Rain City Rollers

A musical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in a women’s roller derby circa 1936. Co-written by Nikki Appino, David Russell and Kevin Joyce, music and lyrics by David Russell and Kevin Joyce.

The skirts are on skates in this original musical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Relive their tragic love story set in a roller derby marathon on the eve of World War II. This musical extravaganza, complete with ten girl skaters and a three-piece swing band, was performed on a track circling the audience at the Sand Point Naval Base.

Rain City Rollers is a musical love story about cursed angels, skater’s hopes, and America’s broken dreams. The tale begins when two fallen angels arrive in a 1936 roller derby marathon and must make two mortals fall in love in order to break a curse that locks them in time. They are hired by two ambitious promoters to audition a group of women who will become roller skaters in the first Transcontinental Roller Derby Marathon. Poisonous vipers, mistaken identity, and a trip to the underworld are all obstacles in this race against time.

Rain City Rollers was developed in a four-workshop process, over fourteen months, that began March 1999. Following the success of the workshop at the ASK Festival in Los Angeles, Rain City Rollers opened in Seattle in Summer 2000 and enjoyed a mightily successful run.

The History of Roller Derby

The Transcontinental Roller Derby was first invented by promoter Leo Seltzer amidst the record-breaking craze of post-Depression America. On August 13, 1935, twenty-thousand Chicagoans witnessed 100 skaters begin their 3,000-mile journey around and around the track. The distance between San Diego and New York City, on skates! Over a forty-one days later, two lone skaters finally won the first derby.

By 1938, this marathon event, fashioned after the dance marathons of the 1920’s, had changed into a sporting event. Under the influence of sportswriter Damon Runyon, who witnessed several skaters accidentally crash into each other, Seltzer revised the rules. He created two teams and added more ‘body contact’ between the skaters. Audiences were captivated by this new sport, which hundreds of thousands witnessed as it traveled from small town to big cities across America.

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Reviews

A Musical on Skates Spins Myths at Sand Point

by Tonia Steed
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
June 15, 2000

THE SET LOOMS up into the rafters of the Sand Point airplane hangar, cascading to the right and left into two elegantly curved staircases. It’s a Hollywood museum piece from Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935; that glamorous “stair-way-to-heaven” backdrop is American show business.

But then, so is the decidedly earthbound action on the floor. Eight women in short skirts and kneepads roller-skate around a grimy track, sweating, spent, hawking Burma Shave for the sponsors and digging for a golden 2,000 bucks in prize money. Unlike Busby Berkeley’s drill teams of sequined beauties, these women are messy and three-dimensional. They come with names like Rosie, Babs, and Flowers. They’ve fallen from desperate blue-collar backgrounds into even more desperate economic times, and the roller derby is their big ticket out.

The scene’s split personality is the ace in writer-director Nikki Appino’s stylish hand. Although tethered to a plotline based on the tragic–and aged–Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Rain City Rollers, the latest House of Dames production, borrows its make-up and its metaphors from more modern sources. This original musical is set in 1936 at the halfway point of the Great Depression, when the prosperity of the ’20s was a distant memory and economic recovery was a distant dream. To combat the kind of aimless despair of the period, new forms of escapist entertainment elbowed their way into popular culture. One of these was the big movie musical. Another was the marathon, or “derby.” In the mid-’30s, Americans could go straight from the bread line to the ticket line to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers whirl around on gleaming ballroom floors and the decks of opulent ocean liners in films like Swing Time and Shall We Dance.

Others danced themselves–for prize money. On the heels of the pie-eating, flagpole-sitting, record-breaking crazes of the 1920s came the popular six-day bike races and dance marathons of the 1930s. Prizes awarded to winning couples in the dance marathons were set between $1,000 and $5,000–a fortune to the mostly unemployed, working-class participants. These endurance contests also offered contestants temporary food and shelter in addition to a chance at fortune and fame. Some competitors danced (or dragged themselves) around the floor for weeks at a time until they collapsed. A couple of contestants actually died. Audiences in need of escape from their own exhaustion showed up in droves to witness these pageants of exhaustion. In many ways, the marathons mirrored the Depression-era experience; their popularity was a sure thing.

Leo Seltzer liked those odds. Half visionary, half huckster, the former film publicist saw an opportunity to line his pockets by combining the biking and roller-skating crazes with the dance derby trend, and came up with roller derby. The goal of Seltzer’s contest was to complete approximately 60,000 laps–the distance between New York and L.A.–around a banked oval track. During its opening week in 1935, Leo Seltzer’s Transcontinental Roller Derby drew 20,000 spectators. Seltzer was soon traveling the country with his portable track, charging 10 to 25 cents for admission.

