Alyona Ushe gets things done. Among her accomplishments during her first year as the BlackRock Center for the Arts’ executive director, she launched the Creative Consortium. The initiative is a resident arts-organization program that “we have put … on steroids,” she said.
“I believe that the only way to build an authentic creative landscape and cultural center that offers distinctly different programming is by supporting the best of the best in regional artists,” Ushe explained. The plan for “this creative think-tank” involves “engaging emerging cultural organizations and individuals” in “all art disciplines including performing, visual, literary and digital forums.”
The Frederick-based Free Range Humans (FRH) is the first of the consortium partners identified “who are just as committed as we are to transforming the UpCounty,” Ushe said. “We give them assets – rehearsal space, marketing, box office, a theater; they give us a quality performance; we share the proceeds. This minimizes risk on both sides and creates a winning affiliation.”
Elizabeth Lucas, FRH’s producing artistic director, said her group “produces story-driven immersive entertainment from site-specific theater to virtual reality. We’re starting with complex, adult-oriented musicals with strong storytelling and quality musical values, with the goal of bringing professional productions further north on 270.
BlackRock’s season started with FRH’s “Always…Patsy Cline,” and continues Dec. 13 to 22 with its “Striking 12: The New GrooveLily Musical.” The third production, “I Love You Because,” comes to BlackRock in February. The three shows were chosen, Lucas said, “for both their humor and their heart. They are all by living writers who capture the quirks and challenges of being alive now with wit, insight and brilliant music.”
Both women rated “Always” a resounding success. “Our audience loved the play, exceptional talent and the entire production as a whole,” Ushe said. Lucas concurred, observing that the audience “was rapturous. Our attendance nearly doubled from the first performance to the last through word of mouth. That’s the best sign that you’re doing something right.”
The partnership originated after Ushe and Brad Watkins, BlackRock’s director of programming, saw FRH’s opening production in Frederick. “Their mission of supporting world-class regional artists through their Creative Consortium program meshed beautifully with my own goals, so we tried out a partnership with a three-show season,” Lucas said.
Ushe, in turn, felt that Lucas and her group were “ideal candidates for the initiative. Elizabeth … has a terrific pedigree in both musical theater and film. With Free Range Humans, she hopes to bring charming, thoughtful, intelligent musicals that may not be quite in the mainstream alive for audiences and she is dedicated to working UpCounty.”
“For us,” she continued, “high-quality productions, distinctly original vision and a passion for the making a difference in our community were critical components … Elizabeth casts incredible regional actors, nurtures emerging artists and handpicks her musicians.”
“Striking 12,” said Lucas, “is by Groovelily, a group I first discovered over a decade ago when friends dragged me to a Lower East Side New York City dive bar to hear a funky new band. They have this incredible eclectic and unique sound, with electric violin, keys, drums, strong harmonies and humor.”
The modern musical fairytale, she said, “was Groovelily’s first Off-Broadway show and a big hit at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square, and pioneered the idea of musician-storytellers. Even though they’ve expanded and adjusted it from its original three-person form, we are keeping the idea that the band and the storytellers are one set of people.” The current show has seven performers; six play instruments and one does Foley (recorded sound effects); the score combines pop, jazz and showtunes.
Partly inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” “Striking 12” tells the story of a grumpy, overworked New Yorker who resolves to spend New Year’s Eve alone when an unexpected visitor brings some much-needed cheer.
All indications are that this partnership will thrive. “We learned a lot from our first time out,” Lucas said. “Both Free Range Humans and BlackRock have great can-do, creative problem-solving attitudes, so everything that comes up gets cheerfully handled. They’re really pushing the boundaries this season with quality offerings across the board, and we are grateful to be part of that.”
And Ushe remains confident that together, the two organizations are building “a new and exciting musical theater program for Germantown and the entire region.”
“Striking 12: The New GrooveLily Musical,” a collaboration between Free Range Humans and BlackRock Center for the Arts, will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13 and 20; 8 p.m. Dec. 14, 15, 21 and 22, and 3 p.m. Dec. 16 at BlackRock, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. For tickets, ranging from $25 to $45, call 301-528-2260 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org.