Magic to Do: Ashley Butler on directing Pippin

Magic to Do: Ashley Butler on directing Pippin

Life is full of patterns–mysterious twists and turns that often don’t make sense until we look back at where we have been. Ashley Butler, the director of Auburn University Theatre and Dance’s upcoming musical, Pippin, is one example of how life sometimes leads us back to places previously traveled. Pippin is Butler’s first directed musical at Auburn on the Telfair Peet mainstage–a stage she herself traversed as an Auburn theatre student in her college days.

Pippin's Cast with Director Ashley Butler
Pippin's Cast with Director Ashley Butler

 

We asked Butler to voice her perspective on her vision, the show itself, and her journey from student to professor.

 

            One of the very first things we asked Butler was: why this show now? She first and foremost stated that she wanted a show that would fit in with the “& Dance” season theme. She writes: “I was looking to identify a musical that would truly celebrate and showcase dance.” Pippin is a large dance, set, and people-heavy show that as Butler says, “affords many casting opportunities for our students as well as great opportunities for our design/tech students to shine.” Butler also expressed her wish for a less contemporary classic musical–and with Pippin being 50 years old, it seemed like the perfect fit.

            Butler mentioned Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics while he was still in college, making Pippin a perfect production for a college stage. Directing on the department’s mainstage is a special thing for Butler. She writes: “Directing on the Telfair Peet Theatre stage has been a dream of mine since I was a student here some 30+ years ago.” When she started as a professor with Auburn Theatre, Butler was slated to have two opportunities to direct that were, unfortunately, affected by the pandemic. Since then, she has had the opportunity to direct a staged reading of A Doll’s House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, as well as Love Letters, in which she even directed her former professor. Pippin is her biggest show yet, and she shares: “with Pippin, I’ve been entrusted the opportunity and been granted agency to direct a really BIG show with lots more moving parts and special challenges. With this big opportunity comes a responsibility to see things through in a professional, collaborative, and artistically sound way, and I take that very seriously.” This is also a moment of recognition for Butler. She sees her work as a way to honor her time as a student, her mentors and inspirations, and the current department faculty, staff, and students. 

            Having been a student at Auburn Theatre, Butler has a unique perspective when it comes to teaching as well as directing. Of her time at Auburn, she reflects that the connections and lessons she learned directly affected the trajectory of her life. “I learned from incredible mentors and made lifelong friends at Auburn,” she adds, “...my time as a theatre major at Auburn will always hold a significant and special place in my heart.” As a director now, Butler remembers what it was like to be in the cast’s shoes. She empathizes with the many responsibilities students face, while still balancing their needs with the demands of the production. She also loves experiencing the joy of the students: “I get to anticipate and feel the thrill that I know the students are experiencing with each new level the show reaches…in the early music rehearsals for Pippin, I could see smiles of wonder on some of the new students as they heard themselves in the mix of many gorgeous voices.” 

            We asked Butler if she had any nuggets of wisdom for college theatre students–and she provided! She writes that students should advocate for themselves and be open to all possibilities and opportunities, tackling all with a positive attitude. She also says that students should treat their fellow collaborators with respect. “Be kind. Be humble. Remember, your reputation precedes you.” Butler encourages students to create their own work, a nod to Stephen Schwartz’s own creativity in his college career. She lists Stephen Schwartz, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Pasek & Paul as industry giants who began writing in college. Speaking directly to current students, Butler says: “You don’t have to wait for permission or some rite of passage to become an artist – you are an artist now! Go make theatre!”

            Finally, we asked Butler about her vision for the piece and why audiences should come see it. She says that Pippin itself is comical, smart, and magical. This story is not a classical musical theatre show. It is a high-concept, witty story that takes audiences on a journey through the life of one young man. Pippin is also a play within a play; and the mysterious players, as well as the young man who plays Pippin, are never named. This leaves Butler with lots of room to reimagine and play around with the concept. The show also celebrates the magic of theatre. Magic and the supernatural are often linked to theatre, a concept that both the original Pippin and Butler’s version explore. “Theatre is steeped in superstition; most theatres have a resident ghost or two.” She describes the ritual of theatres leaving a “ghost-light” out on stage at night to appease any ghosts that might be drifting through the halls. This idea of theatre ghosts lingers in her own vision for the show in many ways:

“Theatre itself is ephemeral–it’s there and then gone just as quickly, but I believe that every person who passes through a theatrical space potentially leaves a bit of their essence behind that lasts eternally. In this sense, the “ghost” of every person who has created theatre onstage or backstage is still here. There is a “ghost” of my former student self here. There are “ghosts” of those who were here with me from 1989-1993 but have since graduated, moved on, retired, and even passed on in several cases. And someday, those of us who currently study and work in this space will be the ghosts who have left a trace behind for those who come next.” 

Telfair Peet Theatre Ghost Light
Telfair B. Peet Theatre's Ghost Light

           

 In the same way, audiences can expect the message and magic of Pippin to linger in their memories. To our viewers, Ashley divulges: “expect a fast-moving show with gorgeous music, beautiful singing and dancing, lots of laughs and possibly a few tears, exciting spectacle, some mystery and darkness, some fiery light, and a lot of magic!” Pippin is running November 10th–18th. You can purchase your tickets now by clicking this link; but don’t wait! Tickets are selling out quickly for a night with this magical production. “As the Leading Player says, ‘Join us!’”

Last Updated: November 04, 2022