The theater space was abuzz with excitement and anxiety as actors memorized their lines and warmed up their vocal chords, technicians swatted bugs with the sound and lighting, and everyone else scrambled to get everything prepared for opening night the following week. It’s the beginning of your typical tech week. But there was something missing.
Where are all of the faculty?
Usually with a show like this, there will be faculty orchestrating the whole thing. But not this time. For the Peck School of the Arts’s latest theatrical offering, Platonic, is almost entirely student-run. And at the helm with a tablet in one hand and a pink guitar in the other is the show’s director, creator, writer and songwriter Solana Ramírez-García.
Ramírez-García, a junior at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM) in the BFA Musical Theatre program, wrote music ever since she was 12. But it wasn’t until three years later that her love of musical theatre blossomed. In the last six months she lived in her birth country of Uruguay before moving to the USA, she attended a music college known as Escuela de Comedia Musical. She didn’t really know anything about musical theatre at the time, but she knew that she like singing and dancing. She was the youngest in a school filled with 18 to 19-year-olds as well as 40 somethings.
“It was crazy to see that all of these people were actually pursuing this as a career,” she said. “I didn’t know that was possible [laughs]. I didn’t know that you could do that.” After her first show there, she realized that musical theatre was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Then after finishing high school and doing a couple of shows there, she began to pursue musical theatre at UWM.
Ramírez-García began writing Platonic in November of 2014. She got the opportunity to turn it into a production for the Peck School of the Arts when she asked Assistant Professor of Playwriting and Analysis Alvaro Saar Rios to take a look at the show and see what he thought of it. After working with Solana on the show for a while, Rios suggested that she propose it to New Directions, a program that allows students to direct pieces at a space in Kenilworth Square reserved for theatre productions directed by students once every semester. One such production given the opportunity was Almost Maine, directed by Emily Rindt, which was at the space in April of 2014. After Ramírez-García sent out a proposal for the show to New Directions, a board reviewed it and selected it for production. Then the show was cast last semester and the rehearsal process began around last March.
The story of Platonic is about four college-age students that go through a process of self-discovery. Two of the characters, Sam (played by Grace Yeager) and Ben (Indalecio De Jesus Valentin), fall in love with each other after a chance meeting and then move into an apartment. Ben decides to visit his birth country of Uruguay, but Sam has to stay behind. Sam then encounters Kate (Keri Salscheider), who brings up feelings Sam used to have towards her. Sam is bisexual while Kate is straight, but they have a platonic relationship (hence the title). But if that wasn’t enough, Micah (Angelo Rome Villarreal), who dropped out of college due to financial troubles and also had a thing with Sam, bumps into her and creates a weird love triangle between him, Sam and Kate. But the show is “really about them [Sam and Kate] exploring what it means to be in one very small space and trying not to [laughs] do anything stupid,” said Ramírez-García. “But yeah, it’s basically them trying to figure out what their relationship is after so many years.”
The situations and characters in the show are based off of the different things Ramírez-García experienced both in her own life and through other people. “Some characters are two or three people that I know combined,” she said. “Most of the characters are me [laughs] in some way or another.”
Ramírez-García decided to create and direct her own production instead of just acting in one because she didn’t really have a choice. “I didn’t decide that I was gonna write a show,” she said. She told me that different events in her life made it impossible for her to do anything but write the show. She also told me that it was “inevitable” because she “just had to put this story on paper.” And once she started she couldn’t stop.
When asked if she considered performing in her own play, she said that “I thought it [the show] was so close to me and to who I am that I couldn’t be in it, because it would be too much.” Plus, she never directed before so it was a good opportunity for her to “be on the other side of the stage.”
The description of the show on the official Facebook page says that it “blurs the lines between a staged reading and a full production…” While couches and props are set up as if it were a full production, there are music stands set up around the perimeter. During the calmer parts of the show with mostly dialogue, the actors stand and read from a script as if they were in a staged reading. But when characters get too involved in their feelings, they spring into the set and break into a full production. There’s also a narrator (Phoebe Albert) to help the audience follow the play. Ramírez-García did this because doing a staged reading wouldn’t be as exciting for her story and she thought it would be interesting to combine it with the full production aspect. I suggested that it also varies the narrative tension so that the show remains engaging throughout and she agreed.
One thing Ramírez-García enjoyed about developing the show is that it’s been so collaborative. “Everybody has a say in what they do. So I think it makes it a lot easier for everybody to just express what they feel and thus I’ll be on the same page and I’ll be happy with the final product.”
Ramírez-García worked very closely with the cast and everyone else to develop the scenes of the show. While she already had an idea about how she wanted some of the scenes to work, sometimes she had no way of telling the actors what to do or where to move “because it had to come from a natural place.” So she asked the actors to move around the stage as they felt while saying their lines as they are written. The result was a more natural and organic structure of movement. “The problem you run into a lot of the times in theatre is [that] sometimes it looks too theatrical,” she said. “It looks too scripted. And I wanted to shy away from that.”
