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Amanda Dehnert on The Verona Project, a New Musical That Rocks… Literally!

An interview with Amanda Dehnert, writer and director of this year’s American Music Theatre Project production.

Cast photo of <i>The Verona Project</i> courtesy of the American Music Theatre Project
Cast photo of The Verona Project courtesy of the American Music Theatre Project

Although classes have just begun here at Northwestern University, several productions are already well underway. Last weekend I saw a preview of an important part of our season, one that Michael Mahler mentioned in my last article as a huge opportunity for creators of new musicals in Chicagoland.

Each year at Northwestern, a program called the American Music Theatre Project, or AMTP, workshops a new musical that is part of NU’s mainstage season. The program gives students the chance to be part of the growth of the show, and in this case, they even get to join a rock band!

This year’s AMTP show is The Verona Project, written and directed by Amanda Dehnert. Here’s what she has to say about it!

AMANDA DEHNERT: The show is inspired by Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, but it takes place in an invented world that is like our own but just different enough to be interesting. People grow up in small towns and go to the city, wondering what’s out there in the big world. But they don’t have telephones, they talk on tin cans and write letters, and there are dragons and magical things.

It’s a love story and a comedy. It’s also about how we ultimately have to accept that the time we have on this earth is finite, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t live life as fully as you can and take risks with your heart.

DARCY ROSE COUSSENS: How does the rock band aspect factor into the story?

AD: The idea of the show is that there is a rock band called The Verona Project, and this is a piece they made with songs and stories, movement and projections, and…art! The story is told by the band. It’s very open to the audience; it’s not a musical where you burst into song and pretend you’re not singing. That gives it a spirit of making something you care about and sharing it with other people.

Amanda Dehnert
Amanda Dehnert
Used with permission from Amanda Dehnert

DRC: Verona has had quite a journey so far, what has that been like?

AD: The Verona Project came about when I was asked to direct a production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona for California Shakespeare Theatre. As I was working on it, I found that more and more, I had a really clear idea of who I thought the characters were and the story I wanted them to be in.

And it wasn’t Shakespeare’s play. It was a different story.

Luckily, they were really open to the idea of me taking it, running with it and turning it into something else. It had its premier production at CalShakes, which went really well, and I started calling around to get a second step for it.

DRC: And that step is AMTP. How did you get involved with the program?

AD: They came to me and asked if I wanted to do Verona here, and around the same time I got an offer for a production at South Coast Repertory in California. It all timed out beautifully. We get to do this developmental step here this fall, and I’m focusing on a lot of things there literally was not enough time to do the first time– like finish writing the score! Then I get to do the show for another professional production out at South Coast.

You should never think of the work you make as being like an audition for a chance to get to do it again, but it’s really hard not to, so I feel really blessed that I don’t have to think of this that way.

Rehearsal photo of <i>The Verona Project</i> courtesy of the American Music Theatre Project
Rehearsal photo of The Verona Project courtesy of the American Music Theatre Project

DRC: In what ways has AMTP helped the show evolve?

AD: It’s really cool to be doing this with undergraduate students; there’s a level of specificity that they bring to it. Watching them interact with the material, seeing how they relate to it, the kinds of questions they ask, and the kinds of questions they don’t ask are all so useful. I can’t imagine getting this piece to its next phase without having this opportunity.

I have a totally different cast here, which is really interesting, because I wrote it around the first group of people that I had. It’s been so exciting to get new voices and new energy on it, and to see how that takes it to its next level of hopefully universal wonderfulness.

DRC: So, next Verona will head to California, and you have worked all over the country in the past. Is there anything you’ve found to be different in Chicago compared to other places you’ve worked?

AD: I think Chicago has really great audiences. I remember even when I was growing up in a south suburb, theater was very much part of the culture of the city. I think that theater made here is really honest, really down to earth.

I also think we’re all just trying to do what theater tries to do anywhere, which is tell good stories to people who are interested in hearing them.

If you’re interested in hearing The Verona Project, it runs October 19 through November 4 at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago. I’ll definitely be there!