Alumni share ideas on how to change the world through performance
The show tunes and dance sequences of musical theatre are great forms of escape and entertainment, but those songs and movements are also filled with meaning. 2011 graduates and musicians, Sarah Diller and Brandon Fullenkamp, explained this when they returned to campus to present, “Changing the World through Artful Performance,” on Nov. 15 during Bluffton University’s weekly Forum. They used examples from four musicals to explain how musical theater can be an agent for social change and conflict mediation.
Diller and Fullenkamp began the presentation with a quote from Broadway producer Kevin McCollum which clearly examines the risks of a underrating the importance of art.
“When you take arts out of the public schools, those young people grow up to be adults and they look at conflict resolution only in a sports model…if we’re living in a sports model we’re not telling a story, we’re just trying to beat each other. Let’s stop that. Let’s get back to storytelling.”
Diller and Fullenkamp explained that in live theatre, however, there is no winner or loser. Instead, there is only a journey. They used the musicals “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!” and the more recent works “Into the Woods” and “In the Heights” to make their point.
The song “Soliloquy” from “Carousel” shows the inner struggle of the main character, Billy Bigelow, as he finds out his wife is pregnant. Billy sings, “I got to get ready before she comes! I got to make certain that she won’t be dragged up in slums with a lot o’ bums like me. She’s got to be sheltered and fed and dressed in the best that money can buy. Never knew how to get money, but I’ll try, I’ll try, I’ll try.”
Even though he makes questionable decisions, Fullenkamp says, “We are still rooting for Billy’s redemption because we know his story, and we’ve been able to connect with him.”
In “Oklahoma!” the audience sees two competing groups—the cowman and the farmer—bicker over their differences in a song called “The Farmer and The Cowman Should be Friends.” However, the musical ends with the song “Oklahoma!” where the community bands together to defeat their common enemy, unite under their shared ideals, and join a union centered around freedom, harmony and democracy.
“Into the Woods” intertwines the plots of several fairy tales into one story. The characters start out the musical trying to solve their own interests. By the finale, however, they must come together to save their community.
“Into the Woods” shows that, “We can make our own choices, but we learn it is important to understand those choices influence more than just ourselves,” said Diller. “We learn that community is an important part of overcoming adversity. And in the end, for better or worse, we understand that through the good and bad, we are not alone.
“Into the Woods” features a song called “No One is Alone” which ends on the lyrics “Hard to see the light now. Just don’t let it go. Things will come out right now. We can make it so. Someone is on your side. No one is alone.”
“In the Heights” takes audience members to Washington Heights, N.Y. where rents are rising and members of the community are being forced out. During “Finale,” the audience hears how connected and invested each community member is in each other’s futures and how that is going to change when they go their separate ways. Lyrics include: “Yeah, I’m a streetlight! Chillin’ in the heat! I illuminate the stories of the people in the street. Some have happy endings. Some are bittersweet. But I know them all and that’s what makes my life complete.”
And while the audience is watching communities develop on the stage, Diller says, the audience has also turned into a community. “Throughout a show’s story, we are connecting with characters, but we are also in connection with the entire community in this fictional world,” said Diller. “The communities we are observing, and the community that is viewing with us, are likely coming from different places and points of view than we are.”
And because everyone is viewing the production through their own lenses, Diller shared a challenge. “Right now, more than ever, telling our story is important. The way we listen and the way we connect with others matter. It is important to step into a community outside of your own and understand their joys, sorrows and fears. So, in the coming days, months and years, we challenge you to focus less on winning and more on telling a story.”
Diller and Fullenkamp are actively engaged in storytelling through their careers in music and theatre. Diller, who grew up in Bluffton, is a soprano who teaches voice and piano lessons at Piano Power in Chicago while actively auditioning. She has performed with the Ohio Light Opera, the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company and the Wichita Salon Series.
Fullenkamp, a native of Botkins, Ohio, recently moved back to Ohio after three years in the Washington, D.C. area where he served as music director for local productions. He performs and teaches piano and currently lives in Loudonville.
Both were introduced to musicals at an early age. At the age of seven, Diller played a small role in a production of “The Sound of Music.” “That was it for me,” said Diller. “I found my calling.”
Fullenkamp remembers seeing his cousins in a high school production of “Grease.” He also put on unofficial musicals of his own at home. “I grew up with Disney and singing and dancing with the characters in ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘The Lion King.’”
They’ve both experienced the benefits theatre has on society and on individuals.
“We all speak in different ways, we are all living at different times in history and we all deal with different situation depending on any given day, but theater give us a way to connect,” said Diller.
For Fullenkamp, “If you feel like an outcast, it’s okay. In theater, there is a storyline for everyone to relate to.”
Right now, more than ever, telling our story is important. The way we listen and the way we connect with others matter. It is important to step into a community outside of your own and understand their joys, sorrows and fears. So, in the coming days, months and years, we challenge you to focus less on winning and more on telling a story.”