Figures march around the stage, performing a scene from the musical they’ve spent eight weeks preparing for. Tall scaffolding scattered around the stage is adorned with pieces of bicycles, horns, ladders, boxes, chains, and empty silver cylindrical tanks that look like the ones deep sea divers wear. The actors pause, ushering silence into the room; a solitary bell rings through the dimly lit auditorium, a mallet on the wall strikes a xylophone that is suspended from the balcony, and a bass drum begins to thunder rhythmically in the corner. The air is filled with a cacophony of noise, emanating from machines of all shapes and sizes. The organist plays a chord, and in the blink of an eye the room rockets to life.

This instrument is the Steam Brain, the actors are students at College of the Atlantic, and the musical is Futurity, an avant-Americana, sci-fi production written by César Alvarez and the Lisps that looks to the US Civil War to explore crucial questions of the modern age.

The cast and crew of Futurity are enrolled in Futurity: A Production Monster Course, a term-long, three-credit venture to stage the musical. The experience is a radically collaborative, learning-centered approach to musical theater that allows students to hone their skills in engaging with the world around them.

The cast and crew of the musical Futurity at College of the Atlantic The cast and crew of the musical Futurity at College of the Atlantic
Credit: Jeremy Powers ’24

“Everything feels really collective,” says Kaia Douglas ’25. “I feel like I have the space to propose ideas, not verbally necessarily, but proposing them through my actions and choices.”

COA Joanne Woodward & Paul Newman Chair in Performing Arts Jodi Baker, one of two faculty members spearheading the production, says, “I think it’s important for students to have the opportunity to practically engage with a large-scale collective creative process. In rehearsal, students are asked to resist throwing an independent idea or a ‘fix’ on the table but are instead asked to attune themselves first to the text itself, then to the present work of the group and to offer proposals through action rather than feedback or commentary.”

Although many of the final decisions are up to Baker and co-director Jonathan Henderson, COA professor of music, this level of collective engagement makes for a unique experience for all involved. The students involved in the production have truly made almost every aspect of the process their own, from costumes and choreography, to set design, musical instruction, and dramaturgy. This level of collective involvement at every stage of the process has allowed the musical to unfold in a beautifully organic way, Isaiah Osborn ’24 says.

“Everything feels really collective. I feel like I have the space to propose ideas… through my actions and choices.” Kaia Douglas ’25

“The ensemble kind of has like team captains who are in charge of different parts of the production,” says Osborn, tinkering with a brass set piece, trying to thread an electrical wire through its center. “A lot of it comes down to us, everyone has a say in the decisions.”

The musical is set in the Civil War-era United States, following the 34th Ohio Infantry Regiment, Union soldier Julian Monroe, and mathematician Ada Lovelace. Thematically, the musical is science fiction in nature, and explores questions of utopia, the struggle against slavery and oppression, and all-too-relevant questions around humans’ relationships with intelligent machines.

“It’s a play about utopian yearning and its limits,” Henderson says. “It’s about the intimacy between humans and technology.”

Elena Brotz ’24 and Pigeon Voigt ’24 are the lead costume designers for the production. Each outfit is customized to the person wearing it, with a lot of thought going into the design process to account for both the needs of the characters and the needs of the actors, they say.

“We didn’t want to just buy coveralls and put people in them, we wanted to personalize them and make them have more character,” Brotz says. “We held design meetings, and then I drew up some preliminary sketches of people’s coveralls, altered to be more personal to them, and also to be distressed and repaired, because we wanted to show work in this show.”

When asked what they’ve most taken into consideration when designing the coveralls, Voigt replies that, “I consider clothes that they’ve been wearing every day, some people have really specific styles, so I consider their personalities.” Brotz adds, “The personality of the actor is shining through more, but there are some things we’ve considered for their characters as well. For the General and the Sergeant, we’ve tried to incorporate slightly more militaristic elements for them, to reflect that they are higher ups in the army regiment. But after that, it’s mostly for who they are as a person and actor.”

“I think what has been really fun is seeing everyone find their own movement vocabulary and trying to introduce that in the choreography,” says Margit Hardi ’24, the point person for the movement and choreography of the show.

