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Episcopal Students Visited By Composer Of Musical 'Striking 12' Ahead Of Performances

Val Vigoda performing.
ValVigoda.com
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Val Vigoda performing.

The musical Striking 12 will be performed for the first time ever in Florida at Episcopal School of Jacksonville and one of the writers/composers has flown down from Seattle to work with theater students ahead of their November performances.

Valerie Vigoda flew into Jacksonville on Thursday night for the theater student’s Striking 12 rehearsal at Episcopal School of Jacksonville (ESJ). Her flight got delayed, so they had a shorter-than-planned rehearsal together, but, according to Katie Black, Director of Fine Arts at ESJ, it was very impactful.

“So, she walked in the door, and the kids have been prepared for her visit ever since we found out that she was coming, and they were like wide eyed,” she said. “How you might expect them to be if one of their sort of modern rock heroes had walked in the door.”

“I felt like a rockstar walking in last night to the sounds of them rehearsing one of our songs,” Vigoda said. “It’s just an amazing feeling to do that, especially with the numbers. They were singing harmonies, there was a lot of volume, there’s a lot of energy! I feel such pride and such happiness that something I had a part in creating is becoming bigger than it ever was before.”

“But they were so motivated and I just saw their desire to kind of rise to this level of professionalism because she was in the room, and it actually led us to a great conversation about every time we’re doing art, every time we’re performing in a play or singing in a concert, how do we change the way we’re doing it if we imagine that the creator of that artwork is in the room,” Black went on to say. “Now we can actually see what that really feels like and to do that person’s work justice because they’re standing there. So the rest of rehearsal just really took off from there.”

Vigoda performed a concert Friday afternoon for ESJ’s upper school student body, playing a wide range of music spanning from Irish lullabies to a song she recently wrote for an event where she shared the stage with former first lady Michelle Obama.

After school Friday, Vigoda is planning to host workshops and discussions with students in the the theater class about the process of creating Striking 12. Then she’ll watch the students do a 25 page run through of the first part of the show.

Saturday Vigoda plans to spend time with all of the students who will be performing solos and duets, workshopping their pieces with them. “She described it in one email as a jam session,” Black said. “Like she’s just really excited to play her violin with them singing her music. And I hope that’s a really fulfilling time for everybody.”

ESJ is a private middle and high school, grades six through 12, with a little more than 900 students, all of whom are required to participate in arts programming. In middle school they’re encouraged to take a variety of art classes. “By ninth grade we find that students are really beginning to pinpoint one discipline of art that they are strong in,” Black said. “Over 70 percent of our students continue tracking in one type of visual or performing art, 9th through 12th grade. So most students take four years of a fine art, although we require at least one.”

According to Black, this is primarily a project for the juniors and seniors honors theater class, known on campus as “The Touring Company.” These 23 students, including two stage managers, have been studying theater and musical theater throughout their time at ESJ, both in middle and high school. They’re the core of the show’s ensemble and several of the students will be playing multiple parts.

But the show does involve other performing artists on campus, like dancers, who are involved in a few of the numbers, and students from the choral program, which will be performing in two of the songs.

Vigoda, who describes herself as a “transformational musician,” is a classically trained violinist who went to Princeton University at the age of 15. She’s toured the world with artists like Cyndi Lauper and Joe Jackson and at one point was the concertmistress for the West Coast Trans-Siberian Orchestra. She’s also one of the founders of the indie band GrooveLily.

“After years of being on the road, my bandmates and I, one of whom was my husband, decided we were a little bit tired of driving so much,” Vigoda said. “We serendipitously got the opportunity to create a musical and premiere it, with ourselves as the performers.”

The band teamed up with the playwright Rachel Sheinkin for the project. “We were lucky enough to find her before she won her first Tony award,” said Vigoda.

It was Sheinkinn who brought up the idea of using “The Little Match Girl,” a short story by Hans Christian Anderson. They took that story and shaped it into something that they as musicians and, at that time, not trained actors could perform.

Vigoda says there are three levels to the Striking 12 story: “We had the story of ‘The Little Match Girl’ itself, which is a very short story. Then we had a level of us, as contemporary characters, relating to that story. Then we had a third level, which is us just being ourselves as the band.”

The musical premiered in 2002. In 2004 the cast album was released and GrooveLily performed a showcase at the National Alliance for Musical Theater. “That created a bunch more opportunities for it including licensing,” Vigoda said. “So then we signed up with Theatrical Rights Worldwide once we felt like we had our writing pretty much done and then we gave them a few options.”

“So people can do a three person version if they have a singing electric violinist and a singing drummer and a singing keyboard player, and there are some productions like that out there. They can also do it in many different ways,” Vigoda explained. “You can do it all the way up to a large spectacular production like they’re doing here under the direction of the marvelous Katie Black, where we have snow flake dancers, and visual spectacle, and a lyre, and amazing visual things that we never even thought of when we were first doing it.”

“When we were first doing it it was like a radio play. We stood on stage, we played our instruments, we sang, we talked,” she said. “But it has taken on this beautiful life of its own as it goes forward into all these different iterations.”

Since 2004, Striking 12 has been licensed all over the world, but this is the first time it’s been performed in Florida, and this is the first time she’s gone to work with performers during the rehearsal process.

Vigoda ended up coming to ESJ thanks to Black’s persistence and a family connection. Black’s sister and Vigoda both used to sing in the Princeton University a cappella group, The Princeton Katzenjammers. Black had already been planning to invite Vigoda to Jacksonville when she learned of that detail. When she did reach out, Black mentioned the connection to her sister and Vigoda agreed to fly to Jacksonville for the weekend.

“She has a lot of motivation to see students and artists reach their potential and I think in that vain she was really excited about high school kids doing a project that she knew and loved,” said Black.

Striking 12 is really an alternative holiday show, but it’s also very heartwarming. It’s not edgy in an off putting way,” Vigoda explained. “The main character is a guy who has good reason to be grumpy and by the end he really finds his ability to open his heart again. Although the tag line that started from our off Broadway version of the show is ‘’tis the season, deal with it,’ which can seem a little snarky if you look at it a certain way, I don’t think of this as a snarky show. I think of this as a very fun heartwarming experience. So I really hope everybody will come and see it. I think they’re doing a beautiful version here.”

The ESJ performance of Striking 12 will run from November 8th through the 10th.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.