Theater allows individuals to express themselves and define their creativity. Similar to numerous other students attending Muhlenberg, Tommy Kelly ‘24, the director of “35MM,” considers theater a home, and he has for his entire life. He spent all of middle school and high school gunning for leads and working exclusively onstage. A great deal of his experience as a theater student at Muhlenberg has revolved around performance, playing Peter in “Call Me By Any Other Name… Just as Sweet,” Mitch Mahoney in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and a handful of smaller projects. But the last few years have helped him find a voice he did not even know they had: a creator behind the scenes.
This is not Kelly’s first time behind the table as a director at Muhlenberg– their directorial debut was “Kindred Spirits,” an original 45-minute play produced for the Red Door Play Festival in the spring of 2022, and he has workshopped a handful of written works over the past year– but they explain that “‘35MM’ is “the biggest production I have ever done, and I owe it to the Muhlenberg community for giving me the chance to shape my directorial approach and help me develop the confidence to step up to the plate.”
Kelly explains that “The best place to start with ‘35MM’ is to understand its nature as something of an introspective rabbit hole– it’s ambitious in what it presents and how it presents it, but the way the show bounces from one narrative to another runs the risk of losing the audience along the way.” Kelly expressed that because of this, “A big part of our interpretation of ‘35MM’ is defining three things about the rabbit hole: where it starts, where it ends and who’s holding your hand when you first jump in. Thus, we entrusted a sense of audience surrogacy within the character of the Photographer, an artist who lives and breathes the work she devotes herself to– throughout the show, the Photographer is exploring the pages of an old scrapbook, flipping through page after page and trying to make sense of the bizarre photographs within it by visualizing the story behind every photo. These ideas are made reality by the Images, an abstract Greek chorus of figures whose identities are constantly changing to fit the narratives being written and rewritten within the Photographer’s mind. Every number in ‘35MM’ is about bringing the imagination of a creative mind to life using our own imagination, not only through the performances of the stories, but of the visual presentation of each story’s environment– lighting plays an integral role in painting all of the pictures throughout ‘35MM,’ bathing each vignette with a distinct aesthetic to match the feeling of the moment.”
“35MM” is a song cycle– a show composed of a series of songs related to one another through thematic ideas rather than a straightforward plot– exploring a single question: ‘If a picture is worth a thousand words, what about a photograph?’ The music, lyrics and story behind the musical numbers of “35MM” each draw inspiration from various photos taken by the husband of composer Ryan Scott Oliver. Each song discovers and extracts meaning from the photographs, exploring how life finds a way to shine through within still frames of time and space imprinted upon pieces of paper. In doing so, “35MM” doesn’t just tell a single linear story; it invites the audience into more than a dozen vignettes.
While selecting this show, Kelly emphasized that it is “musically complex, lyrically intricate and its endless existential rumination on the human condition is, admittedly, a little pretentious at times. But above all else, ‘35MM’ is earnest.” People are often drawn to relatable shows, and a handful of the vignettes scattered about the show comprise something of a fragmented love story based on reality. Kelly notes that “In regards to the photographs inspiring ‘35MM,’ the man behind the camera is Matthew Murphy, the husband of composer Ryan Scott Oliver. It’s why there are so many songs about love in ‘35MM,’ and so many different kinds of love at that– first loves, forsaken loves, failed loves, love intertwined with loss, love so powerful that they irrevocably change someone for the better. And every single one of these stories are told with unflinching honesty, inviting the audience into every shred of emotion peeking out from the scenes played out upon these photos and drawing upon some semblance of real humanity even in its most fantastical and ridiculous moments.” In short, Kelly makes it clear that the show is always looking at the bigger picture, including the navigation of realistic relationships, diving through period pieces or homages to high fantasy, or simply waxing philosophy about how photographs are time capsules on paper. Thus, Kelly noted that “The show digs up experience and emotion behind every story, every character, every emotion and it does so with zero hesitation.”
There are various messages hidden throughout the show that remind the audience to slow down, open their eyes and focus because they will see that life finds a way to blossom anywhere, even in the most harrowing moments. Although it is easy to miss, Kelly says that “There’s a thesis hidden within a couple of keywords within the opening number of ‘35MM’: ‘Hold,’ ‘still,’ ‘focus,’ ‘there,’ ‘life;’ this conveys the message to hold still and focus, for there is life. This show serves as a reminder of how one does not necessarily need to look for the most grandiose assertions of presence or perseverance to admire humanity–sometimes, humanity is most beautiful in the moments less paid attention to.”
As a director, one must take on several challenges and roles. Throughout his experience directing “35MM,” Kelly noted that it is an exercise in euphoria underscored by a fair bit of anxiety. He compared it to finding a piece to fit into a puzzle, “You’re always moving forward, even if it’s little by little, and everytime the puzzle nears closer to completion, you try and think about what it’s going to look like when you’ve finished, and the exhilaration never fails to rush through me. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the information or to get wrapped up in what’s not working or what we aren’t able to achieve, but that’s going to happen no matter what. And when it does happen, your momentum isn’t gonna let up– you’re gonna keep moving forward, because the valleys are just as much a part of a process as the peaks. They make the victories all the more amazing to behold. And no amount of anxiety can undercut just how proud I am– of myself, of my creative team, of my actors, and of every single other person helping make ‘35MM’ a reality.”
The Muhlenberg Theatre Association’s Fall Studios Festival opens on Nov. 30 and closes on Dec. 3, and you can catch three performances of “35MM: A Musical Exhibition” spread out over the four days of the festival.