“I was using a lot of imagery from war photographers and war photos,” she says. “There were a few photographs that I found that I was really struck by, so I tried to introduce some of these themes in the choreographies.” She says she took a lot of inspiration from Gerda Taro, a German war photographer during the Spanish Civil War who is widely considered to be the first woman photojournalist to have died on the frontline of a war.

“It’s been wonderful to inhabit this role through movement, rhythm, and song.” Simone E Le Page ’23

In implementing some of these themes, Hardi found that sometimes, less choreography is key. “I think there’s some ways in which moving or not moving allows for words to really be emphasized,” she says. “I like having less choreography, sometimes, because it allows for those words to exist and that meaning to exist. Sometimes it’s the other way around, we have lots of movement, but few words.”

Hardi also gives credit to her family. “I have two older sisters and they are great singers and dancers,” she says. “I think sometimes, when I’m singing and on stage, I really think about them, and how the first time I did something like this was just at home on our living room table with my sisters.”

In charge of directing the vocal music aspect of the show are Kaia Douglas ’25 and Hanako Moulton ’25. As she knits a sock, Douglas explains that, “For the first, I’d say three weeks, we were working really hard to figure out all the harmonies in all the songs ourselves, and then teach them to the cast. It was so fun, really challenging. I’ve done a lot of singing before, but I’ve never been the person teaching the singing.”

The cast of Futurity cast warms up during rehearsals in COA's Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Community ... The cast of Futurity cast warms up during rehearsals in COA's Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Community Center, where the production will be staged.
Credit: Jeremy Powers ’24

Her take on the role of her character, the Sergeant, speaks to the collaborative nature of the production. “The Sergeant’s role is a lot about keeping time and order in the play. So I don’t have a lot of lines that give a lot of substance or hints about emotion; basically my role is giving the military barks. Queuing, light cues, that kind of stuff. So my approach feels less character driven, and more tailored to the needs of the play,” Douglas says. “It’s hard because I’m not a militaristic person. But I think also what helped is some parallels in my life.”

She cites her experience moderating COA’s weekly All College Meeting as helping her in the process. “One thing I thought about was the way I open ACM and the way I moderate the meeting and, when there’s always that moment where people are talking, how I call attention and hold the room,” she says.

When asked how she likes being part of a monster course, her eyes light up. “It’s so good. Everything should be a monster course,” she says, laughing.

One of the lead players in the story is Ada Lovelace, who is played by Moulton. In real life, Ada Lovelace was a brilliant English mathematician, widely considered to be the first computer programmer, thanks to her work on early computers in the 19th century. The Ada Lovelace in the musical straddles the line between historical and fantastical, with Moulton saying that Ada is almost like a mythologized version of the historical Ada. “I think her role is to really hold witness for all of the tragedy that is happening, and the only way she can do anything about it is through working on the steam brain with Julian,” she says.

Simone E Le Page ’23 plays Julian Monroe, Ada Lovelace’s counterpart in the musical. He’s a Union soldier, and although he doesn’t have any historical basis, Le Page says that the character “is trying to fix humanity’s cruelty while reckoning with his duty as a soldier.”

“It’s been wonderful to inhabit this role through movement, rhythm, and song,” Le Page says. “The ensemble has been singing these songs every day for weeks, and there’s something to be said about how our bodies remember. It’s a joy to train in such a way that strongly emphasizes process. Repetition is key.”

As for how the two characters interact, Moulton says, “​​Their relationship is, I think, at the core of the show. Neither of them can really attempt to do what they’re trying to do without each other.”

Supporting roles
The story centers on the 34th Ohio Regiment, headed by the Sergeant and the General, played by Douglas and Ninoska Ngomana ’23, respectively.

“The script explicitly requires a Black person to portray the General,” Ngomana says. The meat of the musical surrounds the civil war, and it is through the General and her regiment that themes of slavery and prejudice are addressed. “There are parts of where I sort of understand that the general is very critical about the war, in a sense that they don’t really believe that the war is the way to go to achieve social change or to abolish the enslavement and racialization of Black people in the United States.”

A hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind instrument that is part of the Steam Brain, the musical sculpture a... A hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind instrument that is part of the Steam Brain, the musical sculpture at the heart of Futurity.
Credit: Jeremy Powers ’24

The process has allowed her to grow as a person and actor, she 
says, and she’s learned a lot about navigating the emotional wherewithal needed to fully communicate the message of her character.

