Spells of the Sea, a swashbuckling tale of adventure and self-discovery, recently closed its whimsical, energy-filled world premiere. The musical for young audiences celebrates exploration, perseverance and the power of personal connection. Finley Frankfurter, a 15-year-old fisherwoman, is guided by grumpy lighthouse keeper H.S. Crank on a quest for the mysterious Elixir of Life. Created by Guinevere “Gwenny” Govea (B.A. in Theatre and Dance and Bachelor of Journalism, 2021) and Anna Pickett (B.S. in Applied Learning and Development), this show has constantly evolved, from its inception as a podcast in The Cohen New Works Festival to a season production with the Metro Theater Company. The artistic journey behind this original work has seen the pair navigate the transformative tides of creative expression, growing as writers, directors, performers and friends.
Spells of the Sea began as a project in the 2021 Cohen New Works Festival, a week long festival designed to incubate original works at The University of Texas at Austin. Patrick Shaw, faculty producer for both the 2021 and the upcoming 2023 festival, believes that “The New Works Festival frees students to rely on themselves and each other to make the art that we as their faculty and future/present colleagues couldn’t think to imagine.” Playwright Guinevere “Gwenny” Govea and her close friend and director Anna Pickett received funding from the festival to bring their vision of a nautical musical to life. With the 2021 festival taking place virtually amidst the pandemic, the pair decided to use the podcast medium to best reach their target audience of young people who were stuck in their homes.
The process of transforming their idea from script to a virtual performance was a challenge; they often had to juggle several different roles at once, making efficient time management a necessity. Pickett recounts that “between rehearsals, classes and schoolwork, Gwenny and I would still be working on the show, whether it be on the website, on bonus materials, or on the audio of the show itself.” In addition, the duo had to deal with various technical issues relating to the podcast which arose close to the final project deadline. However, Govea believes that “the New Works Festival process really taught us how to work together in the face of unforeseen obstacles, which definitely came in handy later down the line.”
Following a highly successful (and B. Iden Payne Award-winning) podcast run, Govea and Pickett started adapting Spells of the Sea for an in-person performance. Faculty advisor and current interim department chair Megan Alrutz reached out to her colleagues at the University of Central Florida’s Pegasus PlayLab and Metro Theater Company, who enthusiastically agreed to help develop the play. Alrutz, who served as dramaturg for the workshop, praised the project, stating “Gwenny and Anna had a vision for Spells of the Sea to feel epic, to engage an intergenerational live audience and to fill an entire theatre.” The Pegasus PlayLab workshop was set up to further this goal, with collaborators from both UT Theatre and Dance and Metro Theater Company providing the duo with expert guidance regarding their work.
Govea recalls that the experience was “a lot of fun but overwhelming at times because it was the first time anyone outside of our little circle gave us feedback on the piece.” A significant element of this process involved reducing the length of the show from “2.5 hours to about 70 minutes.” Pickett appreciates that this taught the pair “a lot about storytelling and what aspects we needed to include and what aspects we wanted to include.” By the end of the workshopping sessions Spells of the Sea had been transformed into a script for the stage.
These workshops led on to further development and a world premiere with Metro Theater Company, a St. Louis-based company that specializes in children’s theatre. The script was further refined, with the pair working closely with the theatre troupe to create a final version which was tailored for their performers. Both creators were granted additional roles in the St. Louis premiere, with Pickett acting as assistant director and Govea given the starring role of “Finley.” This final part of the process equipped them with the skills to bring their concept from writing to a live production.
The realization of this ambitious project, which had evolved over the course of years, was a massively rewarding experience. Alrutz praised the duo, who she has supported since their collaboration began at The Cohen New Works Festival, describing it as “nothing short of magical to see their creative vision grow into reality.” Govea reflects that “It was crazy to think that only a few years ago we were in our apartment recording this over Zoom, and now it was a physical thing that people enjoyed watching!” After a month of performances for public and school audiences, Spells of the Sea concluded its first theatrical run, leaving children of all ages delighted by its tale of discovery and self belief. Its creators have experienced a similar journey in bringing this play to life, navigating uncharted creative waters and learning countless new skills along the way. They embark on their next adventure ready to surmount the toughest of obstacles, surrounded by a network of fellow artists and equipped with the knowledge and experience needed to continue their quest.
Written by Stefan Ormsby-Peacock.