Seven years ago, Cathy Day published her first novel, based on Peru circus stories she grew up hearing from her grandmother.
“The Circus in Winter” was a critical success, garnering nominations for several national awards for the interconnected short stories, each connected to the Greater Porter Circus that wintered in the fictional town of Lima, Ind., based on Day’s hometown of Peru.
Starting Sept. 29, Lima and the Greater Porter Circus will come to life on-stage at Ball State University, as a full-length musical.
Beth Turcotte, a Ball State theater professor who had led the student production, said work began two years ago as a project through the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry.
She was teaching an immersive learning class, in which students and a professor work together on one project for the entire semester. The professor serves as a resource, while the students do all the work. For a musical, this means the students wrote the script, music and lyrics on their own.
Turcotte said originally the group planned to write a script, but then a student suggested Day’s book would be good source material.
“When I found out Cathy Day was from Peru, and a female author, everything sounded very interesting,” she said.
She talked to a colleague who had taught the book, and then contacted Day to ask permission to use the book.
Day was teaching at University of Pittsburgh, Pa., at the time, and gave the OK to use her book at no cost.
“I went to visit them, and I envisioned they would make something and it would be nice. I didn’t really know what to expect,” Day said.
Turcotte said the original script included much more of the book, but the final version focuses on the first few stories.
Day saw an early run-through of the original script in January 2010, and then the concert version performed in April 2010.
“The first version they tried to capture the whole book, and that was just insane. Then they chose just the first four or five stories, about how Wallace Porter comes to buy the circus and bring it to Lima. The climax is the flood of 1913 and the aftermath. They really didn’t try to do the whole thing, which was smart. I admire that in just a few months, they had thrown out almost everything they had written before. It’s hard to throw things away.”
Day said she tried to help when she could, but mostly stepped back and let the students make what they would with the story.
“I think it’s important that this is not my book. It’s not my story anymore. It’s important to let it be what they want it to be. That’s probably the best way for it to turn out well. I’m tied to the book, and they’re trying to make it a really good musical.”
Turcotte said she enjoyed watching Day’s reaction to the concert performance. Students played the characters, reading the lines and singing the parts, with no set, reading the stage directions.
“She was so excited the night she saw the show. I don’t know if she saw it, she was so overwhelmed.”
Day said it was interesting to see what the students did with her work.
“The strangest thing is actually hearing the themes of the book in song, rather than just being conveyed through text. For more, these are the truths of my heart being conveyed.”
After the successful concert production, Turcotte received funding from the university, and also received a $25,000 grant from the Discovery Group and a Provost Immersive Learning Grant, to stage a full musical production of the show as part of Ball State’s fall theater series.
While Day was in town for the concert performance, she also interviewed for a job teaching creative writing at Ball State. She said she was happy with her job in Pittsburgh, but had enjoyed her time on campus during work on the musical.
“It was very weird. I had to pretend that what was happening with the musical was separate from if I was the right person for the job in the English department,” she said.
She is now part of the Ball State faculty, and is excited to be on hand to see the full production.
Turcotte said it has been challenging to create the sets. Two big challenges have been developing and building a life-sized elephant puppet for a key scene, and staging the 1913 flood.
“We had to be kind of creative to make that happen,” she said.
Turcotte said four of the students who originally worked on the musical are still involved, and she hopes many others will come back for the production.
She hopes to enter the finished show into the American College Theater Festival, at the University of Illinois regional. Turcotte also hopes it will qualify for a Kennedy Center award and be chosen for some national musical theater festivals.
Day hopes to have family at the show. Her grandmother, who told her the stories about when circuses wintered in Peru, saw a concert version performed at the former circus winter quarters.
“One hundred years later, to have this happen at that same place, was really cool,” Day said, adding that she is glad to bring attention to her hometown.
Ben Clark, the student who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, recently filmed a Ball State commercial at the winter quarters, she said.
“The great thing about this is, it has made more people aware of Peru’s unique history. I am hoping this is something that will bring more people to my hometown. That is one of the reasons I wrote the book.”
If you go:
• WHAT: “The Circus in Winter”
• WHEN: Thursday-Saturday and Oct. 5-8, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
• WHERE: University Theatre, Ball State University
• TICKETS: Available through the University Theatre box office, $16 for the general public, $14 for Ball State faculty and staff, $12 for senior citizens and $11 for students. Call the box office at 765-285-8749 to purchase tickets or for group rates. Season subscriptions are also available.