Joel Kirk, 2015 Ball State alumnus, received a phone call Jan. 25 from three-time Tony Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum, who has produced original and adaptations of musicals such as “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “Six,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and ‘The Notebook.”
“He is an incredible producer — he calls me, and I think he's called the wrong number,” Kirk recalled.
McCollum told Kirk that, in 17 days, he wanted to bring the creative team of the upcoming Broadway musical adaption of “The Devil Wears Prada” to Indiana. McCollum wanted the team to take part in a writers’ retreat Kirk offers as part of his nonprofit organization, Discovering Broadway, which gives Indiana residents a chance to look at Broadway-bound plays and musicals in development.
“Can we do that?” Kirk recalled McCollum asking him.
“Absolutely,” Kirk responded without hesitation.
Discovering Broadway will host an in-person masterclass 9-11 a.m. April 17 with Samantha Pauly, who is most-widely known for her role of Katherine Howard in the Broadway musical “Six.” Pauly will teach a pop-rock vocal class and a “Six” dance routine class. Enrollment for the masterclass is $150 and located on Discovering Broadway’s website.
From Feb. 6-13, “The Devil Wears Prada’s” creative team met with Kirk at the Hotel Carmichael in Carmel, Indiana, to begin their writing retreat with Discovering Broadway. The writers’ retreat gives creative teams an opportunity to get to know each other and understand each other’s artistic and personal vocabulary, Kirk said.
“When you spend a week with people, you really get to know them, you really get to learn about their tastes — what food they eat, how they behave, if they're a morning person or a night owl,” Kirk said. “That creates alchemy in collaboration … [The writers and producers of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’] are all at the pinnacle of their career, so when you get six heavy hitters in a room together, it's electric.”
Kirk came up with the idea of Discovering Broadway in 2018. Frank Basile, a not-for-profit community leader and philanthropist, and Kirk began working together on Kirk’s idea in August 2018 after a meeting at Basile’s office — the Panera Bread on 82nd Street near Dean Road.
“In July 2018, I received an email from Joanna Taft, who is a good friend and executive director of the Harrison Center, asking me to meet with Joel about an idea he had,” Basile said. “[The idea] turned out to be [Discovering Broadway].”
After some reluctance and hesitation, Basile said, he decided to follow up with Kirk and agree to work with him on establishing Discovering Broadway. Three years later, Basile holds the title of chair of the company’s advisory board.
“[Kirk’s] perseverance is one of his traits that impressed me,” Basile said. “Any time I meet with Joel, I come away excited about whatever he is doing or talking about. His enthusiasm is truly contagious.”
This enthusiasm helped Kirk make his dream of working with the creative team of “The Devil Wears Prada” a reality this past February, an experience he described as “surreal.”
The project allowed Kirk opportunities to work with James Alsop, who has choreographed for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, and Anna Shapiro, a Tony Award-winning director who has worked with Chris Rock and Larry David.
“[I also got to] Zoom in with Elton John and David Furnish. It was unbelievable,” Kirk said. “I just felt so grateful and so lucky.”
During a writers’ retreat, while a developing musical’s creative team merges minds, collaborates on ideas and builds relationships, Kirk and other Discovering Broadway members make sure these producers have everything they need to “thrive as artists in this space,” Kirk said. For example, Kirk will get producers a whiteboard so they can write out the entire order of a show to visualize it chronologically, or he will grab producers’ dinner because they may not have the time to decide what they want to eat that night.
“The cabaret space where we did the presentation [for ‘The Devil Wears Prada’] — I walk in [there] one day, and [McCollum] is playing the piano,” Kirk said. “I had no idea that Kevin McCollum could play the piano. It was this unbelievable moment where I’m in my hometown, a couple miles away from where I grew up, and I’m walking into a cabaret, and a three-time Tony Award-winning producer is playing the piano. It’s just hilarious. It's part of the day-to-day realities of this joyful job.”
At Discovering Broadway, the staff is insistent on following CDC guidelines to ensure the creative team and performers’ safety. Everyone involved in the retreats, presentations and master classes wore masks and socially distanced.
“We've earned the trust of the community members who are willing to come out and put their faith in us,” Kirk said. “We take it seriously because we take our neighbors’ health seriously.
While the creative process of planning and developing a show is inspiring, Kirk said, it also moves at a quick pace. After the writers' retreat, performers had just hours to practice before debuting “The Devil Wears Prada” Feb. 15, which was many of the performers’ first time on a stage since the start of the pandemic.
“[The performers] haven't performed in front of people, they haven’t seen people's reactions, they haven't shared that energy and oxygen,” Kirk said. “It was just totally, totally surreal. It blew your mind that we were able to do this without ever wondering if it was safe or not.”
While the pandemic is still at the forefront of day-to-day life for those in the theater industry, Kirk said, he has set goals for Discovering Broadway to accomplish by the end of 2021 in addition to its debuting of “The Devil Wears Prada.” Kirk’s original goal was to debut one show and hold one master class a year, but his team is currently working on two other shows to debut in the early summer and late winter.
“People witness the transformation of a show before their eyes,” Kirk said. “It’s thrilling because you feel on the journey, and you are on the journey. In many ways, people left understanding how musicals are written and with a deeper appreciation for them.
“They got to say they heard the music first before the show opens on Broadway and in Chicago. That exclusivity and being treated to a special sharing is really what money can’t buy in this life … Discovering Broadway is fortunate that we’ve created and opened the door that wouldn’t exist otherwise if we didn’t exist.”
Taylor Smith also contributed to this story.
Contact Kamryn Tomlinson with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter @peachykam.