With ‘Fugitive Songs,’ TU explores new expressions of musical theatre for our times

By Rebecca Kirkman

Department of Theatre Arts Productions presents filmed, staged production streaming May 1–8

Students on stage

In “Fugitive Songs,” an ensemble cast journeys across America in 19 songs exploring themes of escape, identity and new beginnings. 

In many ways, the production mirrors the experience of the more than 20 students, faculty and staff who made the Towson University Department of Theatre Arts spring production come to life. “Fugitive Songs” streams online May 1–8 with tickets available through the TU Box Office.

“I stopped calling it a production, and I started calling it an experience,” says Ruben Del Valle, assistant professor of theatre, of the production he directed. “The way you would normally produce a musical is not how we've rehearsed this.”

For one, “Fugitive Songs” is a song cycle—a collection of songs related by an idea or concept, without a script like in a traditional musical. Additionally, the department has reframed how it approaches blocking, staging and costuming to create theatre that can adapt to current times.

“The theatre department is stepping into new territory, and we're all working together to make sure that we give the students the experience they're looking for, and that we have the experience that we're looking for,” says Del Valle. “We're not allowing this moment to stop us or settling for the second-best thing after live audiences. We are finding ways to do good work and to learn something in the process.”

When looking for a spring production that fit the department’s needs and could be produced safely, “Fugitive Songs” quickly rose to the top of the list.

“The characters are closer to the age of our students,” Del Valle adds. “They're dealing with questions like, ‘What is my life now? What do I want it to be? What am I looking for? What is my purpose?’ And I think that that relates and connects more to our students’ experience, and it gives them something that they can sink their teeth into.”

A 10-student cast, five-student crew and five student musicians from the Department of Music bring the song cycle to life. 

In addition to blocking for physical distancing, the production makes use of clear face masks, which gives the cast access to full facial expressions and visual cues to convey emotion.

“With a script, everything is spelled out for you. But when it comes to this type of musical theatre, there's a lot more freedom in what your story is and how you can create your story,” Del Valle says.

He has embraced the film medium by bringing the camera on stage with the actors and creating moments that couldn’t be done in a live-audience production, like cutting between characters during a song.

In addition to allowing audiences to view the production from home, filming “Fugitive Songs” gives theatre students a more diverse set of skills for the future.

“We are training artists for the 21st century,” Del Valle says. “This is just another tool that they have in their belt. They can say, ‘Yes, I've worked on a film set, I've worked on camera and I have more at my disposal that I can use when I get out there in the industry.’”

Acting major Isobel Springer ’21 feels that the experience has given her skills to succeed in an industry that has been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Live theater isn't necessarily coming back in the same way as before the pandemic, so having that film experience is going to be really beneficial to me as not only an actor, but, as a creator in general, I'm going to be more comfortable in front of the camera,” says Springer, who plays Rachel. 

She says the opportunity to return to in-person rehearsals during her last term made the production even more special.

“I got to meet new freshmen who are a part of the production, and getting to spend time in person with people that I hadn't gotten to see in months and months has been really wonderful,” she says.

As she approaches graduation, Springer can relate to the production’s themes. 

“I really like this piece, especially for right now, because all of our characters are on this journey trying to figure out their lives,” Springer says. “As someone who's about to go into my adult life, that piece of it really resonates with me because these characters are kind of lost. But toward the end, they've learned enough lessons and found things along the way that have helped them realize what their dream might be and how they might move toward that.”