said, adding that the timing was a “gift.”
“I don’t think you can divorce the band’s politics from the show, and I don’t think you would want to. I do think that that will be off putting for some people, but I hope that maybe instead of alienating folks — because that’s not what the band is about — that maybe it’s an opportunity to have a conversation,” Speer said.
Callbacks came next. Maggie Malaney, who’s playing Whatsername, described that experience as “surreal.”
She did a scene with Teeling, but first, the leadership team talked to the pair, making sure they were comfortable with the drug use and vulnerability of the scene, Malaney, a senior BFA musical theater major, said.
After they left the callback, no one else got called in, she said.
“We were like ‘did we just get the parts?’ ” Malaney said, but they had to wait a little while to find out for sure.
“I feel like usually you don’t really have a clear idea of whether you got it or not so it was terrifying and exciting, because I was like, ‘what if I was wrong and what if I made all of that up or what if I actually got it?’ ” she said.
The cast is made up of 11 men and eight women, with four swing actors.
‘This is our lives on holiday’
After the casting came a three-week semester break, which meant homework and solo preparation for the actors.
For about half the cast, that meant learning to play the guitar. But cast members were also sent home with workout and vocal health programs, piano tracks so they could learn their vocal parts and hours of playlists of documentaries and bands, Speer said.
“For most of them, punk begins and ends with Green Day, and suddenly they’re listening to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees,” she said.
The leadership team felt it was important for the cast to understand where Green Day and the show came from, Speer said. And they were careful to include female punk rockers so the women in the cast could get an idea of how to sing punk songs that were written for a male voice.
Aidan Wharton, a senior BFA musical theater major who plays Tunny, worked out to prepare for the 90-minute, no-intermission show.
“All of the musical numbers, for the most part, are really high energy so I focused a lot on building stamina. So I would go out running and sing loudly at the same time, which was probably very embarrassing but I just put on my headphones and went for it,” he said.
Over the break is also when Dunleavy really got to work on creating a “movement vocabulary.”
“I started with the music and allowing myself to find a physical vocabulary that met the sound and the feel of this punk pop music, which it might not seem like it looking at me ‘cause I’m a bit older but this was the music that I danced to as a young adult. So the music is already inside of this body,” Dunleavy said.
She did research for the show, but she said the movement came out of her own experience. Her husband played in an alternative rock band in Pittsburgh for the first decade they were together, so seeing live music in the mid-’90s and 2000s was their recreational activity.
“I relied a lot more on my lived experience, so the challenge in that was to not have it all look the same. ... But it doesn’t because it’s on their bodies now, and I keep telling them that it shouldn’t look like me, it should look like them,” Dunleavy said.
‘Rally up the demons of your soul’
Wharton said spending three weeks alone getting ready for the show made him excited to start working with the rest of the group.
“Once you’re in the room with these ... other people and hearing the way everybody has interpreted the work that was just on the page is a really breathtaking experience,” he said.
The first week of rehearsals — four-hour sessions Mondays through Fridays and six-hour days on Saturdays — mostly focused on music.
After a two-day Green Day-specific rock vocal workshop, the show’s musical director, Loclan Mackenzie-Spencer, took over rehearsals, which focused on shaping and cleaning up the music — he said the actors learned most of their parts over break.
The actors also began to workshop the movement.
On Jan. 14, after a read and sing through, staging began.
They were working on the opening — and title — number. With Mackenzie-Spencer at the piano, Speer and Dunleavy moved throughout the auditorium — from on stage showing the actors where to enter to up in the seats checking to see how things looked from afar.
In describing a gesture used throughout the show — kind of like a shoulder pop, shrug — Dunleavy told the actors, who were all wearing knee pads because of the physically demanding movement, that it’s like getting consumer culture and “bulls--t” media off their backs.
They have more flexibility to be individuals within the choreographic frame, Dunleavy said. They’re not all expected to look the same, and she prefers that.
“It’s really refreshing to be like I’m gonna go out there and this isn’t gonna look pretty, but it’s gonna have so much heart behind it that it’s gonna look beautiful,” Malaney said.
Teaching the choreography has been challenging, Dunleavy said. The actors are open and want to understand it and get it right, but sometimes it’s difficult to find ways to have it make sense to them.
“If they know the why of what they’re doing that really helps, however, given the nature of this piece being nonlinear and abstract and non-literal, sometimes the why isn’t always clear ...,” she said. “That might be more challenging than the movement to be honest.”
How Speer approaches the staging is directly influenced by how the story needs to be told so the audience can follow all the storylines.
She said had already done preliminary staging and blocking in her script before rehearsals so that when she began working in the theater, she’d know it so well that she could make adjustments on the fly without having her head buried in her script.
“It’s so fun. On that stage, we’re literally just like kids playing on a jungle gym and jumping around and kicking and flipping,” said Lauren Moore, a senior BFA musical theater major who’s playing Heather.
The show was staged by the end of January, and most of that was actually able to happen in the theater, Speer said.
During tech week — the first full week of February — the cast started rehearsing with the band, Mackenzie-Spencer said, which has two keyboards — one of will be played by Mackenzie-Spencer — two guitars, a bass and drums and will be onstage during the performances.
The piano isn’t really a part of that classic Green Day sound, but it adds a different layer to the music. The characters live in that guitar world with a lot of amplification, but other times it’s very intimate with only the piano, Mackenzie-Spencer said.
“(It) really enhances that dramatic aspect of the show,” he said.
Tech week ends with a 10 out of 12 — working in the theater for 10 out of 12 hours on a Saturday — and then it’s on to a dress rehearsal and two previews before the show’s opening night on Feb. 17.
“(The show) demands so much of your mind and your heart and your spirit to really understand and engage with it, but it kind of gives back to you is really astounding,” Speer said.
If you go
What: Penn State Centre Stage’s “American Idiot”
When: (previews) 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 and 16; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17, 18 and 20-25; 2 p.m. Feb. 18 and 25
Where: Playhouse Theatre, University Park
Info: theatre.psu.edu/americanidiot; 863-0255 or 800-ARTS-TIX