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Interview: Director Katherine M. Carter and Author KT Peterson of the New Musical 7:32

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Critically acclaimed stage director Katherine M. Carter is about to embark on her latest project, the New York premiere of the dramatic musical 7:32,  which tells the tale of the Ashtabula Disaster, the notorious railroad-bridge accident that rattled 1876 America, and the scandal that followed surrounding the Chief Engineer of the bridge, Charles Collins.

The new work, which Carter calls “one of a kind,” was created by KT Peterson, who wrote the book, lyrics and music with Cedric D. Lyles. The work is going to be presented in a four-performance showcase at the Bridge Theatre (at Shetler Studios) on October 23rd (2:30PM and 6:00PM) and October 24th (1:00PM and 5:00PM).

The cast includes Nicole Elaine Phifer, Ashleigh Lay, Claire Wilcher, Joe Popson, Taiwan Norris, and John Lopez.

Winner of the 2009 Music Theater Award (Best Book) in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and nominated for the National Playwriting Award, 7:32 tells a dramatic story, according to the show’s press release: “steeped in the sweat of railroad men (and the women who love them), this soul-soaked ride through folk, bluegrass, and blues stares down the early and gritty world of big business and the insatiable American appetite for bigger and better-no matter the cost.”

Both Ms. Carter and Ms. Peterson took a few minutes to sit with Blogcritics and discuss 7:32.

Tell us a little about yourself. Your background, training?

KT PETERSON: When I was young I wanted to grow up to be a male opera singer.  This was very specific.  I didn’t actually want to be a man, I just wanted all the good parts.  I studied voice at Indiana University and ended up changing my major to Musical Theatre, which was [a major] you had to build, because it didn’t exist at the time.  I’m not certain if they’ve crossed to the dark side or not, as far as making that more easily available as a major.

I originally wanted to go to graduate school for directing but ended up going for my MFA at Towson University because I discovered they kind of let you do whatever you want to do/whatever you need to do—which is not always a quantifiable or grade-able occurrence.  I couldn’t believe such a program existed.  Much of the program is based on guest artists who come in for brief or extended periods and you immerse yourself in their worlds for a while.  It was an incredible way to expand knowledge as well as deepen your own aesthetic.

I danced growing up, I played the trumpet, I broke things.  I think I started writing in eighth grade.  It was a novel about castles and horses and boys.  I would stay up all night and look up words.  I couldn’t believe how awesome it was.  Not the story—it’s pretty embarrassing, but I just honestly loved to write.  I didn’t get into puppetry or writing music until I worked in the museum world at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.  I was lucky enough to meet DeDe Boezi and Nancy Eddy and they, again, kind of let me do whatever I wanted in their Lilly Theater.  I performed, directed, wrote, and studied puppetry as part of a gallery I was supervising under Carey Meier, my favorite boss ever. Hi, Carey!

Talk about the genesis of 7:32? What drew you to this material?

KATHERINE M. CARTER: I could not put this script down.  When someone first hears about 7:32, they likely say, “A musical about a 19th century disaster? That’s a strange thing to write a musical about…I want to see that.” I thought something similar to that when KT first approached me with the script; I wanted to read it. 

KT PETERSON: I have always been terrified of trains.  I’m not anymore, I guess, but I always found them so deeply sulky and weirdly beautiful. The romance of trains is certainly nothing new to anyone—I just found them (and continued to find them, as I worked with them daily at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore) scary.  I suppose it’s an impression many liken to their run-ins with outdated technology that usually elicits a feeling of triumph in us—like we’ve come so far, we win, we are the best.  Obsolete technology is something so obviously of the past and no longer useful that it’s like a paperweight to humanity’s past small ideas—ideas at the time. But I think anyone who gets intrigued by what they’re looking at is really dealing with the energy that is inside of what they see—that hopefulness that never stopped, or the silliness or embarrassment, or just appreciation of “Wow, someone MADE this.” Especially the art deco period and trains—My God.  So much stumbling hope.  But the 1876 period for engines is just stunning. There’s an 1876 engine at the B&O that I would go and visit every day in the roundhouse when I worked there—it was destroyed in the roof collapse the museum suffered and will (happily) soon get repaired. Courtney Wilson, the museum’s director, has been a great fan and friend to this piece and to my work.

KATHERINE M. CARTER: After my first go-through of the book and score, it was clear to me that there was something unique about this American story.  Nowadays, you hardly hear new musicals written with such a strong influence of classic musical style.  The score has an almost timeless feel to it, blending acting and music, so you get caught up in the emotions of the characters. 

KT PETERSON: Years ago I found a book at a thrift shop in Indiana that was simply titled Train Wrecks.  I was kind of disgusted and allured (kind of like Jersey Shore) but I bought the book without knowing why and it got lost in my car for a couple years.  Shortly before I moved to go to Baltimore for grad school I was cleaning out my car and found the book.  There were many intriguing things about it, but I kept coming back to the Ashtabula Disaster over and over again.  I felt something deeply.  I don’t know that I have ever been so drawn to write about anything like that.

