With Fire, Joe Schmoe Owns the Stage 

Sometimes a piece of art enters your life at the exact right moment. The experience brings your life and your place in the world into focus. Brett Ryback’s musical Joe Schmoe Saves the World is just such a piece. The mirror it holds up to modern American culture reflects back an all too real image that is at once critical and hopeful. With relatable characters, hard-hitting imagery, and a soundtrack I’ve been listening to on repeat for almost a week now, Joe Schmoe Saves the World transforms and inspires. 

“They said, ‘Why have you come? Why are you here? Why bang your drum? Without fire, you’ve got nothing worth my dear,” sings Joe Schmoe Saves the World, the fictional American rock band in Ryback’s musical. These words, though, are not just the lyrics to some rock anthem; they are symbolic of Ryback’s own creative philosophy, and the fire he brings to IU’s Summer Musical Workshop is spreading. 

Partially inspired by his frustration with more frivolous musicals and partially by the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, Ryback says his creation examines the question, “What is the responsibility of young people creating art in our political world?” The musical spans two different locations that seem very different at first: America and Iran. But as the two parallel narratives play out, the musical highlights the similarities between the characters as they struggle to make art in a political world. 

Gloria (Mary Beth Black) is a young American, musician in a rock band named Joe Schmoe Saves the World. The play opens with her seeing tragedies of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Her edgy rock star life seems shallow in comparison. The juxtaposition leaves her frustrated with herself and her band’s lead singer, Joe (Scott Van Wye), who is obsessed with image and stardom. 

On the other side of the globe, Lyon (Aaron Ricciardi) and Afarin (Meadow Nguy), two Iranian students struggle to live under facism. Afarin is a revolutionary and street artist. Lyon is a hacker, blogger, and somewhat of a “golden boy.” Afarin challenges Lyon him to “rise up” and fight for their freedom to express themselves through art, dance, and speech. 

Brett Ryback collaborates with IU students and faculty to workshop his musical Joe Schmoe Saves the World

Ryback has come to Indiana University through the IU Summer Musical Workshop, a program that brings in new musical theater writers to use the expertise and resources found at IU. Ryback and his director Christian Barillas have been thrilled by the outpouring of help and excitement from the professors and students at IU. “Everyone seems hungry to help,” said Ryback. Having watched him and Barillas work, I’m sure that hunger is inspired by both men’s energetic passion for the project. 

The workshop has allowed Ryback to really explore digital projection aspect of the show. Ryback explains, “Technology is like a fifth character in the play.” Its presence is massive because it is “the main conduit between the two worlds. It was an outlet for Iranian bloggers and journalists to tell the truth about what was happening. Americans became aware of the Arab Spring through social media, especially YouTube.” 

Without this technological aspect, the musical lacks a strong sense of connection between the two worlds. Ryback had staged readings of the show before, but “they would have to read clunky stage directions about what should be seen but was unavailable.”   

Digital projection is hugely popular element in modern theater and musical theater. As Ryback explains, this technology “allows writers to do more ambitious things, but it’s not about cinematic work. It’s about creating specifically theatrical creations with this technology.” 

How does digital projection work? Well, before doing this article, I had seen some excellent examples of digital projection used in theater, but I knew very little about the practical application. I turned, then, to Reuben Lucas, a Professor of Scenic Design at IU and the Projection Designer for Joe Schmoe 

An example of the dynamic projections dreamed up by Brett Ryback and created by Reuben Lucas for Joe Schmoe.

According to Lucas, the focus of digital projection is to “augment specific moments and clarify events onstage” through “visual storytelling.” In Joe Schmoe, the focus of much of the projection is Gloria’s view of the world through her laptop. “We need to show the audience what she is doing,” says Lucas, ” but its more than just screen shots. These are interactive moments that highlight specific elements.” The digital projection has to represent the Gloria’s dynamic online experience not just the flat representation of what she sees. 

When in Tehran, the digital images open up from a world of social media to the reality of life in Tehran. Projection has us riding through the streets with Lyon on his scooter. “Even when the real world there is always a layer of the digital,” says Lucas. For example, Afarin interacts with the digital projection to create her street art. She spray-paints urban art onto a wall. According to Lucas, one of the trickiest elements is that “the letters have to be written in Farsi, but then the words have to transition from Farsi to English, without doing something cliché like a fade out.”  

The end result, according to Ryback, is a dance. The actors move and interact with the technology and through that technology with each other. The projection makes a magical space where individuals separated by a huge physical and cultural distance can connect and collaborate. 

Through all this hard work, Ryback has created a very relatable and relevant story that highlights the similarity between Americans and Iranians. While the Arab Spring occurred six years ago, we are still feeling the repercussions today.  

There are only two performances of Joe Schmoe left, so find out more information and get your tickets here. Joe Schmoe Saves the World is a moving musical that will make us all ask the question “When will we rise up?” 

 

*Photos courtesy of IU Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance

 

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