When Tri-Cities Prep drama students agreed to help local writers fine-tune Guns of Ireland — a musical exploring Irish history — they saw an opportunity to test themselves and their school’s prowess for the performing arts.
“It was an in-town made play, so it had a lot of interest,” said Prep junior and cast member Jordan Mayle, 17.
They didn’t expect their roles in Guns of Ireland to lead to an invitation to perform before thousands at the Seattle Irish Festival on March 14-15.
Nor did they or writers Jeff Payne and Mike Speegle anticipate the reaction from off-Broadway theater producers and Irish diplomats and musicians, whose music about their nation’s independent spirit found its way into the show.
And no one expected donations and advance ticket sales in excess of $17,000 to roll in to pay for the show’s production.
“Last weekend I was singing in a recording studio and it was a mind-blowing experience,” said Prep senior and cast member Olivia Saucedo, 17, of taping demos for the show.
The growing buzz around Guns of Ireland, which will take the stage for the first time in its entirety at Columbia Basin College’s theater on May 1, hasn’t been without the help of a little self-promotion from Payne and Speegle, who reached out to their contacts in the theater industry and those interested in Irish culture.
They also credit the students for their dedication to their roles and to putting on a top-flight production.
“People don’t expect kids to be as well-versed in this stuff as they are,” Speegle said.
Everyone connected to the show is amazed at the flood of support the musical has received and the enthusiasm to see it on the stage.
“I just hope we’re able to deliver on the hype,” Payne said.
Setting the stage
Payne and Speegle, who work in the theater industry, began writing the musical after befriending each other several years ago.
It follows two Irish rebellions — the Wexford Rebellion of 1798 and the Easter Rising of 1916 — which had similar themes and issues.
The conflicts provide a perfect backdrop to delve into the vast repertoire of Irish music. Songs making an appearance include traditional fare, such as Whiskey in the Jar and When Irish Eyes are Smiling, as well as the more politically charged Come Out, Ye Black and Tans, by Irish writer Dominic Behan, and Back Home In Derry by Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army member who died during a hunger strike in prison.
“The story’s great but it’s the music that matters,” Speegle said.
The writers reached out to Prep drama teacher Nina Powers and her husband, Brett, about having students at the small private Catholic high school “workshop,” or refine, the musical. The school leaped at the opportunity.
The collaboration wasn’t without challenges. The students were hardworking but not professional stage actors, singers or dancers, the writers said.
The students, accustomed to performing polished shows, spent weeks going over every scene and line to help the writers — only to sometimes come to rehearsal the next day and find whole scenes and characters cut.
A showcase of selected scenes last fall at the Academy of Children’s Theatre in Richland was arranged largely to give the students’ families an opportunity to see what their kids were working on. But many others also attended and they had to shorten the academy’s stage to accommodate the crowd.
Those in the audience said they weren’t disappointed.
“I thought it was a very powerful performance,” said Prep senior Samuel Lewis, 18, who has since joined the cast. “I’m not going to lie, I cried at different parts.”
Speegle and Payne made further changes after last fall’s showcase. Those edits included a new ending to make the overall story a little less bleak and the removal of some characters and scenes that were weighing the narrative down.
“We cut out a lot of the preachiness, the exposition,” Payne said.
Much of the show is now in production mode, building sets and costumes. The students have spent their weekends at the writers’ homes, working in garages to make the show’s props, from tables to pikes.
All this material takes money as well as effort. Advance ticket sales of about $5,000 have helped, but the more than $12,000 in donations collected by early March will largely finance this spring’s performances. The bulk of those donations came from a $10,000 check from the Fox Vance Family Foundation.
Dan Tano, a local financial adviser with the national firm Waddell & Reed, has followed Speegle’s and Payne’s efforts for the better part of the year after striking up a conversation with them at a food truck during lunch one day last spring.
Not musically talented himself, Tano grew up in a home of musicians and listened to songs from musicals regularly, giving him an appreciation for the arts, he said.
He has since translated that appreciation into paying $1,000 to purchase the entire back page advertising space of the musical’s program.
“It’s always great to be involved with good people and good causes,” Tano said.
‘They do justice to the history and culture’
Showcasing Guns of Ireland on other stages outside the Tri-Cities has been a goal of Speegle’s and Payne’s since they began writing the show.
Part of the budget is to help fly producers and people associated with theater companies to come see the musical and consider it for future performances. A few plan to attend one of the musical’s May shows.
Payne also reached out to John Keane, honorary consul for Ireland living on the west side of the Cascades, to see if he also wanted to attend.
Keane’s uncle fought in the Easter Rising, earning a medal from the fledgling Republic of Ireland government after the country won its independence. After hearing details about Guns of Ireland, its subject and its selection of music, he jumped on board.
“From what I can tell, they do justice to the history and culture,” Keane told the Herald.
Keane is working with the Irish consulate in San Francisco to send a delegation to one of the May shows. He also provided this weekend’s invite to the Seattle festival, which draws more than 10,000 people to the Seattle Center’s Armory.
Keane isn’t the first Irishman to endorse Guns of Ireland. The cast met Anthony Kearns, one of the internationally known Irish Tenors whose music inspired Payne to write the musical. Kearns gave the show a plug when he performed at Pasco’s Faith Assembly Church last fall.
Meeting the hype
Even with so many rallying for the show’s success, everyone involved in Guns of Ireland say they know they still have to deliver on the stage.
The students have put forth as much effort as they can, wanting to match the quality of writing that Speegle and Payne put into the script, they said.
While they know how much the show means to the writers and their futures, their experience has also shown them how it could affect them as well.
“You can tell we think it’s going to be big because we all got our scripts signed by the playwrights,” Mayle said.
High expectations can lead to disappointment if what’s seen on stage doesn’t rise to what the audience has come to see, Nina Powers said.
“It’s been a little scary because we’ve been advertising a product before we have it,” she said, noting some of the students are still working on emotionally developing their characters.
The doubts have largely been banished to the back of everyone’s mind given the level of commitment from everyone involved.
Payne and Speegle would love to see Guns of Ireland make it to an off-Broadway theater or become a traveling show, they said, but they also recognize few get to live the dream of bringing their creation to any stage.
“I just hope my mom likes it,” Payne said.