Local creative duo Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith have been churning out original works to DC-area theaters for over 20 years now. And while they have collaborated on more lighthearted pieces like the holiday musical Silver Belles, most of their works lean more toward the macabre.
Conner and Smith turned a horror movie classic into Night of the Living Dead the Musical. And in 2015, they were commissioned by Creative Cauldron for the first phase of the Virginia theater’s “Bold New Works for Intimate Stages” project, resulting in three darkly delicious musicals: Turn of the Screw, an adaptation of the same-titled novel involving a naive governess who encounters ghosts while caring for two orphaned children; Monsters of the Villa Diodati, based on the true events of the evening Mary Shelley found the inspiration to create Frankenstein; and Witch, telling the history of strong women being condemned, feared, and labeled “Witch.”
But Conner and Smith are not tied to a singular genre. The same Bold New Works project also brought forth On Air, the story of radio pioneers Frank and Flora Conrad and the birth of the first American radio station, and Kaleidoscope, the heart-wrenching tale of a Broadway performer’s early stages of Alzheimer’s and the toll it takes on her family and career.
Many of these new works have garnered critical acclaim, but it is their most recent work, Ichabod: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow — a musical adaptation of the Washington Irving classic — that earned Conner and Smith a Helen Hayes nomination for the prestigious Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical.
When I spoke to Matt and Stephen about the process of creating Ichabod, they stressed repeatedly the importance of staying true to Irving’s text. The idea had gone through iterations before but never felt right until they decided to embrace Irving’s open ending instead of trying to complete the story. Part of the great intrigue of the classic is that the resolution is up to the interpretation of the audience. Consumers expect complete stories, nice and tidy bows that conclude an adventure. But with Ichabod, there is mystery. Was he spirited away by the headless horseman? Did he flee in fear back to the city? Was he murdered out of jealousy? There is no right or wrong answer, which is simultaneously fascinating and unsettling.
The pair decided to set the story primarily in a schoolhouse, an idea that came about in an organic and rather charming way. Stephen explained: “’The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is one of my father’s favorite stories. So this had been in talks to be done at Creative Cauldron, for years. And then the pandemic hit and it just kept getting pushed back. But after my father passed, we were back here in Virginia, we were going to see a movie. And we were early and so we went to the World Market, and they had all of these miniature objects that you would find in an old schoolhouse. There was a globe, a bench, there were all these different little things, so I started arranging them on the shelf and the idea came to me. What if we tell the story with the things that would be found in a schoolhouse of the time?”
Focusing on Ichabod being a teacher, new to Sleepy Hollow and an outsider, also stays true to the historical aspect of Irving’s story, which Irving drew from his lived experiences. The characters of the school teacher and the Van Tassels, and events including the Harvest Ball, were aspects of Irving’s life that he formed into a beautiful short story that has been retold countless times for over 200 years.
Conner and Smith also make note of the poetry of the MacArthur nomination: The distinction of being nominated for an honor that is itself a tribute to a great American writer, for a work they created as an homage to another treasured American writer. The acknowledgment for their creative work is prize enough and a credit to their entire repertoire.
So what’s next for Conner and Smith? Aside from their podcast, which has six seasons now available on Spotify and Anchor, the two have been working on a retro ’80s LGBTQ zombie audio adventure titled “Longshot.” With four episodes on the books and a fifth in production, the episodes average about 20 minutes each and are centered around two teenage boys, Tyler and Justin, and their complicated navigation through falling in love, battling prejudice, and an apocalyptic disaster brought on by a nuclear power plant meltdown. Primarily set in an arcade, the show is full of ’80s nostalgia with an original take on zombie horror.
And new productions are also on the horizon but very early on in the process and, despite my pressing, details would not be divulged. But in the meantime, check out Conner and Smith’s website and delve into their body of work that leans toward the darker nature of society and how humanity fights through it to find love, hope, and peace.
Conner and Smith are among over 400 DC-area theater artists honored with Helen Hayes nominations this year. This year’s Helen Hayes Awards will be the first in-person ceremony since 2019. Congratulations to Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith and all the nominees.
What to expect at this year’s Helen Hayes Awards (feature by Nicole Hertvik, May 3, 2023)
A feel-good podcast from theatermakers Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (interview feature by Kendall Mostafavi, May 30, 2021)