“I think I have a hard time expressing my emotions to more than three people at once,” she laughs. “This character has almost forced me to reckon with that. It’s super emotional and for a long time I censored myself. I ensured that I did not cry ever on stage and that I just stayed very stoic. I knew that that was not a way to go, but now I feel like I sort of let my guard down… I just needed to be honest with myself.”

Much of the process of designing and implementing the set fell to Halei Trowbridge ’23. She says that a lot of the inspiration for the design of the set came from the dramaturgs, who held weekly presentations for the cast. Designing the set involved lots of sketching and brainstorming, but to make the final vision come to life everyone played a part.

“I feel that a lot of it came from experimentation, and the collective constructing and deconstructing and playing around and going for it that came from everyone involved,” she says.

To construct the set, materials were sourced from the school’s campus and the broader community. “We tried to source as much as we could from campus, because we wanted it to be connected to this place,” she says.

“I think just the work, you know, just the repetition work as we’re doing set design is really impactful,” Osborn says. “I didn’t realize how intense the process was. It just makes me appreciate the work that people put into this kind of stuff.”

The Steam Brain
At the core of the story lies the Steam Brain, the brainchild of Ada Lovelace and Julian Monroe, meant to usher in a new age of peace for humanity. The machine has a commanding presence in the work, and as part of the set, it’s an impressive feat of engineering and art.

Isaiah Osborn '24 at the control panel of the Steam Brain, the thinking machine i... Isaiah Osborn '24 at the control panel of the Steam Brain, the "thinking machine" integral to the Futurity musical production.
Credit: Jeremy Powers ’24

The Steam Brain came out of a collaboration with North Carolina-based artist Mark Dixon, who specializes in creating complex electroacoustic sculptures that challenge the way people interact with sound.

“I spent a lot of time in my life making sculptures. And the difference is that with a traditional sculpture, you know, it has a life of its own, but I don’t know much about it. Most of the time, I’m not there to witness the interactions that are going on,” he says. “Making these objects, these auditory sculptures if you will, just gives me a different relationship with how those objects interact with the world, a sort of live response. It’s truly fun for me as an artist.”

Osborn, who is in charge of playing the Steam Brain, says, “It’s been really interesting to work with 20 different instruments, give or take. I have to think about where in the room they are, and it’s also a spinning wheel, so if I want to change anything while it’s going, I have to think about it way before. It’s been really cool just to explore things like polyrhythms with it.”

“I’m excited to see how the dynamics change… and how the audience responds to our actions.” Ninoska Ngomana ’23

A lot of the practice surrounding Futurity involves “situating the text in its cultural, aesthetic, and historical contexts,” says Anna Parsons ’23, one of the dramaturgs. “And that’s not just the Civil War, not just Ada Lovelace, but what kind of movements it’s coming out of and coming into, and how we are performing this work with our bodies, and how that shapes the work as well.” 

The dramaturgy team is three strong, including Ngomana and Tanvi Ravi Koushik ’23.

The pit band consists of an additional eight student musicians, who, while somewhat separate from the cast, have an equally important role in bringing the story to life.

“I’ve sort of had to restructure my approach to the way that I’m playing the drums because so much of it is not beat based,” says musician Adrian Lyne ’23. “I have things that are recurring in a pattern, but it’s not like I’m just keeping time on the hi-hat, you know? I’m all over the drum set doing weird, different rhythmical things. So that has definitely been a difference for me, and it’s been a little bit of a challenge just trying to get used to that.”

Radical collectivism
The collaborative nature of the production doesn’t end with the cast. The staging and design allow the audience a more intimate connection to the work, Hardi says.

“The way we interact with the audience is by gathering around them a lot and using the space,” she says. “I feel like it’s holding the audience more than interacting with the audience; a lot of it is about holding the audience in the space.”

Ngomana adds, “I’m excited to see how the dynamics change depending on who comes, and how the audience responds to our actions.”

Harkening to a line in one of the songs, Douglas says, “it’s kind of like we’re a machine, and I’m a cog in the machine, so it’s like, ‘What can Kaia do to make this moment really stand out?’”