Arts & Culture

Teacher’s new musical ‘Tents’ shows the human side of homelessness

Actors practice performing “Tents,” a musical that tells the story of eight residents of a homeless camp. Though it’s playing at Timberline High School Theatre, the original production has an adult cast.
Actors practice performing “Tents,” a musical that tells the story of eight residents of a homeless camp. Though it’s playing at Timberline High School Theatre, the original production has an adult cast. Courtesy

Conversations with homeless people were the inspiration for “Tents,” a new musical by Terry Shaw, director of the Olympia Choral Society.

The play, opening March 2, tells the stories of eight residents of a homeless camp. Though it’s playing at Timberline High School Theatre, it’s a production of Shaw’s own Virtuoso Arts with an adult cast.

Shaw, who teaches choir and wrestling at Timberline, volunteered at local homeless camps and shelters during summers from 2009-2013.

He found himself immersed in the stories of lives that were not so different from his own.

“I was doing a lot of sitting around and just hanging out and talking,” he said in a phone interview. “I had never really had much interaction with homeless people, quite honestly. This was all kind of new to me.”

He was fascinated by the stories they told — of their lives, of how they became homeless — and he wanted to share them.

“For me, the show is very simply trying to tell stories of real people,” he said. “Everybody will walk out with something different. I’m not trying to change people’s minds. I’m not trying to candy coat anything.”

The 22 songs in “Tents” illuminate the lives of characters such as Hank (Darriel Menefee), a street preacher; Bebe (Jennifer Shaw, Terry Shaw’s wife), an addict; Jo-Jo (Karen Gheorghiu), a survivor of abuse; and Saul (Troy Arnold Fisher), a veteran of the Vietnam War.

“It’s a potent tale,” Fisher said. “It takes a real look into the humanity of homelessness. … Any of us, if our circumstances were just a little bit altered, could be in the same situation that these eight people are in.

“They’re all heroic people. When you wear their clothes and tell their stories for them, it’s profound.”

It takes a real look into the humanity of homelessness. … Any of us, if our circumstances were just a little bit altered, could be in the same situation that these eight people are in.

Director and actor Troy Arnold Fisher

The characters are composites of people Shaw met at camps and shelters, mostly locally. The Kid (Randee Wilhelm) is based on several of Shaw’s former students who were homeless.

Taking time to get to know homeless people has deepened his understanding of those students, he said. “It shone a brighter light on the students that I had, and it made me see them differently. I have a new perspective on what homeless really means.”

When he began writing songs about the lives of the people he encountered at camps and shelters, Shaw didn’t have a goal in mind.

After he’d written three or four, though, he started thinking about a musical, encouraged by Brenda Amburgy, who teaches drama at Timberline. “She was kind of a force in saying, ‘Terry, you need to write this show. Keep going with this,’ ” he said.

Shaw directed a small production in July in Panorama City in Lacey, wanting to see how the show played before an audience.

“We got a pretty overwhelming response,” he said. “Everybody in the audience related to one or more of these characters.”

“The audience was moved,” said Fisher, who’s directing the current production. “They wanted to know, ‘Where does it go next?’ They wanted more people to see it.”

Fisher, artistic director of the children’s theater program Olympia Musical Theatre and longtime music director at the now-closed Capital Playhouse, wants the same thing.

“I think it’s going to have a big impact,” he said. “Art can have a powerful voice in the world, and he’s certainly raised his powerful voice with this.”

Tents

What: This original musical by Olympia Choral Society director Terry Shaw tells the stories of homeless people.

When: 7 p.m. March 2 and March 3-4, matinees at 2 p.m. March 4-5.

Where: Timberline High School Theatre, 6120 Mullen Road, Lacey.

Tickets: $15, $10 for students.

Information: showtix4u.com.

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