Ded Reckoning: A space musical

by BRENT COLE

In the world of local theater, it’s not often an original musical comes onto the radar. Thankfully, Kamarie Chapman and Spencer Willows are changing that, at least this month, presenting Ded Reckoning to the Bellingham theater audiences at Idiom over an 8-date run.

Ded Reckoning is the story of three sisters and an older mechanic/mentor on a space ship, which has been flying through space without any navigation for seven years. After a huge power surge kicks the navigational system back online, NORTT (Navigational Operations Run Through Titanium Humanoid – a robot) comes back online and says he can chart a path to earth. Unfortunately, they’ve been traveling at near the speed of light and everyone back on earth is 50 years older – the world they’d be going home to will be nothing like when they left. As they’re thinking about the grand concepts of what is home and if they should continue into the unknown, they’re hit with another power surge. It’s then they realize the power might not be random and someone is trying to communicate with them from “the deep unknown.”

“It’s real heady,” said Spencer, a local musician and business owner. “There’s no love story, no physical fight breaking out at any point. Just dealing with deep human emotions that happen to be taking place in a spaceship.” He added, “The themes it touches on are really popular themes with me and Kamarie. Figuring your place with things – belonging or not belonging.”

The origins of Ded Reckoning date back two and a half years ago when Kamarie (a theater professor at Western) approached her friend, Spencer, about working on a play after finding out he was, as she puts it, a “closet theater nerd.” The timing wasn’t right at the time, so they held off, reconnecting a year later to take part in one of Idiom’s 48 Hour Festivals, writing a 10-minute musical. “It was kind of a test, we’d either hate each other after that pressure or we’d work really well together,” Kamarie said with a laugh.

It went well, so they did another one. That one went so well, they pitched a full play to Idiom, who went for it. “We were lucky enough to have it included in their next season,” Spencer said. Kamarie added with a laugh, “And I was like ‘Oh shit, we actually have to do this!’”

When the play opens in April, it’ll be a year since they were given the go ahead.

With the green light, the two kicked into writing mode – Spencer focusing on the music, which constitutes approximately two-thirds of the play while Kamarie worked on the dialogue. The back and forth between the two proved fruitful, if not complicated,  during the writing process. “We had an outline for the entire plot. Then I kind of picked pieces of that plot that would be good fodder for songs,” Spencer said, “Then I would usually just start – character development, then plot development. Then hand it to Kamarie and she writes the scene before and after it.”

When Kamarie would write those parts, it would sometimes morph into a different story than initially laid out, causing Spencer to alter his lyrics. This back and forth went on for months, pushing and pulling, until it was ready for the stage.

“Every song has to move the action forward with character and plot development through each song,” said Spencer, adding, “30 percent of the story outline or song schematic are the same.”

Both playwrights noted the play is free of swear words and any bad content, which hopefully will entice middle school and high school kids to attend.

While the play has been in the works for a year, the actual production of the show kicked into gear just recently. The play was cast in January after an open audition call with rehearsals beginning in mid-March. “We had some awesome people who auditioned,” Kamarie said, who was thankful they opened it up to everyone.

Musically, Spencer likens the overall sound to a Broadway musical with different styles popping up in different parts. “I was pretty loose with any particular genre or structure for songs. Some songs sound like 50s rock and roll, some songs sound like Bowie and some have a real 70s country vibe.”

The music for Ded Reckoning will be performed live during the play with CDs of the music available for sale afterwards. The band, which includes LP, Sarah Jerns, Kevin Warton and Matt Curtis, are all long-time fixtures in the Bellingham music scene. and Spencer has worked with each one before. (Spencer, Kevin and Sarah were part of the Halloween performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Redlight.)

Creating a play with music available to take home has made for an added complication and stress as everything comes together.  Kamarie and Spencer are not only working with all the logistics of putting a play together, they’re also, essentially, releasing a full length album over the same period – one that needs to be recorded, mixed and released.

“We’re doing a full length musical and producing an album in just over three weeks,” Spencer added with a laugh.

While the play will run in April, that isn’t the ending point for Ded Reckoning – if anything it’s just the beginning. “We’ll have a copy of the cast singing songs and I’ll have the script. There are all kinds of places where we can submit the script,” Kamarie said, including different festivals and universities. She added the creative process is far from finished as well. “I can think of three songs that we need and the scenes to go with it.”

As the process for this run of the play nears a peak, Kamarie displays an ease about her. Play production is her world and she thrives in this type of work, stating nerves won’t strike until the last minute. “For me it’s another production, I’m really focused to get it where it needs to be. Nervousness hasn’t set in – it’s really just go time,” she said. “I’ll be nervous five minutes before curtain on opening night.”

Ded Reckoning will be performed at the Idiom Theater Thursday-Sunday, April 9-19.See idiomtheater.com for more information.

Published in the April 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine