It's all "go" for Paul Oakley Stovall, an out playwright/actor/director whose planning day job with the official title of advance associatefirst for Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 and later for the Obama Administrationhas taken him to cities and towns across the nation and around the world.
Yet, at the same time, Stovall's artistic work has been flourishing.
Earlier this summer, Stovall's comic drama Immediate Family (a reworking of his earlier play As Much As You Can) enjoyed a critically acclaimed commercial co-production by lead producers Ruth and Steve Hendel with About Face Theatre at the Goodman Theatre's Owen Theatre space.
And this upcoming weekend, Stovall returns to Chicago to appear in three days worth of workshop performances of Clear: A New Musical Experience co-produced by About Face Theatre and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events' residency program In the Works.
Clear is a developing new musical featuring a script and score by Stovall, plus additional music by Stew, the Tony Award-winning co-author of the Broadway musical Passing Strange.
Stovall admitted that Clear is definitely a reflection of the expression to "write what you know," since it is a musicalized first-hand account of one man's experience working on a presidential campaign, something he's currently involved with once again.
It's in Reno, Nev., where I reached Stovall for a brief telephone interview while he and his colleagues were doing the advance work for an appearance by First Lady Michelle Obama at the University of Nevada. Stovall was full of praise for the first lady, and for the amazing opportunities he's had these past four years as an advance associate.
"It provided me opportunities to write because I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms in different cities with a little bit of down time," Stovall said. "So that quiet writing time I was always looking for was being handed right to me. At the same time I was having this incredible adventure learning new things and getting into the political world."
As the title of Stovall's developing musical suggests, it's about a man whose assumptions about life are altered via his job when he encounters all sorts of new people, ideas and opposing opinions. And since Stovall and his colleagues travel and live out of suitcases from hotel to hotel, it made sense to make Clear into what is billed as an eclectic and "neo-soul" musical and depict the characters like people in a touring rock band.
"The format of Clear, when you come in and see the set, it's like a rock band that's set up," Stovall said, likening the advance planning he and his colleagues do to the people putting on a rock concert. "It's a high-pressure situation. You have a certain amount of time to set up, plan, make sure the sound is working, the crowd comes, you do the big show and then you pack up and hit the next city."
When asked if his employers and colleagues found it odd that he was writing about his advance associate work experiences (or potentially worried about airing any dirty laundry about the Obamas), Stovall just laughed and offered an explanation.
"As the show has developed, it has gone further and further away from being remotely or even metaphorically about the Obamas or anyone specific," Stovall said. "It's really about the people I see day to day in this environment, so it's more universal as a 'fish out of water' story where someone finds himself among a group of people and in circumstances that are completely foreign to him."
Stovall has high hopes for Clear, which has previously been seen in workshops at the 2010 Tony Award-winning Eugene O'Neill National Music Theatre Conference, at Joe's Pub and at Dixon Place in New York and at About Face's XYZ Festival in Chicago. He hopes one day that Clear and Immediate Family might be picked up for a full-blown commercial New York production with Broadway as the ultimate destination.
But for now, Stovall has his hands full with still fleshing out Clear, and his day job which is now in overdrive to make sure his employers
stay in the White House. Yet at this hectic time, Stovall was grateful for the opportunities being an advance associate has afforded him and how they have truly opened his eyes.
"I think that we discover most about who we are is when our mettle is tested. When you're around what you know, it's very easy to be comfortable and not challenge yourself," Stovall said. "I've found while doing this job that every other week I'm in a different city dealing with a different set of circumstances, dealing with people of different religions and backgrounds and finding out that there are many commonalities we all share."
About Face Theatre's workshop performances of Clear: A New Musical Experience are presented as part of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events' residency program In the Works Oct. 11-13 on the stage of Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion, near 205 E. Randolph St. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Visit www.aboutfacetheatre.com or call 773-784-8565, ext. 111, for more information.