Last Thursday, on the stage of Prosser Studio, nine actors passionately delivered a staged reading of “Lodestar,” the Ram’s Head Theatrical Society’s 2022 Winter Show, written by Katie Pieschala ’24. The production process of the show was far from smooth sailing. With several company members infected with COVID-19 the week of the original performance date and new members stepping in to fill their roles, the company had to adjust to numerous disruptions in its final week of rehearsals. Despite the numerous challenges, all the participants put in their best efforts to bring Pieschala’s reimagined mining town of Bodie, California to life. The piece focuses on how the stories of several business owners, a Chinese immigrant family, a Northern Paiute Native American and three sex workers intersect.
I was in this show as a member of the orchestra pit. I was greatly touched by Pieschala’s portrayal of each character’s persistence to fashion a new identity for themselves amid their struggle to meet day-to-day needs, complemented by the Americana-style tunes that reinforce the story arc. I decided to interview Pieschala, the composer, and Nathan Sariowan ’24, the music director, regarding their thoughts on the creation and production process of the musical.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What inspired you to write the storyline of this musical?
Katie Pieschala (KP): I come from an outdoorsy family. As a kid, we went to the Eastern Sierra a lot, where we encountered the ghost town of Bodie, CA. It used to be a booming mining town, but it has been abandoned for more than a century. I returned to Bodie during high school and became fascinated by the things that people left behind. Visiting a historical museum, I saw a piece of woman’s clothing of this prostitute named Rosa May. I felt a visceral connection to the people who had led fascinating lives in this place but had since disappeared into the ether. So I started developing this idea of writing this story to delve into my imagination of the lives of the people in this town who were marginalized because of their race or social status. Last year, I applied for “Lodestar” to be produced in this year’s Ram’s Head Winter Show (WiSh), a platform for original musicals and one acts, and completed the musical with the help of the WiSh advisory cabinet.
TSD: The audience and I have been very moved by your portrayal of these figures as multidimensional, relatable human beings. How did you approach developing the dialogue and characterization in this musical?
KP: I come from a music composition background, and I had never written a play before. Developing the dialogue was very challenging for me, but I was very lucky to have the WiSh advisory cabinet, who gave me a lot of feedback in the writing process based on both their literary judgements and diverse personal identities. I crafted these characters so that they are centered around the theme of following a lodestar: each character has a central conflict in trying to find their place in a dangerous world. Maggie (played by Cleo Howell ’23), a Native American waitress in John C. Caine’s saloon, has to balance her desire to help her family back in Mono Lake with her desire to go elsewhere in search of personal success. Rosa (played by Laura Gequelin ’24), based on the historical figure of Rosa May, faces the tension between her reliance on men and desire for independence. Liu Wo (played by Zoey Hu ’24), the second generation Chinese immigrant, wants to get away from his abusive uncle yet is aware of the uncertainty of the outside world.
TSD: Watching the musical, I feel as if it is leading to a sequel. Maggie and Liu Wo resolve their conflicts and are going to San Francisco together, but what happens to Rosa and Ernest (played by Owen Bigler ’25), the saloon-owner that declares his love for her? What about Liu Wo’s uncle (played by Rinnara Sangpisit ’25), or the other business owners?
KP: I treat this musical more as a character study — I wrote it in three vignettes, giving the audience a view into the characters’ lives. I wanted to explore the myth of the American West and its relationship to American individualism, white patriarchy and colonial expansionism through the stories of these people. These characters’ search for their lodestars gives us insight into what the lodestar is that the contemporary American people are searching for. I think the Western is an extremely relevant genre nowadays.
Nathan Sariowan (NS): I think the music in and of itself is very complete, although the storyline may feel unfinished. The closing number is a full circle from the opening. Motifs like in the song “Lodestar” recur whenever each character encounters a decision point and grows and develops throughout each vignette.
KP: Yes, and I really tried to use the musical development to mirror the progression of the plot. For example, when the “Good by God” number first appears, I use the orchestration to portray John C. Caine (played by Baihan Zhang ’25) as a confident businessman, but in the reprise I used harmony to add crunch to the music, reflecting the audience’s knowledge of the character’s flaws and financial crisis.
TSD: That leads to my question of what your personal favorite numbers are. I love the simple, joyful tune of “You, Darling,” and I feel like the 6/8 phrase in the middle of the song, right when Liu Wo and Maggie start waltzing, was very genius.
KP: I was very proud of “Mono Lake.” I started writing it two years ago but did not finish until December of last year. I struggled so much with it, but Cleo sang it in a way that conveyed Maggie’s longing for home and internal struggles, making me feel satisfied with what the song is trying to achieve. “San Francisco” — the number where Liu Wo is envisioning moving to San Francisco with Maggie, was very personal for me. I wrote it last year, during the pandemic, when I did not know whether I could come back to Stanford, so I conveyed my longing for the Farm in the song too.
NS: I personally love “Lodestar II,” where Rosa responds to Ernest’s apology about his accidental insult of her occupation by singing, “You meant every word you said.” It was such a well-placed song. I am a firm believer that when there is no word left to say, as in Rosa’s case, the only thing that can be done is sing. And the tremolo in the cello part perfectly highlights the tension too.
TSD: What are some of the musical inspirations for this show?
KP: In terms of composers, I am a great fan of Stravinsky and his Rite of Spring. I also really love Bernstein — I watched the new West Side Story movie over the break and loved its music. For this show, I was influenced by many contemporary songwriters, specifically in the country genre, like Johnny Cash.
NS: The repeated “Good by God” motif really reminded me of the minimalist style of Philip Glass, although I know that is not exactly what Katie is trying to achieve, I watched Yo-Yo Ma his small ensemble “Not Our First Goat Rodeo” perform Americana music mixed with classical elements in Stanford Live, and Katie’s music reminded me very much of that.
TSD: This may be a question for Nathan specifically — considering the unique style and experimental nature of this musical — what are some challenges in music-directing?
NS: This is actually my first time music-directing in person. I have had music leadership experience being a concertmaster or leading chamber ensembles, but violin-conducting for a theater production is difficult. There are many vamps, and it was very challenging to cue people’s entrances while managing the violin part myself.
TSD: It is a great opportunity to work with two such accomplished musicians like you guys. How has Stanford helped you develop your music skills?
KP: I think that there is a community aspect and an institutional aspect to this. On the community side, I got to know a lot of other talented people, and it is always great to constantly see what others are doing. On the institutional side, my professors, such as my composition professor Francois Rose, have always been very supportive of me. My music theory and ear training classes were also very helpful.
NS: Because studying music at Stanford is not a conservatory experience, we often see individual musicians doing their own things. I think the concept of the Stanford Five Hundred applies very well to the music community. Because of the classes and organizations that we are in, we develop a community with the same people that we run into again and again.
TSD: Any concluding thoughts?
NS: I really appreciate Katie’s focus on members of underrepresented communities such as Native American women and immigrants in this musical, and I hope that the show, the themes it conveyed and the community it built, does not end there.