Guest Column by Katie Stone of The Children’s Hour.
The second week of March 2020, I drove 1500 miles in 48 hours to get my son out of Los Angeles where he was finishing his 3rd year at UCLA. We didn’t know much about the mystery CoViD-19 virus yet, but we all knew it was incredibly contagious, could kill people, and that the four of us now had to figure out how to share our house, its crummy internet service, and manage our anxieties during a time of deep uncertainty and fear where we knew we would be locked in together for what we thought would be a month or two. Amidst the practical concerns, my son said something that changed the trajectory of the pandemic for our family instantly. “I challenge this family to not only survive, but to thrive.” When the talking stick came around to me again, I was kidding when I said “I’m going to make a musical!” My family groaned, because I sing often and off key around here, and I frequently “sing my way through” stressful moments, irritating everyone but me.
A few months later, the pandemic had gotten out of control and we knew we were locked down for the long haul. Each week I was recording The Children’s Hour radio show on Zoom with my crew of children who help me produce the program. We were meeting with world renowned luminaries like mycologist Peter McCoy, beloved children’s musicians Laurie Berkner and Raffi, and our show had been picked up by more than 50 new radio stations in just 3 months, but none of the exciting programming could stop the inevitable emotional toll on the kids crew of being isolated from friends and family. Week after week I watched some of my co-host kids’ faces on Zoom seemed to grow paler, their joy ebbing away, and they were clearly getting depressed.
A consequence of CoViD-19’s lockdowns was the loss of theater programming. All the small theatre companies who worked exclusively with kids were struggling, and some were shuttering their doors, including Play Conservatory. For nearly 15 years, their executive director Jonathan Dunski would bring his performing kids to The Children’s Hour to give local listeners a taste of what the current production had in store for audiences. So when I received a check for over $200 from Play Conservatory for The Children’s Hour Inc nonprofit, I was quite surprised and called Jonathan. He explained that they had decided to close up their nonprofit, and donate all the remaining funds in their account to The Children’s Hour Inc. I was deeply touched, and then Jonathan said those fateful words that awakened something deep within me, “If you ever have a theater project you need help with, feel free to reach out.” Little did he know then what he was getting into!
Jonathan loved the idea of a pandemic musical. He engaged our playwright, Sarin Monet West in the project. Sarin had been Jonathan’s student, and even had come on The Children’s Hour when she was a child. Now she was one of many New York City theatre professionals forced out of work because of CoViD, and had come home to Albuquerque to ride out the pandemic. She helped us find Jules Latimer Warren and Sage Sarason, our composer and music director/arranger. Longtime friend of The Childrens Hour, Hakim Bellamy responded within seconds to my text asking him to be our lyricist, with an enthusiastic “YES!” It was September 2020, and we set a plan of action to get the production rolling. Coupled with the pandemic anxiety was the stress over the Presidential election, and we decided we’d start workshops with kids on the Sunday before voting day.
We started by meeting with each of the 18 kids in the cast one at a time for interviews about how they were coping with the pandemic restrictions, and Sarin asked each child if they had a superpower, what would it be. It’s amazing how many kids wanted to be invisible. Within a month we had a draft of the story and started hearing what would eventually become our music. The musical creative team met with the kids each Sunday on Zoom through February, revising the script based on the kids’ observations and comments. Many of the lines in the musical came directly from from the mouths of the kids in these rehearsals.
In February came the true test of my creative engineering skills. New Mexico still had limits on gatherings of 5 or more people, and the vaccine was not yet widely available. We had to record the musical in a way that was CoViD safe, but also would allow us to hear one another in a live performance, and capture the best possible audio. This is a radio production, after all! Working closely with my live engineer Andrés Martínez, we crafted a plan that would enable us to be together while respecting the rules. On recording day the cast showed up at my small farm, each in their own vehicle, and were parked in a wide grid across a field. Jonathan parked himself in front of the the cars with his convertible top down so he could sit on the back of his car and be seen by the cast. Our creative team members were with us live on Zoom, as we decided the only adults who would be present physically would be Andrés, his assistant, The Children’s Hour’s marketing director Sam Henning, and me. Occasionally my husband Andrew wandered through the scene to snap a photo or two.
We outfitted each cast member with a professional wireless microphhone coming through a car window opened only enough to fit the mic stand. Each performer (and their parents) was given a pair of wireless headphones that picked up a radio signal I was sending out from the main soundboard. This way everyone could hear the director, the assistant director, the creative team on Zoom, the music, and each other. After two hours and running through the show in its entirety for the first time, we had a wrap!
Then came the two months of post production work. This included hiring a band to perform the music, with each musician recording their own track separately, safe from home, and slowly mixing the tracks together. One of our parents on the Kids Crew and the ICKY cast, Kyle Malone (of the Squash Blossom Boys), took on that herculean task. We engaged beloved Jefferson Middle School music teacher, Robb Janov (who once taught our music director Sage Sarason) to compose the music that would be both the under beds during the show, and stitching the scenes together. All of these pieces of audio landed on the laptop of Jen Kraus, a sound designer who patiently knitted the 21 different voices, 9 different instruments, and wove in sound effects and background scene sounds.
Every single time I hear the show as it’s coming together, I cry. Not because this is the fulfillment of a dream come true, which it is, but because the show is so deeply moving. ICKY: A Radio Musical marks this extraordinary moment in history from a child’s point of view. It also gave employment to theater professionals and musicians unable to work because of the pandemic. But more than all of that, ICKY was a lifeline for the cast of kids, and gave them a purposeful pandemic project to pull them through what we were all told was the worst winter of our lifetimes. ICKY invites further conversations between families about the emotional impact that CoViD has had on their kids. We have also created a curriculum guide for teachers to be able to use the musical in classrooms around the nation, while meeting educational standards. The year of the pandemic has given us an opportunity to evaluate the mental health of the children in our care. We are so proud to make a piece of art that expresses what kids have been going through all year. ICKY captures the remarkable resilience our kids have modeled for us all.
ICKY: A Radio Musical has it’s world premiere on Sunday May 2 at 4pm MT on Zoom, and the public is invited to come hear the musical with our cast and creatives. The 35 minute musical will be followed by a Q&A with the cast and creative team, and will be released for radio broadcast worldwide May 10 to 16. It airs on KUNM 89.9fm on Saturday May 15 at 9:00am.
A downloadable version will be available for free on May 16 at ChildrensHour.org.
The show was produced thanks to a grant from the Albuquerque Community Foundation and McCune Foundation, along with funding by the ACF Conscience of Society Fund, Molly Madden, Jeffrey Squires, Meredith Stevenson, Judy Brown, Henry Shonard, and the many Friends of The Children’s Hour who support our work with their donations to our nonprofit.