KATHERINE M. CARTER: On top of that the book spotlights the risks we’ve taken in the name of progress throughout our history as a nation and the effects those choices have on our future.  I hadn’t heard of the Ashtabula disaster before, but the story grabbed me from the first page.

KT PETERSON: I visited Ashtabula two times while in grad school, at the urge of an instructor, Sabrina Hamilton, and that first visit was a moment in time that has shaped my life.  If my work, or my oeuvre, to use a word like that, has any kind of credo, it is piecing together that which has been broken.  That I have an obligation to do so.  And this (the Ashtabula Disaster, when I originally became aware of it) all kind of coincided with my meditations on 9/11 and how humanity intuitively deals with the event horizon of tragedy.  When I went to Ashtabula and hung out with the amazing Jean Metcalf, I could feel that that event horizon was still there. In the soil, in the rusting metal. In the water.  We are all beings of such selective memory, yet certain events transfer such power they are still living in some way—what must be done to interact with them?  To soothe them? To soothe ourselves?  Well apparently singing about it was my answer.  

At the time of 9/11, I was in rehearsal for a musical I’d written as my undergraduate thesis at IU with Rich Rundle directing.  My partner at the time worked in WTC on the floor where one of the planes hit, and had just recently moved to Indiana to be with me.  Poor man was completely at sea with his feelings.  Still I had rehearsal that night. That night. Everyone showed up.  The piece was a mess, but it was embracing us from some kind of healing and generative perspective, so we trudged on.  I didn’t really know I was going to write about this theme and I certainly didn’t know I would use such an event to explore it—and I am loathe to think that people will call this musical a 9/11 play, because it’s not. But it is.  It’s all part of that really simple candle that most of us carry around—shining a light to make brightness in dark places.  I do believe that.  I believe in that little candle.

How much research did you conduct before you and Cedric Lyles began to put things to paper?

KT PETERSON: I’d say I worked with the material for almost two years before we hopped to it.

7:32 does have a production history. How has it been received? For this upcoming showcase, what changes have been made to the script, if any? To the music?

KT PETERSON: 7:32 was my thesis project at Towson.  It was nominated for the National Playwriting Award for KCACTF and was invited to perform in Philadelphia for the Region II festival in January of ’09.  I was fortunate to receive the Music Theatre Award at the Kennedy Center for the book.  Lots has changed since then—characters added, scenes and songs deleted, new songs written. It’s been a very productive six months or so.

How did your collaboration with each other come about?

KT PETERSON: Our mutual friend, Gabriel Shanks, introduced us. She said she was looking for new stuff and I think I told her I had “a bunch of shit hidden under my bed” if she wanted to check it out.  I sent her the script, we ate a lot of pancakes, and here we are.  

KATHERINE M. CARTER: We got to chatting about 7:32, our love of pancakes, and hit it off right away.  It has always been a very organic working relationship.  We are always talking about changes, sleeping on ideas, and then talking more. 

KT PETERSON: She’s an incredible woman. She’s been a champion for the piece and really pushed me to clean it up, clean it out, and go for it.  I can’t tell you how helpful it is to trust someone like that.  She has had a tremendous amount of trust in me, too—not hearing all the stuff even now as I write this. She hasn’t heard all the music yet, as we’re still tweaking (and writing another song—yikes, just one more!) That’s faith. 

KATHERINE M. CARTER: KT is an artist who directors love working with.  She takes every idea, mulls it over, considers how it will affect the story, then comes back with a whole new version.  You won’t meet a more giving artist.  Working on 7:32 with KT has been nothing but a joy.

What is it about this story that you’re hoping a 2010 audience will walk away feeling? 

KATHERINE M. CARTER: I hope our audiences will want to race out to the library and look up more information on the Ashtabula Disaster, Charles Collins, and that whole period of industrialization in America. 

KT PETERSON: Musical Theatre is in a really interesting place right now.  I feel like the landscape is changing, and the desire is there for really rich stories that ask a lot of the audience.  Ask them to listen and feel.

KATHERINE M. CARTER:  I want them to see this show and think about the recent blunders we’ve made: the risks we take in the name of progress, the lack of foresight and the recklessness at the heart of the American Dream.  This musical may be about a disaster lost to the pages of history, but it’s the same story, in many ways, of our current struggles as a nation.  With its classically-influenced score, I also believe 7:32 will get people excited about new musical theater that doesn’t jump on the pop bandwagon.  Hopefully, audiences will walk out of that theatre buzzing with a desire to see a new breed of musical on Broadway.

KT PETERSON: I was really influenced by Floyd Collins, Assassins, Dessa Rose and now FELA, Burt Part Boys, Next To Normal—people need story and some big ol’ resonant sound that makes you feel like your skin is gonna fall off. They need to understand two things: they’re not alone and that everything is gonna be okay. To quote my own mother, she always says, “this life, it isn’t for sissies.”  Musical Theatre is kind of like your mama: hold tight child, everything gonna be all right. Thanks, Mom.

For information on the production, please visit the official 7:32 website at www.732themusical.com. To reserve tickets, please email contact@732themusical.com

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About Hannah Marie Ellison

  • Timothy J. Cox

    A very nice interview about two very talented ladies.

  • Celise Johnson

    look forward to see it. I love Miss Carter works