One example is when they were developing the choreography of the first song in the second act. They were going back and forth with the choreography but then they told Yeager to do what she felt “and what she did was better than what we could’ve come up with – I mean – we had the basic structure of it, but she took it to a different level,” Ramírez-García said.
She also had the help of her choreographer, Marissa Waraksa. While the movements aren’t too intense, Waraksa was still responsible for creating a natural way of keeping things flowing. “And if something I did didn’t make sense, she would fix it [laughs],” Ramírez-García said.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a musical without musical numbers, and Platonic has them in spades. While the show contains many songs made specifically for it, most of the songs were ones composed throughout Ramírez-García’s life. The earliest song in the production was made in 2011. “So this is, like, a ‘Best Hits of Solana’s Life’ or ‘Greatest Hits’ that I just put in the show and they seem to go really well,” she said.
Ramírez-García called on her old friend Alison Bekolay, an economics major and musician who has performed in shows all around the Milwaukee area, to help her arrange and improve the songs. Ramírez-García knows how to play instruments and knows some basic music theory, but she’s still a little bit “illiterate” in terms of music composition. So she would send the recordings of her songs to Bekolay and she would translate them into sheet music while adding some more musicality to the songs to make them more intricate and prettier.
“I had this one thing that I kept repeating and she was like ‘Listen, we have to change this because it won’t work’ and I was like ‘So right! Let’s do it! Let’s do what you’re saying,’” said Ramírez-García. “It’s really helpful to have somebody that’s so talented and so aware of the musicality of the show in this process.”
Bekolay will also be the piano accompaniment for all of the performances with Andy Stoiber joining her on guitar.
Ramírez-García believes that the collaborative nature of the show’s development was fostered by the fact that she’s an actor first and a director second, so she directs the way she would like to be directed. “And sometimes [in theatre] it’s not that way, unfortunately,” she said. “A lot of the times it’s just a director telling you ‘Do this, do that, do that, do that!’ And that’s not how it should be in my opinion. Everybody’s an artist, so everybody has to create their art from a place that’s natural.”
But while the rehearsal process, creative process and even the lighting tech of the show has been entirely run by students, Ramírez-García also has her professors to thank for their advice and assistance. Lecturer in Theatre Education Ralph Janes, Associate Professor of Acting Rebecca Holderness (who directed the Peck School of the Arts production of Little Women last year), Senior Lecturer in Lighting Design Stephen R. White, Associate Professor of Music Theatre and Directing Tony Horne and Rios all had a small hand in the show in one way or another. They especially helped on the technical side of things: obtaining the rehearsal space as well as obtaining and storing instruments and props. “I’ve been really, really lucky to have help from different people,” she said. “…They’ve all been really supportive in this process, like, ‘Anything you need, we got you.’”
Her experiences being in shows run by the professors also influenced her directing style. “I basically grabbed everything that I liked about the rehearsal process of each of the shows that I’ve been in and applied [them] to my directing,” she said. “I think that’s the whole point of being a student and having mentors because I just took all of the things that I liked and combined them in my directing of the show.”
The initial run of the show won’t be the last, for Ramírez-García hopes to turn it into a full production. After each performance, the cast will hold a talkback so that the audience can share their experiences and criticisms. Ramírez-García will take all of the feedback on what needs to be adjusted or changed into account when she rewrites and edits the story and music. Once she does, she’ll move on from there.
The thing about theatre that drives Ramírez-García’s creative process and passion more than other forms of art like film or literature is theatre’s live aspect. Though not all shows have audience interaction, the fact that the audience is there to see and react to the performance is captivating. “You have to commit to a very real part of yourself in order to make it a believable art every night,” she said. “It’s so magical when a person can see that face to face. I love that.”
She also loves the fact that anything is possible in theatre, and working on Platonic has shown her that. If you’re show is about a tsunami and you want the ocean to take over the entire theater, there’s a way to do that in a metaphorical and creative way. “I had some crazy ideas and my advisors and mentors were like ‘Yeah, we can do that’ and I was like ‘Wait, what do you mean?’ and they were like ‘Yeah, we have all of these ways of doing it,’” she said. “…there’s always a creative way of doing things as crazy as they seem.”
Ramírez-García has this piece of advice to offer to aspiring thespians looking to break into the industry and have their voice heard over so many others:
“Here’s the thing: it is a competitive place and sometimes show business can be a little bit hard, but if you stay true to your morals and stay true to who you are, and if you’re nice and kind, that already puts you above all this other stuff. I think you just have to do your own thing and be passionate about your own thing. And in that, people will notice that. You know what I mean? There’s always going to be somebody better than you. All the time. I know there is. But you do your own thing and if you’re kind and if you’re helpful and if you’re collaborative and really true to yourself, that’s it. That’s it.”
And it sounds like that’s the best way to describe Platonic: collaborative, true to itself, and passionate.
You can catch the show this Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30pm each night with a matinee performance on Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets can be purchased online here or at the door. You can also RSVP via the official Facebook page.