It wasn’t until he hooked up with sportswriter Damon Runyon (author of Guys and Dolls), however, did roller derby hit it big. Runyon helped Seltzer reshape the derby, changing the rules to allow for elbowing, slamming, pummeling, and other types of violence on the track. To enhance the drama, emcees and various forms of entertainment were added, including musical acts and staged fights. For female participants in particular, the roller derby became a sanctioned place to drop the sweetness ‘n’ light, and let off some real steam. Crowds loved it.

The aggressive theatricality of the roller derby tradition is an obvious attraction for Nikki Appino, who doesn’t shy away from noisy, large-scale spectacle. And although she’s set Rain City Rollers in 1936, her timing couldn’t be better. Just last year, in the interests of cash and retro kitsch, Leo Seltzer’s son Jerry brought back the roller derby in the form of TNN’s Roller Jam. The derby’s a lot faster now, but the same old-school mix of sex and freewheeling female aggression draws skaters and audiences. “In other sports, you can’t grab someone around the throat,” noted pro “jammer” Lindsey Francis. “Here, you can. It’s like an emotional outlet.” This kind of material is ripe for a big musical production, but one with more grit than, say, Broadway’s pallid attempt years ago with The Rink. Appino faced challenges in anchoring the energy and drama of the derby with the hungry times in which it was born. At the same time, she needed to tell a story, and landed on the Orpheus and Eurydice tale as a useful foundation for structuring a drama in which love competes with fate in a life-or-death contest.

With the aid of dramaturg Mame Hunt and the Rain City Rollers ensemble, Appino conducted extensive research on the derby and Depression-era pop culture, and went to work creating a new version of the Transcontinental Roller Derby. “I cast a group of performers often with an idea/theme only,” Nikki told me. “The development process is about shaping the themes and the emerging story to the group of performers in front of me. After time and workshops, other needs occur (ringer skaters, singers, [choreographer Wade Madsen]) …by the organic process of development.” Through this months-long workshop process involving research, improvisation, and detailed character work, the Rain City Rollers have built a distinctly American show over some classic themes: cursed love, fatal intervention, redemption via tragedy, triumph over adversity.

The most exciting thing about Rain City Rollers is that–despite this complex mix of influences–the production’s success relies utterly on a simple, old-fashioned concept: There’s drama in contrasts. For a stylist like Appino, spotting those contrasts and incorporating them into her staging seems almost second nature. Historical characters mix with fictional ones, divine characters with humans. Rain City Rollers bears other Appino trademarks, including a feminist undertow and gender-blind casting (Leo Seltzer and Damon Runyon are played by Sara Harlett and Susanna Burney, respectively). The music for the show, composed and written by David Russell with Kevin Joyce, skirts the uptown musical and slides into downtown music hall in the span of a number. And then there’s that set. The possibilities for a fascinating double-play of rough-edged, work- ing-class entertainment and cheerful, champagne-soaked movie spectacle are all there: I’m banking on the Rollers to pull it off.

The wheel deal: House of Dames’ new production is big, fast fun

by John Longenbaugh
Seattle Weekly Theater Review
June 8, 2000

IF DIRECTOR NIKKI Appino should ever decide to abandon the theater, she could make a lot of money coordinating–and subverting–such Dome-sized spectacles as monster-truck rallies, rock concerts, and wrestling matches. If you doubt me, you haven’t seen Rain City Rollers.

Staged in a converted hangar at Sand Point, this spectacle retells the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the setting of a 1936 marathon roller derby. The style is roughly that of a 1930s backstage musical, one that’s been channeled through the peculiar talents of Appino and her cocollaborators, musician-writer David Russell and actor-musician-writer Kevin Joyce. The end result is as much a deconstruction of popular entertainment as a celebration of it, with the musical numbers a collection of foggy jazzy pieces, the acting part sentimental cornball and part neorealism, and the overall effect a seditious evening that sends shivers down your vertebrae at the same time it puts a smile on your face.

Kevin Joyce as the Promoter (a reincarnated Orpheus) has a role that’s tailor-made to him, one that allows both his particular sort of sweet and subtle emotion and his bitter and dark hard-edged salesman. Marjorie Nelson as his resurrected love (they age at different rates, you see) is sweet and sprightly, but with a forbidding gravity that eventually emerges. They’re joined by a cast that comprises the strongest group of female performers assembled on a Seattle stage in many a turn ’round the rink’.

The big question, of course, is whether the outrageous combination of 1930s roller derby thrills and ancient Orpheus myth can justify itself through an elegant and satisfying conclusion, and the answer is–not quite. Indeed, it’s hard to say what exactly happens at the end of Rollers; whether the myth is changed by this reincarnation or if it inevitably repeats itself. Instead of resolution, there’s an emotional shift that leaves a dangling narrative and a vague feeling of anticlimax. Although the ending is no photo-finish, the play is a thrilling ride.

