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Inside the production and direction of 'Flak House: The Musical' Special

By Ernest Dempsey     Oct 25, 2014 in Entertainment
New York City - The lives of World War II continue to inspire books, films, and theatre. “Flak House” is a new musical, now playing in New York, which portrays the live of young men fighting the war against the Nazis in the ‘40s.
Robert L. Hecker’s musical Flak House opened off Broadway in New York the past Tuesday. Presented at Actors Temple Theatre, the play is about heroic young men who fought World War II and the psychiatrists and Red Cross volunteers who helped them through the most challenging times of their lives. I had a chat with the director/choreographer and producer of Flak House as shared here.
Mike Strozier owns a theater company, La Muse Venale, and is producing Flak House: The Musical. He has directed and also produced his own shows and those by other playwrights in New York, off-off Broadway and Off-Broadway.
Ashley Wren Collins is a director, choreographer, producer, actor, and published author. Most recently she appeared on Boardwalk Empire, penned the 6th edition of The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to New York City (Globe Pequot Press), and produced the award-winning romantic comedy, Chasing Taste, winner of “Best Comedy” at the 2014 Manhattan Film Festival and the 2013 Burbank International Film Festival. She has directed for BFA and MFA candidates in Dramatic Writing at NYU as well as short one acts off-Broadway, and she has been choreographing musicals for years. Flak House is Ashley’s directorial debut for a full-length musical. She is also the choreographer of Flak House.
Ernest: Mike, what feature of Robert L. Hecker’s book stood out to you as so compelling to inspire you to produce the play?
Mike: I have produced two musicals and one play by Mr. Hecker, and especially with musicals, what I like a lot about Robert, the writer, is he does it all. With Flak House, he is the playwright, composer, and lyricist. And, the shows that he writes are usually based on his experiences or he has done extensive research on the subject(s). Producing a musical is very hard and in addition, if I have to work with one lyricist, one composer, and one playwright to create a musical, it is very, very difficult. So, working with Robert is very efficient, easy, and successful!
Ernest: Ashley, I feel that taking today’s young actors and getting them to understand the characters of young people of the 1940s is not so easy. How much did you have to study the acting styles and culture of the WWII era to help you with the directional work on the play?
Ashley: The time period is indeed very specific! The world was different then, and people dressed, walked, and talked differently. I suggested the actors watch at least the first three parts of Ken Burns’ documentary on World War II, The War, to get a feel for what was going on in history when we entered the war. I also suggested they look at Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan to understand what D-Day was really like and then watch 1940s’ movie classics such as His Girl Friday, Casablanca, and Mildred Pierce, paying particular attention to speech patterns and the way people moved. We also had a lot of fun listening to and choosing music for the swing dancing moments in the living room of the Flak House.
Ernest: How helpful was your experience as an actress in your directional work in this play?
Ashley: My work as an actor was instrumental to directing this play – every actor works differently, at his/her own speed, and also accesses character work uniquely – some from outside in, others from inside out, some immediately, and still others very far into the rehearsal process. I always made sure the actors felt safe to try and fail in rehearsal and to communicate what they felt was working or not working – I am striving for something very real and authentic in this show. Our wars are often fought by very young men dealing with incredibly heavy and heartbreaking issues. I was able to talk to the actors and find out how they liked to work and guide my notes and direction in such a way so they could interpret them in a way that made sense for them.
Ernest: Mike, you were on ground as a soldier in the first gulf war so I am interested in learning how you relate your war experience to Flak House.
Mike: As the producer of Flak House, it did provide me with some insight to have served in a foreign war. I was in the army as a young man, and got out and went to ROTC, and joined the Air Force as an officer and served about 6 years. It was my time in the Air Force that allows me to definitely relate to this bomber crew in Flak House. Though I was not an aircrew member, I briefed the crews, and in the Air Force, every possible asset is focused on the aircrew. They are the warriors; all else is there to support them. That tends to lead to a sense of bravado, or dare I say cockiness? But this is war, and that bravado allowed the men to keep fighting.
Ernest: Who is your intended audience for the play?
Ashley: Flak House appeals to active and retired members of the military, as well as those who have an affinity for the 1940s, swing dancing, or just plain love a good old-fashioned classic musical with love, tears and laughter!
Mike: Flak House has already started to attract large crowds of people coming to the show. It is hard enough reaching your intended audience with a show, let alone any audience, so I am just glad we seem to have struck a nerve. In New York, everyone goes to the theater, from the wealthy to the poor; it crosses all boundaries. So, as long as I put up a good show, I have a chance to connect with an audience--but that itself is very hard to do. Perhaps, Flak House has made that connection with an audience.
Ernest: How long is the play and what is the overall mood?
Ashley: The play is 80 minutes without intermission. It is a drama, but has plenty of lighthearted moments, comic characters and upbeat numbers as well.
Ernest: Who are the major characters?
Ashley: In Flak House, we meet a British psychiatrist, Betty, and two Red Cross volunteers, Crystal and Norma, who help Air Corps men overcome combat fatigue and rest up for a week at a manor house in London, England, before returning to the skies to fly again in America’s crusade against Hitler. We also meet several of the lieutenants who come to the Flak House, including one by the name of Hal Bailey, a conscientious objector struggling with the realities of war and must face the wrath of his brother, Major Luke Bailey, who puts the other men up to giving his brother a hard time to pressure him into flying another mission. And in the middle of all of this there is, of course, a love story and plenty of singing and dancing!
Ernest: Mike, you have written and produced plays based on war and war-related figures. Is Flak House unique or memorable in some aspect than your own plays?
Mike: Flak House by Robert L. Hecker is unique among shows about war. I wrote a play about a solder suffering from PTSD, so that was new at the time; but Robert's musical looks at war from a new angle altogether. Indeed, "Flak Houses" themselves are basically forgotten things. I don't think there is even a single movie about bomber crews in war – any war. Normally, the fighter pilot is more cinematic; but Robert was a bombardier in WWI, and he has assembled a wonderful show that looks at WWII in a very new way, and poses new questions. Should it become a movie, the drama would be very intense (in a movie one could add some combat scenes) as this close-knit team of brothers scream at one another to avoid flak and bullets for what must have been hours.
Ernest: Thank you Mike and Ashley for sharing your thoughts and info about Flak House.
For more information and updates, readers may visit the musical’s Facebook page.
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