BWW Interviews: Producer and Creator Virginia Criste Talks Inspiration for New Musical SIGNS OF LIFE
Virginia Criste has done what few can say: She took an idea she had and turned it into something real. When Criste, a practicing lawyer, was struck with an idea for a musical, her inspiration was so great that she soon also became a theatre producer. Chicago audiences now get to reap the benefits of Criste's efforts when the musical drama "Signs of Life" runs at the Zacek McVay Theater at the Victory Gardens Theater for six weeks, beginning September 18th.
The seed of the idea for this musical was planted in Criste's head in the early 90's when she traveled to the Czech ghetto Theresienstadt, or Terezin, to explore her family history.
"When I think back on it I'm not exactly sure what caused me to then decide to clear off that part my life. Maybe it was how old I was or that I felt ready to deal with it, because I always knew that my father lost his family but it was never discussed," Criste recalls. What she did know was Terezin was the last place her Grandparents had been. So when the Berlin Wall came down, she seized the opportunity to go.
What she was surprised to discover was that Terezin did not fulfill the traditional image associated with Nazi death camps.
Criste describes looking at book of artifacts, saying, "You would read 'Artifact Number 114: The curtain on the window in Hamburg barracks' or 'Number 83: Album of dorm life' and then 'Number 78: cabaret tickets.'" She then was able to choose the artifacts she would like to see. "And then I realized that something amazing had happened here."
It was in Terezin, in fact, that Hitler had placed notable Jewish artists and intellects in an effort to make the world believe he had built a place for the Jews to protect them from the war. A film was made to show Terezin as an ideal world, despite the fact that it was from it.
"I'm holding hand-drawn posters of shows. And diagrams of soccer fields and I'm not getting it exactly," Christe says. "I just got more and more emotionally absorbed by the items that I was picking up."
But it was at a stop in London on the way back from Eastern Europe where the idea for a musical highlighting the Jews' life at Terezin first formed.
"I saw one of the early versions of 'Miss Saigon' and they had pictures of the Bui-Doi all over the lobby and I remember vividly looking at those and saying, 'Think what I just saw. Boy, do I have something I could put on these lobby walls.'"
She did not immediately hit the ground running with this idea, though.
"It was an idea that I never acted on for probably three years. Then I was going through a divorce and I said, 'I'm gonna do something. I'm gonna make this a positive thing and I'm gonna do something I always wanted to and never did.' And that's when I decided to do this."
Criste had no previous theatre experience other than being an avid attendee. Her son's involvement in musical theatre inspired her and her daughter to start seeing a large amount of musical theatre. "If we went to London we'd see six or seven shows," she says, but never before had she been involved in the industry.
"In the end, if I could write, I would have written it. And I didn't write." So she began her search, first, with a book writer. She made several attempts before ending up with the script and creatives of the "Signs of Life" that will be playing in Chicago. One of the attempts began after reading an article in Variety about Anne Hamburger who, at the time, was running En Garde Arts, which had a cross cultural exchange with Czechoslovakia. They were currently doing a piece based off of a diary written in Terezin. Criste contacted Hamburger and they began working on the piece together. Ultimately, that project fell through due to rights of the diary not being cleared and Hamburger moved on to other work, but recommended Peter Ullian to Criste. Criste commissioned Ullian to write the book with the idea of making it a musical.
When Ullian finished the book, they began their search for a composer, auditioning multiple people. Criste explains, "We would show the composers our script and say, 'Pick any part of this and just write a little piece of music.'"
They settled on Joel Derfner, through a recommendation of Lucy Simon (best known for composing the score for "The Secret Garden"). Derfner then recommended Len Schiff as a lyricist, having known him from graduating from Tisch, where Derfner is a teacher in the master's program. Thus, the creative team for "Signs of Life" was set.