If you've ever watched "The Walking Dead," "Jericho" or any number of the currently popular apocalyptic, futuristic television series, you get it: The end of the world makes humans do both wicked and wonderful things. People embark on brave journeys into demolished landscapes. A once peaceful community fights over resources. There are power struggles and renewed relationships. In that spirit, Missoula musician Amy Martinwho confesses to having a sweet tooth for "Battlestar Galactica," where the last set of humans lives aboard a spaceshiphas written a play called Reserve & Green about mass extinction and a small group of people holed up in a Wal-Mart-like big-box store who survive it all. What makes it different: Reserve & Green is a musicalall the fears and hopes of the surviving citizens are rendered into song. But since this is an apocalyptic tale, don't expect South Pacific. Expect "Glee" meets Cormac McCarthy.
"As a kid I was way, way into musicals," says Martin. "And then I went through a phase where I was embarrassed of the fact of how much I was into musicals." She laughs. "I wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls: making things too simple and easy and black-and-white. Music can be really emotionally manipulative and I'm trying to stay grounded with what I think the characters are truly feeling ... not forcing you to feel."
The singer-songwriter has never written something like this before. She's a prolific folk artist, known for her work with the Coyote Choir and other children's music projects. But lately she'd noticed characters developing in her songs that seemed intertwined, and she wanted to tell that story.
Last December, Martin showed an in-progress version of Reserve & Green to an audience at the Downtown Dance Collective. It was a striking stage reading. It offered dramatic suspense about a pandemic, while telling a larger, more nuanced story about humanity. The songs weren't grating or silly and were rarely heavy-handed. And after the reading, Martin got audience feedback to find out how the piece might evolve. The feedback she got confirmed feelings she already had about the play. One character, Vicky, needed to be less villainous. Some moments were too slow. It needed more humor. More details.
"Even before I showed the community, I knew that I wanted it to be funnier," Martin says. "I wanted to incorporate more things that you would find in a big-box store, like their lingo."
Martin spent some time at the Missoula Wal-Mart, interviewing a manager. She wrote a fresh song for the play based on ingredient labels she found on the store's products. She invited fans to enter a contest to come up with a slogan for the play's fictional box store that would sound like a real slogan but also capture the tone of the play. The winning tag: "Your Store ... For Life."
Those aren't the only things that changed. In true Amy Martin-style, one simple play isn't enough. Reserve & Green is now a trilogy: each separate play feeds into the other, but they're also stand-alone stories. "Kind of from the beginning I'd thought I'd want it to be a trilogy, but I hadn't 'fessed up to iteven to myself," says Martin. "I just felt like it was too much. But then, after the December show, when I was working on it, I realized I'm interested in more than what I can do in one show."
In the first play, white-nose syndrome, which wipes out bats, mutates into a disease that attacks humans. As the pandemic spreads, a woman named Vicky begins to plan for the future by gathering children between the ages of 1 and 5 and quarantining them in a local big-box store. In the second play, it's 14 years later and the children are now teenagers. Vicky, who had been pregnant coming into the store, now has a 14-year-old daughter named Willa. Coming of age, Willa is now curious about the outside world and when she begins to hear birds and see other signs of life, she pushes to leave the store, against her mother's will. The third story, Martin says, will take place outside the big-box store, in the post-apocalypse.
For now, Martin is focused on the second play, the one that takes place in the big-box store. The play is vastly different now. She's been rehearsing and refining it with actors, who she says have helped the roles evolve. Rosie Cerquone, who will be a freshman at Hellgate High School in the fall, plays the independent, stubborn protagonist, Willa. She says her character has gone through some interesting changes since December. "I think in the new version she's more assertive," says Cerquone. "In the original, I thought she was kind of trying to be really nice to everyone. It's a change in the script but it's a change in how I think of it, too."
Vicky, played by Ellen Mckenzie, also has changed from a sharply villainous leader to the stubborn but conflicted mother of Willa. We get to see more of Vicky's softness. They sing a duet that touches on the bittersweet relationship of parents and children and in which Vicky reassuringly sings about how she will always be there for Willa, while Willa is essentially singing "Oh, god. What if I'm always stuck here with you?"
"Willa is definitely the heroine," says Martin, "but heroines can be jerks. They can be self-aggrandizing, they can be too simplistic in their thinking and be motivated for the wrong reasons. I think this new version allowed for both of them to be more nuanced. And then who doesn't love a good mother-daughter conflict?"
The new version will be unveiled at a staged reading (and singing) at the Missoula Colony 17 this weekend, where several other new plays written by emerging and professional artists will also be showcased.
Martin's hope is that the psychological play will appeal to those who like end-of-the-world scenarios and those who like stories about the internal drama of humanity. In the end, that's what most of the stories come down to anyway: Faced with the ultimate crisis, how do we survive while still holding onto the things we love most?
"Yes," laughs Martin. "The apocalypse is very popular."
Reserve & Green will be staged at UM's Montana Theatre in the PARTV Center Sun., July 15, at 8 PM. $10.
The Missoula Colony 17 runs Sat., July 14, through Sun., July 21, at UM's Montana Theatre in the PARTV Center. The Colony, put on by the Montana Repertory Theatre, showcases staged readings of new plays, often in progress, by emerging and professional playwrights and offers workshops from visiting writers. Check out Cathy Capps's R-rated cabaret-style musical The Dirty Old Lady Show on July 14 at 8 p.m. A brand new reading series on Mon., July 16, at 3 p.m. and Tue., July 17, at 3 p.m. features juried plays with themes linked to Missoula and includes names you'll recognize, such as Josh Wagner and Kate Morris. Actors from Missoula, New York and Los Angeles bring to life other new pieces from playwrights such as Larke Schuldberg, Lily Gladstone, Jay Kettering and Melissa Ross, and the week offers workshops in character development and dramatic action. $50 all inclusive/$40 all staged readings/$25 workshops only/$10 individual evening readings/$5 individual afternoon readings. Go to montanarep.org for a full schedule.