Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1999

Down below, a man is trapped in a cave, struggling for his life. Up above, there’s a full-tilt carnival. It was America’s first media circus. Disaster as a spectator sport.

The year was 1925, and Floyd Collins, a young Kentucky farmer, had a dream of opening one of the local caverns as a major tourist attraction. While investigating the possibilities in a narrow passageway, a rock fell on his foot, imprisoning him 150 feet underground. Over the course of 17 days, rescue operations gained momentum, and the local disaster turned into a national crisis. The media descended in droves, and 20,000 onlookers flocked from all over the country. Along with the curious came souvenir hawkers, jugglers, medicine men, preachers and movie crews.

It was a story destined to become a musical.     

“I was really tired of doing things that were about other times, other cultures,” says writer-director Tina Landau, whose “Floyd Collins” is being produced at the Old Globe Theatre (through March 21). When they got this commission, she and composer Adam Guettel had just finished an opera version of “A Christmas Carol”.

“I wanted to do something that felt OF us, that felt American, that had to do with our own politics and history and culture. In a book called ‘Reader’s Digest, Amazing American Stories,’ I saw a little tiny paragraph that was titled ‘Death Watch Carnival,’ about Floyd Collins.

“There were four strands we tried to follow when we wrote the piece,” Landau continues. “One was the story of the media circus. Another was rural America being confronted by a more urban, technological America. And the confrontation that existed between the locals and what they called the Outlanders, the people who came in with the machinery, the technology, the engineering, and that’s a really specifically American story. Then there’s the story of the Collins family, and how this event shapes, destroys and ultimately transforms the family. At the center of it all is the story of Floyd himself, which is why, ultimately, we named the piece for him.

“Because the real story was an individual’s journey. The image of a man trapped, the feeling of being stuck, is very mythic; it’s a profound metaphor.   But also, his is the story of a man who sets out to find glory and fame and wealth and adventure.   He territories into the unknown, and he is forced to face the fact that ultimately, he can’t control nature or the outcome.   He has to let go of control.   And the ultimate loss of control is, of course, death, which Floyd needs to face. So it’s really at its core a story of spiritual transformation.”

That theme has informed many of Landau’s recent works, as both a writer and director. A native of New York, child of film producers, Landau attended Yale and the American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard. Her background is an unlikely mix of musical comedy and cutting-edge, experimental theater.  

Recently, in productions like “Space”, “Saturn Returns” and “Floyd Collins”, she realized that spirituality is a recurring theme. “The pieces I did earlier were very much about the struggle for independence. Of course, I was in my twenties,” said Landau, a still very young-looking, hip, vibrant, light-but-grounded 36.

“My friends and I are all deeply preoccupied with spiritual notions. It’s probably a combination of obvious things like the millennium, and less obvious things like our upbringing, and the fact that none of us was raised very rigorously in terms of religion, and as we’re reaching a certain age, it’s become very important to us. It’s a value we long for and miss, and it’s certainly finding its way into our work.”

A spiritual center certainly helps when you’re confronting New York theater critics. When “Floyd Collins” opened in 1996, it got very mixed reviews; New York Magazine’s John Simon said it “re-establishes America’s sovereignty in a genre it created but lost hold of. It is the modern musical’s true and exhilarating ace in the hole” (a sly reference to the 1951 Billy Wilder movie that fictionalized the Floyd Collins story).   Others were far less kind.

Landau and Guettel (the composer descendent of composers: mother Mary Rodgers and grandfather Richard Rodgers) went on to distinguish themselves in an impressive array of projects (Landau is remembered for magnificent stagings of “Cloud Tectonics” and “Marisol” at La Jolla Playhouse).  

But many people never forgot “Floyd Collins”, not playwright John Guare (who considered it “so original, so alive, so free, that I felt… I had somehow seen the future”) or Old Globe artistic director Jack O’Brien, who, says Landau, “came to us and said, ‘We’ll do anything to do “Floyd”. What do you guys want? What do you need?’ And we said, ‘We’d love to do “Floyd” in San Diego, but we want and need it to have a longer life.”  

So the re-mounting of “Floyd Collins”, with its mythic story and its bluegrass/country/Tin Pan Alley score, some minor rewrites and a totally new cast, is a co-production of the Globe, the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia (which first commissioned it), and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.   The set will still be suggestive and expressionistic, allowing the audience to see simultaneously what’s going on above and below the ground.

Incredibly busy with myriad projects, Landau is happy, content, and eternally optimistic about “Floyd”.   “My dream,” she confesses, “would be that we do this little tour-ette, then we do a limited short run back in New York.   That would be my dream.”

With her huge talent, boundless energy, dramatic passion and strong spiritual commitment, she’s likely to make her dream come true.

©1999 Patté Productions Inc.