Skate, Rattle and Roll

by Misha Berson
Seattle Times Theater Review
June 2, 2000

Once upon a time, women roller-derby queens were superstars – athletes, entertainers and sex symbols on wheels, racing and feuding before crowds of boisterous fans.

But somewhere along the line they were supplanted by other populist American sports figures – from skateboarders to pro wrestlers. And by 1973, when Raquel Welch starred in the schlock flick “Kansas City Bomber,” roller derby was all but kaput.

In American pop culture, however, what skates around tends to come around. And female roller bladistas are making a comeback.

There’s “Rollerjam,” a new roller-derby show airing on The Nashville Network, which aims to captivate the same crowd enamored with “WWF Wrestling.”

There’s also a new wave of interest in the hardy gals who helped popularize roller derby in earlier times.

One project under way is “Demon of the Derby,” a documentary film by Elizabeth Pike, about skating queen Ann Calvello, now 70, whose scrappy attitude and fierce elbow-throwing won her a reputation as “the baddest bad girl of the derby.”

Meanwhile, in Seattle, the House of Dames theater company is ready to evoke the world of derby gals – the ones who participated in marathon skating contests during the Great Depression.

The Dames’ atmospheric new production, “Rain City Rollers,” opens tonight inside a cavernous former Sand Point airplane hangar, converted into a theatrical roller rink with bleacher seating.

And will the actresses recruited by risk-taking Seattle director Nikki Appino be whizzing by the audience on skates?

Yes indeedy, promises Appino.

“We have eight women in the marathon, and they all have to act, sing, dance and skate,” she says. “There was a group who were pretty proficient skaters to start with, and a group who worked very hard to get up to speed.”

How the show got rolling

Appino hatched the idea of doing a skating show two years ago, after reading a tribute to one of roller derby’s biggest stars, “the blonde bombshell” Joanie Weston. Weston hit her skating prime in the 1950s and ’60s, and died in 1996.

But when Appino and her House of Dames compatriots started assembling their own production, they eschewed a documentary approach and took a lot of creative and geographical license.

For one thing, “Rain City Rollers” is about a fictional event: a 1936 skating marathon in Seattle that never really happened.

And the rink-side romance in the script co-written by Appino, Kevin Joyce and David Russell is entwined with the resonant ancient myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice.”

“Often the story structures of my shows are contextualized in ancient myth, because those myths are some of the greatest stories ever written,” says Appino, whose well-received piece “Sub Rosa” was also an offbeat take on a classical legend.

Another twist in “Rain City Rollers” is that it’s a full-blown musical, with a live swing combo, an original score by Joyce and Russell, and blade-running choreography by Wade Madsen.

And even though the 1960s and ’70s are trendier eras to recycle these days, Appino chose to stake her show in the 1930s.

The first big public roller derby did, in fact, occur in 1935. It was produced in Chicago by Ira Seltzer, who staged that and later skateathons as distance and endurance races with no physical contact allowed.

“They were like the marathon dance contests of the period, which also fascinate me,” says Appino. “People skated around and around and around, clocking 3,000 miles in 42 days for prize money.

“I’m really interested in America during that period. It was when there were all these record-breaking crazes – flagpole sitting, pie eating, all that nutty stuff.”

After a few years, Seltzer let shoving and elbowing become part of the derbies, because the crowds loved the mayhem. And by 1948, there were roller teams in numerous cities, and the sport had enough mass appeal to be broadcast on national television.

Setting the stage

In her own really big show, Appino promises nostalgic music, along with a few modern kinks – including some gender-bending.

“I want this to be a spectacle with content,” she says. “The first act is song and dance, all ’30s-golly-gee. Act 2 is more of a Studs Terkel hard-times thing.”

But the most novel feature of “Rain City Rollers” will be its physical setting: a 40,000-square-foot structure that Appino and designer Jeffrey Cook spent weeks transforming into a theater with bleacher space for 170 spectators (you can rent cushions, or bring some) and an oval-shaped wooden track that gets a lot of use in the show’s second half, when the marathon gets going.

Appino knows her way around the former air base-turned-urban park at Sand Point. In 1997, she and designer Dan Corson concocted the eye-popping performance piece “Djinn” in a hangar there.

“The scope of these buildings is very challenging,” Appino says. “But working at Sand Point allows the incredible luxury of building a show around you from scratch. It’s a very organic process that fosters creativity. Where else in Seattle could we do something like this?”

It hasn’t all been a glide in the park, though. House of Dames had to raise $125,000 to fund the production. And Appino staged three workshops of it (two here, one in Los Angeles), and held six weeks of rehearsals at Sand Point. Technically, she admits, the project is a bear.

“Someday,” sighs Appino, “I’ll do something in a traditional theater.” But this summer, she’s bringing us gals on skates.