Montclair High School students meet writer of spring musical ‘Urinetown’
You’re in town.
That’s what students in Montclair High School’s School of Visual and Performing Arts could have said last week in greeting playwright Greg Kotis, who wrote the book for the musical “Urinetown.”
Kotis dropped by the high school to visit the SVPA students, who have been rehearsing “Urinetown” since late February. The musical, a dark comedy by Mark Holloman and Kotis, takes place in a dystopian society where drought leads to laws banning private restrooms and requiring citizens to pay for use of public ones.
The show debuted during the New York City International Fringe Festival in 1999, before premiering on Broadway in September 2001. Kotis earned Tony awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score (with co-writer Holloman) in 2002. The show also won a Tony for Best Direction of a Musical.
When SVPA director Brenda Pepper announced “Urinetown” as the spring show selection, Gary Rudoren, SVPA’s tech director, shared an exciting connection with her: Rudoren happened to know the playwright from their days together in Chicago theater in the late 1980s and ’90s. He offered to reach out to Kotis and invite him to talk with SVPA students.
Both Rudoren and Kotis got their starts in Chicago working in experimental theater. Rudoren was a member of the Annoyance Theater and taught and directed at The Second City, while Kotis was active in Cardiff Giant Theatre Company and with the Neo-Futurists. The pair crossed paths in what Rudoren described as an “incestuous, improv, small-play community.”
So perhaps it felt like old times when the two sat onstage together Wednesday afternoon, March 30, in Montclair High’s Little Theater as Rudoren interviewed Kotis before an audience of SVPA students.
Kotis shared his own story of being in high school theater, describing it as almost accidental — he joined theater to be closer to a crush. Initially, the experience, especially learning lines, felt like a school assignment. It wasn’t until his first live show, when he was exhilarated by the attention of the audience, that he really caught the bug, Kotis said.
Still, he almost left it behind, heading to a college in Chicago with no theater program and with a plan “to do something reasonable.” Eventually, missing the fun and wanting to make friends, he fell back into theater.
“And then I just decided, I like this too much,” Kotis said. “I don't want to do anything else other than make theater.”
It was in Chicago that he fell in love with improv comedy.
Improv has an “an ensemble culture,” Kotis said, which means that there are no stars and everyone writes, performs and directs simultaneously. “Urinetown” was written with that principle in mind — “that everybody should have a lot to do,” he said.
And that principle, plus the abundance of “delicious roles,” is why Pepper calls the musical “a director’s dream, especially in a high school setting.”
“You’re not just in the background — it’s super-active, whether you’re playing a corporate, or whether or not you’re playing a rebel. There’s just these incredible ensemble moments for kids that maybe aren’t in a lead role. And to me, that’s a dream come true because I’m always trying to extend and feature more and more and more kids. That’s always what drives it [the selection] for me, first and foremost,” Pepper said.
“Urinetown” was the first musical Pepper directed after she joined Montclair High School as SVPA director 11 years ago. And it felt like the right timing to do it again, she said.
“I felt like we really needed some laughter, even if there’s a serious bend to it. I was desperate for laughter, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in that,” she said. “‘Urinetown’ really just strikes my funny bone.”
The musical also provides plenty of work for the tech crew, giving them a chance to work on sets and signs in creative ways, which is not something every show offers, Pepper said.
During the Q&A, student questions for Kotis varied from favorite “Urinetown” song (one that didn’t make it to the final cut), to writer’s block (try timed typing on a darkened screen and critiquing later). Asked what the audience should take away from “Urinetown,” Kotis said the play grapples with sustainability and “came out of dread and fear [of things like climate change] and wanting to find a way to laugh about it.”
After the talk, Kotis shared his impressions with Montclair Local. He said he feels eternally grateful that the show is still being put on, and found the students’ questions to be smart and insightful.
“When I was doing musicals and plays, the writer was like a distant, impossibly far away person — unapproachable,” he said.
So he hopes that his visit demystified the role of playwright and put the act of writing into the realm of possibility for students.
Aidan Cummins, who plays Old Man Strong, said that Kotis’ relatability was refreshing.
“We often think of playwrights and the people behind all these stories as really mysterious and mythical to an extent, but he’s a human,” Cummins said.
Riley Polaner, who plays Old Ma Strong, said she liked that Kotis asked students questions throughout the talk and seemed to care about their answers.
“[It] really meant a lot because he created the show, it was on Broadway, he won and was nominated for Tonys,” Polaner said. “And just the fact that he came here to a high school in Montclair and listened and cared about the students who were doing his show. It really, really meant a lot to me. And I think to all of us here.”
The show opens Friday, May 6, with weekend performances through May 15. This will be the first musical back in the Little Theater since the start of the pandemic.
This post has been updated to correct Brenda Pepper's first name.