Flying V nurtures development of Tess Rowan’s ‘Static: Noise of a New Musical’

The work debuted at Fringe in 2022, where it won Best Musical and Best Ensemble, and will have public workshops on August 11 and 13.

Someone walks into a bar. Let’s call them Navi, and let’s say he’s the Artistic Lead of the R&D Department at a small Silver Spring–based performing arts company — we’ll call it Flying V — and Navi’s come to this bar to see previews of Capital Fringe shows in the summer of 2022. Moreover, let’s imagine that Navi walks into this bar and finds a 17-year-old high school student — we’ll call her Tess — playing guitar and singing songs from her original folk-rock musical involving ham radio, a mystery on the Appalachian Trail, and storytelling via Morse code. Will this artistic relationship have “legs” in a challenging theatrical environment where most new plays never reach their full potential?

Happily, the answer is yes. After a year of collaboration, Static: Noise of a New Musical, birthed by Tess Rowan at Capital Fringe in 2022 — where it won Audience Awards for Best Musical and Best Ensemble — and coached and encouraged by Navi and Flying V, will have public workshop performances on August 11 and 13 in Silver Spring. This crucial next stage of development is something most new plays never see in a theatrical environment increasingly focused on getting work on stage and audiences in seats as quickly as possible in order to pay the bills. Simply put, play development takes time, money, and human resources that many theaters, especially smaller ones, just don’t have.

Tess Rowan with show art for her new musical, ‘Static’

“This happens very rarely,” Navi says of the longer-term process of play development and workshopping. “The [theatrical] ecosystem is geared toward getting a season out as fast as possible. A lot of times, new works aren’t given the time to build and develop properly because there’s always a rush toward the main stage.”

By most measures, Flying V is an exception to this theatrical rule. Few theaters of any size have a department dedicated to research and development, and few include a focus, as does Flying V, on the creation and development of new work. That said, most of the new work Flying V has developed over the years has come from within its own ranks. This year has been an exception and something of a test case, as the company has collaborated with external artists on two new musicals, William Yanesh and Hope Villanueva’s Vanishing Girl in January and Tess Rowan’s Static this month. In both cases, Flying V worked with the external artists over the better part of a year to refine and further develop their ideas without the pressures and deadlines that accompany a full mainstage production.

“I have been pretty consistent [with the Static workshop team] that we are not here to push work toward a mainstage production,” Navi says. “We don’t have the time to do that. It’s more important to focus on the core, fundamental things in the script that need developing, so that they get the care and focus they need.”

In Navi’s experience, some of the best script development processes have been multi-year, in which an idea is birthed, discussed, partly devised or put on paper, then “discussed again, built again, and fleshed out,” usually in a workshop production. He hopes more DC-area theaters will adopt this model in developing new work for the stage.

Such was the case with Tess Rowan’s Static. The songs and the narrative Navi heard Rowan perform in that Fringe bar in 2022 had been developed over the course of several years, as Rowan — starting in eighth grade — taught herself guitar and piano in order to compose the music for her project. Because several Static actors were out with COVID, Navi never saw the fully staged Fringe show. What he saw was Tess “essentially presenting a proof of concept.” Navi says he was taken with Rowan’s passion; her impressive, self-taught musical skills; and the unique incorporation of Morse code into a musical.

“It was an unconventional way to tell a story, which fit perfectly with our mission and values,” Navi says. “We’re always looking for new, unconventional production styles and ways to reach audiences. So [Static] struck me as uniquely conceptual, interestingly niche, and absolutely the kind of thing we should try and develop out a bit more.” Furthermore, Navi recognized that the Morse code element offered a unique opportunity to engage audiences in interactive theater, another of the company’s important emphases. (The program guide for the workshop production of Static will include tools to help decipher the Morse code to the mystery at the heart of the musical.) Navi had no trouble convincing fellow company members to take on the project of further developing Rowan’s work.

For her part, Rowan was excited to have a professional company take such an interest in developing her work. (It is almost unheard of for a professional theater company to pick up a work not their own that debuted at the Capital Fringe.) Every few weeks over the past year, Rowan, Navi, and other members of Flying V’s team would gather to further develop Static’s characters, music, and storyline. All this while Tess completed high school, wrote college application essays, and performed in and directed shows at her high school in Northern Virginia.

“There’s been such a community that is so focused on how we can take Static to the next level with time and care and thought in the process,” Tess says of the collaboration with Flying V. “I feel like the show has been treated so well and worked on by really kind people. It’s been in great hands this whole time.”

In addition to character and plot development, Navi brought in music director Emily Erickson to work with Rowan on Static’s 30-odd songs. Now pared down to close to 25, the songs — some of which incorporate Morse code — will be performed by a four-piece live band led by Erickson, with vocals performed by Rowan (as the lead character, Maine) and a six-person ensemble. A music performer himself, Navi says even this aspect of the show’s development has been fairly unique.

“Tess has written all of this herself, which is amazing, but it’s not the kind of thing we’ve done traditionally, where we’re like, ‘Here’s all the sheet music, here’s all the cues.’ We didn’t have that. We’ve been building outward from the songs themselves.” Navi says music director Erickson has been busy working with Tess to document and describe the music, so the singers and band know what to do.

“You know, part of this workshop process is understanding what we are capable of doing and what we really can do with the time and resources we have,” Navi acknowledges.

The performances on August 11 and 13 will be staged readings with a live band, meaning both actors and musicians will be rehearsed but “on book.” The performances also will be recorded so that Rowan and Flying V can critique and learn from their collaboration over the past year.

“Our goal is to just present [Static], film it, and put it in front of a live audience,” Navi says. “Because not enough theater gets workshopped in detail over time, right?”

As to Static’s future, that’s an open book. “Who knows?” Navi says. “Down the line, if we want to do a larger-scale production of it, I know how to find Tess.”

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes.

Static: Noise of a New Musical plays Friday, August 11, 2023, at 8 pm and Sunday, August 13, at 7 pm presented by Flying V in collaboration with Tess Rowan at Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Pay What You Want tickets (suggested donation, $15) are available online.

The venue is Metro-accessible and ADA-compliant. 

STATIC: Noise of a New Musical
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Tess Rowan

Tess Rowan
Nina Osegueda
Dan Pyuen
Shea Winpigler
Leah Ly
Graciela Rey
Liz Hoke

Emily Erickson
Ryan Buell
Aaron Gibian
Ruben Vellekoop


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