Written by Micah C. Beachy
Below is an interview with Storming Heaven: The Musical creators Katie Blake & Peter Davenport
Interviewer: How did you all get started with Storming Heaven: The Musical?
Katie Blake: I’ll take that one. I had been working with some country singers/songwriters with Flip and Tracy and wanted to write a musical. Peter and I had met each other a couple of years before that and had worked together in a terrible off-Broadway show, but he and I became friends and we talked about writing together at some point. I grew up in Danville, Virginia so I knew about West Virginia and coal mining and the plight of the coal miners was a subject that always interested me. So when I decided I wanted to embark on writing a musical, I tried to find something to write it about and I knew I wanted it to be about coal mining, I wanted to use that Appalachian style of music. Because I was working with country music songwriters already it was a natural fit. Peter and I had discussed working together on something and I found Denise’s (Denise Giardina) book. A family friend recommended the book to me, Storming Heaven— and I just showed it to Peter and asked if this is something you would be interested in doing and we both were immediately like YES! this is a piece we want to develop, the book sings to us and we could just see it in our mind’s eye. That’s really how it all started.
Interviewer: How long did the developmental process take for this project?
Katie: Are we done yet, Peter?
Peter: No we’re not, but it’s been about seven years. 2019 was the production and we had a reading in 2017. That was three years ago now, so it took us a good three to four years to get it to a place where we could have professional actors, a director, and do a proper reading of it. Then from there, we went to the New York Musical Festival, and then we did another reading with West Virginia and they invited us to do the world premiere of the production.
Interviewer: What was that moment like bringing it to West Virginia Public Theatre and seeing all the work come to fruition?
Katie: We kept pinching each other. Like is this real? Is this real? We created this, we have actors and we have a whole set being built for us, we have designers. It was just thrilling.
Peter: So thrilling. It just seemed like the musical was coming home because it is about the lives of the people of West Virginia which was Denise Giardina’s original book and story. Also, we had the pleasure and opportunity of working with your PhD in Early Mountain Music when we came to do our reading, Travis Stimeling. We had a chance to work with him and that alone was such an extreme pleasure…well pleasure isn’t the right word, it’s not even pinch me it’s just we were all in it. Tracy, Flip, Katie and I and our music director, Emily Otto and Jerry. It was just this amazing confluence of creativity and history. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
Katie: When we did the reading in West Virginia in January of 2019 I felt like we made this huge leap forward. When we worked with Travis Stimeling, it was just a leap forward to bring it back to West Virginia. To hear it listened to and worked on by people that knew this history so well.
Peter: And people who knew the book. I mean we played to standing room only audiences for our reading and Denise was there and she gave a lovely talk back. She’s quite a personality of note for West Virginia to begin with and it was such a pleasure to see and experience an audience of people who not only are of that culture and from that culture but also were fans of the original source material upon which we based our musical. To have them give us the thumbs up that what we had done was really in-line in keeping with the original work, which often doesn’t happen that way.
Interviewer: Amazing. So tell me what is happening with Storming Heaven now. In a Covid world, how are you both navigating that?
Katie: Well before Covid hit, I guess it was February we were meeting with a number of different people. Some off-Broadway producers, some publishers, and some regional theatres that we were having conversations with as well. We were on track to continue developing the story. Peter and I learned so much doing it as a full production for West Virginia Public Theatre and we knew where we needed to take it next as far as the storyline goes and the development of it. We were on track to keep going forward (before Covid).
Peter: It also gave us a lot of insight. I just want to interject and piggyback on what Katie was saying. Seeing it in its full production also gave us a lot of insight into what kind of show it is and what kind of house is the appropriate house for it to be playing in. We’re still convinced that it can viably be Broadway-bound but after meeting with an off-Broadway artistic director and speaking to some regional theatres we also started to think about the next steps and who would be appropriate to take on the next production, because we don’t want to flatline, were not interested in another small contained production. We want to continue to grow it and one of the things that Katie and I were discussing with our music guys, Flip and Tracy—of course before covid hit—was the potential of doing an album of the music to garner some more visibility for the show. Certainly for the music and the songs as well to get the hype going so that as we enter our next development phase, we still intend on doing all of this, right Katie?
Katie: Oh yeah
Peter: Getting some country music people on board to sing our songs. It’s just we live in a world now where you just can’t create in a vacuum. So social media as you know well Micah is a really great vessel for spreading the word. Many different things, both good and bad but for us, it will be a good thing.
Interviewer: Last thing, I know your article is going to be featured in the Southern Theatre Magazine. What can we expect to see from that?
Katie: Were adding it to our repertoire of press. It’s fantastic press for us and the theatre. It also adds legitimacy to what Jerry is doing with WVPT and it adds legitimacy to our vision of what we want the show to be. I mean the nice thing is we’re not stopping the development of this show and this show will always be intimately tied to WVPT which is a great thing for us and the theatre. We are just thrilled that we got the opportunity to develop it there and were thrilled that the opportunity is still allowing us to grow and the theatre company to grow as well.
Peter: Yeah, one of the things about the article. Katie correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t remember there being a mention of Jerry taking this on as the first in his program of developing new works.
Katie: Yeah I don’t remember seeing that.
Peter: So just to add to the article, we feel very privileged and honored to be part of the gesticulation period and then the birthing of this first baby for the West Virginia Public Theatre.
Interviewer: For anyone who wants to follow along on your journey, where and how can they find you?
Katie: It’s www.stormingheaventhemusical.com. Instagram is @stormingheaventhemusical We have a Facebook page as well under the same name.
The Southern Theatre, Vol. 61, Issue 4 is now available online here.
For updates on all things happening at WV Public Theatre, follow us on social media platforms @wvpublictheatre.