As anyone working in the industry knows, theater people often juggle more than one show at once. Kokandy’s new Producing Artistic Director Derek Van Barham is doing just that. This summer, he split his time between the larger-than-life HEAD OVER HEELS at Kokandy Productions and the intimate, dark GHOST QUARTET at Stage 773. I picked his brain this week on what’s been exciting him about these projects.
BTD: Tell us a bit about HEAD OVER HEELS. How did you come to the script?
Van Barham: HEAD OVER HEELS takes a 16th century text and infuses it with 80s rock — it’s such an audacious pairing, and the mash-up really sets the tone for the show. There are classic tropes updated with contemporary sensibilities — secret romances, disguises, prophecies. It’s loud, it’s queer, it’s FUN. It rocks. When HEAD OVER HEELS closed on Broadway in January, we immediately reached out to check availability. We knew we wanted to perform this summer in Chicago. So many people (myself included) didn’t get a chance to see it in NYC, and those who did raved about what a welcoming, exhilarating experience it was. The timing just felt right to keep the party going.
My favorite quote so far came from Kerry Reid in The Chicago Tribune: “The end result feels like what might happen if a road company of “Kiss Me, Kate” decided to moonlight at ’80s Night in a queer dance club.” I think I’ve waited my whole life for that quote!
BTD: What’s made working on this production unique for you as a director?
Van Barham: This is my first production as Kokandy’s Producing Artistic Director. Whether I wanted it to or not, this first title was going to SAY something. My hope is that both this process and the production establish an inclusive, welcoming environment, a collaborative space where there really is something for everyone. We set a high bar with this team — a cast full of stars, say I!
This process was also unique because Elizabeth Swanson and I co-directed the show. Working together was such a blessing. We knew there was A LOT in this musical, and quickly found that our individual strengths complemented each other. We learned a lot, and having a collaborative vision at the center of the production was such a great foundation for building this world.
BTD: You’re also the choreographer for QHOST QUARTET at Stage 773. What’s it’s like wearing multiple hats in the BTD theatre community?
Van Barham: It’s amazing, and I’m so thankful the timing worked out to both! Ghost Quartet is such a cool piece of theatre. It’s the sort of show that just washes over the audience. I’ve been lucky enough to work on all of the Black Button Eyes productions, and this is one of my favorites.
There’s actually not a ton of choreo in the show, but the show never stops moving. There’s a breeze-like flow to the whole song cycle, so a lot of my job was finding those physical moments that could echo and repeat, to make sure we highlighted and gave weight where needed. Also — THIS cast! The titular quartet is a wonder to behold.
I had an opportunity to stand across the street from Theatre Wit and Stage 773. It was a wonderful moment to be able to see both show posters at the same time. To know that the audiences were having COMPLETELY DIFFERENT experiences…but they were all in good hands.
BTD: Anything else you’d like to share?
Van Barham: How fun that you can experience two entirely different worlds, just a few feet away from each other. There’s rock-n-roll, folk, electropop, and honky tonk. Ghosts, oracles, heartbreak and dance breaks. If you stand in lobbies, you catch of whiff of The Go-Gos and Thelonius Monk. What!? There’s a lot of magic happening on Belmont right now. It would be a shame to miss it.
Head over Heels by James Magruder, co-directed by Elizabeth Swanson and Derek Van Barham. Kokandy Productions at Theatre Wit, 1229 W Belmont, (773) 975-8150, kokandyproductions.com, $35-40. Through August 25th.
Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy, directed by Ed Rutherford. Black Button Eyes Productions at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, (773) 327-5252, stage773.com. $30. Through August 17th.